News reports tend to shape perceptions (and misperceptions) about Chicago, but TV and film rarely get it right either. Especially when it comes to the variety and complexity and humor that encompasses black life in Chicago.
The new Comedy Central series “South Side” has been shooting in town all summer and — not unlike Lena Waithe’s “The Chi” (currently filming its second season) — the show aims for a deeper, richer kind of storytelling than we’ve seen about the city as of late.
There’s always a wary curiosity when Chicago is captured on film — did they get it right? — and having seen the pilot for “South Side,” I’m in the “yes” camp. The dialogue and loose sensibility feels specific to Chicago. A workplace comedy, the show is set in a furniture and appliance rental store called Rent-T-Own, featuring characters whose stories and voices I think will resonate. The show is set to premiere on Comedy Central next year.
During a recent set visit, I had a chance to talk with the show’s creators and showrunners, Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, who met while in college at Harvard. They would later go on to work together as Emmy-nominated writers on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
The pair is very quickly on their way to a higher profile as writer-producers — and they also work as actors. On “South Side” Salahuddin (who can be seen on the Netflix series “GLOW”) plays a cop; Riddle (whose credits include “Rise” and “Marlon,” both on NBC) plays a public defender.
Sultan Salahuddin — Bashir’s older brother by two years — is the show’s star, a reluctant Rent-T-Own employee knocking around town with his friends and looking for a viable side hustle.
Riddle is originally from Atlanta; it is the Salahuddins who bring their Chicago bonafides to the show, growing up first in the South Shore neighborhood and later Auburn Gresham.
During a break in filming, we talked about capturing an accurate view of the city through comedy.
“South Side” showrunners Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin on set at Harold’s Chicken (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Q: How did the idea for the show come about?
Bashir: We were looking for a long time for a project we could do in Chicago. I was born and raised on the South Side; I went to Whitney Young (Magnet High School); originally from 77th and Constance Avenue. And what happened was, our buddy who works for Rent-A-Center would always have these wonderful stories, so we had this epiphany — why don’t we use that as the peg to get us into the city? It’s an incredible hub that allows you to visit every single neighborhood. You’re up on 63rd and Honore, and then you’re on 87th and King Drive. It gets you to meet other characters just by doing the job (delivering or repossessing stock), you’re forced to meet the city.
Q: Today you’re shooting in North Lawndale, which is the West Side, so I have to ask: How much of the show is shot on the South Side?
Bashir: The vast majority of the show is shot on the South Side. Literally our very first shot was on 87th and Vincennes. But I don’t think we do justice to the urban community in Chicago if we only tell stories that have to do with the South Side. In some ways we’re using the South Side as a launchpad, because we have characters talking about being on the West Side. We just shot an episode that takes place entirely on the North Side where he’s like a fish out of water.
We take it very serious, we want to represent the whole city.
(Photos accompanying this story were taken on a different day, when cast and crew were shooting at Harold’s Chicken on W. 63rd St.)
Bashir Salahuddin laughs at a take while filming “South Side.” (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Q: With a title like “South Side,” it builds up expectation.
Bashir: And I think that expectation will be met. We want to show parts of the South Side you don’t ordinarily see on TV. There are beautiful parts of South Shore and Hyde Park and Chatham and Gresham. They’re wonderful neighborhoods. We’re trying to show them to the world.
Sultan: Often people who aren’t from here will only hear about the South Side when it’s being demagogued by politicians.
When I go to other places and I tell them I’m from Chicago they’ll say, “What part?” And I’m like, “South Side” — and they’re like, “Oooooh.” So you get that reaction. And what that tells me is A) they haven’t been here, and B) they are responding to what other people are saying without investigating on their own.
So that doesn’t make it my job to change it. But what that means is that our show is going to be that much sweeter — because it’s not what you think it is. It’s not that narrative.
Bashir: There are so many things about the city that you don’t get if you ain’t from here, and at the end of the day the buck has to stop here. It has to pass the Chicago test. It has to be something my aunties would watch and not be like, “What the … is that?”
Q: Like, why is the Sears Tower — sorry, Willis Tower — in the background when you’re supposed to be on the South Side? That was a shot in the first episode of “The Chi” and Chicagoans couldn’t help but notice and roll their eyes. Those kinds of mistakes can make viewers skeptical of everything that comes after that.
Diallo: We literally had that conversation this morning.
Bashir: Little stuff like that adds up. But also, I like that Chicagoans are tough. This is a tough comedy town. I love that! I think that’s a high bar and a high standard, and we want that. People will keep us honest. People will tell us while we’re shooting — they will literally lean out of windows and be like: “I don’t know about that take, brah!” Whatever neighborhood we shoot in, the neighborhood gets involved.
Diallo: We have a character on the show who’s pretending to be from Chicago. He’s like, “Yeah, I’m from ’cago.” And it’s like, “Nobody says that.”
Q: One of the things Lena Waithe told me after the first season of “The Chi”was that later she heard the show’s crew were, in her words, “nervous to film on the South Side,” which is why so much of it wasn’t filmed on the South Side — that really upset her, and ahead of Season 2 she told me she was going to push back against that pretty firmly. Has that come up with your crew at all?
Bashir: We have not had that problem. Our crew — in a way that almost makes me tearful — has come together and said we understand how important it is to show a joyous version of black Chicago. So they’ve been down.
We shot in South Shore last week, and it was the site of a very difficult shooting recently (the fatal July 14 police shooting of Harith Augustus), and that weekend I remember lying in bed and thinking, we’re going to that same neighborhood. We grew up there originally.
I would never be so naive as to suggest that everywhere that we’re shooting our show we’re going to be 100 percent free from problems. But I will say that our crew brings a spirit that makes me believe that if something happens, I think they’ll be resilient and say, “Let’s keep going.” That’s my expectation, and so far they’ve proven that.
We were shooting over on 86th and Cottage Grove and people in the neighborhood were like: “Y’all know this neighborhood ain’t exactly a place not known for incidents.” But we didn’t have any incidents over there. Ninety-nine percent of the people who show up to our set say one thing: “Hey man, how can I get on camera?” And sometimes we’ll go talk to them and get their number and use them as an extra. We want the city to feel welcome. We ain’t trying to be like, “Stay away.” If you go to our video village (the movable setup where the video monitors are) some of those people are involved with the show but also some of those are people from the neighborhood who just showed up: “Hey man, are you really gonna use that lens?”
We shot an episode on Steppin’ the other day on 74th and Exchange in South Shore — you know, Chicago Steppin’ — and we were short about 10 steppers, so we went outside and started recruiting people off the street. We said, “Can you step?”
Diallo: “Can you be back in an hour in a suit?”
Bashir: And they were like, “An hour? Gimme 10 minutes!” Showed up and stepped, and I was like, that’s for real. Real South Side, real Chicago Steppin’, and we just met that dude 10 minutes ago. There was a woman who was walking down the street because her car had broken down and we said, “Do you step?” And she ended up being somebody who went to high school with Sultan! Because Chicago, it’s a big town, but it’s also a really small town.
Diallo Riddle (left) and Bashir Salahuddin (background) watch a scene as it’s being shot. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Q: That sounds like fun and it’s not how most sets operate! Sometimes when a crew comes in, people suddenly feel unwelcome in their own neighborhood.
Diallo: Like it’s an invading army.
Bashir: I myself, before we shot, was curious about how we would be received. There were even guys that I thought might have been associated with some gang elements who were coming up to us and showing us love — but also asking to be on camera!
Comedy Central has not given us a ton of money! (laughs) But you get more true believers that way too. I mean, LaRoyce Hawkins (of “Chicago P.D.”) — we technically can not afford him. But he’s from Harvey, he loved the script and he said, “Guys, I want to help you make this a reality,” so he let us pay him at a rate that’s less than he’s used to. That’s huge, because many actors don’t even take that phone call.
Lil Rel, who’s from the West Side and has his own show on Fox coming up, he saw the script and he was like, “I’m there.” He told his management, “These are the days I’m going to Chicago, book ’em out.” We didn’t have the level of trailer that he deserves, but he said, “Let’s go. Let’s do it.”
Q: What kinds of storylines are important to you?
Bashir: You can’t talk about Chicago without talking about music. You can’t talk about Chicago without talking about church. You can’t talk about Chicago without talking about food.
Diallo: I play a public defender, and it’s a chance for us to explore some of the (messed) up things about the justice system.
Bashir: One of our characters might go to jail for parking tickets, which happens all the time. We talk about food deserts on our show. We dive into it and let the comedy flow from the truth. Gentrification plays a big role in our third episode. We don’t want to run away from it, we want to talk about it and make our jokes about it — because when you come from a place that has challenges, you develop a sense of humor about it.
So we dive right into it and let the humor come naturally from that tension.
But the other thing, there’s so much intelligence on the South Side. Our main character is obsessed with astronomy. I’m from the South Side and I’m obsessed with astronomy. That’s a real thing from the South Side, so we put it in the show.
Sultan: It’s also a chance for us to explore the unique cultural contributions of the South Side, whether that’s Steppin’ culture or house music.
Bashir: Harold’s Chicken is a very big part of our TV show, specifically with regard to mild sauce and that’s just because whenever I come home, first thing I do is get some Harold’s.
Among the Chicago locaations featured in Comedy Central’s “South Side” is Harold’s Chicken on W. 63rd Street. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Q: People legitimately get excited about being acknowledged.
Bashir: I keep coming back to this word, but we want to capture more of the joy people have in their lives. We were shooting this scene on a CTA bus and the bus driver started making jokes! We just put the camera on him and let him talk — and then he started doing material!
Diallo: He was treating it like an open mic! So, we’ll let him shine for a bit. On top of even the series regulars, when we do casting for the show I’d say 90 percent of the people you see on camera live in Chicago.
Bashir: We have people who take the bus to set everyday!
Somebody asked me what we’re really trying to do, and we’re trying to show you the truth. The real South Side — and parts of the West Side and North Side — real Chicago. Because if you just look at the news, you would just think this is Thunderdome or something. Diallo was in a Lyft …
Diallo: I was in a Lyft and I was going home from one of our locations and the guy was like, “So I hear the show’s called ‘South Side,’ huh?” And I could tell there was some reservation there, and he’s like, “Y’all ain’t gonna just show us as a bunch of murderers and thieves and stuff?” and I said, “Actually, I’m proud to say that we’re going to be on Comedy Central and we’re going to show that there’s a lot of love and laughter here.”
Diallo Riddle (left) and Bashir Salahuddin (right) watch a scene from video village (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Bashir: Our writers room is mostly from the South Side. When we were meeting with writers, that was one of the things we asked them: “Are you from Chicago?” Because we had the same concerns other people had. We’re not interested in doing something that is created in a way that’s not authentic. So the first thing we said in the writers room was, “Everybody bring in your stories — bring in your actual stories of growing up in Chicago.” So that was our ground zero.
So in some way, “South Side” also refers to the mentality of the characters. Even though we’re all over the city, our characters have a South Side mentality. When they go to the North Side, they’re viewing it from a South Side point of view. We have a character who’s never been north of downtown and then we put him in Roscoe Village and his mind is blown, because he’s literally never been north of 22nd Street.
But the joy, that was our touch point. We’ve got to show people the Chicago we know. And whenever we shoot, the people who are our extras will just mob us afterwards. Like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you’re doing this — we need this.”