When the creators of Sherman’s Showcase, IFC’s critically acclaimed parody of Black variety shows like Soul Train and Solid Gold, told the network they wanted to do a Black History Month-themed special of the show, everyone was on board except for one crucial detail. There was no space on the winter schedule. The episode likely wouldn’t air until the summer.
No worries, Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, who are those creators, said. They’ll just change the name. Hence Sherman’s Showcase’s Black History Month Spectacular, which premieres Friday on IFC and AMC. Or, as it’s known on the show-within-the-show: Sherman’s Showcase’s “Black History Month Extravaganza...in June.”
The duo, who met at Harvard before working as writers on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, had wanted to do a Black History Month episode of TV for decades. So why not celebrate the culture in June—or anytime, really? What they hadn’t planned for was a cultural moment that didn’t just mirror their idea, but made it somewhat of an essential mission.
The largest civil rights movement the nation has seen in 50 years has brought with it a reckoning with society’s long tradition of systemic racism. Along with that arrived the necessity to educate on Black history. And all this is education is happening...in June.
“We could have never known that this was gonna happen the way that it happened,” Riddle says about the special’s timing. It premieres on June 19, the Juneteenth holiday, at a time when many Americans are finally discovering that the day even exists, not to mention its significance.
“It's almost like the world caught up to us,” Salahuddin says. “We had initially intended to put this humor out in February, and it's actually going to have more power and more impact coming out now. I think that's something that the universe is granting us and we're very grateful for.”
Sherman’s Showcase, which IFC and AMC officially renewed for season two this week, premiered last year with Salahuddin as the titular Sherman, the emcee of a fictional variety show styled in the aesthetic of those that aired in the late ’60s and ’70s, but with humor and references points that are unmistakably current. (In the special, the likes of Jemele Hill, the Toms from Vanderpump Rules, and John Legend, who is also an executive producer, appear as themselves.)
The tone was irreverent and whimsical, the jokes and references deeply researched and occasionally—maybe gloriously—in poor taste. It was a celebration that was kooky-as-hell and unapologetic. When conceiving the series, the biggest touchstone for the pair was The Muppet Show.
“I think one of the things that in some ways made it difficult for us to get Sherman's Showcase on the air is that so many TV executives had this idea of what a Black show was supposed to look like, and about people like me and Diallo who come from where we come from,” Salahuddin says. He is from the South Side of Chicago, while Diallo is from southwest Atlanta. “We loved all the sort of off-beat, oddball comedy stuff that nobody would ever think that folks like us were watching. And so Sherman's Showcase is a testament to that.”
Not that Sherman’s Showcase carries Kermit’s family-friendly PG rating. As Salahuddin says, “This is not a show that I think you can show in classrooms and expect to get a good idea about what Black History Month is.” He laughs. “We’re still essentially a comedy.”
After opening with the Black National Anthem, for example, Sherman informs us that the special is “brought to you by O.J. Simpson’s Twitter account.”
Singer Sari Charley performs an homage to what she calls “Black people’s flannel,” Kente cloth, titled “Add Some Kente.” (Speaking of unintentionally timely reference points, given congressional leaders’ lambasted parade of colors.) Where can you add some Kente? As she sings and photoshopped images of the cloth added onto objects are shown: to your Timbalands, to your car rims, to your Lambo, to Rambo. “Even if you hate the Black man,” she sings, “be the Kente Klux Klan.”
Another major musical moment: the girl group RWKSY perform a sequel to their controversial number from last year, “Drop It Low for Jesus,” this one called “Twerk the Other Cheek.”
The special features send-ups of everything from Downton Abbey to A Charlie Brown Christmas, all reframed to tell ribald versions of pivotal Black stories. In a sketch that unites all the oft-forgotten Black vampires in the genre’s lore, one tries to make peace: “We’re all Bloods and Crips. We drink blood, and we sleep in crypts.”
The variety show format allows Diallo and Salahuddin to essentially do whatever they want on the series, which essentially means a Soul Train dance through wildly different genres and spoofs of wide-ranging pop culture tenets. The pair attribute their ability to be so thematically diverse to the sentiment at the heart of something Dave Chappelle said once. At least Salahuddin thinks it’s Dave Chappelle. Don’t get angry at him if it wasn’t.
“He said that comedy is the only job that requires you to use everything you've ever learned, and I'm so grateful for that,” Salahuddin says. Diallo studied history in college. Salahuddin was a political science major, with a little bit of pre-med studies. “Our TV show digs deeply into history not because Diallo went out and researched it, but because as long as I've known him, this dude is always bringing up history stuff at length. Because that's who he is as a person.”
Recent press materials for the Sherman’s Showcase special have spotlighted it as an opportunity to celebrate Black culture and provide light-hearted entertainment during a time of difficulty and protest.
On that point, Salahuddin echoes something he heard John Legend say when talking about the special: “We still want to laugh.”
“We still have a space to use the gifts that God has given us to make the world happier,” Salahuddin says. “This is the lane that we've been placed in, and we're proud and grateful to be in that lane. Everybody throughout history, even when there were times of protest and unrest, they still did the thing that they do.”
“There's a need for humans in general to find balance,” Riddle says. “I think that if all you digest is just news and all the heaviness of the day, you get out of balance. You're not living in a bubble or going off the grid if you just take some time and find the humor and find the laughter in life.”
To that end, there’s the matter of what is possibly the Sherman Showcase special’s greatest joke.
In one sketch, Sherman counts down the Three Blackest Moments in Cinema History, “presented by Southwest Airlines. ‘Southwest Airlines: Y’all know us.’”
Number three is Tyrese’s reveal in 2 Fast 2 Furious. Number two is when a Black guy notices Clark Kent changing clothes in a revolving door in 1978’s Superman. And number one is Terrence Howard renegotiating his contract for Iron Man 2.
Howard famously was replaced by Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 after reportedly making outlandish demands during contract negotiations and misunderstanding his star draw in the film. Actor Rob Haze plays Howard in Showcase, on the phone with Marvel and demanding to speak to Stan Lee about it—complete with a skewering of the actor’s bonkers red carpet interview last year about the “flower of life” and 10,000-year-old “real wave conjugations.”
Both Riddle and Salahuddin erupt with laughter at the mere mention of the Terrence Howard joke.
“Bashir and I both come from big Black families,” Riddle says. “We write our show as if it was just a really funny night at the dinner table. And the hyperbole of saying this is the Blackest moment in cinema history made us laugh.”
“That really sort of sums up the work ethic at Sherman’s Showcase,” he continues. “Does it make us laugh? Does it make our room of Black writers laugh? Well guess what, if it makes all of us laugh, it might make people who aren’t Black and from our background laugh, too, because at some point it’s universal.”
“We love Terrence Howard,” Salahuddin says. “But there’s a certain point of ‘I don't give a fuck’-ness in our experience that some people have. To call up Marvel and be like, ‘Hey, we need to talk about my contract.’ That’s so funny.”