The writers, producers and performers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin like to cover their comedic bets. On Wednesday, Comedy Central is premiering “South Side,” their amiable new sitcom set in the working-class Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. But wait, there’s more: The following Wednesday, IFC is premiering “Sherman’s Showcase,” their high-concept vaudeville act that takes the form of a tribute to a fictional variety show at the intersection of “Soul Train,” “Laugh-In” and late-night cable-access.
While the two shows look nothing like each other, there are some constants in the Riddle-and-Salahuddin approach. Their humor, while clever and with a satirical edge, is embracing and to a large degree universal — they’re more interested in pointing out foibles than in retailing grievances (particularly in “South Side”).
Complementing that stance is a worldview that feels thoroughly nostalgic. “South Side,” about a pair of best friends and recent community-college graduates with aspirations — the 10-episode season largely charts their efforts to find more gainful employment than their jobs as furniture repossessors — is set in the present day of mint lattes and bitcoin. But its rhythms and relationships are thoroughly traditional, carrying on a sitcom legacy running from “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” through Aaron McGruder’s “Black Jesus” to “Rel,” the Lil Rel Howery series also set on Chicago’s South Side. (Howery has a supporting role in “South Side” as a fellow furniture-store employee and abrasive antagonist to the easygoing heroes.)
“Sherman’s Showcase,” meanwhile, is a pure jolt of stylized nostalgia, from its affectionate sendups of soul, R&B and hip-hop to its candy-colored sets with their abstract cutouts, traversed by roller-skating dancers. “American culture peaked in 1973,” proclaims the host of the show within the show, Sherman McDaniel (Salahuddin). “Anything after that is a [expletive] lie.”
The deeper tie between the two shows, though, may be Riddle and Salahuddin’s sketch-comedy sensibility. College friends and writing partners, they worked together for three years on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” That experience directly informs “Sherman’s Showcase,” but it can also be seen in “South Side,” whose scenes and episodes don’t build (at least not in any intricate or surprising way) but skip along from joke to joke, verbally and visually.
Luckily, the jokes come along quickly and are mostly pretty good. And they’re held together by a consistent theme: While the central characters Simon and Kareem (Sultan Salahuddin, Bashir’s brother, and Kareme Young) and the other residents of Englewood constantly look for ways to make some extra cash, they are in turn victimized by more powerful economic forces, in a round robin of low-level exploitation.
Simon and Kareem may be taken advantage of in a series of dicey and comically unlikely ventures, from dealing black-market Viagra to cryptocurrency speculation. But their day jobs are with the rapacious Rent-T-Own, managed by Kareem’s brother, Q (played by Kareme Young’s twin, Quincy), and they’re not overly sentimental about taking back the television sets and Xboxes that their neighbors are being overcharged for. It’s left to the local gangster, Shaw (LaRoyce Hawkins), to point out that they’re part of the problem: “When you was a little homey, did you always dream of harassing black people for their appliances?”
Sultan Salahuddin, a comedian who’s performed with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Kareme Young are not seasoned actors, and their work in “South Side” is serviceable. But the scripts don’t demand much beyond fully inhabiting their hopeful, scrambling characters. Salahuddin has a nice touch with melancholic moments, like a scene in which Simon is fired from his dream job (clerk at a cable-television provider) after four hours and instead of getting angry, shrugs his shoulders and takes his children to a space-travel exhibit.
And the show finds consistently funny ways to subvert the clichés of the poor-urban-neighborhood narrative, in both its earnest and menacing incarnations. When the opportunistic cop played by Chandra Russell (Bashir Salahuddin’s wife) buys a brownstone on the cheap, she finds herself saddled with a deadbeat tenant who was a Chicago civil-rights heroine and trades on her status to skip the rent. “I am all paid up,” she declares, adding that her new landlord is “a little legal-pad-colored heifer.”
Where “South Side” feels like a family production, “Sherman’s Showcase” is starrier, with a brightness and energy to match. It boasts John Legend, playing himself as the host of the mock retrospective (it’s an expansion of the Helen Mirren role from “Documentary Now,” a clear influence on the series), and cameos by a lineup of good-sport guest stars including Ray Parker Jr., Quincy Jones and several Wayans brothers.
The format, stretched across eight episodes, allows Riddle and Salahuddin to throw a lot of things against the wall, and they don’t all stick. Tiffany Haddish eating soup, presented as an example of a failed idea, is a failed idea, though a harmlessly brief one. And the metafictional elements, as the history of the fake show is traced across four decades toward a politically topical finale, can get tiresome. It may not hold your interest, but those with stamina can hang around for the bits that work, like a promo for Sherman’s CD compilation “Now That’s What I Call White Music,” or an advertisement in which two winsome children play a hip-hop version of Clue: “The haters. In the conservatory. With the Draco!”
Mike Hale is a television critic. He also writes about online video, film and media. He came to The Times in 1995 and worked as an editor in Sports, Arts & Leisure and Weekend Arts before becoming a critic in 2009. @mikehalenyt • Facebook
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