The 2019 comedy series South Side, created by Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, is the highest-rated show in the black 18-49 demographic for Comedy Central (Maglio 2019). The former writers for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon landed the ten-episode first season with a second season on deck, with the freedom to do what they wanted. Carte blanche being difficult to come by in television, especially for black creatives (Joseph 2018), South Side is the HBO show they didn’t get to make. The pair’s HBO development deal for a comedy called Brothers in Atlanta fell through, and Comedy Central came knocking (Obenson 2019). With the opportunity to do for Comedy Central what they were denied at HBO, South Side packages a consumable blackness that is not marred by the tragic history of blackness as commodity.
In Color by Fox, Kristal Brent Zook identifies four critical elements common to black-produced television: “autobiography, collective and individual authorship of black experience; improvisation, inventing and ad-libbing unscripted dialogue or action; aesthetics, visual signifiers of blackness; and drama, complex characterizations and emotionally challenging subject matter” (Zook 1999). South Side demonstrates each of these elements as it follows two community college graduates, and the community surrounding them, hustling their way towards upward mobility. The actors, also credited as writers, draw from their experiences and heavily utilize improvisation—significantly via playing “the dozens”—as expression. Rejecting the violence-plagued scopophilia that can easily accompany representations of blackness, the show builds its aesthetics from its unique locale and culture—with its ‘made by the neighborhood, made in the neighborhood’ architecture—while projecting a universality familiar to black viewers while enticing white viewers. South Side uses humor to explore the dramatic complexities of living in an anti-black world.
Comedy Central, like HBO, is investing in its “growth audience,” courting those outside its target young white male demographic (Bendix 2019). This is achieved in part by shaking up the binary of positive and negative for a more nuanced representation (Gates 2018). Highlighting the complexity of black life, South Side attracts black audiences with its familiarity with diverse representations while enticing white audiences with the spoils of cool via special access to in-group dynamics. Providing a platform that allows for uncensored content—in language at least—Comedy Central demonstrates its desire to get as close to “premium blackness” as it can.
Bendix, T. (2019). With Shows Like ‘The Other Two,’ Comedy Central Looks Beyond Its Core. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/arts/television/with-shows-like-the-o...
Gates, Racquel J. 2018. Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture. Duke University Press.
Joseph, Ralina L. 2018. Postracial Resistance: Black Women, Media, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity. Vol. 27. NYU Press.
Maglio, Tony. 2019. “South Side” Is 2019’s Top Cable Comedy Debut Among African Americans. https://www.thewrap.com/south-side-ratings-african-americans-comedy-cent....
Obenson, Tambay. 2019. "South Side": For Diallo Riddle, It's His HBO Series That Never Was. https://www.indiewire.com/2019/07/south-side-diallo-riddle-brothers-in-a....
Zook, Kristal Brent. 1999. Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. Oxford University Press.
Oh! Now It’s Comedy...
Thank you for your post. I'm am interested in thinking through what elevates street comedy like "the dozens" to a state of "premium blackness?" I'm thinking about the recent depiction of Rudy Ray Moore in Netflix's Dolemite. He was a comedian and filmmaker that was consistently overlooked, but eventually, in death gained notoriety for a street art form. What is it that moves black comedy from nightclubs, street corners, and barbershops/beauty salons to mainstream platforms? Why is it that we don't think of comedy as legitimate until it's on Comedy Central, or a premium comedy special (i.e. HBO, Netflix, Showtime)?
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