Comedy Central's South Side creators explain how their show is like a 'black Game of Thrones'
Former Late Night With Jimmy Fallon writers Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, who have doubled as actors on shows like GLOW and Marlon, have found themselves in the rare position of having two shows that they’ve created and star in premiering within a week of each other.
On South Side, which debuted last Wednesday on Comedy Central, the pair use the setting of a Rent-A-Center-like workplace on the South Side of Chicago to tell stories of locals trying to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams. Their duo’s other project, Sherman’s Showcase, a mockumentary that takes the audience behind the scenes of a Soul Train-inspired variety show, premieres on IFC on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET.
EW spoke to Salahuddin and Riddle about how the two very different shows came together. Read on for more, including an exclusive clip of Wednesday’s new South Side episode.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a big summer for you two with South Side and Sherman’s Showcase both premiering. How did you guys end up with two shows airing at roughly the same time?
DIALLO RIDDLE: We pitched them at different times. It’s just the nature of this business, sometimes things come around fast and some things come around not as fast, and it’s just sort of a happy accident that we have two shows debuting [that] couldn’t be any more different. I’m the father of three sons, and I would never want people to compare them because they’re all very different people. I feel like it’s the same with these TV shows. Anybody who watches them both will see some of the same touchpoints come through, but at the end of the day, they couldn’t be any more different.
BASHIR SALAHUDDIN: When we left Fallon, we really wanted to have something of our own — our own show, our own baby — and we got blessed with twins. Just one thing I would add to what Diallo said is we’re not guys who were shotgunning things, like, “Oh, we’re going to just throw a bunch of ideas out and see which ones pick up traction.” I think after we left HBO, where we had a show that had gone forward and then got killed before it aired, we were more determined than ever to say, “Look, this business is so hard it doesn’t make sense to put all your energy and passion and time and blood and sweat and tears into anything else if you don’t love it to death.”
Were both shows in production at the same time? Was there any overlap in creating them?
RIDDLE: We were lucky in that there wasn’t production overlap, which actually would have been impossible.
How did you two come up with both shows?
SALAHUDDIN: We were always wanting to do something with one of our hometowns. I think simultaneous to that, once we realized that Atlanta was something we weren’t going to be able to do, we were like, “Well I’m from Chicago, it’s such a rich town, it’s a rich comedy tradition,” and we really wanted to do something there. Simultaneous to that, my brother [South Side co-creator Sultan Salahuddin, who plays Simon] was alerting me that my good friend Quincy [Young], who I went to high school with, who’s on the show, he had worked at this place called Rent-A-Center for about 10-15 years and he was like, “You’ve got to hear Quincy’s stories, man. He’s got these really crazy stories about trying to repossess La-Z-Boys, and the people don’t want to get off of it, or he’s got a story about having to pretend that he’s undercover to try and get somebody to get a microwave,” and just all the different people who come into a Rent-A-Center. And we actually went to Chicago, went on his route with him, and kind of looked at how it was. [The setting] lets you open up the entire city of Chicago as almost like Springfield [on The Simpsons], where you can have all these fun, great characters.
At the bedrock of all this, and this is the most important thing, was me seeing how Chicago was portrayed, particularly in the news, particularly the South Side. [It] was heartbreaking. The same way Instagram is the best highlight of somebody’s life, I always felt the news is just showing you the lowlights, showing you all the turnovers, and all the penalties, and all this stuff, and it’s not really showing you the wonderful things that happen there. So all that came together, and we realized we could do a workplace comedy on the South Side of Chicago that was kind of based out of a Rent-A-Center-type store.
RIDDLE: By this point, we were friends with people like John Legend, Questlove, and any time we would talk music, the conversation would usually degenerate into tears and hilarious jokes. There’s just something about talking music with a bunch of music nerds that inevitably it just gets silly and raunchy and fun. So just like South Side only went to Comedy Central, Sherman’s Showcase only went to IFC, and they bought it within 30 seconds of the pitch.
You mentioned that Comedy Central was the first and only place you all went to with South Side. Did they have any good input that helped shape it into the show it is today?
SALAHUDDIN: With Comedy Central, they always said very clearly, “At the end of the day, guys, make sure you’re making the show you want to make.” They challenged us on every idea. They challenged us on the clarity of the characters. They challenged us on the clarity of the storytelling. They would often pitch ideas, sometimes we’d even use them, of ways to clean up the narrative. But it was always about making sure that what we wanted to say was being said as clearly as possible, and as specifically as possible. And we never really had any discussions about taste, or if this is something we should be doing an episode about.
Being at Comedy Central and IFC was the first time in our careers we had felt that same level of trust. When we pitch stuff, we’re like, “Other people might push back on this, but trust us, this is funny,” and they’d be like, “All right, cool, let’s do it.” And as an artist, that’s all you want to hear. You want to just hear “Go make your baby,” and we got that over and over again.
South Side has a lot of newer actors, including some, like Langston Kerman and Chandra Russell, who also serve as writers. Was giving all of them this platform rewarding?
SALAHUDDIN: One of the things that, again going back to Jimmy, that he did was like, Diallo and I were on the air a lot at Fallon. We were already doing Slow Jam and writing our butts off, but Jimmy had us put more skin in the game by saying, “Now write for yourself. Now write something that you think will be funny when you say it, and let’s put that on.” And it made us feel like more of a family at the show, and it made us feel like we’re all in this together. We have such talented writers in our writers’ room. There’s a proud tradition of actors and writers sort of swapping those hats when it comes to TV shows [like Saturday Night Live and In Living Color].
Alisha Cowan, Will Miles, Langston Kerman, and Chanda Russell, they’re all writers, they’re so funny in the room, and we were like, “You guys are really hilarious on camera,” and it just made it seem more like, “This is all of our baby, let’s all put everything into it and it’ll be something we can all be proud of.” And some of those episodes where the writers are in them are some of my favorite moments. Episode 9, which is Diallo versus Langston Kerman, I think it’s some of the funniest stuff we’ve ever written, and what’s also nice about that, as Diallo often says, is there’s no one black experience in Chicago, and in the South Side, and it was nice for us to show the blue-collar experience, and also the white-collar experience, that shows people who are a little more hood versus people who are way, way bougie. The South Side is a diverse place, which allows us to have comedy coming from a bunch of different levels.
Watching it, I was struck by how some initial background characters got bigger roles by the end of the season.
RIDDLE: I’ve been making a joke lately that we’re sort of like a black Game of Thrones. Sometimes you get a Sansa chapter, and I think that we have so many different characters that start off in the background and they come to the foreground. I think that we always wanted to treat it like it was Springfield, and we have so many more characters. In these off months we’ve come up with even more characters that we can’t wait to unleash on an unsuspecting world, once again from different social strata.
SALAHUDDIN: I’m proud to be a nerd. I’m proud of my sci-fi nerdom. I’m proud of playing Dungeons & Dragons growing up. I’m proud of all that, and I say that to say that Diallo and I are huge fans of lore. We’re huge fans of the idea that both of our shows should be like a Marvel Universe. So I would say when you watch South Side, you get to see characters who you think are small coming back, and really they come back because they killed us on set that day, and we were like, “Welp, we’ve got to figure out at least two more episodes of this guy or this girl because she’s so funny.”
When it comes to South Side or Sherman’s, we just want to be free to write anything that works, that makes us laugh, and never have any constrictions. As writers, I think it’s really good to always leave yourself space in case something great happens; you want to follow any rabbit hole you can go down because we have the characters that let us do that.
RIDDLE: We never had to defend any of our choices as far as the lore with either network, which was just the opposite of some previous experiences, so if we felt like a character could get an entire episode of South Side, we just did it, and I feel like they supported us in doing that. One thing I never thought about till now, the first episode of Sherman’s Showcase ends with “to be continued,” and it doesn’t really get continued until the final episode. You know, it’s just little things like that to just make you feel great as a creator. I think we just ended up at two very creator-friendly places, and thank God.
South Side airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on Comedy Central. Watch an exclusive clip of the second episode above.
This interview has been edited and condensed.