June 19th marks an important day in American history and Black history, specifically: it's the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were made aware they were free. Amid a new awareness of Black issues and Black life, the day that was once observed as a holiday only by a small group is gaining greater attention, with big brands like Amazon and Uber recognizing Juneteenth as a paid day off. New York is about to make it an official holiday too. As of now, Juneteenth gifts aren't a norm, but Sherman's Showcase, the musical sketch comedy show that was one of the best comedy shows of 2019, most certainly counts as a Juneteenth present.
The show returns on the holiday with an hourlong special entitled Sherman's Showcase: Black History Month Spectacular (in June) and not only is it a welcome treat, its creators Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin could not have predicted how important and prescient this unapologetically black and goofy series would become in June 2020.
Or maybe they could: the host of the series, Sherman McDaniels is a man who, according to lore, doesn't age -- he is able to traverse generations to spotlight fictional musical acts and star in skits. Maybe Riddle and Salahuddin -- pals from Harvard who went on to create musical sketches for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon -- are indeed warlocks and practitioners of actual "Black boy magic." Whatever the case, this BHM Spectacular not only lampoons Black culture while celebrating in a moment starved for Black joy, but some of the sketches seem to have been crafted just yesterday.
Take, for example, the oddly on-time "Add Some Kente," a gut-busting bop about adding Kente cloth to...whatever you can find, teased from the forthcoming special just as House and Senate Democrats did the absolute most by donning Kente cloth in an awkward photo op. "Add Some Kente," which the skit calls "Black people's flannel," taps into some granular, self-effacing insights about Black expression: Black Americans wear it to assert pride in their heritage, seeing it as both regal and everyday. We may not even be entirely sure where it comes from or what it means, a truth that, in a dour reading, reminds Black Americans they've been robbed of their ancestral understanding, but is also kind of darkly funny, if you can appreciate the irony in a piece of fabric from Etsy making you feel like a king or queen. Riddle, playing the DJ, is wearing a gas mask before any of us could've known we'd want one.
What makes Sherman's Showcase (the overall series, but also this specific installation) so resonant and important is that it acknowledges Black struggle and pain, while remaining light and silly. This, as anyone who's been watching the news in recent weeks knows, is not easy to do. Some sketches depict black men interacting with police --interactions that, as everyone around the world knows, sit on the opposite end of the spectrum from comedy. They can be deadly or dehumanizing. Merely watching another Black person's interaction with police on cell phone footage can be triggering and traumatizing and yet, on Sherman's Showcase's Black History Spectacular, this primal understanding is baked into moments we know are designed to make us giggle, the inherent danger turned into soft cushioning for the jokes to land.
"There's a lot of joy that we can share with other people," John Legend, told me in an ATX panel about the special, I moderated recently "I think 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. I think it's important that we show the fullness of what it is to be Black and human."
As demonstrations for George Floyd gave way to bigger calls for defunding police, and better investments in Black communities, brands have in turn matched their messaging to meet the moment. Media companies, including TV Guide and its parent company ViacomCBS, have promised to do better, and, in an effort to educate those who apparently had overlooked racism and police brutality until now, have published a trove of essential reading lists and programs. Almost all of those lists have avoided comedy, a sensible and cautious approach for a somber time that also inadvertently reinforces stereotypes anew. Black trauma porn, and the age-old image of the weeping, wailing Negro singing hymns and crying out to the Lord about pain, also in its own way limits how Black people see ourselves and how others see us too. Yes, there is tragedy, and injustice that must be met with full force, but Black life also entails expressions of high camp, unshackled goofiness and post-irony. Losing laughter may very well be the last indication one has given up on life and living, and in its small way, Sherman's Showcase Black History Month Spectacular is an act of defiant judo.
In one sketch, a roundtable of historical figures including Paul Robeson and Zora Neal Hurston have a chat during the Harlem Renaissance. On the surface, it's silly, but the jokes only slap if you know the references. Not all of Sherman's Showcase Black History Month Spectacular is in fact about history; bits include a roundtable of Black vampires from notable films, a reimagining of The Last Dragon, and a musing on "giving dap" that are broad enough to appeal to anyone, yet pierce the heart and mind even stronger if you've grown up with these touch points. Sherman's Showcase Black History Month Spectacular tastes so much better when you come to the cookout with sizable understanding of the fullness of the culture, thereby making it absolutely perfect for June 2020 -- on Juneteenth, no less.
Sherman's Showcase Black History Month spectacular premieres June 19 at 10/9c on AMC, and then at 11/10c on IFC.