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Comedy Central is making a home on the South Side.
The Viacom-owned cable network has renewed the critically acclaimed series for a 10-episode second season. The pickup comes midway through the show’s inaugural run.
Created by Bashir Salahuddin, Diallo Riddle and Sultan Salahuddin (all of whom also appear onscreen), South Side centers on two friends (Sultan Salahuddin and Kareme Young) working at a rent-to-own store in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago while dreaming of bigger things. The cast also includes Chandra Russell and Bashir Salahuddin as two beat cops who patrol the area, and Quincy Young (Kareme’s twin brother) as the manager of Rent-T-Own. A wide array of secondary characters also populates the show’s world.
“South Side is a truly unique and special show — one that is first and foremost incredibly funny, but also redefines perceptions of Chicago through storytelling and humor,” said Jonas Larsen and Sarah Babineau, co-heads of original content for Comedy Central. “Diallo, Bashir and [director/executive producer Michael Blieden] have created such an incredible comedic world with this show, and we can’t wait to see what they have in store for season two.”
Neither can the creators. Bashir Salahuddin told The Hollywood Reporter that Wednesday’s episode, written by Russell, is a “bellwether” for the series going forward.
“It represents an evolution for the season,” Salahuddin said. “I think people are going to see how deeply we can go into our world and how funny we can make the universe we live in. It’s one of our favorite episodes this season, and one of the reasons we’re excited to make the [renewal] announcement in conjunction with it is we’re so proud of it and proud to show that this a show that can go into areas people don’t even know about yet.”
Through five episodes, South Side is Comedy Central’s highest-rated new series among African-American adults under 50 since Key & Peele‘s first season in 2012. It’s also the top-rated new cable comedy of 2019 among African-American men 18-49, and among all 18-49 viewers, it has improved its time period by double digits year to year.
Bashir Salahuddin, a native of Chicago’s South Side, and Riddle have been writing partners for more than a decade and are also co-creators of IFC’s Sherman’s Showcase. They spoke to THR about how the series can redefine how people look at Chicago, the importance of filming on location and what South Side has in common with another cult comedy, Trailer Park Boys.
You guys have a background in late night and sketch comedy. Was it tough making the transition to a more heavily scripted, narrative show like this one?
BASHIR SALAHUDDIN With South Side specifically, we all saw our writers room as kind of a classroom. We knew everybody there had the passion and the intelligence to write great stories, and everybody had great stories to tell. I think in our experience with Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, he relied heavily on newer writers because he wanted that passion and enthusiasm and folks like us who couldn’t believe we had a job — we were so surprised we had a job in the business. We borrowed a little bit of that in our writers room in terms of getting people who had an eagerness and passion. In many cases, that passion and eagerness was deeper than their actual experience. We kind of taught ourselves.
Why did you decide to make the Rent-T-Own store the hub of the show?
SALAHUDDIN We had had a show at HBO that didn’t go [Brothers in Atlanta] that was based on Diallo’s hometown. So we knew we wanted to do something on one of our hometowns. As we were figuring out the Chicago of it all, simultaneous to that Quincy, who plays Q on the show, actually worked at Rent a Center for about 10 or 15 years. He would always have these hilarious stories about crazy stuff he had to do and places he had to go, all over the city. At some point we put two and two together and said, “Wait a second — we have a blue-collar comedy workplace here, but the power of it is it makes the entire city of Chicago our set.” Once we realized that, we knew we had struck gold. We said we can tell great stories but never have to be limited to any location. We’ll do our Rent-T-Own stuff, but also our characters will get out and meet the city. The thrust and drive of the show is really trying to help redefine and introduce people to the real Chicago, the Chicago I knew growing up. We couldn’t think of a better way to do that than to have this engine that forces us to meet every type of person from all walks of life, all over the city.
How important was it to you to actually film in the neighborhoods you’re representing?
SALAHUDDIN It really doesn’t make sense for us to sit here and be telling the world, “You don’t know Chicago. The stuff you see on the news is only a small part,” and then not go out and shoot the city. We told our casting director, we want locals. We want people who are from here. … We felt like the city was bursting with talent — and particularly when you think about comedy in Chicago, you think about the North Side with the John Hughes films and The Blues Brothers and all that stuff. It was time for the South Side to get its due.
Again, we wanted to introduce people to that South Side — and they know Bernie Mac and Sherri Shepherd, some of these great comics from the South Side. What we were trying to do is just have a consistent place where they knew they were getting that South Side humor. … Some of the actors on our show aren’t even really trained actors. They’re just really funny people.
I love the show Trailer Park Boys, and one thing they did so well is they just found really interesting, funny people, gave them great writing and had them do some improve and ended up with a show that has gone an incredible amount of seasons. We felt the same way — there are so many hilarious-ass people in Chicago; let’s put them in front of the camera.
Diallo, not being from Chicago, were you able to give a perspective your partners might not have since they’ve lived in and known the city for so long?
DIALLO RIDDLE I think I was Alexis de Tocqueville. It took an outsider traveling from Europe in the 1800s to be like, “Oh, this is a weird situation you guys got over here.” Similarly, there were things all the Chicago writers in the room would get really excited about, and there would be other little things, just a little thing here or there that as an outsider you’d be like, “What is that? How do we explore that a little closer?” I feel like in a weird way, just having one outsider in the room helped provide some outside perspective on what the rest of the world might find really interesting, whether because it was different or similar to other places in the world where we set the show.
Is there anything specific you can recall?
RIDDLE One thing I really just loved the second I heard a little bit more about it — I had always heard there was a large sort of bourgeois community in the South Side of Chicago, and that’s always interesting to me. Bashir and I both come from places where much of the black community is treated as a monolith. What is it ever like if you have black people from different class strata? Class is always the British fascination more than the American fascination, but anything that went toward the area of class and education, my ears always perked up. … And as a DJ, I’ve always been interested in house music [which was created in Chicago], so the fact that our show, more than other black shows, dabbles in house music — little details like that, I wanted to make sure we highlighted as much as possible.
Pretty much everyone on the show is hustling in one way or another. What are you hoping to show in that?
SALAHUDDIN One of the things we like about it is it’s so relatable. I don’t care what walk of life you’re in, if you’re rich or poor — most of the people I know nowadays have other businesses or other things they’re working on. Many people work in professions that just aren’t their dream job. They want to find a way to do something they can look forward to every morning, and I think our characters are no different. … They want what everybody wants: They want to be able to take care of their families, and they want to have business interests or economic things that pull them from the usual.
For us, that’s so indicative of Chicago. So many intersections you’ll pull up, you won’t see people begging, you’ll see people working, trying to make money. … Because it was very Chicago but also very, very American, it really [became] the core of our show. These are blue-collar folks, but they all have hustle, they all have dreams. … Again, part of our job with South Side is redefinition, and as much as we can help people understand that yeah, that thing is here too. People are really trying to figure out ways to have economic opportunity that they generate, I think it just makes the show better and more real.
How do you walk a line between funny and grounded without tipping too far in one direction or the other?
SALAHUDDIN The thing we start with in the room is stories. I think we took a page from, like, Seinfeld and Larry David — when they were getting their rooms together, they’d always start with, “What actually happens here? What is real?” And the good thing about Chicago and many urban areas is reality is often stranger than fiction.
So we started with that with our writers — let’s tell stories to each other about what actually happened, stuff we’ve been through, and then naturally those do evolve. Some get big. I won’t speak for Diallo, but I personally like stuff that gets a little big. For me, silly is great. But I trust Diallo, I trust Michael Blieden. The EP team is very careful with the tone of the show, and we kind of check each other.
What can viewers expect from the remainder of the season, and have you started talking much about season two yet?
SALAHUDDIN I think the most important thing about the remainder of this season and next season, we have so many great stories to tell. We’re so excited to get into them. Every TV show, you kind of learn how to write it by writing it. As we’ve sort of matured and gotten smarter and better at how to write our show, the writers have so many great ideas. … Number one, we’re so proud of the response we’ve gotten so far. I think the fans have gotten something great, and we’re proud of that.
The characters you’ve loved so far, you’ll see again. We have so many speaking parts on the show. We’ve tried to turn the city of Chicago into like Springfield from The Simpsons, where you have all these great characters that populate the world. … We’re very rigorous with our casting directors about finding great people, and we found some great people and want to keep them in the world.
RIDDLE One thing I really like about [Wednesday’s] episode is the opening scene takes place in one of the hair stores that populate black neighborhoods, and I’ll never forget when we were casting the role of the Korean-American girl who runs the shop, we had a lot of actresses come in and do sort of the stereotypical thing with that kind of character. The actress we ended up casting, Tien Tran, who’s really hilarious, she came in and did herself. The same way we try to represent the South Side of Chicago in a real way, I love the fact that we can actually represent some of the non-black characters in a real way too. I think it goes to our ethos of trying to do the unexpected. … A lot of the actresses came in and were like, “I’m not that but I can talk like that.” And she was just like, “I’m Vietnamese.” It worked out perfectly.
On so many levels, this episode allows characters that don’t usually populate half-hour comedies to all speak full-throatedly in their authentic voice, across the board.
South Side airs at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT Wednesdays on Comedy Central. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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