It would not be Black History Month without a shout-out to Lewis Howard Latimer, the African-American inventor whose groundbreaking innovations led to lightbulbs and modern telecommunications. Or George Washington Carver, the scientist who helped revolutionize agriculture and whose work with crops, including peanuts, is credited with eventually leading to grocery-store shelves stocked with peanut butter. Or Adelaide Hall, the jazz singer who played a big part in the Harlem Renaissance. Or Sherman McDaniels, the legendary TV host who introduced major soul, hip-hop, R&B and funk artists into your home for decades courtesy of his long-syndicated Saturday morning show Sherman’s Showcase, available now in a partially complete 23-DVD box set. (Why yes, it does bear a passing resemblance to Soul Train, but he’s happy to tell you the, er, barely discernible differences that do not make his show a rip-off, can the estate of Don Cornelius please tell their lawyers to chill out?)
Of course, it would also not be Black History Month if it were the middle of June. But that’s not going to stop (the fictional) McDaniels from mounting a full-blown (fictional) extravaganza devoted to the rich heritage of African-Americans on Juneteenth, with guests like “amateur historian” John Legend, Mario Van Peebles and “the breakout young star of The Mandalorian, Carl Weathers!” (Note: Only the first two celebrities actually show up.) The Showcase dancers are here too, as is McDaniels’ usual producer/second-in-command, Dutch. So are the Roots, who show up in Peanuts-style animated cartoon to sing about the origins of the annual celebration. You also get a musical tribute to kente — “Panel by panel/it’s black people’s flannel” — a discussion on the pros and cons of being a black vampire, and McDaniels’ personal choices for the blackest moments in cinema history, with the number-one pick being Terence Howard renegotiating his contract for Iron Man 2.
Premiering tonight on IFC, Sherman’s Showcase: Black History Month Spectacular is an hour-long special sprung from the heads of creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, who introduced their variety-show parody to the former indie-movie cable channel in the summer of 2019. It’s a quick blast of the smart, savvy comedy these two writers, producers and comedians crafted over those first eight episodes; it also turns out to be a nice of bit of in-between-seasons filler, as IFC just announced they’re renewing the series for a second go-round in 2021. But more importantly, it’s a great introduction to a somewhat hidden gem in a now-overstuffed subgenre, and a critical favorite that deserves louder chatter and a much bigger audience. Even with a slightly off hit-to-miss ratio in its bits, the special gives you a taste of what these guys have been doing: using a recognizable piece of pop nostalgia as a starting point for something hilarious, subversive and perfectly timed for this binging moment.
Comedy fanatics who met in a Harvard singing group and who both did time on the staff of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Salahuddin (who plays McDaniels) and Riddle (he’s the sometimes eye-patched Dutch) coincidentally ended up getting two pitches picked up and on the air almost simultaneously last year. One was Sherman’s Showcase; the other was South Side, a story of two college graduates in Chicago trying to figure out a business plan while working retail gigs, which went to Comedy Central. “I am the father of three kids,” Riddle told Entertainment Weekly, “and I would never want people to compare them because they’re all very different people. I feel like it’s the same with these TV shows.” Go back and read the press this prolific duo got during their moment, however, and you’ll notice South Side receives most of the ink. It’s an easier show to identify and get behind, in a way, though it’s tough not to feel like Sherman kind of got short shrift as a result. What they’re doing with their Soul Train takeoff is a tougher sell. It’s also a tougher bar to clear, turning what could have been a one-joke riff into a whole alternate universe of afro boho absurdity.
Does it help if you grew up watching Don Cornelius host the crème de la crème of popular black musical artists on Saturday mornings, while folks showed off their moves on the dance floor? Undeniably. Parody works best when it gets as close to the look and feel of its target as possible, and while Sherman’s Showcase isn’t going to the lengths of its network brethren Documentary Now! — nobody is trying to find the exact camera lens used to shoot Kool & the Gang perform “Jungle Boogie” in ’74 — these guys have clearly done their homework. Framed as an infomercial for a Time-Life type of retrospective box set, their show takes advantage of decades worth of black music and black culture. A clip of a singer doing an endless ’70s James Brown breakdown may give way to a ’90s Anita Bakeresque diva singing about “my fantasy” (which involves an epic Dungeons & Dragons saga and demon’s blood) or an Odd Future-like duo destroying the studio. Episodes devoted to both Prince and Mary J. Blige are equally affectionate and merciless in their impersonations; the former is hosted by the real Morris Day while cast member Rob Haze does a pitch-perfect imitation of the Time leader. A running joke involving Frederick Douglass pitching products is funny simply as a non sequitur. Once you realize that they’re based on actual ads that run during Soul Train back in the day, you realize you’re in the land of prime deep-cut humor. (Don’t just take our word for it.)
But what Salahuddin and Riddle are really doing is setting the stage for all sorts of oddball tangents, bizarre detours and smuggled shout-outs that have little to do with goofing on a TV touchstone. Those Douglass cameos end up being part of a much larger, surreal story. For every fake commercial, there are sketches like “Temptations 11,” in which old Motown artists plan a heist to steal back their masters from Berry Gordy. A highlight of the first season, a celebrity panel show titled Brother You Wrong, is one of those pieces that benefits from comedians who know how to keep escalating the velocity of a skit. As writers, the duo have a keen ear for adding grace notes to ridiculous premises (see the “Now That’s What I Call White Music” sketch); Salahuddin in particular has impeccable comic timing, knowing when to delay a punchline before speeding into an extra button on a joke. The Peanuts cartoon in the special is genuinely moving. All three of the famous figures mentioned up top really do get a hat-tip, and the Downton Addy skit interrupts itself to let Salahuddin address the audience: “Adelaide Hall, she was real, look her up.” The whole first season is on Hulu now. Check it out ASAP.