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Desus & Mero Are Doing Late-Night Their Own Way

It wasn’t too long ago that Desus Nice and The Kid Mero were living their lives as Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez, two bored Bronx guys throwing jokes on Twitter about their frustrating jobs. But six years after joining forces, they’re poised to crash the overwhelmingly monochrome late-night talk-show party with their wicked wit, supreme confidence and a glossy new Showtime series, “Desus & Mero,” that bows Feb. 21. 

Lounging in the neon, graffitied space at New York City’s Milk Studios, where they record the “Bodega Boys” podcast that launched their collaborations, Desus and Mero have just finished their first run of test shows for the Showtime venture. They aren’t necessarily surprised that they’ve climbed to such heights so quickly. (As Desus said on a recent episode of their podcast, they “do iconic s— accidentally — it’s just organic.”) But every so often, their leap into celebrity makes them reflect with awe on how far they’ve come.

“Five years ago, we were searching the couches for a five-dollar bill to get a Dutch, smoke weed and come up with some stupid plan like ‘If we invent spoons, we’ll get out of the hood,’” Desus says.

“Now,” adds Mero, “Anthony Anderson will text us when we’re in L.A. and be like, ‘Motherf—er, you’re in L.A. and didn’t tell me?!’”

So it’s no wonder that Showtime has high hopes for Desus and Mero as they set about anchoring the network’s first real foray into the genre. But they see their roles in the TV landscape a little differently. “It’s a show that comes on at late night,” says Desus, sitting next to Mero in the Jam Room the morning after the test run. “But it’s not a ‘late-night show’” as anyone else has traditionally done it. 

Sure, “Desus & Mero” might have hosts, celebrity interviews and an 11 p.m. start time. It even boasts writers from late-night standards like “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (a marked difference from their late Viceland show of the same name, which had no writers room). Other writers are coming in from Twitter and beyond to hone their voices and conceptualize ambitious sketches and field pieces. And yet from where Desus, Mero and even Showtime are standing none of that means they have to adhere to genre norms, let alone swap their sweatshirts for stodgy suits. “We give them the resources and the time to realize all of their ambition on their show, [but] there’s nothing we impose,” says Gary Levine, co-president of entertainment at Showtime. “Our goal is to have Desus and Mero be Desus and Mero.”

That mission statement is what drew them to the network. As Desus puts it, “We’ve always enjoyed doing this — as long as we can do it our way.” 

Mero nods. “Everybody goes at the same thing the same way, in late night, in news, everything,” he says. “And it’s like, yo, can we do something else?”

“We’re outside the circle, but that’s cool,” Desus says. “Since we’re on the outside, we do whatever we want.”

That casual defiance is what drew legions of fans to their Twitter accounts back in 2012, when they first caught people’s attention with their quick blasts of observational snark. They forged a partnership rooted in riffs and good-natured attempts to outdo each other. Both on-screen and in person, Desus tends to take the conversational lead, slipping in sly lobs for Mero to spike with enthusiastic punchlines. Their banter takes sharp turns into improvised jokes so often that they merge and loop with sometimes dizzying speed, usually only stopping when one of them is laughing too hard to keep going. 

Their obvious chemistry led to a stint at Complex as talking pop-culture heads and fledgling podcasters (“Desus vs. Mero”). That led to their now hugely popular “Bodega Boys” podcast, which features a pointed tagline: “The brand is strong.” In 2016, they got their own talk show on Viceland — the ambitious but barely watched cable channel, a joint venture between Vice Media and A+E Networks. Four nights a week, for more than 300 episodes, they traded bemused reactions to the news and entertained guests ranging from Jimmy Fallon to Erykah Badu. (The night Trump won the presidency, they hosted a live special with an up-and-coming Bronx artist named Cardi B.) 

On a channel that ranks among cable’s least popular, they were a lone standout; for as much TV is out there, and as many talking heads as there are to choose from, there was no show quite like “Desus & Mero” to take on the increasingly bewildering events of the day. No late-night hosts spoke to Kanye storming the TMZ offices with pro-Trump rants, or white people calling the police on black bystanders, or the perpetual disappointment of being a Knicks fan, like they could. As with the podcast, the show felt like a long overdue way to fill an obvious void.  

But, as Desus and Mero reportedly told Bossip last July, they believed Viceland “undervalued” them by pushing for 160 episodes a year without providing the time or resources to realistically make that happen, prompting them to leave the network 18 months in. The duo also claimed that once Viceland knew they were exiting for Showtime, the network pulled the plug on the program two months before their contract was up. In December, Vice CEO Nancy Dubuc told Elle magazine, “They’re going to a platform that their audience doesn’t pay for.” Asked about the Viceland beef a few weeks out from their Showtime premiere, however, Desus and Mero are more diplomatic. 

“We’re grateful for the platform and for the opportunity, but we’re always looking forward,” says Mero. “Never backward.” (As for Viceland, network president Guy Slattery tells Variety,  “We couldn’t be prouder of what Desus and Mero did here. They’ll do great things at Showtime, and we wish them every success.”)

Desus and Mero

This ethos is also why, Desus and Mero say, having to explain their origin stories and credentials over and over to more “establishment” (and typically whiter) audiences can be frustrating. Whereas even just a few years ago they’d be shocked by podcast listeners who wanted to snap their pictures after random hosting gigs, they are now selling out theaters that seat thousands of devoted fans (aka the #BodegaHive), who show off tattoos of the Bodega Boys logo and gush about how the podcast has made them feel less alone. “The wildest part is, we’re just having fun,” says Mero. “It’s not forced; it’s just natural. And to know that it has that effect on people is wild.” 

They have followers all across the country, but New York City has a special affection for Desus and Mero, not just because they’re local but because they’re from the Bronx — and say so every chance they get. “Growing up, we’d get insulted for being from the Bronx,” says Desus. But now, with them, Cardi B and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as leading examples, the mainstream appears to be recognizing the historically maligned borough as the birthplace of a new cultural wave. In fact, it was announced last week that Ocasio-Cortez will be the show’s first guest.

Still, Desus adds, “there are people who know nothing about us, and they’ll be like, ‘Who are these clowns?’ And then their Twitter mentions will be flooded for three days.” 

“We’re just gonna start making s— up now,” Mero cracks, which immediately sends them off on one of their lightning-fast tangents. 

Mero: “Yo, we met in junior high, right, and we both got bit by the same radioactive spider — ”

Desus: “We went to Wakanda because we were being bad — ” 

Mero: “Then we came back with vibranium and became the Avengers of comedy. Whoa!” 

This kind of off-the-cuff (yet precise) diversion is what their fans value — which creates a unique challenge for the new “Desus & Mero” writing staff, tasked with replicating their raw chemistry in a different way. “Knowing what the fans love about Desus and Mero, [there’s] a lot of pressure to make sure that what we’re doing translates, but it’s also kind of a North Star,” says senior staff writer Josh Gondelman, who came to the show after five years with “Last Week Tonight.” “The fans, like Desus and Mero, don’t tolerate corniness. They won’t take an inferior product and be grateful for it.” (For what it’s worth, Bodega Hive, the stars reverently call their writing staff “the Yankees” for being able to pick and flesh out jokes from their speedy repartee.)

“No bleeps, no commercials?! I was like, ‘yo, layup!’”
The Kid Mero, on the new premium home of “Desus & Mero”

So it’s unsurprising that everyone involved in the show is careful to emphasize that they don’t want to mess with the Bodega Boys brand so much that dedicated fans don’t recognize it anymore. In fact, says Levine, Showtime is hoping the duo’s social-media base will consider the talk show a must-have and become subscribers. For their part, Desus and Mero are seizing the opportunity of more time, more money and greater creative control as an invitation to again move forward. “And no bleeps, no commercials?!” notes Mero in awe. “I was like, ‘Yo, layup!’” 

As for winning over people who might not know them, no one, least of all Desus and Mero, is concerned. They’re excited for the Showtime series to amplify their voices — and confident it will pay off. 

“We’re getting exposed to a whole new audience,” says Mero, “and good s–t is good s–t, no matter which way you slice it.”

Besides, Desus insists, it doesn’t matter where they are; they’ll always find a way to make people laugh — on their terms. 

“It’s like, life is the teacher in the front of the room, and we’re the two bad kids wilding out,” he says. “We’re gonna have fun regardless.” 

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