Black films that changed the game : It's Been a Minute It's a big week in Black cinema as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever hit theaters Friday. But on the same day, another film dropped that may be just as powerful in its message about Black moviemaking. Is This Black Enough For You? pays homage to the decades of creativity that made the celebrated Marvel movie possible – and deeply influenced cinema as we know it.

Host Brittany Luse sits down with Elvis Mitchell, the longtime film critic who directed the documentary. They dig into the ingenuity of Black filmmakers through the 1960s and '70s, the overlooked contributions of Blaxploitation films and the one Black classic that led to the demise of an era.

Then, Brittany talks about a different kind of homage with Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle – the brains behind the sitcom South Side and the variety show send-up Sherman's Showcase. The comedy duo reveal why writing jokes around specific references can appeal to all kinds of audiences, and how parody can be a form of love.

You can follow us on Twitter @npritsbeenamin and email us at ibam@npr.org.

Black films that changed the game

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BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. It's a big weekend for Black cinema. The new "Black Panther" movie is now in theaters, and another groundbreaking movie dropped this weekend. It's one of the most thoughtful, ambitious and inventive celebrations of Black cinema or American cinema I've ever seen. It's called "Is That Black Enough For You?!?"

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IS THAT BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU?!?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Is that Black enough for you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It changes. It morphs. It has several meanings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Is that Black enough for you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It ain't, but it's going to be.

ELVIS MITCHELL: It's the history and the cultural ramifications of Black film from 1968 through 1978.

LUSE: That's the director and creator, Elvis Mitchell. He's one of the most prominent film critics of our time, and he also happens to be the host of The Treatment on KCRW. "Is That Black Enough For You?!?" is his new Netflix documentary. And it has completely retooled how I think about Black cinema from that time.

MITCHELL: The same way that these movies of that period that get talked about so much are considered to be not just movies but revolutionary in terms of the way they dealt with culture, these Black films were too.

LUSE: I talked to Elvis about the innovation of Black filmmakers from the '60s and '70s, why blaxploitation films don't get their due and how one Black classic actually led to the downfall of this iconic era.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUSE: Throughout the film, actually, we hear actors talking about the characters that they saw on screen that they wanted to be like. You know, one very memorable moment is when Samuel L. Jackson talks about how he knew that the characters that he would see on screen weren't even ideal, but he still wanted to be them. He still felt like they were on some level - I don't know if aspirational is the right word, but he wanted some part of the lifestyle that they had.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "IS THAT BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU?!?")

SAMUEL L JACKSON: Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Stymie - but I still wanted to be them.

LUSE: Right? What were the characters that you saw in films from the '60s, '70s or even earlier that - like, what are the films that you saw early on in your life that had characters that you wanted to emulate or be like?

MITCHELL: I guess a film wasn't an aspirational for me in that way. I was really an audience. But I can certainly understand when Sam says stuff like, you know, growing up where he did in Georgia, why didn't you have white playmates? But movies forced me to ask questions like - I remember as a kid, the thing that Whoopi Goldberg says in the movie that I think almost everybody I knew kind of intuited one way or another, which is you saw a horror movie and there were no Black people, and you go, oh, we left already. We knew the Blob was coming. We knew Godzilla was en route. I mean, all these sorts of things that become this kind of found wisdom that inform what's not there - it sure made it hard to fall in love with the movies, but that's often the perspective we have as people of color looking at pop culture, loving this thing that doesn't really love us back.

LUSE: Certainly. Certainly. Absolutely.

MITCHELL: I'm serious, though. I want to ask you, did you have these figures that you wanted to be when you were growing up? You saw them and thought, oh, gee, can I be part of the Brady Bunch? A part of me rejected that 'cause I just thought, this stuff is so white, I can't even begin to deal. But were there things like that for you?

LUSE: Well, that's a really good question. Of course, "Waiting To Exhale."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITING TO EXHALE")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (As Savannah Jackson) I'm 33 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, good.

HOUSTON: (As Savannah Jackson) And I still look good.

LUSE: I don't think I should have been seeing "Waiting To Exhale," but the portions that I saw that I wasn't supposed to see when somebody had rented it and told me to cover my eyes - that was maybe the first movie I think that I saw that I was like, oh, I want to be like Angela Bassett or Lela Rochon. I want to set a car on fire and walk away (laughter).

MITCHELL: You were just going to stir up some trouble then. But you're talking about "Waiting To Exhale." I actually have a story about that, that when it played here at the - in LA at the Magic Johnson Theatres, I was living here then, and there were people lined up around the multiplex. I mean, it's - I'd never seen anything like that there before. And it was sold out for the entire weekend. So we sit down, and I don't know if you had this phenomenon happen when you saw it, but there were women who had dressed as if they were going to church, sitting with dog-eared copies of the book as the soundtrack was playing in the theater, and they were singing along - you know, shoop, shoop and all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXHALE (SHOOP SHOOP)")

HOUSTON: (Singing) Shoop, shoop, shoop.

MITCHELL: And then three trailers came up. I'll never forget this. The first trailer was "Girl 6." Woo, go ahead, Spike. Do it again, Spike. Go ahead, Spike.

LUSE: Yeah (laughter).

MITCHELL: The second trailer was Will Smith in "Independence Day." Woo, go ahead, Will. Say it, Will. Go ahead, Will.

LUSE: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And the third trailer was "Othello."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OTHELLO")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Othello) Yet I'll not shed her blood nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die.

MITCHELL: This hush falls over the audience. And this one woman says, I know Larry Fishburne ain't about to kiss that white woman.

LUSE: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: I just blurted out, it's "Othello." And because it's the Magic Johnson Theater, the house lights are only down, like, 40%, so everybody can see everything. She was looking around, so I slink down and point to my white friend, who was going, wait, what? It wasn't me. It wasn't me.

LUSE: (Laughter) That - I have to say, running "Othello" as a trailer before "Waiting To Exhale" - it's interesting. It's interesting, the assumption.

MITCHELL: You see the idea, what they're trying to do - you know, it's three...

LUSE: I see the idea.

MITCHELL: It's three Black films, and we're talking about this so often, this paucity that exists in terms of studio fare for people of color. So you would connect - well, it's Black people. There's a Black person in "Othello," right? Probably not the ideal thing to show it to an audience full of Black women who are, like, channeling this righteous anger that they picked up from "Waiting To Exhale" and they're about to watch cars being burned by a guy who went off with a white woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITING TO EXHALE")

ANGELA BASSETT: (As Bernadine Harris) A white woman is probably the only one who will tolerate your smug ass. Yeah, I was your...

LUSE: I don't know about this.

MITCHELL: I mean, I'm not kidding you. You could hear that gasp that extras never get right in the movies - (gasping).

LUSE: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: And a lot of this - ooh, I don't know. I don't...

LUSE: What this documentary covers is something that I always wanted an under - like, a clearer understanding of. In the documentary, you kind of go from Sidney Poitier to blaxploitation to Spike Lee. And what this film does, I think really well, is connecting all of the different dots and sort of creating this constellation of Black film, Black filmmakers, Black actors who - and seeing not just how they were all connected, but how Black cinema from that '68 to '78 period was influential across, I'd say, like, cinema as a whole. I felt like that - why I loved watching this documentary is because I think I felt, like, previously, that argument hadn't been laid out so thoroughly before in this type of format.

MITCHELL: That's really kind of you to say. Thank you. When you talk about movies, the conversations usually come with footnotes. You can't talk about this movie and not mention that movie and then not mention this thing, not mention this piece of music and this other performance that you saw, 'cause they're all intertwined. What I've always believed to be the case, Brittany, is that Black films don't get their due in terms of - whenever there's that clip reel that turns up in the Oscars or whatever, there's all these great movies - the - Spider-Man hanging upside down for the kiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN")

KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Mary Jane) Do I get to say thank you this time?

MITCHELL: And invariably, there's...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS!")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Detective Virgil Tibbs) They call me Mister Tibbs.

MITCHELL: That's the Black film. Just so you know...

LUSE: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: ...That there's a Black film in there, and it's usually that.

LUSE: Yeah.

MITCHELL: Why not have that clip of, my God, you fall in love watching Ivan Davis - Ivan Dixon, rather, and Abbey Lincoln in "Nothing But A Man," a movie made in 1964 with a Motown score.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAT WAVE")

MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Whenever he calls my name...

MITCHELL: Or why don't you see Billy Dee Williams lean into the frame and you start to see the sparkle glinting - the light's gleaming off his manicure before he even says a word. Somebody pointed this out to me yesterday in a still that somebody got. There's a compendium reel beginning of the movie - this montage. And there's a character from "Five On The Black Hand Side," an adaptation of the play, who says...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIVE ON THE BLACK HAND SIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I ain't giving up nothing but bubblegum and hard time. And I'm fresh out of bubblegum.

MITCHELL: And somebody said to me yesterday, this writer from Detroit News, my hometown, said, did you do that because that's a line from the movie "They Live," the John Carpenter film?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEY LIVE")

RODDY PIPER: (As George Nada) I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOT)

MITCHELL: Absolutely. So people know that that line existed before they saw it in "They Live." So much of this movie is about, as you're saying, creating that kind of context.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

LUSE: Coming up - Elvis Mitchell on how blaxploitation films completely changed Hollywood movie soundtracks. Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

LUSE: You spend a lot of time in the documentary talking about the blaxploitation period - blaxploitation films. It seems to me - it's always seemed to me that people didn't take blaxploitation film seriously. But there are so many aspects of that genre that were influential across all American cinema - for example, even the way that they utilized soundtracks. I mean, can you lay out the influence of blaxploitation films on movie music, both creatively and from a marketing standpoint?

MITCHELL: Well, this goes back to what we were talking about. I think - for me, the movie's a conversation. Isaac Hayes sees "Once Upon A Time In The West" because the air conditioning goes out in Stax. And he hears...

LUSE: Can't record, the heat (laughter).

MITCHELL: Yeah, and he hears that and - 'cause, you know, they get out of that awful heat and sees that piece of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENNIO MORRICONE'S "C'ERA UNA VOLTA IL WEST")

MITCHELL: And then uses that - in effect, samples it - to create "Walk On By." Gordon Parks hears "Walking On By" and goes, this guy should be making movie music 'cause this is a - because when you hear that opening overture in "Walk On By," you - oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES SONG, "WALK ON BY)

MITCHELL: It's almost in the same key as a piece of music from "Once Upon A Time In The West." And I met Isaac Hayes. I said to him, so was that intentional? He goes, oh, we were about eight notes shy of being actionable. It was definitely intentional. Then Gordon Parks brings him in to do "Shaft."

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

MITCHELL: And suddenly that becomes this phenomenon the way that music - movie soundtracks generally did not. So often movie soundtracks were - in the old days, were these things that came from Broadway shows. You got a chance to see the movie version of that. Or there were these European scores because these moguls that started the studios wanted to have these people creating music that was the classical music that was part of their childhoods. And something might pop every once in a while. But it was a Beatles soundtrack or an Elvis Presley soundtrack, that kind of thing, so those were pop stars who had audiences going in that weren't related to the soundtrack, so those were fluky. And then when it comes time around to do "Super Fly," now Curtis Mayfield released the soundtrack on his label, and nobody told him you don't release the soundtrack first...

LUSE: Oh, my gosh.

MITCHELL: ...'Cause we just never cared. So it comes out about a month early. And what happens is it becomes this immediate commercial for the movie because it's immediately huge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERFLY")

CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Oh, superfly.

MITCHELL: This enormous crossover thing. And Kelly (ph) said it's one of those rare cases where every single from the album is released, so every few weeks, you got, like, another song from the "Super Fly" soundtrack, keeping the movie alive. And did people learn that lesson? Well, maybe not right away. But eventually, they did. And so by the time the '80s and '90s come around, you know, the soundtrack is released. First, there are music videos made. It becomes this way to create awareness for the movie that came out of this period. I mean, this takes us back to "Waiting To Exhale" and those women sitting in the theaters singing, shoop, shoop, because they've...

LUSE: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: ...Been listening to the soundtrack and watching the video before the movie came out.

LUSE: One of the things that the film made me long for - I feel like a lot of the films discussed in your documentary were - they felt edgier and maybe less concerned with respectability than the type of film I feel like has been pitched or marketed to me as a consumer or viewer.

MITCHELL: How do you mean? 'Cause I want to make sure I understand 'cause I think what - you're getting at something really interesting.

LUSE: Well, I feel like - not all the time, but it feels like more frequently the types of films starring Black people that get a lot of attention have to do with, like, a historical figure, something having to do with, like, getting married and falling in love or, like, some sort of redemption arc or a sports drama, like very respectable films. And I don't mind films like that. I love them just as much as the next person. But I find that the older I get, the more I want to be surprised when I watch a movie. Like, I want to go in and be like, oh, well, that was new. Like, that was something I haven't seen before. And I remember watching the "Watermelon Man" for the first time a few years ago, which you mention in the documentary, which is directed by Melvin Van Peebles. And it's like - I mean, if you liked "White Chicks," you're going to love the "Watermelon Man." But - (laughter).

MITCHELL: That may be the greatest sales pitch I've ever heard in my entire life.

LUSE: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: If you liked - I mean, is that the Amazon bot? If you like "White Chicks," you'll love "Watermelon Man."

LUSE: (Laughter) I found it to be so edgy. It's about this white man who is an executive and lives with his wife and children in the suburbs, and he wakes up one day to find that he's turned into a Black man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WATERMELON MAN")

ESTELLE PARSONS: (As Althea Gerber) Jeff! Jeff! Jeff! There's a negro in your shower!

GODFREY CAMBRIDGE: (As Jeff Gerber) It is not a Negro.

PARSONS: (As Althea Gerber) Yes, yes. yes. It is. It is. I saw him. Call the police. He'll kill us.

CAMBRIDGE: (As Jeff Gerber) I am not a Negro. I'm me.

LUSE: The performance by the main actor - Godfrey Chambers (ph)?

MITCHELL: Godfrey Cambridge. Godfrey Cambridge.

LUSE: Godfrey Cambridge, yes. Godfrey Cambridge, who also shows up at various different points throughout the documentary.

MITCHELL: "Cotton Comes To Harlem." He was a stand-up comedian who was also an actor, yeah.

LUSE: Yeah. And he was so, so, so funny. But he was - I mean, the physical comedy was amazing. I mean, but also, the subtlety with which he would deliver certain lines or tell certain jokes. There was a real sophistication to the film that I appreciated. It felt like - I don't know. I felt like the film respected the audience's intelligence and wasn't afraid to go there with certain jokes but in a way that had, like, some finesse to it, whereas sometimes I feel like the films that maybe Hollywood wants to put the most weight behind with regard to Black audiences have, like - can sometimes have a corniness or a goofiness to them.

MITCHELL: Don't you think that's movies in general, though? They have this kind of fear of alienating audiences. And when you get to that sort of thing, though, a Black film, they're really - and they feel they don't know what they're doing. They're nervous about - are we going to offend white audiences? Who's going to come out for this? Then it becomes understandable that - not necessarily understandable, but I know where that comes from. And "Watermelon Man" was Melvin Van Peebles just bringing his own aesthetic to a studio comedy and saying, this is what I'm going to do. But Melvin was - always wanted to make the movies that Melvin wanted to make. And there probably was a little more room for that 50 years ago than certainly there is now.

A lot of these films - again, the example of "Super Fly" - was made independently because nobody's going to give somebody the money to go make that kind of movie. But then you see "Three The Hard Way," which again sounds like a loony premise. It did to me as a kid seeing it - thinking, I'm surprised you're going to try to kill all the Black people with chemicals. Then my dad tells me about the Tuskegee experiment. It's like, oh.

LUSE: Right.

MITCHELL: Oh, I see. So this is - oh, so this is about something. So there are people who say that these movies didn't have politics, but that's - I don't know if you get more political than using an action-adventure vehicle to deal with the repercussions and Black paranoia in going into medical clinics. There are all these kinds of things that these movies helped keep alive. And to your point about them being kind of edgy and not apologizing for what they were trying to do and being made independently - I mean, I mentioned this movie "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm," where the filmmaker is making a movie but also making a movie about the making of the movie, and he's trying to play people against each other, just to play with what the possibilities of film are. We can't see that movie. And I think that somehow or another that didn't make its way into the water supply and get to Sacha Baron Cohen or Eric Andre.

I mean, for me, there's so many points of influence that happen in these movies, so many things that we're still reckoning with 50 and almost 60 years later that these movies just opened up these ways of thinking about the culture.

LUSE: You know, it was so satisfying to watch this - what felt like a depiction of an explosion of all this creativity among so many different artists across so many different genres. But then toward the end of the film, you say that this period of Black film kind of ends with the release of "The Wiz" in 1978, which - I mean, I grew up with that as a classic (laughter). So I was shocked...

MITCHELL: But you never left your house to see it.

LUSE: Right. I never left my house to see it (laughter).

MITCHELL: See; it's easy to have a classic when you were watching your sister's VHS with her, easing on down the road...

LUSE: Exactly.

MITCHELL: ...With her and Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell. But when you see that movie in a movie theater, I just - "The Wiz" is just a thing where, clearly, all these hopes were riding on it.

LUSE: And in the doc, "The Wiz" is named as the film that ended this amazing era of Black movies because it was this big-budget film that flopped.

MITCHELL: But it takes me back to this thing that - this feeling I've always had, which that there isn't - Black film itself is a genre, so there is no Black musical. It's a Black film. There is no Black romantic comedy. It's a Black film. So when these films fail, they don't fail as genre films; they fail as a Black film, which is to say, oh, well, nobody went to see that Black film. I guess they don't want to see Black films anymore. And there was an executive who once said to me, yeah, they don't want to - Blacks don't want to see themselves in historical genres. And I said, based on what, how many Black people you know? Generally, when there is a big success, what do people do? They imitate it. So we have, coming out the same day as my movie's release, so nobody's going to see my movie...

LUSE: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: ...The "Black Panther" sequel. But, you know, I remember talking to people when that movie came out, and people - oh, my God, this is going to be this whole new explosion in Black film. There are going to be these imitations of "Black Panther." And I said, I'm sorry to be the one to disagree with you, but I do not think that is going to happen. I would love to be proven wrong about this. And it's been - what? - four years since the first "Black Panther" and - "The Woman King"? That's kind of it, but that's a historical action film. I mean, what's been the imitation of "Black Panther," a movie to be the first Marvel film to be nominated for best picture that makes over a billion dollars? My fear is that we're not that far away from "The Wiz," you know, where there's just the one failure that betokens bringing down the entirety of Black film. I mean, it always feels to me like a pretty precarious position that Black film is in.

LUSE: How would you characterize the moment that Black American cinema is in right now?

MITCHELL: It always feels to me to be precarious because we do get this thing, this cycle, every - you've lived through a couple of them now, even you. Every 10 years, you know, Black film is back. Well, where did it go? But no, no, now Black film is back. I understand, but it didn't go anywhere. But Black film is back. It hasn't been anywhere. It's always been here. But there is this binary aspect to the way that Black popular culture has always been reported on. It's either here, or it's not. It's big, or it's not. There is no - really, not much room for nuance in that conversation. And for Black film, as often as not, it's got to be about the phenomenon of getting the film made and what you had to do and how you had to play the system because, otherwise, it's just a Black movie, and maybe people don't want to cover that in that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUSE: Elvis, thank you so much for joining me today. This was - it was a great experience of watching the film. It felt like an essay, a celebration, and it's definitely a historical document. So I really appreciate you coming and talking with me about it.

MITCHELL: This has been a thrill for me to do this and talk to you about this, especially hearing your perspective on all this, Brittany. Thank you so much.

LUSE: Thanks again to Elvis Mitchell. "Is That Black Enough For You?!?" is out now on Netflix.

Coming up, I talk with Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle about the creation of HBO Max's "South Side" and why parody can be a form of love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

LUSE: Hey, y'all, you're listening to "It's Been A Minute" from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. During the darkest days of lockdown, my husband and I discovered a little show called "South Side." It's a workplace comedy set in Chicago, and it's about two best friends, Simon and Kareme, who are trying to make a difference in their neighborhood, but Chicago has other plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH SIDE")

NEFETARI SPENCER: (As Keisha) Check him out. If the word shady was in the dictionary, this dude's picture would be next to it.

WILL A MILES: (As Jay-Mal) Shady is in the dictionary.

SULTAN SALAHUDDIN: (As Simon) Half the people who shop here are shady. I just helped a guy wearing jeans on top of jeans get some office chairs.

MILES: (As Jay-Mal) Aw, damn, that's Fred. He doing that jean-on-jean again? Fuego.

LUSE: "South Side" was one of the few things back then that could reliably have me and my husband laughing to the point of tears. We enjoyed it so much that we would ration out one episode per night. The mastermind creators behind the show are Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle. And after I started "South Side," I immediately wanted to mainline everything they'd ever made, which led me to another show of theirs - the hilarious "Sherman's Showcase," which is now in its second season. "Sherman's Showcase" is a musical mockumentary send-up of variety shows like "Soul Train" and "American Bandstand." The host is Sherman McDaniel (ph), played by Bashir.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERMAN’S SHOWCASE")

BASHIR SALAHUDDIN: (As Sherman McDaniel) Now, our first guest took a year off to find himself in the motherland, St. Louis. But now he's back to debut his new song, "That Ain't Right" - the incomparable Jackie Redmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUSE: Comedy is subjective, of course, but what I love about both "South Side" and "Sherman's Showcase" is how they're able to build a big, silly joke around a very particular reference and still make everyone feel like they're in on it.

Why do you think audiences respond to such specific humor, if we're told that audiences are more likely to embrace the broad?

SALAHUDDIN: We had this really great moment years ago with Chris Rock. We happened to be in the same building. And he just said, like, you know, the secret is you got to just let funny people be funny. So to that point about specificity, there are TV shows where when somebody like our writer Evan Williams pitches a really specific bit, where the leadership of those shows would go, America won't get that, where we go, the bottom line is, are we laughing? The rule is quite simple - if the room is laughing at it, we're going to take a shot on it.

LUSE: Taking those shots has seemed to pay off for Diallo and Bashir. And on today's show, I'm going to talk to them about why their fearless, incisive style of comedy is such a hit with audiences and how sometimes parody can be the highest form of love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUSE: "Sherman's Showcase" and "South Side," they're both very specific worlds. Like, "Sherman's Showcase" is a send-up of '70s, '80s programs like "Soul Train" and "Solid Gold." "South Side" is a slice of modern-day Black Chicago. What drew you to want to turn each of those worlds into a TV show?

SALAHUDDIN: I'll talk about "South Side," and Diallo will talk about "Sherman's" because, for each of our projects, we found that one of us kind of has to be the captain of the project. It's how the partnership, I think, is able to thrive in that there's always got to be somebody who has the ability to kind of steer the ship. You know, we always felt like the funniest people in your life are, like, those cousins and family and friends, and so our thought was, let's put the people in front of the camera who make us laugh, right? And so we ended up working with my buddies from high school, my brother. You know, Diallo's on the show. You know, other friends and family have kicked in.

And so what you're doing is us saying, hey, we're letting Chicago speak for itself. We're a funny city. We're a silly city. And we're a city that is somewhat maligned in the press sometimes. But when you're from Chicago - I mean, Diallo always tells a story about, you know, landing there and having this Uber driver talk to him about shooting. So that was - that's a big moment for us.

DIALLO RIDDLE: This is at a time when literally everybody from politicians to the news - it seems like everybody's just like, you know, Chicago's a violent hellhole and all this kind of talk. And so when he asked me that, I didn't know if he was, like, mad that we were shooting a comedy about Chicago. But I answered truthfully. And he was like, thank you. He said, thank you. He's like, people need to know the truth about the South Side. They need to know the truth about all the funny people that we got in this city. And that's how we knew that we were on the right path.

LUSE: And what about "Sherman's Showcase"?

RIDDLE: Both of these ideas were sort of born out of, you know, those times of being out here and learning the trade through 10,000 hours of working, you know? And we were at "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," which was our first big break in TV...

SALAHUDDIN: Yep.

RIDDLE: ...And Bashir was regaling the audience every night with these characters and his wonderful voice. And there was one time when we came off - he had played sort of a - I don't know if it was more James Brown, or it might have even been more like...

SALAHUDDIN: It was like The Temptations, with Jackie Neptune and all that, yeah?

RIDDLE: Yeah. It was a little more like The Temptations. And me and Jimmy played as backup singers. You know, afterwards, me and Bashir are standing there in these ridiculous costumes, and we're like, what if we could do this all the time, but we didn't even have the limitation of doing songs that have to appeal to an NBC audience? You know, that was what we were trying to do with "Sherman's Showcase" was doing something that was a little more edgy. You know, we wanted to do a show that would be for people of all stripes who just really appreciate that in-the-weeds, you know, humor.

LUSE: Yeah. I think both "South Side" and "Sherman's Showcase" rely heavily on parody. And no matter how off the rails the plot of an episode will go, it always works because you nail the details of the characters and the environment. Like, this "Sherman's Showcase" bit from the new season that features actors playing the iconic women of Bad Boy...

RIDDLE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: ...Plotting on how they can get their money back from Diddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERMAN'S SHOWCASE")

BRESHA WEBB: (As Mary J. Blige) All right, y'all. Listen up. Diddy been stealing from us for years.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Mmm hmm.

(CROSSTALK)

WEBB: (As Mary J. Blige) Now, it's time that we get what we're owed and did something.

LUSE: I mean, when I see Bresha Webb, who's hilarious...

SALAHUDDIN: Hilarious.

LUSE: She's so, so funny - nailing Mary J. Blige, like, down just to, like, the facial expressions, how do you approach capturing so many of those little details?

RIDDLE: I think that on both shows, we go out of our way to go to the height of our intelligence, but we also hire really intelligent, really funny writers. And I'm always impressed and in love with the ideas that come from others. That sketch is, again, sort of - it's born from a conversation around a table of a whole bunch of people who love that era of music. So with that sketch, the jokes about Fonzworth Bentley and the joke about Al B. Sure and the joke about even Mary just using the lightsaber, which was a viral YouTube thing...

LUSE: (Laughter) Oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERMAN'S SHOWCASE")

WEBB: (As Mary J. Blige) I'll be creating a diversion like this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Go, Mary. Go, Mary. (Singing) Go, Mary.

LUSE: ...It makes it so the comedy is deeper, more enjoyable, more specific. You know, and so often with comedy, I feel like we're told that broad is what sells, but a lot of the funniest bits of both shows hit because they're so specific, like the "Sherman's Showcase" commercial break where you have Frederick Douglass selling Stacy Adams shoes, which, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: ...For listeners who may not know, those are staples of the fly Black uncle wardrobe.

SALAHUDDIN: Come on, now. You know (laughter).

RIDDLE: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERMAN'S SHOWCASE")

DAVE CARTER: (As Frederick Douglass) Look at me. I'm an abolitionist, and you best believe when I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, I was wearing the finest shoes I could afford.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) What were you wearing?

CARTER: (As Frederick Douglass) I was barefoot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I see.

CARTER: (As Frederick Douglass) No, you don't see. Now you see. Stacy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Stacy Adams?

CARTER: (As Frederick Douglass) That's right. I...

LUSE: I think that you can't have specificity without study, and...

SALAHUDDIN: Yeah.

LUSE: ...I don't think study comes without care. And I think what makes both shows so successful as parodies is that there's real love and care in there, too. Like, how does your love for your subject factor into your creative process?

SALAHUDDIN: One of my favorite descriptions of "Sherman's Showcase" is that "Sherman's Showcase" is a conversation among music nerds. You know, I remember when we were at Jimmy Fallon that you would go down to The Roots room because the Roots had a little - a practice room. It was little back then. Now it's quite big. And Questlove is, like - in some ways he's like our spirit, you know? I don't want - you know, he's like - he is our guru 'cause he's got the nerd. He's definitely a music nerd. He's also a, you know, sci-fi comedy nerd. Obviously, he loves music and loves Black music. So you have to imagine, like, him and especially him and Dial, there were some long hourslong conversations.

And so Diallo, in some ways, is grafting those conversations onto this TV show, and those conversations have to be specific. But I think what you're also noticing in that specificity is just all the love. But I do think it comes out of this thing where they see our passion. They see our love. They know we're coming at it from the point of view of people who love this stuff and not people making fun of it. But it also comes from, I would say, even - it's people's lives. You know, we had heard that, for example, in the old "Seinfeld" room, they would start their season with just saying like, hey, you know, what did you guys do in the summer? What are you laughing at? And I think we do that with both of our shows.

RIDDLE: And "Seinfeld" is the king of, like, the super specific reference that, you know, it doesn't matter what culture you're raised in; you get the joke. So they did a whole episode where everybody wanted the marble rye. You know, it's a pretty famous episode of "Seinfeld."

LUSE: (Laughter).

RIDDLE: Everybody wanted that marble rye.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JERRY STILLER: (As Frank) We got to stop off and pick up a marble rye from Schnitzer's.

ESTELLE HARRIS: (As Estelle) It's out of our way. Why can't we pick up something at Lord's? It's right over here.

STILLER: (As Frank) No, we have to go to Schnitzer's. I'll show these people something about taste.

RIDDLE: And our version of that was the day the Jordans drop.

LUSE: (Laughter).

RIDDLE: It's the day that Chicago as a city shuts down because everybody's going to be rioting to get their hands on the new, you know, Jordan Concords.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH SIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I've been in this line since 6 a.m., and I'll be damned if I'ma lose my spot to two long-shirt-wearing [expletive].

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As characters) You don't got to come at our shirts like that. Yeah, yeah...

RIDDLE: It's the specificity of the joke that really makes it work for a broad selection of audience because you don't have to be from Chicago to understand why it's funny that, you know, this Chicago club promoter died, and his body is literally inside the club doing shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH SIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Now, our very special guest, the reason for the season. They said I could not pull it off. Give it up for Shake.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) No, no, no. I saw him buried. I saw it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Well, well...

RIDDLE: It turned out that that actually happened after that episode aired in one of the Carolinas, North or South - one of the Cackalacks (ph) - that incident actually happened. And people were like, oh, man, are they copying "South Side"? But we were like, no, that whole episode was based on Bashir's mom getting an actual invitation to a funeral that looked like a party flyer.

LUSE: (Laughter).

RIDDLE: So to a certain extent, we are always copying the real-life things that we see that, again, that we think are absurd but we haven't seen on TV before. The biggest compliment you can be paid in a Diallo and Bashir writing room is, I have never seen that before.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: You know, to turn to "Sherman's Showcase" specifically, like, you have some really unusual guests for a comedy show - maybe not for a music show. But I still feel like even when I'm seeing musicians on the show, I'm seeing them in a way I've never seen them before. Like...

SALAHUDDIN: Absolutely.

LUSE: ...Morris Day, who famously collaborated with Prince, narrates the story of Charade...

SALAHUDDIN: Yes.

LUSE: ...A fictional musician...

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: ...Played by rapper Vic Mensa, who's also from Chicago. And Charade's clearly modeled on Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERMAN'S SHOWCASE")

MORRIS DAY: (As Morris Day) That's when it really started to rain.

VIC MENSA: (As Charade, singing) Take me out to the ballgame.

DAY: (As Morris Day) And the lightning got dangerous.

MENSA: (As Charade, singing) Take me out to the crowd.

SALAHUDDIN: Connect the dots. Connect the dots.

LUSE: I'm connecting the dots. That's what - I'm trying to connect the dots here. I mean, even to, like, go on. Like, in the second season, y'all, you extend the Morris Day joke...

SALAHUDDIN: Yes.

LUSE: ...Bringing in Jerome Benton...

SALAHUDDIN: Yes.

LUSE: ...Who many people remember fondly as, like, Morris' sidekick...

SALAHUDDIN: Yes.

LUSE: ...In the movie "Purple Rain" - like, the levels. These are such hilarious moments. But there - these are music legends. Like, how do you go about writing, like, a comedy bit for somebody like that?

RIDDLE: I call Jerome. I get his number through, like, 18 channels. And I finally get Jerome on the phone, and his only concern was that, look; I haven't been onstage with Morris in over two decades. So if we do this, we have to do it right. Like, that was his concern. And I will say that once they were on stage together, like, the magic is back. They're having so much fun. And apparently, they, like, left set and went and got, like, some...

SALAHUDDIN: Nice.

RIDDLE: ...Really long meal together. You know what I mean? And I think...

SALAHUDDIN: We're bringing music families back together. Come on, y'all.

LUSE: I was going to say...

RIDDLE: We're bringing legends together.

SALAHUDDIN: Bringing legends back together.

LUSE: Bringing legends back together. Minneapolis thanks you.

SALAHUDDIN: We're going to unite Oasis next.

LUSE: There's a bit in the new season where you have, I believe, Michael Blackson - is that? - playing...

SALAHUDDIN: The man himself, yeah.

LUSE: Yes.

RIDDLE: Yes. Yes.

LUSE: Comedian Michael Blackson, who's playing a Ghanaian musician based on Fela Kuti...

RIDDLE: Yep.

LUSE: ...Who sings about heading to the strip club to eat wings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERMAN'S SHOWCASE")

MICHAEL BLACKSON: (As Fada, singing) Heading to the booty club.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's not what you think.

BLACKSON: (As Fada, singing) I'm not here for the girls.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I'm here for the wings.

LUSE: Which is, I mean, frankly, a very common experience. We've all been there. Or maybe I'm being too honest, but we've all been there. Like...

RIDDLE: It's legitimate. It's legitimate. No, no, no. Listen; sometimes the best wings in town are at that one strip club.

LUSE: (Laughter).

SALAHUDDIN: It's true.

RIDDLE: And (laughter) look; it's the truth.

LUSE: Walk me through the songwriting process.

RIDDLE: I'll say this. A lot of what goes into making a new season of "Sherman's" is like making an album or making a song. It has to come from a emotional place. We always want to do the genre justice. We're not going to do a Prince song and make it sound silly. Just this morning, something was sent to us, and we were like, sounds a little jokey.

SALAHUDDIN: Yeah.

RIDDLE: You know, like, let's really dial it in so that people can...

SALAHUDDIN: Yeah.

RIDDLE: ...Blast it in their cars, and people would never know that they were listening to a song from a comedy show. And I think that - I'm going to give Bashir credit. I think he was the one who was like, let's make this song about the ATM fees in a strip club.

(LAUGHTER)

RIDDLE: And I was like, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERMAN'S SHOWCASE")

BLACKSON: (As Fada, singing) I go to pay for them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) They say cash only.

BLACKSON: (As Fada, singing) I go to the ATM.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's a crazy fee.

BLACKSON: (As Fada, singing) Is there a cheaper one?

LUSE: To swing back to "South Side" for a minute - but, I mean, this applies to "Sherman's Showcase" as well. But both of your current shows, but especially "South Side," have a strong sense of place.

SALAHUDDIN: Absolutely.

LUSE: Like, there are so many Chicago-isms on this show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH SIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Can I please have a couple of extra mild sauces?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Yeah, ma'am. You can have as many as you want. Get her some mild sauce. Just grab a handful. You can have all the mild sauces, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) You welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) How did she get extra mild sauce? You just made a whole speech about mild sauce.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) She a Black woman. Her life is hard enough.

LUSE: You know, in that respect, "South Side" especially reminds me of, you know, some of my other favorite shows, specifically the recently canceled "Flatbush Misdemeanors," which was set in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and also "Atlanta." And I kind of see this with "Insecure," too, being such a show about LA.

SALAHUDDIN: Yeah.

LUSE: It feels like we're moving toward a space in Black comedy where regional humor is kind of winning out or at least winning out for what feels to me in a big way for the first time. What do you all think about that?

SALAHUDDIN: By sort of digging into those things from our upbringing and from the Midwest that I love, it actually allows us to connect with everybody - where you would go to their houses over Christmas, and suddenly, you would find out, oh, you guys play spades? Oh, we play spades, too, you know? And then obviously, spades is something where - you know, I've seen fights.

(LAUGHTER)

SALAHUDDIN: You know, like, spades ends friendship. And it usually ends friendships with people on the same team who are mad at each other for what the other person played.

(LAUGHTER)

SALAHUDDIN: But this goes back to our conversation about, in some ways, Black nerds and about us letting people's ideas flourish. There are so many shows where ideas like that would have been killed in the writer room. And I think Diallo and I, we have experiences...

RIDDLE: Yeah.

SALAHUDDIN: ...Where our ideas like that were killed in writer rooms. I'll never forget - this is a story we tell - never forget we had a meeting at a network, and we were doing notes on one of our scripts. And one of the executives was just like, now, hold on now. You say that this section happened at the Black mall. Is that a real thing? Is there such thing as a Black mall? And then I was - we're going like, how are you even asking us that?

LUSE: Yes (laughter).

SALAHUDDIN: And there's one right down the street. If you just take Crenshaw right down...

RIDDLE: Or you can take the 405 to Fox Hills back then. It's Westfield now.

SALAHUDDIN: You know, Atlanta had about five of them.

LUSE: Right.

SALAHUDDIN: So just for...

RIDDLE: We had Greenbriar. We had Greenbriar before we took over Lenox.

SALAHUDDIN: But I would argue that that is the difficulty. That's the difficulty faced by the content creator of color and specifically the Black content creator is like, how do you do a thing that you know is funny, but somebody has to approve it and doesn't get it at all?

RIDDLE: It's hard to be funny when you're explaining.

SALAHUDDIN: Exactly. And they're unaware that they don't get it. I feel very lucky that we were able to get stuff through the filter. I think it took a lot of energy and effort to get both shows onto the air. But now that we're in a situation where who knows how much longer we have these shows, so now when writers and thinkers and people come to us and pitch us something that's very specific to our experience and our shared experience, we can be like, yeah, let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUSE: Thanks again to Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle. The first two seasons of "South Side" are on HBO Max, and the third is forthcoming. And you can watch "Sherman's Showcase," which is in its second season, on the IFC channel and Hulu.

This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...

BARTON GIRDWOOD, BYLINE: Barton Girdwood.

LIAM MCBAIN, BYLINE: Liam McBain.

JANET WOOJEONG LEE, BYLINE: Janet Woojeong Lee.

JAMILA HUXTABLE, BYLINE: Jamila Huxtable.

LUSE: It was produced and edited by...

JESSICA MENDOZA, BYLINE: Jessica Mendoza.

LUSE: Our editor is...

JESSICA PLACZEK, BYLINE: Jessica Placzek.

LUSE: Our executive producer is...

VERALYN WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Veralyn Williams.

LUSE: Our VP of programming is...

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

LUSE: Our senior VP of programming is...

ANYA GRUNDMANN, BYLINE: Anya Grundmann.

LUSE: All right. That's our show for today. See you next week for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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