TV: Sherman's Showcase (season one)
So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo
This is the 2019 nonfiction bestseller about, as it says on the tin, how to talk about race. It's a primer on basic topics like systemic racism, intersectionality, and the "model minority" myth, and has advice on how to avoid many of the pitfalls that keep conversations about race from going anywhere.
I found this book surprisingly gentle. Now it pulls no punches on depicting the harms of American racism — most chapters begin with Ms. Oluo speaking from searing firsthand experience of the social ill depicted in a given chapter. And it has little sympathy for anyone who argues in bad faith about these critical issues. But the style of presentation feels like a close friend has taken you aside, taken a deep breath, and tried to get this across to you one last time, because they care about you very much.
And that makes for compelling reading. Each chapter presses ahead urgently, starting (again) from Ms. Oluo's personal experience with a problem, and then moving ahead, with the relentlessness of a geometric proof, laying down why the problem exists in American society and what problems it causes. And then she moves on to specific, actionable advice, both on how to talk about the problem itself, and how to account for it in conversation.
I did feel mostly up to speed on what it had to say, but it was great to see all this information presented concisely in one place. And it did usefully fill in some gaps — especially (for me) in its coverage of affirmative action.¹ This would have been an *amazing* book for me to read a couple of years ago, before my news feed and, well, the *world* familiarized me with many of these issues.
It is definitely a downer read. The last chapter exhorts the reader to not just *talk* about race, but to take *action* to help dismantle systemic racism. But between the deeply entrenched problems detailed in the previous chapters and the constant miseries of the outside world, it's hard not to feel hopeless at that point.
It's a useful and informative read, but here in 2020 it also feels dire.
Sherman's Showcase (season one)
Sherman's Showcase happened because two Black comedy writers met, bonded over (among other things) a shared love of Pee-wee's Playhouse and decided to make an affectionate parody of 70s variety shows like Soul Train.
Here in this second paragraph, I can write whatever I want, because most of my friends have already beelined to the Internet to see where they can watch this show. (To save some clicks: it's on hulu.)
What impresses me the most about Sherman's Showcase is how solidly constructed it is, from a writing perspective — they've made brilliant decisions about how to structure the show overall. The default way to make Sherman's Showcase is to make it the same as the thing it parodies: a variety show with a number of acts. Maybe if you want a touch of The Muppet Show you include some backstage antics.
But they go another way with this. They create the in-universe conceit that Sherman's Showcase has *already run* for forty-seven years, and they are advertising a "mostly-complete 23-disc set" of DVDs. Each "episode" is an infomercial, showing highlights from throughout their DVD set, all themed around some topic.
This accomplishes so many brilliant things at once.
First off, it opens up the show's historical range — they can touch on anything from the early 70s to today, which means they can play in every single modern musical style. And they handle their music brilliantly. Every show has one or more musical guests. Almost every musical guest is made-up. Every made-up musical guest is playing in a different genre. And they get hyperspecific with their genre pastiches — for example, one episode is devoted to their universe's version of Prince ("Charade"). So not only are they doing several Prince-style songs, they're doing songs that specifically reflect different periods in Prince's career.²
Second, the structure makes it really easy for them to have episodes that hold together thematically instead of narratively. This is a sketch show — making the sketches follow a narrative through each "episode" of the show-within-a-show would be both (1) incredibly difficult and (2) not really pay off at all. So instead, we can get a bunch of great sketches around a theme, bop back and forth through the timeline, and still have each episode feel like its own cohesive thing. And it makes plenty of room for experimentation, like the crazy alternate-universe timeline at the end of season one.
Third, it lets them bring in celebrity hosts — each show is framed with a modern-day celebrity talking about their happy memories of Sherman's Showcase and setting up each particular sketch. This makes everything flow better, and they can put some comedy into the framing — either playing off of a celebrity's image, or introducing a made-up heightened character as that week's "celebrity". It adds a fun touch of verisimilitude to have, say, John Legend talking about how important the Showcase was to him. And it's a delight to see which celebrity is game for pitching in with their sketch show this week — it's a little like the "weather" musical segments on Welcome to Night Vale.
Perhaps the cleverest tweak to their faux-anthology format is that they decided Sherman doesn't age. That's like the *paragon* of a good structural decision. Nobody in the audience *cares* if Sherman doesn't age. We accept the convention very quickly. So, something that would have been a huge hassle to implement, and a huge distraction from the show itself — rolling your eyes at whatever old-age makeup they'd thrown in this time — just vanishes, and nothing of value is lost.
Not all the sketches work. "A musical-theater production about Blockbuster Video" sounds like a bad sketch, and it is indeed a bad sketch.³
The sketches that work the best for me are the ones where the sketch idea is so solid that you're actively angry nobody ever thought of it before. Take the "Brother You Wrong" sketch — it's Python's "Argument Clinic" as a panel show. Of *course* that sketch kills. Same goes for the "Temptations 11" sketch, where every artist who worked for Barry Gordy finally gets pissed off enough to plan a heist on his mansion.
But when a sketch *idea* doesn't work (again: "Blockbuster Video musical"), there's not really anything else in the show that can save it. In other sketch shows, when the writing flags, other factors can buoy the sketch back up again. Key and Peele could always count on its insanely dead-on production design. A Bit of Fry and Laurie, even when it meandered on about nothing, could coast on its brilliant use of language alone. On Sherman's Showcase, everything downstream of the writing is competently executed, but if the sketch idea doesn't work, the sketch doesn't work. (Unless it's a pop song — the songs are uniformly delightful.)
But recall that this team made such solid writing choices with the overall structure of Sherman's showcase. That skill carries over to the sketches — most of the sketch ideas are very solid, and thus most of the sketches work. There's something of a high-wire act to the show, the way they *have* to keep knocking the writing out of the park for the show to function.
Of course, it's also totally possible that I'm the wrong audience to assess what works and what doesn't here. The show is absolutely from a Black point of view, with plenty of observational humor about Black culture.
Speaking as an old white guy from a small town in Kentucky, I can only say the show never feels like it's shutting me out. Consider the "Too Much Dap" sketch. I came into it with no idea what dap is. But that sketch basically teaches someone like me what it is, and some of the social conventions around it, to the point that when the straight man snaps, "Man, I don't even *know* you!", the joke makes perfect sense.⁴
I'm dead certain I miss a lot of jokes in Sherman's Showcase. (I only now have learned "Ray J" is a real person.) But I always felt like the show was helping me keep up, and helping me learn a little about Black culture along the way.
And part of that inclusive feeling comes from just how nerdy the show is willing to be. Look, many sketch shows might include a robot. Some fraction of those shows might have the robot refer to the 'the Singularity' in a throwaway line, just as an Easter egg for nerds. But Sherman's Showcase has another character stop the scene, call the robot on that line, and then start haranguing them about a possible robot takeover.
That happens early in the season — so by the time a sketch references Coriolanus, or veers off into a lengthy riff on 1986's Labyrinth, or the song "Time Loop" includes a verse that goes deep into the weeds about general relativity, you've been prepared.
Anyway, the whole thing is easily binged, as it's just 8 half-hour episodes and a "Black History Month Spectacular". Highly recommended.
For next week: no backlog! What a relief. I'm watching the second season of Adam Ruins Everything, and starting in on the BBC miniseries of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I'm still reading that obnoxiously difficult Spanish-language sci-fi book and catching up on news stories I've downloaded; on The Great Courses I'm listening to a course about camping.
¹ Also, the part about how white people often touch black people's hair without permission was a shock, but still depressingly credible.
² Meanwhile, they also have an episode, literally called "White Music", where they toss off a Blondie-style disco number like it's nothing.
³ Though it allows them to check the "conventional musical theater" box on the "list of every musical genre ever" that they seem to be churning through.
⁴ In an interview at ATXFest, the production team mused at how they'd sort of squeezed that sketch in under the wire, just before COVID possibly made the whole practice a thing of the past.