In the first episode of "Sherman's Showcase," a musical sketch comedy series that premiered last summer on IFC, executive producer and regular guest star John Legend opened with an intro narration: "For over forty 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."
Next came a "Star Wars"-like crawl of throwback credits teasing the sharp, high-level, yet sometimes absurd, pop-culture-referential humor: "Solid Gold," "Soul Train," "MTV's The Grind with Eric Nies," "A John and Chrissy Christmas Special," "The Crown (season 1)" and "Power (do you watch it? It's great)." Which makes me ask: Do you watch "Sherman's Showcase?" Because it's more than great. The first season is currently streaming on Hulu, and a one-hour special titled "Sherman's Showcase Black History Month Spectacular ... in June" airs tonight.
About the title: See, titular host Sherman McDaniels (Bashir Salahuddin) — in his signature sequin-and-brocade suits, bow-ties, lavish collar chains and an endless supply of velvet slides — clearly does things his own way, so the tardiness feels pretty on-brand. Although, the show's ridiculously talented creators, writers and stars, Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle (who plays producer Dutch) explained on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" that the delayed timing was actually due to IFC's packed February programming schedule.
But laughter and music-filled celebration of Black American culture and the arts feels especially meaningful this Juneteenth, both with the warm humor we desperately need and also with the historical and educational gems deftly planted in the jokes and skits.
"It's important for us to continue to share that joy, that laughter, with intelligence and with an eye to what's going on in the world. But people still need to laugh and enjoy themselves," Legend said during an "ATX TV… from the Couch!" panel in early June. "I think it's important that we show the fullness of what it is to be Black and human. Through our art, we're able to do that."
For a laughter and music-filled extravaganza — which also features a mockumentary-style format and fake commercials — costumes are in order. Lots of them.
"We dressed 150 characters for the special," costume designer Ariyela Wald-Cohain says, on a call. "We shot this in four days. As much as season one was crazy, this was on steroids." (She also works with Salahuddin and Riddle on their Comedy Central show, "South Side.")
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For the spectacular's opening dance sequence by the "Showcase Dancers," Wald-Cohain celebrated Black American icons via custom-made denim jackets with Martin Luther King Jr. portraits painted onto the back panels, "In Living Color"-reminiscent '90s silhouettes and color-blocking and '70s longline flares, turtleneck sweaters and berets that speak to the Black Power movement.
"We wanted it really be just a celebration of color and our virtual 'Sherman world' that we've created," she explains. "It's a unique universe where nothing is totally true or accurate."
The show endearingly sends up musical genres and icons — real and inspired-by — like Morris Day playing himself (sometimes), Bresha Webb as Mary J. Blige and Ne-Yo fronting Galaxia (above). The Prince and the Revolution doppelgängers, Charade and the Mardi Gras, re-appear in the spectacular in cartoon form, thanks to Riddle's animator cousin, Songe. And the songs are legit bops. (Prepare to be have Galaxia's "Time Loop" stuck in your head and not be mad about it.)
The non-linear format of the series jumps multiple decades down to the exact date, like Charade's "June 4, 1983" appearance — in a pink Napoleon-style suit and oversize tricorne hat — to perform "Vicki, Is the Water Warm Enough?" (I'm giggling as I type this.)
Salahuddin tells me over the phone that he and Riddle (who have been writing and performing together since their Harvard undergrad days) were asking Wald-Cohain "not just to come with cool iconic looks that transcend eras, but also, at the same time, to put the same energy into iconic looks that are incredibly era-specific. Those costumes have to look not just '70s, they gotta look 1972."
(Virtually) alongside Riddle, he applauded the talents, resourcefulness and hard work of the costume designer especially given the show's limited "budget" — which is actually called out in the lyrics of the spectacular's finale number.
In the special, Sherman ups his sparkly jacket game with a colorful geometric pattern (below), which Wald-Cohain custom-designed and built, like most of his statement wardrobe.
"It was really expensive, and my budget's really tight, so it was, 'Oh holy moly,'" she says. Although, Wald-Cohain is used to going all-out for Sherman's aesthetic: She built his look by starting with "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius's suit-and-tie signature and then adding a bit of Morris Day and Liberace (for the monogrammed robe, ascot and leopard print slippers) and a lot of Salahuddin.
"Bashir's loud and he's got this big persona, and he's funny and really likes color," says Wald-Cohain, who went "bold" in the initial fittings, to Salahuddin's delight: The Ivy League grad has an almost academic knowledge of fashion, largely influenced by his mother.
"My mom made clothes when I was growing up," Salahuddin explains. "I grew up not only watching my mom sew, but also reading everything from haute couture trades to Mirabella — deep in the weeds fashion magazines. So I have very — not high standards. That's wrong. Nothing high standards about me. But I do have very specific tastes and I did know what I needed from the Sherman character and knew it couldn't be generic. It had to have a point of view — and an era-specific point of view — and she always over-delivered."
"We have this running joke, 'Is this bad? Is this too much?' And my crew would say, 'Nothing's too much for 'Sherman's Showcase,'" laughs Wald-Cohain.
On top of designing Sherman's vast, swaggy wardrobe — and producer Dutch's "business pirate" (per Tiffany Haddish) black suiting and eye patch — Wald-Cohain needed to create specific costumes to support the scripts and original song lyrics. The first musical number, "Add Some Kente" (sung by Salahuddin's sister, Zuri) required final-hour resourcefulness. The designer found herself searching for and repurposing extra fabric, so the singer's and dancers' outfits increased in Kente patterns as the song continues.
"Kente cloth is such a big part of our culture, as Black Americans. Kente cloth is what Black kids wear to graduation, as a nod to their ancestors and a nod to the people who uplifted them and got them to the point they can walk across the stage," says Salahuddin, proudly mentioning how Zuri wore a Kente stole to her graduation. Catchy lyrics about incorporating the traditional fabric "to your Timbs" or "your rims" elicit chuckles, but also insightfully emphasize how Black Americans wearing Kente is a proud celebration of West African heritage.
The timing of this cultural history-meets-fashion debut also felt eerily prescient after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and fellow Democrats decided to "add some Kente" at the U.S. Capitol last week. "My cell was blowing up that morning," says Riddle. "People were like, 'Yo, Pelosi's down with 'Sherman's Showcase?!'"
In another crystal ball moment during the sketch, Riddle wears a gas mask (above) while DJ-ing. The tricked-out tactical gear was a collaborative effort between Wald-Cohain, the props department and Riddle.
"Where the vents are, there are two spinning records," she explains. "Diallo's just got a vivid imagination. He just wants something cool and then we figure it out."
The costume concepts she brings to life also play into the mythology woven into "Sherman's Showcase." (Yes, mythology — this show contains multitudes.) The futuristic, yet very '70s, white-and-silver Galaxia outfits, inspired by spacesuits in a '50s cigarette ad, debuted in episode two and bookended the first season. Dutch's eye patch, which mysteriously appeared after July 8, 1995, is explained in the 'Spectacular,' while his "regal" military uniform with gold fringed epaulettes — as he inexplicably sits to have his portrait painted in episode three of the first season — leaves lingering questions.
"It's never explained, but we have a reason for it [to be revealed] in any future special — or season two," says Riddle, again, seeing into the future.
Jumping back to the 1920s, the extravaganza pays homage to the Harlem Renaissance with a Masterpiece Theater-twist, with "Downtown Addy's." Salahuddin, with his best Lord Grantham accent, plays concert artist and social activist Paul Robeson and chats with fellow cultural icons: writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and jazz singer and entertainer Adelaide "Addy" Hall, while Legend as Duke Ellington entertains on the piano.
Wald-Cohain looked directly to the "Downton Abbey" movie for visual references, but stayed authentic to research imagery for the historical figures portrayed. But, this is "Sherman's Showcase," so also joining the group: Riddle's "Sir Mix-a-Reasonable-Amount-of-Time-For-This-Period," who throws a dash of "Baby Got Back" raps into the cultivated conversation. (He wears a super-extra and anachronistic nameplate knuckle-duster ring, similar to Sir Mix-a-Lot's.)
"Diallo's like, 'Oh, I saw this big ring.' So I said, 'Okay, let's make a ring.' Somebody else said, 'Make a ring with his name on it,'" she laughs. "They wanted to go as authentic as they could period-wise. It's that kind of humor, where you can be very straight and serious about it and it's a joke at the end."
The spectacular also flips the narrative on the cult classic "The Last Dragon," so fan-favorite villain, Sho'nuff (Salahuddin, having the time of his life) is the hero. In just two days, Wald-Cohain and her team replicated the original's costumes by "tearing apart" army uniforms and adding faux fur and leather trims. She even built a slightly less menacing, plush and pointy-eared leopard belt for Sho'nuff. "It was taking something silly as it is and trying to make it our own," she says.
Salahuddin was also very invested in the accuracy of his re-do of the famous "kiss my Converse" showdown between 'nuff and rival Bruce Leroy. "He kept sending me pictures, 'You sure you got the right scene and how I want to look?'" says Wald-Cohain. "He came in [for the fitting] and he was so excited. He didn't want to take it off and he was just walking around. He was like a kid in a candy store, which is really fun with him because he does get really excited about his clothes."
In the special Salahuddin does enjoy a wealth of costumes: the Harlem Renaissance aristocrat and cult classic anti-hero Prince Mamuwalde ("not Blacula") at the metaphorical Vampire Roundtable, alongside a spot-on Queen Akasha. But Salahuddin's favorite ensemble of the "Black History Month Spectacular ... in June" feels the most poignant — and you can't put a budget limit on that.
"This beautiful burgundy robe that's just dripping gold," he says of the look pictured above. "I love the idea that, for a lot of the ancient kings — and for a lot of Black Americans, like Jay Z — the idea of gold is so important to accentuate our regality. I felt like Sherman would do that for a 'Sherman's Showcase' finale. It's this beautiful deep patterned African suit that has this gorgeous gold inlay and I don't know how she afforded it, but when I put it on, I was like, 'this is correct, this feels great.'"
'Sherman's Showcase Black History Month Spectacular ... in June' airs Friday, June 19 at 10 p.m. on AMC and 11 p.m. on IFC.