Diallo Riddle '97 & Bashir Salahuddin '98 (Comedy Writers & Actors)
By D. Dona Le '05
"Bashir and I started off as friends, and now we barely talk,” says Diallo Riddle ‘97.
Since their time together at Harvard, Diallo and Bashir Salahuddin ’98 have been close friends and artistic collaborators as writers, actors, and—most importantly—content generators. They are currently writers for LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON on NBC, but even the name of their production company, PAPER PLANES, reveals that Riddle and Salahuddin are making a name for themselves by intelligently branding their distinct comedic style.
Diallo explains, "The iconic symbol of a paper plane is kind of cool for us. Paper—as a writer, you live around paper, but paper planes are thrown in school. There’s something academic but contrarian about a paper plane being thrown, because obviously it’s a person who is in class, but if you’re throwing it, you’re a little rebellious.”
Outwardly, Diallo and Bashir may not have seemed so rebellious as Harvard undergraduates. Both were heavily involved in the theater scene, and Bashir was also a member of the Hasty Pudding, while Diallo was politically focused, contributing to various student publications including the Harvard Political Review.
"We always felt artistic and creative,” says Bashir, "and so it really was just a matter of going to Harvard, but it was harder to make that decision [to write and act afterward]. Harvard students tend to dabble in the arts, but to [work in the arts full-time]—they don’t tend to go.”
Foregoing the more common routes taken by Harvard graduates, such as Wall Street or medical school, Bashir and Diallo immediately pursued their goal of working in the entertainment industry.
Bashir returned to his hometown of Chicago during the summer after graduation to save enough money as a paralegal to move to Los Angeles. There, Bashir took up odd jobs as a waiter, a temp, and a substitute teacher in order to stay afloat while seeking work as an actor.
"Teaching would finish at 3 p.m.,” he explains, "so frequently, I was able to go to auditions after school got out.”
Diallo entered Hollywood on the executive track, but then chose to switch to the creative track instead, a decision he admits was "hard to make, but one I dove right into.” To support himself, he began working as a DJ and remains, in Bashir’s words, "a very in-demand DJ” requested at big clubs, big events, and big parties.
Their official collaboration as writers began during this time.
According to Diallo, "One day, we were over at my mother’s place in L.A. I was an executive assistant at Paramount, Bashir was already doing some acting, and we were complaining about the dearth of what we consider to be quality black comedy. So my mom said, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys try writing something instead of sitting here complaining?’”
In 2004, the writing duo created their first comedy for CLEO'S APARTMENT, a comedy troupe they established with other up-and-coming artists in Los Angeles. This first project was "the result of years and years of built-up ideas, and we finally had the opportunity to put together everything we claimed we were about for people.”
CLEO'S APARTMENT was a hit, and another measure of its success was that Diallo and Bashir collaborated with people who have since garnered success in television and film, such as Wyatt Cenac of THE DAILY SHOW.
"Not only did we get lucky in that we were working together,” comments Bashir, "but we were working with people we really like.”
Lucky they are indeed. Diallo and Bashir’s warmth, camaraderie, and effortless humor are apparent in their back-and-forth banter. Their collaborative process as writers, actors and producers grows organically from this deep-rooted friendship.
"We’re still the type to say to each other, ‘Are you watching this on TV? This is ridiculous!’ Bashir and I, we don’t search for ideas. Sometimes we’ll be hanging out and then we’ll think, ‘Remember that time we had that idea… ?’”
Creative conflict occurs rarely, perhaps because Diallo and Bashir share the belief that effective comedy comes naturally without excessive labor.
"Either people are laughing, chuckling or quiet—one of those three things. If you get them laughing more often than not, then you’re probably doing something right,” Bashir says simply.
To achieve what they have to date, Bashir and Diallo did something right—on Youtube. The writing duo created a spoof of HBO’s Hookers at the Point and uploaded it to YouTube, where it caught the attention of former classmate Keith Bernard ’99, who was working at HBO at the time. Through this connection, Bashir and Diallo landed their first writing gig.
More recently, and with yet another former classmate Felicia Gordon ’98 as executive producer, Diallo and Bashir have co-written, starred in and produced ALL ACCESS (2010). The short comedy humorously reflects the conflicts that arise when a struggling Public Access television station hires a new director Ray, played by Bashir. Ray immediately begins making unwelcome changes to the network by brutally canceling shows and firing employees. The only show he chooses not to cancel belongs to Pep, played by Diallo, who launches a fundraising campaign to preserve the network’s integrity.
ALL ACCESS was filmed in New York and depicts the tension borne out of the city’s transformation from a creative haven to a corporate stronghold.
"Once we decided on public access,” Diallo explains, "the next question was, how do we tell a fast-paced narrative with tons of funny scenes or jokes and still have social relevance? This is our calling card of sorts. We wanted something that felt so distinctly us—it’s not even the kind of material that we can do on Jimmy’s show. It’s 100% ours, our chance to do it in a super-tight fifteen to twenty-minute format. Something that felt instinctual but that we could pile tons of jokes into.”
Bashir adds, "And also stand behind. Something that we can do and be proud of.”
And Bashir emphasizes this point, particularly when explaining why he and Diallo consider themselves content generators and decided to start Paper Planes. "We needed a production company so that even if we aren’t the ones writing or directing, there’ll be projects we do different duties on. If it’s our production company, it can still have our brand and our stamp and allow us to work until we’re old men.”
Diallo and Bashir aren’t necessarily exclusive content generators, either. They are eager to work with like-minded passionate artists and producers. What separates them from others are the close ties they have maintained with good friends and connections made at Harvard and beyond. In addition to valuing these relationships on a personal level, the two recognize the potential to generate meaningful work and quality comedy with these individuals.
"One good thing about the Harvard connection is there’s a very fortunate position of being around people who are also very hungry to do what they want to do in their careers. That allows us to help them out, them to help us out. Make sure the work people see you do is always good, and everything else will come.”
Their future plans, Diallo reveals, are to continue building their reputation through LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON, working on screenplays and ongoing ideas, and tackling a feature-length film for the next Paper Planes project.
However, their work goes beyond simply producing content. Bashir and Diallo are seeking to popularize a new genre of urban comedy. Acknowledging Tyler Perry for his success in the industry, Bashir says, "We respect his game. We respect his hustle. But we thought, ‘What if we could follow that example, be self-sufficient, make our own stuff, but be more reflective?’”
"As comedians, we see ourselves as next generation, hopefully revolutionary. But in the end, Bashir and I just want to be funny.”
So how do they determine which ideas and jokes are actually funny?
"Usually we’re both in the room laughing out loud at something,” says Bashir.
And thanks to their ability to capture that personal moment of humor and translate it to the screen, audiences are laughing too.