Some of the best jokes are the ones so undeniable, so elemental, that anyone who hears or sees them gets them immediately. Others feel like secrets that, if you happen to have whatever decoder ring that unlocks the punchline, make them that much more satisfying.
“Sherman’s Showcase” has plenty of both. The IFC series, which premiered last summer, imagines a fictional variety show with a rich, wild, and self-contained six-decade history. Co-creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle play longtime host Sherman McDaniels and longtime producer/announcer Dutch Shepherd, the two men at the center of this show-within-a-show that blends performance and parody in a blissful way.
Because “Sherman’s Showcase” is riffing on the real-life shows from throughout TV history and riding on a neverending wave of pop culture setups, each episode is part of one of the most densely packed comedies around. Again, some of those jokes are undeniable. And it’s those sly nods to people who’ve been soaking up TV history all their lives that really elevates the show to an even more enjoyable place.
“Questlove called me and he’s like, ‘Hey, the reason why Dutch Shepherd was not the executive producer of the show from 1978 to 1980. Like, is that a Lorne Michaels joke?’ And I was like, ‘It absolutely is,” Riddle told IndieWire. “We are nerds and we want every single thing to either be a joke or just the slightest reference to the other nerds. We have jokes that appeal to everybody here, but there are some undercurrent jokes here that we can only do on a show of this scale.”
Riddle and Salahuddin are longtime writing partners, working for years on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” 2019 was a banner year for the duo, who saw the premieres of “Sherman’s Showcase” and their Chicago-set Comedy Central series “South Side” arrive within a week of each other.
Building on that experience, they wanted to take the flexibility of the “Sherman’s” premise and use it to fully capture the looser spirit of a bygone TV era.
“One of the things we’re going for with the show is that it has that unpredictable vibe that the early days of ‘Saturday Night Live’ had. That vibe where you might be watching and you have an episode with Fred Berry doing pop-locking. Albert Brooks just did a short film. Jim Henson brought the Muppets,” Salahuddin said. “You want to be the place that can do that and can juggle those different types. There’s 600 shows on TV. How do we continue to push ourselves to be unique?”
Part of that answer seems to be a production approach that blends preparation and spontaneity. On the set of the show’s recent “Black History Month Spectacular,” it’s easy to see how that latter part comes in. While filming a two-person scene with Salahuddin’s Sherman and guest star John Legend (who, like Dutch in the fictional world, is a “Sherman’s Showcase” executive producer in the real one), Riddle is off-screen tossing out punchline alts. In rehearsals for another scene, Salahuddin checks his sightlines and anticipates how he and the rest of the group at a table can banter without stepping on each other’s spur-of-the-moment reactions.
“You have to be open to being organic. It’s not really until you start making it that the full dimension of it reveals itself. And I think you really have to be disciplined to be open to that,” Salahuddin said. “We know that if you put together this group of writers, thinkers, and musicians, we’re good enough to steward it towards a shape. If one of our ideas is to start with a ’70s thing, we’ll see if that works. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, that might become a cutaway. We don’t know. We’re gonna let it tell us what feels right.”
It’s so much easier for the “Sherman’s” creative team to do that when what’s going into the show is driven by what they find interesting. Rather than fitting some prescribed need, this show is built on the kinds of jokes and ideas that can only come from a personal place, the ones that usually finish sentences that start with “Well, if we had our own show…”
“We operate in an environment where we don’t have to necessarily clear with the network, ‘Hey, is this too obscure? Or is this too crazy? Is this too edgy? We just kind of do what we think with the ideas we’ve had since children. We come up with some stuff I feel like doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Riddle said.
The “Black History Spectacular,” the one-off hourlong special released last month as a bridge between the first season and the impending second, also gave the pair the opportunity to expand on what they’d learned making the show’s first eight episodes. That also meant taking full advantage of the opportunities that come from it.
“We have this scene that takes place in an airplane hangar in Ethiopia, with some of our favorite action movie tropes. We went looking for Ethiopian actors and actresses, which is not as easy as you might think. We called upon friends. We called upon friends of friends who were Ethiopian. I learned some Amharic for a couple of lines,” Riddle said. “One of the actresses sent us a text and she was like, ‘I am so proud. I never thought that I would ever get to do anything that portrayed my Ethiopian heritage in a positive, cool, action-movie way.’ On set, one of the other actors was like, ‘You know, no matter what else I do in my career as an actor, my mom will always think is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.'”
For as sharp as the writing is on “Sherman’s,” there’s so much else on the show that comes from how those jokes are presented. Riddle and Salahuddin are quick to salute director Matt Piedmont, who’s been able to adjust and recreate visual styles stretching all the way back to the early days of television. That versatility is anchored and made possible by a team that always seems to maximize their contributions, including those from art director Natalie Groce, who worked on both Season 1 and the special.
“There’s literally been some scenes where I’ll look at the monitor, then look at the set, then the monitor, and I’ll be like, ‘Good God, how did they pull this off? This is like a million dollar set!'” Riddle said.
“Our costume designer [Ariyela Wald-Cohain], God bless her. I think she has $15 to do the whole show. Our lighting design. We use rear projection so much. There’s a vibe to it,” Salahuddin said. “Our ultimate hope is that the incredible investiture of specificity and love that we put into the show will translate into longevity. I feel so lucky to be making a show where every single department head is an artist. That’s fucking phenomenal to be able to say that.”
“Sherman’s Showcase” Season 1 is now available to stream on Hulu.