John Legend's Sketch Show 'Sherman's Showcase' Spoofs the Glory Days of 'Soul Train'

We spoke to co-creator Bashir Salahuddin about how the pioneering fake-documentary, fake-variety sketch comedy show came together.
John L
Getty Images / Jesse Grant 

The new John Legend-produced show Sherman's Showcase, which premiered this week on IFC, is taking sketch comedy to a whole new level. The concept sounds confusing at first: it's a fake documentary about the legacy of a fake, Soul Train-esque Black variety show called Sherman's Showcase. It's like nothing on TV right now, but 30 Rock might be its closest recent parallel.

Sherman's Showcase is said to have run from the '70s to the 2010s, featuring sketch comedy and performances from the biggest artists of each era, like Prince (Vic Mensa) and Mary J. Blige (Bresha Webb). The show also features a number of musicians like Common, Ne-Yo, and Quincy Jones in acting roles alongside comedians like Tiffany Haddish and Marlon Wayans. The co-creators and co-stars of the show, Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, might not be household names yet, but Sherman's Showcase could easily put them on the map.


We caught up with Salahuddin to hear about how it all came together.

VICE: Where did the concept for this show come from?

Salahuddin: Once Diallo Riddle and I left our writing jobs at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, we linked up with our current director (Saturday Night Live writer) Matt Piedmont because, between the three of us, we have sixty years' worth of sketch comedy experience. We knew we didn't want the show to be just the usual 'lights up, lights down' sketch comedy. And our entire career in sketch comedy has been steeped in music. Riddle and I met in a college a capella group, he still DJs around the country, and we handled a lot of the musical sketches on Fallon. So we created the idea that it would have an old-school variety show format, which lets us do a lot of musical comedy. Being really specific about the format of it let us do a lot of our ideas that we didn't have an outlet for while still having a throughline that makes it all one connected piece of tissue. And then Ne-Yo, Vic Mensa, all these folks wanted to come have a good time with us. We feel really good that we created something classic and timely.

I read that some of it was partly inspired by backstage jokes you had with Questlove at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. What artists or genres did you find especially funny when you were first thinking of the show?

Dave Chappelle often says that every comedian wants to be a musician and every musician thinks they're funny. And it's so true. At Fallon, me and Questlove and everybody would sit around and get into really hardcore music nerdom, like 'which drummer really gave James Brown his sound?' Really in the weeds stuff. One of my favorite things about Sherman's Showcase is that, if you like comedy you'll appreciate it, but if you're a music nerd, you'll appreciate it on a whole other level. Our third episode about Prince, for example, charts the pandemonium around him in his early career and then shows how he had to fight a little bit with the headlines when hip-hop came in. And then finally we have a redemptive scene of him performing at the 2007 Super Bowl [where it serendipitously rained during his performance of "Purple Rain."] For us, it was sort of a way to say goodbye to him. We don't sacrifice the comedy for it, but the show is really just us being proud music nerds.


Why do you think Dave Chappelle said all musicians want to be comedians and vice versa?

There used to be a thing in entertainment where you had to be a triple threat. You had to be able to sing, dance, and act. So for somebody like Judy Garland or Sammy Davis Jr., you had to bring a lot to the table. And I think some of that still exists today. On Fallon, we had so many musicians who came through and wanted to do something to show they can be funny, that they're not just one-dimensional. We're always happy to give them a place and say, 'Hey, nobody else is going to give you a place to show off all the tools in your toolbox.' At the end of the day, this is a creative person who just wants to be creative.

Why were you especially interested in revisiting entertainment in the '70s?

I'm personally very attracted to the '70s because I do feel like that was one of the few times in American history where you had enough time away from the Civil Rights Movement that Black Americans were creating a unique new identity. It spawned some of the greatest music in history, and a lot of the albums from the '70s stand the test of time. But it was also a time when you had all these variety shows, like Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, where you would see people, again, leaning into the big three: great singing, great dancing and great acting. For us, we feel like that was a great time for entertainment, when you gave audiences everything that you had to give. We want our show to be able to do that. So the form we're going to pick is a retro show because that's the period they used to do stuff like that.


You cut back and forth in time a lot, and some sketches bend the rules of time—like the hilarious running sketch where Frederick Douglass keeps popping up at a modern-day Black man's door. What were you aiming to convey by looking at all these different historical figures at once?

All artists really just seek freedom and the ability to do whatever they want to do when they want to do it. The reason we have something that represents all those different genres and eras is just because it represents all of who we are. It's not even trying to purposefully compare eras all the time. It's more of an extension of our interests and then we kind of surprise ourselves and go, "Look, we just wrote a double sketch about a James Brown character, one in the '70s where he has an all-Black band, and one in the 2000s where his band is mostly white." And it documents how James Brown went from "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" to "Living In America."

The show also has a nostalgic quality to it, as you use the same kind of visual effects, laugh tracks, and scene transitions that shows used to have in the eras you evoke. Why did you decide to make that an important element of the show's humor?

We really wanted it to feel like how comedy felt at that time. One of my favorite sketches is this Mary J. Blige sketch where the crew people are laughing so hard in the background that we decided not to edit it out, to give it that tactile quality. That one was special because it was organic. But other times the devil is in the details. If we're doing a game show or something we'll look up what cameras they were using at the time and base our crop and filters off of that to make it feel authentic to the era. The form itself also feels nostalgic because there are no variety shows on TV anymore.


Between your show and Black Lady Sketch Show, The New Negroes, and Random Acts of Flyness, it feels like we're suddenly having a golden age of Black variety TV. Do you think there's a reason all of these shows started to crop up around the same time?

We were watching our show last night and they had an ad for Black Lady Sketch Show and we were like, "That's so unexpected that we're all converging in this time period." But at the same time, a lot of the people on that show are people we know personally from the improv world. I'd like to believe that there are gatekeepers who were like, "Hey, it's a really good moment for these things to happen." But the truth of TV development is that it's a really treacherous process, and I think the reason that all this is happening now is because the people making the shows have just gotten better at getting them through the TV filter. People like Robin Thede from Black Lady Sketch Showwho was in our sketch comedy group Cleo's Apartment in 2004—and the guys behind The New Negroes have been making similar content on their own for years. I think these showrunners have created this moment. And the fact that we all have done this at the same time is great because it highlights the moment and hopefully it all becomes a rising tide that lifts all ships.

Do you have a favorite sketch or special guest moment?

The most special moment for me was when I was on set and Quincy Jones was saying something we wrote sitting next to John Legend. I was thinking, "This is really once in a lifetime." My favorite sketch though, was this one called "Temptations' Eleven" where all these different Motown Records musicians conspire like the movie Ocean's Eleven to get their money back from Berry Gordy. I love it because it's the perfect combination of comedy and music history, and it happened so organically in the writers room. That's why I feel like with this show, the sky is the limit, because we were able to do something even we didn't see coming. And I think there will be a lot more of that in the future.

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