Comedy Central’s South Side currently holds a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The brainchild of long time collaborators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, who cut their teeth on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon — conjuring up viral pieces of content like “Slow Jam the News” — South Side is the rare television show that explores a version of Chicago not completely focused on crime or violence.
One of the best examples of South Side’s tone and sense of humor airs tonight — focusing on the day a coveted pair of Jordan’s hit stores. Whereas in the hands of other creators, this subject matter could have quickly veered into melodramatic or unrealistic portrayals of the sneaker world, both Salahuddin and Riddle instead provided one of the most authentic versions of sneaker culture on television in recent memory.
With the episode set to air tonight at 10:30 PM PST on Comedy Central, we caught up with the creators to discuss their background, how they broke the story, and their own experiences with sneakers which they built into the episode.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you guys came to be writing partners? How did you guys find out that you worked well together?
Bashir: I think we were friends first. We were in college. Then after we were friends, we moved to LA and we were both doing different things in entertainment and we just ended up working together because it was just so obvious. It was like, ‘oh yeah, we should probably just do that.’
Was there a shared kinship between the Atlanta experience Diallo had growing up, and the Chicago experience you had growing up?
Bahir: Absolutely. I think we just had that sort of urban, blue collar black experience which exists in DC, Compton, and Newport News.
Diallo: He’s from the South Side of Chicago. I’m from Southwest Atlanta. When he first moved to town, we both lived in South Central. I think black people gravitate to anything called “South.” But I think what it comes down to is that we had a situation where we really did come from very similar backgrounds. One of the things about South Side that I love, that I’ve heard from my family in Atlanta is that they really liked the fact that they understand where all these characters are coming from. The slang might be different. The term used for money might not be the same. But at the end of the day, everybody sort of gets where everybody’s coming from.
I think that ultimately goes to the fact that we’re putting a human face on the South Side. When you put a human face on it, everybody can relate. Not just my black family from the Southwest side of Atlanta, but also people who live in rural America. Hopefully people all around the world. I think when they see these characters, they’re gonna think, “oh, you know what? They’re like me. They wake up every day. They try to provide for their family, and they have a side hustle.”
On one hand, South Side is so uniquely Chicago. Was it tough balancing the regional specificity while also making it universal?
Bashir: I don’t think so. I don’t think it was tough at all. I think we really just wanted to be honest and truthful. I think if anything, I think people would’ve saw through it if it looked like the show was written by a bunch of people who are not actually from Chicago and they just were like just writing jokes and moments that could have taken place anywhere in the world. I think people would’ve saw right through that. I think the authenticity wouldn’t be high. I think if anything, everything we mention – our details, and they’re important details — but they don’t really distract the audience from the larger storylines, right? The storyline could be about somebody whose computer got stolen and he needs to get it back because there’s music on it. Right? That’s the basic story.
It just so happened that [this new episode] happened on the worst day in the city when everybody’s out trying to buy sneakers. We allow the details to help make the story more interesting. But the basic story should be something that should be relatable and followable and people can understand no matter where they’re from. Then, we start filling out the details of the world; where are the sneaker stores? What are the intersections we’re playing with? Who are the characters? How do they talk? What is the slang they use? That’s when the city of Chicago really starts to present itself in the series.
At what point did you guys realize you wanted to have Jordan day or sneaker culture be a subplot of an episode?
Bashir: That’s a great question. We have a really exciting and young writer’s room. I’m not a sneakerhead, but I’m trying to become one. A lot of times we have downtime in the writer’s room. Cats would be on Sneaker Freaker or they would be looking for shoes on Complex.
Growing up in the city of Chicago, in some ways, I’m not going to say we invented sneaker culture, but I will say the first time that I saw a national movement where everybody was talking about a pair of sneakers was when Michael Jordan put out the Jordan 1’s. It felt so obvious that we wanted to do a story about the day the Jordan’s dropped.
I believe one of your staff writers pitched the idea. How do you guys begin developing that idea?
Bashir: Every single episode is different. I think the most important thing as writers is we just have to make sure we’re flexible when the story begins to [evolve] into something cleaner and better. I think we all knew that we loved the idea of something around the day of the Jordan’s drop. Then we actually really just sat there with our writer’s room and we do what we call a “story break.” We each sit around and we just talked out loud about different ways the story could go.
What I love about writing is that it’s a very collaborative process. There are lots of parts of it that are solitary. Sometimes when you pitch a story, that’s solitary, or when you go off and do the first draft, that’s solitary. But I would say that we’re proud that a lot of what you see in that episode is the combined strength of all of our writers pitching in little pieces here and there and everybody sort of pulling together to write the funniest scenes they can.
Diallo: Can I bring up one more funny shoe related story about South Side? We were at ComplexCon we had a very cool sort of pop up. At one point, while walking to our pop up, I saw a whole bunch of dudes just start running. The public school kid in me was like “run in the opposite direction. It’s probably a fight.” But the shoe savvy part of me was like, “oh, they’re probably running into some hot exclusive.” I started running right after them with that sort of like vibe of like, “hey, why are we running over here? What are we running to?”
To me, that’s one of the wonderful things about shoe culture that we tried to put into the episode – this idea that you can just be minding your own business and then cats are just running like their life depends on it.
I’m still surprised that there isn’t a scripted TV show dedicated to sneaker culture. Do you think that’s on the horizon?
Bashir: On at least on two occasions we’ve had people approach us to develop shows around sneaker heads. I don’t know what happened to those projects, but I definitely remember sitting in meetings where we were spending hours and hours talking about specifically if they worked at a storefront shop or if they worked at one of those old school places. There’s definitely been a lot of people trying to crack that egg. So I think you actually will end up seeing a show.
Bashir, I know in one of the old interviews you mentioned that you grew up as a dorky kid who played Dungeons and Dragons. Do you see any similarities between that world and how kids interact with sneakers? Do you think it’s about community?
Bashir: Oh wow. You know, it’s funny, I never thought about that before. It makes perfect sense because for me, being a nerd just means that you like something very much and you don’t like it ironically. You don’t care if people have a problem with how much you like it. It’s usually something that tends to be either a video game, or it could be building computers. The level of attention that people put into sneakers…it’s interesting because you wouldn’t think of a sneaker head as a nerd. But I think partly that’s because nowadays, it just is so prevalent. Like you could watch Ellen and she’s always making sure to show off whatever the new shoes she’s wearing.
Diallo: I feel like the idea of nerds being a pejorative doesn’t carry the same weight that it used to. I think that you can see it in fashion, you can see it in music, you can see it in pop culture. I feel like everybody to a certain extent wants some of the things that nerds have which is information and expertise.
South Side airs tonight at 10:30 PM PST on Comedy Central.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.