Behind the scenes with “South Side’s” Bashir Salahuddin

South Side co-creator Bashir Salahuddin cannot talk for more than a few minutes without mentioning his mother. He name-checks the neighborhoods, the people, and the food that he got to know through her, especially the food.

The memories shape his perception of Chicago’s South Side as a thriving mix of faces, places, and restaurants. Energized by family, friends, and humor, they defy pretty much all of the media stereotypes applied to the community.

They would also make good TV-watching. Or, at least that’s what Bashir — along with his brother Sultan and friend Diallo Riddle — believed a few years ago.

That’s when the trio decided to turn their idea into a three-minute proof of concept. After filming it at the soundstage on the Englewood campus of Kennedy King College, they sent the video to Comedy Central.

The network agreed with their hunch, and the comedy series, South Side, premiered last summer. The show has been pleasing viewers and critics ever since.

The Chicago Tribune described South Side as a “bracingly funny and long overdue departure.” Indiewire praised the series’ ability to “find the humor that exists within the mayhem.” And the Sun Times declared, “we need a season two, ASAP.”

Last summer, Comedy Central ordered another round.

Bashir and his cohorts will begin shooting season two in the city this May. In the meantime, he’ll keep busy with things like the media event he attended earlier this month at Kennedy King College, where a group of leaders gathered to announce that Illinois had enjoyed yet another record-setting year of production.

After speaking to the crowd, Bashir graciously explained to Reel Chicago why the success feels like “pie in the sky.”

ALSO READ: Illinois production scores another record-breaking year


Behind the scenes with Bashir Salahuddin

So Atlanta was considered as a location for ‘South Side’ but Chicago won out?
Well, it’s for two reasons. Number one, we actually did a show in Atlanta, and HBO canceled it before it aired. And so we were like really bummed out by that.

But I think the good news is that we were like, well, the dream can actually continue because there’s my hometown. And for us, it was like, well, you know, it was pie in the sky because, you know, every level that you reach in your career, you’re like, ‘oh, this is never gonna happen — I’m never gonna be able to, like, make a living. That’s impossible.

And then it happened. And then you go, wow. Well, now, now that things are moving in this direction, let’s go forward. We got blessed. We’ve been coming here for three years now. We’re about to come back in May. Shooting our second season.

You know, the show is critically acclaimed. I think people have really been blown away by the authenticity of South Side and the fact that we can do it all here in my backyard. I grew up down the street. I’m like, come on. This is a dream come true.

ALSO READ: South Side renewed for 10-episode season two

So where did the concept for ‘South Side’ come from?
Originally, it was one of my boys, actually, who went to high school with my brother. But we were all the same, you know, same year or whatever. And he ended up working at this place called Rent-A-Center. And he would always tell us all these amazing stories. And he’d be like, ‘yo, man, you got to see some of the stuff I’m doing.’ And I was like, that’s insane.

And so my brother and I were talking about it. We’re like, you know, we think that’s a show, because we wanted to do a comedy in Chicago, but we also wanted something that really opened up the city to us so it wouldn’t be confined to any one area or, you know, any one type of Chicago.

For me, it’s very important, it’s part of my mission, to say, ‘look, this city has every type of human being that you’re looking for.’ We got people in every part of the economic spectrum.

And so for us to be able to do a show that allowed you to kind of go into all these different neighborhoods by virtue of what the two main characters are doing as they go try and find all this stuff, you know, it made us realize, wait a second: this is what we should be doing.

Sultan Salahuddin and Kareme Young in 'South Side'
Sultan Salahuddin and Kareme Young in ‘South Side’

And so we showed it to the network. We actually came down here in 2015 / 2016. And we shot a proof of concept. We literally told the network, look, instead of us writing all this stuff and giving it to you and have you guys read it and not get it. Give us very very little money, and we shot three minutes in and around the south side of Chicago. We were in Engelwood. We were in Chatham, my neighborhood where I grew up, right over on 83rd and Emerald.

And so we showed it to them, and they got it. And actually, I would say 80 percent of the cast from that sizzle reel are in the show right now. We were able to get people working and get people kind of like, you know, showing people their talents.

Now you have people who, you know, ordinarily, nobody would ever know that they are as talented as they are. But on our space, on our little air, we were able to show people something that they’ve never thought they’d be able to see.

And the show is big all over. It’s like, Chicago is obviously the biggest market. But we have so much love in the south. I mean, Charlotte is one of our biggest places. And, obviously, we have LA love. But it’s crazy to see people go crazy for the show and have people say, this is my favorite TV show. And they’re not even from Chicago. It’s like, I’m from Virginia. This good. This means we’re doing something right here.

So the locations, characters inspired by your experience growing up, and—
Absolutely, but also all of our writers from Chicago. And so one of the things we do in the writing room is, like, let’s bring our experiences. Let’s bring our point of view. Let’s bring our humor, let’s bring our comedy. Let’s bring all the stuff that makes us unique as Chicagoans and let’s put all of it into this vessel, and then let’s come to Chicago and find talent who can actually do this stuff. And because we’ve written it in the voice Chicago and because the talent is homegrown, the translation works.

We got people who are like, OK, this is great. You know, I’ve never thought I would see somebody like… a total Chicago person. This guy’s based on my uncle. This guy’s based on my cousin.

I actually have a lot of cousins on the show. In fact, if you’re related to me, there’s a chance you’re gonna be on the TV show South Side And you know what? Let’s keep it a hundred. Let’s keep it a hundred in Chicago. We look out for our own. I’m looking out for my people. Absolutely.

What aspects of Chicago culture are you most excited to bring to the masses?
I think one of the biggest things that people think about when they think about Chicago culture is actually the food. You know. And so, obviously, that’s something that doesn’t even need us to talk about it. Anybody who comes here to shoot our show, every single cast person is like, ‘oh, you’ve got to go to this restaurant and get this particular item.’ And what have you.

But for me, how do we get past that — right? — because everybody knows about the food. I want people to learn more about the people who love baseball in Chicago, the people who love the Chicago White Sox, which I grew up rooting for. The people who, you know, people on the South Side who have boats down on 63rd, right on the water. There are people who play golf every day on the south side of Chicago, people would never see that. In the public course on Kenwood Street.

And what we told people when we did the show was like, there’s all these different disciplines that you just don’t see when you see Chicago. Most of the time this city is often shot for a period piece or it’s shot for another city or it’s for exteriors and they never come back. We are like, literally, you know, Harold’s chicken—

One of several Harold's Chicken Shacks in Chicago
One of several Harold’s Chicken Shacks in Chicago

Which number?
That’s hilarious. I don’t know. I would say one thing that’s really funny is, there’s one where we shot this whole episode at, and I think Harold saw it, and they shut it down. It was on 87th and Vincennes. We were there shooting and then we went back, and they were like, no, they moved the location. So we shot another thing. We had to go to a different location to do it.

But I mean, I grew up on that stuff. You know, that’s just like, come on, that’s in the DNA of everything that made me who I am. And I think that I’m still learning as I continue to, like, shoot my show here, all the different types of Chicagoans and all the different types of like things that happen here. So for us, it’s like, you know, the truth is often stranger than fiction. So people, like, they don’t believe it, and I say, no, no, no, this is a real thing. You got to see this. You know, one of my big dreams is actually to shoot the architecture tour.

Are you going to take the characters taking the tour?
I’m going to put them on the big boat. It’s a complete pain in the ass, and my production team is like, please don’t make us spend a day on a boat trying to shoot some sh—t. But I got to tell you, the fact that the city has opened its arms to so many incredible architects is unlike any city in the world. I mean, I love New York. I’ve been there a lot. But it’s, you know, it does not have the architectural diversity that Chicago, you know, boasts. And for us, it’s like, let’s show people all this stuff. Let’s show everything from the Prudential building to the Frank Lloyd Wrights and what have you and go on the Chicago River and see all this stuff. So we’ll see. I’m still trying to convince my team to do it.

So how has production evolved since you shot the original three-minute proof of concept?
We got it all, man. It’s crazy. We’ve got real crews. We’ve got people who actually handle stuff. I come from a very like blue collar background, even in film. Like, I got my start making my own stuff. The reason I got my first big break in Hollywood was because me and my writing partner were making our own stuff. Beg, borrow, steal, nights and weekends. You know what I’m saying? And so for me to then go to a place where I show up and I don’t have to do anything for ten minutes because everybody’s still working, that’s very new for me. I mean, I can go make the coffee. I know how to do all that.

For me, it’s like very nice to be able to focus more on the creative, which is a real luxury. But at the same time, I manage my own production at all times. You know, I kind of know where things are supposed to be and how they’re supposed to be working and I cherish that experience because it really has helped me, you know, do better in my career. And also, even in terms of the crews here in Chicago, like, we’re able to help, you know, work with great people because we have good taste for who we want on our set. And the city has a wealth of great, great energies and great personalities. Because these are your coworkers, these are your day-to-day people. You see them every day. So you want to make sure that you are like excited and looking forward to seeing them.

How is Chicago’s reputation evolved?
I’ll tell you people love shooting here. Actors love coming out here. I think in terms of the reputation, for me, it’s always an odd thing because my sense of the city is accurate because I’m from here. My mom still lives down the street. I’m here all the time. So even when I see things in the press or in the news and I’m like, that’s pretty tough, that’s something challenging, it’s never occurred to me that that’s something that the city should be judged by, because that has not been my experience.

One of the things that we’ve told people on our show is like, you don’t know Chicago. You just don’t. You only know snippets of what you see as you’re reading your thirty-five hundred news feeds like all of us do in the morning. So for us, it’s like, well, let’s show people what the city really is. Let’s show them these personalities, show them the joy and the passion and the love and the humor of the South Side specifically. And so people have really been in love with it. They’ve been in love with our portrayal because it’s accurate.

You know, my favorite thing is people from Chicago who are spreadout all over the world, and they watch the show and they go, ‘oh, my God, when I watch your show, I feel like I’m home again.’ I’m like, yeah, that’s good. That’s the point.

Which which part of Englewood are you most proud of showcasing in South Side?
Well, I’m going to be real. I’m originally from South Shore, 72nd and Constance. And when I was about eleven-ish, twelve, we moved to Chatham. So if you’re in Chatham, obviously, you know, the Harold’s on 79th and State. You can’t really beat that place. I’m there all the time. Also there’s this really cool place on 83rd and Wentworth, a little shrimp spot that my mom, whenever I’m in town, she always goes and gets all those delicious shrimp. And, you know, there’s always Valois in Hyde Park where you can have a wonderful breakfast.

Hyde Park is a place that I just… My mom used to work there when I was growing up, and so we were there all the time. Walking those neighborhoods and just being able to engage people in a much more, sort of, almost a Greenwich Village kind of vibe. It’s real walkable, and they’ve got great restaurants.

But, you know, every different Chicagoan, when you ask about different places… I will say, to make sure that everybody understands this, for my money, the best deep-dish pizza is — even though I’m a Giordano’s guy — technically, it’s Lou Malnati’s. That’s the most controversial thing in this interview. But I gotta be honest: Lou’s amazing.