South Side Wasn’t Trying to Prove Its Own Importance

“It felt like something that was gonna speak to me in a way that no other television show ever has.” Photo: Adrian S. Burrows Sr./HBO Max

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

Among the many fallen brothers of the Great 2022–23 Content Purge, South Side will be fondly missed. Many shows have been canceled or scraped from the internet, but none had such a refillable premise. Created by Sultan and Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, South Side was about exactly what the name said: the South Side of Chicago. Sure, most of the show’s antics were connected in some way to Simon (Sultan Salahuddin), Kareme (Kareme Young), and the shady Rent-T-Own, where they both work. But South Side intentionally opened up its world quickly and confidently. It touched on the police with Officer Goodnight and Sergeant Turner (IRL marrieds Bashir Salahuddin and Chandra Russell) and local politics with Alderman Gayle (Riddle). It was like if The Wire were The Simpsons. 

Bashir Salahuddin and Riddle also run the sketch show Sherman’s Showcase, but South Side takes that same silliness and puts it in a very real place. “We’ve always wanted to take Chicago and turn it kinda into Springfield from The Simpsons,” Bashir Salahuddin said in 2019. “We have 150 speaking parts.” And because the show started that big, it had limitless places to go. For example, season three’s “The Spirit of Kwanzaa” took the form of different ancillary characters making films about Kwanzaa, almost their “Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase.” It’s what makes the show’s cancellation so frustrating.

Writer Brittani Nichols was annoyed that people only celebrated South Side after it was dead. “It felt like not a lot of people were watching. People that I know weren’t bringing it up to me,” she said. “But then when it got canceled, everyone was up in arms. Where was everybody talking about it before?” Nichols is a writer and producer at Abbott Elementary, a show that does not face the problem of not being discussed enough. Its well-earned victory lap through awards season included SAGs for the ensemble, Emmys for star Quinta Brunson, and an NAACP Image Award for Nichols. Nichols spoke about South Side, the Chicago thing of always mentioning which high school you went to, and how to sneak leftist tenets into comedy.

What did you like most about South Side?
I’m from Chicago. I think it was the second episode that they mentioned the high school I went to, and they talk about Eddy Curry in the trailer. So I was immediately onboard, just from the trailer, because it felt like something that was gonna speak to me in a way that no other television show ever has. It was so specific in its references and its tone and its structure. It’s super-frenetic in a way that I really enjoyed.

Speaking of the high-school thing, I’ve heard that it’s a uniquely Chicago way of introducing yourself to give your cross streets and your high school. Is that true?
Yeah, it is. It tells you a lot. People get judged off of their high schools in Chicago in a way that I haven’t seen happen in any other place. I think it’s partially because Chicago is so segregated and also so interestingly laid out. You could be from the same neighborhood, but the high school on one block is gonna have a completely different demographic than a high school just a few blocks over.

Chicago is so weird because it’s so patchwork, like block by block.
My girlfriend went with me to Chicago — I think it was 2019, so right before the pandemic. She’s from L.A., and she just was looking around saying, “I don’t think I’ve seen a single white person since we’ve been here.” I’m like, “Oh, they’re here. You just have to go one block that way and you’ll see.”

South Side was so intentional in its world-building. Did you learn anything from that, or what did you appreciate about it?
It’s showing Black people versus performing Blackness or making a, quote, unquote, “Black thing.” I think there was a period three or four years ago where everything was being marketed as, like, “the Blackest Love in the Blackest Movie for the Black Black Blackety Blacks.” It’s the last way I want something marketed to me. And for a show that feels like such a specifically Black show, there was never a mention of that in anything that I saw surrounding it.

A lot of times, people make it seem like this thing is Important with a capital I. We as an audience don’t get to decide what’s important. That’s something that I appreciated about the show: It was never trying to prove its own importance. It just was a good show.

The show is all about building the ensemble. So who’s your favorite side character?
Adam. Just because I’m Black and went to Yale, and he had that book I Was Black at Yale. I felt very personally attacked, but also it was fun. Also, I can’t remember the name of the officer, but the one who tries to get into the cop choir — and he tells him “no” because he made fun of him at the morning meeting.

South Side is known for casting friends and family in a lot of roles. What do you think that brings to a show?
I love that. I want to work with my friends as much as possible. Everything I’ve made on my own has been very heavily populated by my friends. It’s advantageous because you know what makes your friends funny in a way that they may not even know. You know friends’ strengths. You can throw in specifics from your lived experience together and try to get to the root of what made those things funny or unique or relatable. It’s a super-enriching experience when you’re doing it with people that you really care about.

The show also uses a lot of people who are first-time actors, as does Abbott with the child actors. Is writing for them different than writing for more seasoned performers?
For sure. I think we’re helped a lot by the fact that we want them to sound like kids. But I also think it helps that a lot of the emotion that comes from the scenes with the kids is letting kids have experiences that we didn’t have as children. I know a lot of the things that I’ve written into the show have been sort of therapeutic. Like, there’s a scene where Barbara apologizes to a kid. The emotion that he was able to pull out in that moment was super-touching. In real life, it is rare for adults to apologize to children. Just being able to have that experience on set, I hope, empowers kids in real life to stand up for themselves.

How much of your personal beliefs do you put into a script?
I’m trying to stuff as much in there as I can get away with. I think that there are certainly principles in Abbott that align with my own personal beliefs, but I don’t think that anyone is like, “Anarchists wrote this.” But if you start to dig into some of the themes that are presenting themselves, I hope that people understand that. It’s the ways where it feels sneaky that I’m most proud of.

I mean, a teacher apologizing to a child is very anti-hierarchical.
Yeah, yeah. Yep.

I sometimes get frustrated with the idea that politics of theory gets in the way of jokes or storytelling. If you’re deep in your own viewpoint, you can find jokes within it, and I think that’s something that South Side does so well — like how the cop characters are introduced as having to be bribed to do their jobs.
Yes. It’s so funny that there are so many parts of it that make it seem like maybe I wouldn’t want to watch it. Like what you just said: crowdfunding to pay for cops. That’s an example of how you can’t be beholden to what you should do.

I don’t know the exact politics of the creators, but they certainly aren’t painting a friendly picture of cops. But if you just said, “Hey, this is a comedy, and some of the main cast is cops,” I think people would have hesitance. I had hesitance. So to do that is brave. I feel like I haven’t previously seen acknowledgment that cops can be morally bankrupt racists with no regard for the law and at the same time being invited to laugh at them singing in a cop choir. It’s like, Yeah, we already know the bad stuff. We’re not here to teach you that lesson. Stop being a fucking dork and just enjoy the show.

How about the way South Side tackles mainstream politics, like when the alderman quits to become a DJ?
If people knew how many people who are in politics in Los Angeles are failed actors, they would be deeply disturbed. If you knew how many of our elected officials worked on cruise boats, you’d really be questioning things.

How do you inject your personal viewpoints into Abbott Elementary?
I think Abbott is an interesting show because the bad guy is the system. It’s an interesting challenge because, like in South Side, we show that the system isn’t the best, and we try to show the real ways that people deal with that. Just showing how those characters, without any particular agenda, react to hardship and to challenges mimics a lot of the things you would read in foundational texts of leftist politics — stuff like community-building, having each other’s backs regardless of whether or not you are a hundred percent aligned on how you get there. I think it’s about letting people recognize that we’re all trying to get to the same place and having grace for the different ways people are trying to get there — finding the common ground that exists in those somewhat differing attacks.

Vulture highlighted the resurgence of the working-class comedy, South Side and Abbott Elementary among them, last year. And it’s funny: Some of those shows have traditionally started very rooted in economic reality, but as the show goes on longer, the writing is less interested in the reality of not having money —
That’s because the writers get rich.

Sorry, I feel like I interrupted.

No, no. That was a good interruption. How do you figure out how to keep writing from a working-class standpoint if you start getting rich?
Ugh. Having money is one of my greatest fears. I think about that a lot: the ways that I personally can stay attached to my own previous lived experience. I think it’s just talking about it, honestly. I force us to talk about money in our room a lot. I think it’s a conversation people are uncomfortable about, but it’s the reality of this job: If you are successful, and you do it long enough, you can be someone who was poor and becomes pretty well-off.

If you’re doing things to stay in touch with reality, I don’t think it’s that hard. But I think a lot of people don’t have any intention at the outset of their careers to stay in touch with reality. Staying a real person despite whatever level of success I come to have is at the forefront of my personality, to the chagrin of my girlfriend.

To that end, what has Abbott Elementary’s reception been like for you? It’s so beloved right now.
It’s interesting, because I’ve worked on a lot of shows at this point, but when you get on a successful show, people assume that it’s your first job. No, I’ve been doing this quite a while — people just haven’t paid attention to previous things I’ve done. That has been the biggest shock: Oh, this is what it feels like when people actually know your work and are watching it! It’s nice because it’s a show that I’m actually proud of. If it was a show that I wasn’t proud of, I think I would be having a much different experience.

Do you also watch Sherman’s Showcase?
I did, yes. I think it’s cool. A lot of the time, especially with comedians, people try to box you in. They have two vastly different shows in close proximity to each other. It’s good for anyone in the comedy space to see that you can have some things that feel very much in your voice yet be two pretty disparate distillations of comedy. It’s helpful for everyone who’s trying to show the depth that is possible in the comedy sphere.

If you were to create a completely different show with a different tone — your Sherman’s Showcase — what would it be? Are you pitching it already?
I’m pitching right now. I just started pitching an hour-long drama about the gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which I think is as far away as you can be.

Now I’m just getting bummed out about L.A. politics.
That’s what I’m good for. If you want to be sad, call me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

South Side Wasn’t Trying to Prove Its Own Importance