Before In Living Color, There Was Robert Townsend’s Partners in Crime

Robert Townsend in a Partners in Crime HBO special. Photo: HBO

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

Robert Townsend has almost made a career of being underrated. He funneled his frustrations of being typecast in Hollywood into 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, maxing out his credit cards but creating an undeniable work of art. But Townsend also used his cachet to bring work to his funny friends. Collaborating with the Wayans family, John Witherspoon, David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, and more, Townsend created a series of comedy specials that took the shape of an old-school variety hour. In the Partners in Crime HBO specials, Townsend served as a master of ceremonies more than a central figure. He curates stand-up from his friends, filmed sketches, and musical performances. Partners in Crime 3 starts with flappers doing the Charleston to Bobby Brown, then some Tommy Davidson impressions, then a Star Trek parody where Vulcans eat soul food. It’s a wild ride.

Diallo Riddle loves that unmoored feeling that comes with a good variety show. You never know what’s going to happen next, and a creator can explore all aspects of their comedic sensibilities. His new IFC show with writing partner Bashir Salahuddin, Sherman’s Showcase, looks back at decades of this fictional Soul Train–like show. You know how The Simpsons uses Krusty the Clown’s show to make fun of all TV? Sometimes it’s Laugh-In, sometimes it’s a serious debate show with AFL-CIO chairman George Meany? Sherman’s Showcase is as if someone made a whole show of that, with original songs in every episode and John Legend doing a self-aggrandizing parody of himself. Riddle says that the audacity to throw all the spaghetti on the wall comedically came in part from watching these Townsend specials.

Ahead of the debut of Sherman’s Showcase and his other new series, Comedy Central’s South Side, Riddle recently chatted with Vulture about why he loves to create comedy within the variety-show format and why Townsend’s Partners in Crime specials deserve more fans and recognition today.

Why did you want to tell people about the Partners in Crime series?
Let me tell you how this choice came about. Let me give you the backstory. I had originally really wanted to talk about Top Secret, but I saw that “Weird Al” Yankovic had done that one himself. I came within inches of naming Popstar, the Lonely Island movie — and I am getting to the point of this, I promise — because I do feel like that movie wasn’t a massive hit, and that wasn’t fair. In fact, I went to see it in Westwood, and my wife and I were two of six people in the theater. And two of the others were actually in the movie.

Oh no!
I didn’t understand how it happened. That movie is great. I’ve always respected how the Lonely Island guys took their approach to music and comedy equally seriously. I still DJ, and they were songs that I can play in the club. So I came within inches of that. But then I came across a comedic injustice that I feel needs to be corrected. I don’t know what I was looking up that day. I might have been Wiki-surfing, as I tend to do. And I saw that there’s not even a Wiki entry for Partners in Crime. This is a series of HBO specials that directly led to In Living Color and a lot of black comedy in the ’90s. You can watch it, and it’s a Who’s Who of everybody black in comedy in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And I was just blown away that it didn’t even have a Wiki page. It’s almost like The Dana Carvey Show, where everybody in that cast went on to great things, but people had entirely forgotten about it until a few years ago. So I felt like I needed to use my time on this earth with Vulture to correct this wrong.

So when did you discover the series that’s been buried for so long?
I was a kid. I don’t know if my parents were derelict in their duties, but somehow I was watching this comedy special on HBO that had a lot of swearing in it. I remember thinking, with my sixth-grade brain, that it was really funny stuff. I will say that all these specials are definitely a product of their time. There are things that I’m sure the creators wish they could have back or whatever. It’s 30-plus years ago, and I hope they’ve evolved since then.

It’s also not just a comedy special — there are musical guests in each special, and big dance numbers. What about that old-school, almost vaudeville, format appealed to you?
Funny you should ask! One of the things we have coming out this summer is Sherman’s Showcase, on IFC. Sherman’s Showcase was our chance to do a big song-and-dance-number type show. It’s definitely a show with sketch in its DNA and a show with variety in its DNA. Bashir and I, our first big gig in TV was Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where we did “Slow Jam the News” and “History of Rap” with Justin Timberlake. We were always writing original songs, and we had a lot of fun. When I discovered that Partners in Crime didn’t have a Wikipedia page, I went back and rewatched a lot of it. And I was actually a little bit blown away just how much the comedy of this show works with the comedy we’re doing in Sherman’s Showcase. That idea that music and comedy can coexist has always been strong in Bashir and I’s humor. Fun fact: We actually met at college in an a cappella group.

What parts did y’all play in the a cappella group? What were your ranges?
[Laughs.] I was an alto, and he was a bass. We met in a gospel group that had a real Afrocentric focus, African music focus. It was called Kuumba Singers, at Harvard. And within Kuumba Singers, Bashir and I and like three other singers broke off and formed our own a cappella group. We were determined to be like Dru Hill or Boyz II Men. We were going to sing secular music together and woo the ladies of our affection. We formed a group called Brothers, and that was as creative as we ever got. We went around Boston and sang at whatever coffee shops would have us. And we wore matching sweaters!

You gotta. That’s part of it.

Some writers who start off in a late-night or variety sphere want to move into anything but that. Straight sitcoms or dramedies, or something that isn’t the older Partners in Crime–esque format.
Variety, no pun intended, is the spice of life. Bashir and I have two shows coming out, one of which is narrative. [South Side is] episodic, but it’s got a through line throughout the entire season. That’s where we were able to exercise our story muscle. It’s very grounded. But the appeal of a variety show like Partners in Crime is that there are times when you want to exercise the other side of your comedic muscle. There are times when you want to be absurd, you want to do heightened reality.

I feel like in today’s current environment, a lot of studios and executives will steer people of color, people of marginalized groups. It’s almost an overcorrection. They’re now steering us constantly to “speak our truth.” And that, to them, means you need to write a script about the city you grew up in or the school you went to. It has to be 100 percent grounded. If we’d been denied the chance to ever do that, it might be more tempting. But since we got an opportunity to do something like that at one network, it was great to go somewhere else and do something else that’s just our funny bone. I’d hate to give up that part of me just because the things that get nominated for awards in 2019 are heavily grounded. When I was growing up and watching Star Wars, I wasn’t thinking Wow, this is George Lucas sharing his truth of being white and growing up in outer space! 

That overcorrection — that people of color can only pitch shows about their lived experience — has echoes of Townsend’s bit about white casting directors telling him how to act black.
“Black Acting School,” yeah! When I watched Hollywood Shuffle growing up, I thought it was just a movie about a black actor trying to make it in Hollywood. But now, I realize he was doing Kentucky Fried Movie. The instructors are giving the black actors tips on how to speak jive, and act like a slave, and walk black. Sadly, I have to announce that it’s almost still a thing in another way.

It’s a sketch in Hollywood Shuffle, and a stand-up piece in Partners in Crime 3.
I know for a fact that there are so many ideas that Bashir and I have had in scripts that didn’t go forward. We’ll take that idea and repurpose it for something else, because sometimes you just want to get that point across. I get the sense that Robert Townsend went in for auditions all the time. And, because of his age, he was always up against Eddie Murphy, and Hollywood had put all its chips on Eddie. That had to be extremely frustrating. Here’s Robert, who I definitely felt had very much a writer’s brain in his approach. I love it when you feel the writing [in Partners in Crime]. This is a repressed black brain screaming out, saying, “Hey! I want to see myself as a cowboy. I want to see myself as a ridiculous Michael Jackson–type character.” You get the sense of him being so fed up at what Hollywood was giving him. And his form of rage was to put it in a sketch.

Let’s talk about that Who’s Who of black comedy in Partners in Crime. I was excited to see some vintage Tommy Davidson.
I watched that show, and I feel like there are so many people looking so young and thin! Everybody was in their early 20s. Even John Witherspoon was pretending to be old. It’s really funny seeing these people before In Living Color, before Boomerang, before all this other content that’s more well-established.

You can tell that these are some of his best friends. With Partners in Crime, I get the sense that in between making movies, this was his fun time. This was when Robert got to have fun and say, “Hey Keenan, bring the whole Wayans family! We’re gonna do a sketch based on Donahue.” 

In an eerie moment of foreshadowing, Townsend makes himself the host of a Twilight Zone–type show in a Partners in Crime sketch. And now the real host of the Twilight Zone is a black man who got his start in sketch comedy.
It’s good now that Hollywood will trust franchises like The Twilight Zone to a black content creator. But my driving philosophy in this business is: Whatever you have an opportunity to do yourself, do it. Jordan didn’t have a massive budget to do Get Out, but he made it work. He made a fantastic movie. Find a way to do it yourself. And then the next project is the one where you’ll get the budget you deserve.

Is there anything that you’re waiting for a big HBO check to do? What’s your Partners in Crime stunt, like hiring Bobby Brown or flying in from the balcony?
I won’t speak on HBO’s budget, but I think nowadays everyone talks about Netflix money. There are certain things that we would have done even on Sherman’s that we had to find a way to do the cheaper version. We didn’t want to fly in Bobby Brown, but there was a similar name we wanted to get that was price prohibitive. When it comes to clearing music, that’s usually very expensive. I’m always shocked at what it costs for travel, for cleaning music. It’s just a nightmare and usually involves like five people that haven’t talked in 20 years. Or you think, I’m just gonna put on this brand-new rapper that no one’s ever heard of, but they get real fancy real quick. There’s a lot that has to happen.

In the future, I’d love to do something in the superhero space, something that’s kind of expensive with regards to special effects. But if I can keep making Sherman’s and South Side, I’ll be happy. If anything, I want to make sure the humor on Sherman’s Showcase is evergreen. So that in 30 years, some upstart who’s talking to Vulture then can say “You know what? Sherman’s Showcase was incredible and it aged really well! The creators of that show were extremely woke.” I’d be so proud of myself if it was still funny and not embarrassing.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity. 

Before In Living Color, There Was Partners in Crime