Before “Slow Jam the News” featured the likes of Brian Williams, Chris Christie and President Barack Obama, the late-night segment was the brainchild of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” writers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin. The pair were responsible for many of the show’s early viral segments, spinning their sketch-comedy background and love of music into widely-shared segments like “Ladysmith Snack Mambazo” and “History of Rap” featuring Justin Timberlake.
But during four years of writing near-daily content for “Fallon,” Riddle and Salahuddin produced lots of song and sketch ideas that never made it to air — or even to rehearsal. “We wrote a lot of songs for Jimmy that wouldn’t have been appropriate for his brand or for NBC, so we tucked a lot of them away,” said Riddle.
These not-ready-for-primetime premises formed the germ of “Sherman’s Showcase,” the pair’s new sketch show, which tracks the 40-year history of a legendary — but entirely fictional — musical variety show in the style of “Soul Train.”
The first episode, which premieres July 31 on IFC, opens with John Legend, who co-produced the sketch show, speaking directly to camera, praising the fictional “Sherman’s Showcase.”
“For over 40 years, ‘Sherman’s Showcase’ has been a revolutionary black music-slash-dance-slash-entertainment program unlike anything else on TV — except for several other shows,” Legend says. A long list of similar shows, from “Solid Gold” to “The Muppet Show,” scrolls across the screen.
“Sherman’s Showcase” takes a lot of visual cues from the variety shows it parodies, with a charismatic host played by Salahuddin and a glittery, Technicolor aesthetic courtesy of series director Matt Piedmont (“Casa de mi Padre”). And the format of a fictional dance show offers fertile ground for musical sketches, commercial parodies and more.
“Once we realized that we could use a sort of generic structure of a dance show, that actually began to open up so many doors for us,” Salahuddin said. “It allowed us to do whatever we wanted to do, and to give them all a certain unifying context.”
“It became this gigantic sandbox where we could throw all the toys and have fun the entire way through,” Riddle added. The unorthodox format was partially inspired by IFC’s “Documentary Now!,” specifically the episode that spoofs Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense.”
“I was like, we can do this, except we’ll do it for black music,” said Riddle, whose background in DJing came into play in the show’s musically-inclined writers room.
“We would always use music as a jump-off point… we would talk about artists that we thought were funny or musical genres we thought were funny,” said Riddle.
In just the first episode, the show features send-ups of James Brown-esque funk, yacht rock and modern R&B — all genres that the pair also parodied in various “Fallon” segments. In contrast to their fast-paced work in late-night, the writers didn’t feel the need to connect “Sherman’s” to current events.
“The comedy should feel timeless. It should feel like something that you can enjoy now, and you can also enjoy 10 years from now and not be like, ‘What are all these weird jokes about subtweeting?'” Salahuddin said. But the roots (not Fallon’s house band) of “Slow Jam the News” and “History of Rap” are still there.
“It always stuck with me that me and Bashir merging our love of music and comedy together could have sort of mass appeal,” said Riddle.
“Sherman’s Showcase” marks the second new series from Riddle and Salahuddin, who also wrote and produced Comedy Central’s half-hour series “South Side,” which premiered July 24.
“Sherman’s Showcase” premieres Wednesday, July 31 at 10 p.m. on IFC.