By Brittany Turner AB '10
Diallo Riddle AB '97 is a writer, producer, and actor, currently appearing on NBC’s Marlon alongside titular star Marlon Wayans. He has also had recurring roles on Silicon Valley and Rise. His writing credits include Chocolate News, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Last O.G., and The Maya Rudolph Show; he has also developed two original pilots for HBO. Riddle is the co-creator (with Bashir Salahuddin AB '98) of Sherman’s Showcase, a musical sketch comedy series that will premiere on IFC in 2019. Photos by Leslie Alejandro Photography.
Q. What was your Harvard experience like? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
A. There were parts about being there that I absolutely loved. Everything that I did before Harvard truly was childhood. As much as I succeeded academically growing up, I don’t think I really grew until Harvard. I did the radio station, the Harvard Black Register, and gave tours. Freshman year, I played in the band and served on the undergraduate council. I campaigned on how to pronounce my name. All my posters said “Diallo: it’s like Diablo without the b.” That was a winning slogan.
But I’m kind of a weather wuss. Both Harvard and New York were hard for me. I didn’t figure out that I wanted to be a writer until much later.
Q. What was your early experience out in LA like, as an executive trying to jump ship and be creative full-time?
A. I moved out to LA and I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do, but everyone said to become an assistant first. I was an assistant for an executive at Paramount for about two-and-a-half years. I think I learned quickly that I wasn’t going to be the studio exec that maybe I thought I was going to be; I was really a person looking for a life plan. After that, I actually became a full-time DJ for four years at The Standard. It was a great life, but at some point, I decided I wanted to get back into Hollywood proper.
So, I partnered back up with my old friend (Harvard alum) Bashir Salahuddin, who I had known from Harvard. We started writing together, and that’s when we got the gig at Chocolate News. After two months, we moved to Fallon, where we were for four years. That’s where we got our big break in the industry. We came back to LA and shot two pilots for three different presidents at HBO, and then I got Marlon. And after I got Marlon, there was a string of good news: we got the Comedy Central thing, the IFC thing, and things have just been going ever since. It definitely hasn’t been a linear path.
Q. Do you prefer acting, writing, or producing?
A. It depends on the day of the week! On Marlon, I love the fact that I’m not one of the writers. I just get to come in, read the script, and then I also get to try my jokes while we’re ad-libbing. For IFC, it’s acting, directing, producing—a lot of different tasks. More than usual, that piece is a lot of conceptualizing: sitting down with musicians and comedians and really hoping this thing will come together like a well-designed music box. That’s almost all of the talent I’ve acquired over the years combined into one show.
Q. Are you interested in directing at some point?
A. I worked with Jordan Peele on The Last O.G., and he had a lot of great advice about writing and directing features. I think at some point I’ll put that to use.
Q. You moonlight as a DJ and dabble in music. How did you get started? Do you still perform?
A. The DJ-ing started at Harvard when I was on the undergraduate council. I was on the finance committee, and back in those days, student organizations would come to us for grants. They would have to submit a budget for their year, and there was always $300 for a DJ (for fundraisers). I was like, wow, DJs make a lot of this money. So, like any good government official, I left the public sector, went to the private sector, and started hiring myself out as a DJ for anyone who would take me. And I didn’t know how to DJ; this was before everything was on laptops. I was still spinning vinyl.
DJ-ing became my term-time job for my last two years. It’s one of those artifacts from Harvard that’s been pretty much nothing but a positive in my life, especially considering that I met my wife DJ-ing at a nightclub where she was part of the midnight act of freestyle dancers.
I don’t do it much anymore, especially in the last nine months, but that said, I’m glad that I still have a good reputation. Somebody reached out to me recently to promote a project they’re doing called Sad and Boujee—it’s like goth hip-hop night—and I was like, I’m there.
Q. What’s your advice for new comedians breaking onto the scene? Especially writers/comedians trying to create racially self-aware comedy?
A. Now is a very good time to write your truth if you’re a person of color. Even if your truth is “black starfighters in space.” There’s never been a better time. Especially because of the work that Ryan Coogler and his cast did with Black Panther. Executives are willing to hear about black people in all kinds of settings. And, truthfully, in certain budget ranges that we haven’t quite had the chance to be talked about in.
So, write it, and make sure, no matter how far-fetched the story is, that there’s something about you and your interest, or your past, that connects to it in the purest way. You’ll always hear people say, “write and speak your truth,” but George Lucas had never flown a starfighter. Yet he was able to convince people that he knew everything about 1940s serials because he grew up with Flash Gordon and The Wizard of Oz, and was able to put all of that in one project.
My overall advice to everyone, regardless of race or specialty (acting, writing) is to go to an improv theater or join an acting company. Get with other people who are trying to do what you’re trying to do, and then, in your spare time, you’ll write or shoot something. Just get out there and do it. If you’re an actor or comedian and haven’t booked any auditions, shoot a reel, do standup, or do some sketch comedy. You just have to get out there and do it. The repetition builds the skill.