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‘Desus & Mero,’ With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Tow, Gives Late-Night a New Attitude (Column)

“Desus & Mero” — the late-night series that made its debut on Showtime Thursday — isn’t new, precisely. The hosts Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, who make an art form of embroidering wit and delicious flourishes of delivery onto frank talk, had previously had a show similar in format on the Viceland channel. But there’s no denying that Showtime gives the pair greater visibility and access; not merely does airing as the only late-night show on the premium cabler put the series instantly in conversation with its counterpart on HBO, the Emmy-winning “Last Week Tonight,” but also does it grant the show entry to higher-level talent — like, for instance, inaugural guest Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This was a happy collision of figures who were deeply simpatico and whose rises seemed in some way congruent. Desus and Mero, whose comic sensibility was forged in the Bronx, had risen to prominence at the precise moment that they might book the most-discussed figure in politics — who happens to be a Bronx congresswoman who’s as at home as her hosts at assessing the state of things fairly plainly. All at once, doors seem to be opening such that hosts and guests, both figures heavily in demand, meet on a level playing field.

The Ocasio-Cortez interview, albeit brief, is well worth noting in the context of her omnipresence: For all that she has been a culture-consuming megastar these last few months, she managed to show a whole new side on “Desus and Mero.” On C-SPAN (where she set an all-time viewership record when the network sent out a widely circulated tweet of her first House floor speech), during the State of the Union (as she stayed seated even as fellow Democrats stood to cheer easy applause lines), or even in other comic contexts, like on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show,” Ocasio-Cortez derives her power from her preternatural poise, her control of tone and crystalline ability to stay on-point as she delivers a more strongly worded message than many colleagues could or would. She has a millennial’s crisp moral convictions overlaid with a debate-club champion’s ability to stay focused no matter what conversational roadblocks emerge. (With Colbert, Ocasio-Cortez gamely ate ice cream as she described Democratic efforts to reopen the government during the shutdown, but her affect was businesslike still.)

Here, though, she was appealingly loose, relaxed enough to speak — even about issues including progressive taxation — in the casual and unaffected tones of the 29-year-old she is. She let “like” slip in between words and stopped herself short, referring to moments when “things hit the fan”; Mero inserted himself to clarify that she’d meant to say “s—.” In a taped segment in Washington featuring fellow freshman Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (the latter of whom used an obscenity when announcing her hopes to impeach President Trump), Ocasio-Cortez breezily described texting Tlaib after she said “a boo-boo word.” “Don’t worry about it, like, who cares?” she recalled thinking.

This is a manner of being that welcomes in the viewer — or, at least, a viewer looking to a politician for something human. It would also have been impossible on a program on which Ocasio-Cortez did not herself feel comfortable and safe; Colbert’s older and whiter audience, to say nothing of the show’s own rigorous format, tacitly demands a certain sort of comportment. All sides of a figure as closely watched and with as potentially momentous a future as Ocasio-Cortez are worth seeing, but it feels noteworthy, and special, that a late-night show now exists on which the person she is over and above the office she holds can be expressed. And her interview wasn’t the only thing that felt new about the broadcast: Elsewhere, the hosts carried off a very effective sketch about “Green Book,” and told knowing jokes about former President Obama and Steph Curry, that not merely could and should not have been dared by a white host but that wouldn’t even have occurred to one. Their perspective, in a sea of late-night shows all modeled on John Oliver’s studiousness, feels genuinely new. And Desus and Mero showed enough comic resourcefulness, and enough enthusiasm and warmth, throughout their broadcast to make clear it’s worth watching no matter who guests.

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