Talking heads are a dime a dozen in the news business. Comedians who make topical humor their bread and butter aren’t hard to stumble across, either. But sometimes you just want somebody who’s easy to kick it, and who can break down the worlds’ crimes, woes, and weirdness in a way that hits you in the chest while making you laugh at the craziness of it all.
Desus Nice and The Kid Mero are that duo, precisely the pair the talk variety space needs. While most late night talk shows are populated with men (and one woman — one!) in suits and blazers, Desus and Mero keep it casual in baseball caps and bomber jackets, fitting their approach to politics and culture.
But Desus and Mero — the entertainment alter egos of Bronx natives Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez — are on the verge of becoming much bigger. The pair appeared Thursday in Pasadena to talk about their new Showtime series “Desus & Mero” as part of the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour.
Even so, whether the platform is their Bodega Boys podcast or premium cable, their aim isn’t to perform for their audience as much as to hang with them.
“Our show, it's like, ‘Hey, we're all watching the news together,’” said Desus to Salon. “So when people meet us on the street, it's not like meeting a celebrity, it's like, ‘Yo, it's my buddy! Desus! You're my boy!’"
Mero pipes in with, "’Yo, it's my cousin!’ You know what I mean?”
That phrase is sprinkled throughout their conversation like sesame seeds. It’s a colloquialism of course, but yeah, we do.
The source of the duo's magnetism is their familiarity. Each of their shows is an excursion in getting what we’re all saying and how we’re thinking about the madness of existence. So we do know what they mean, except we’re not watching the news together – we’re relating to each other and our shared situation, as we process how what we’re seeing in the news will impact our lives.
That means a lot of expectation is building up as the debut of their late night Showtime series draws nearer, because it represents an upward leap in a lot of ways.
The new “Desus & Mero,” debuting Thursday, Feb. 21 at 11 p.m., trades in the four times a week grind the two powered through on Viceland (which ended abruptly after the Showtime deal was announced) for a weekly set up. And they’re excited to take advantage of other upgrades too, like a writers’ room.
“The heart and soul of what people gravitated towards on the old show, it's still there in full,” Mero explained. “We just expanded it, you know what I mean?”
“Also because the show is weekly now, that gives us more time to prepare and do other segments: man on the street field pieces, sketches,” Desus told Salon. “You kind of saw a glimmer of what we were trying to do on the last show, but now you can see what it's like fully blown up.”
That said, the pair is careful to make sure their fanbase can still access the show’s comedy — figuratively and literally. Moving from basic cable to premium ostensibly requires their diehard fans to commit to an additional financial outlay.
“People feel so familiar with us, and we're like, we're friendly people. So we can't do that to them. These are our fans, this is like our family, so we're never gonna shut them out,” Desus said. “They will be able to see the show. Even if I have to bootleg and bring it to you myself.”
That won't be necessary, by the way; the pair is working on a deal with Showtime to ensure that their longtime fans will be able to see “Desus & Mero” regardless of their economic circumstance. Until then, their main focus is the planning and launch of the show.
To find out more, we sat down with them Pasadena to discuss their singular approach to politics and culture. What follows is the text of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
One thing that you guys are able to well is to bring difficult conversations to the fore and make it accessible through comedy. I think of what W. Kamau Bell was doing on “Totally Biased” [for FXX], and while they welcomed a lot of tough conversations about politics and race there, after a point, for whatever reason, FX couldn’t make it work. Kamau is able to do continue those conversations on his CNN show [“United Shades of America’] but with less of the looseness of the late-night comedy format.
Whereas you two have been able to actually broach those conversations in a way that's really accessible to a larger audience. So what is, for lack of a better phrase, your secret sauce that makes these kind of conversations about how we're relating to each other in modern era, in terms of politics, race, those kinds of things, making them accessible to a wide audience while maintaining your identity?
Desus: I try to think of it as like, when you're giving a kid medicine, sometimes you have to put it in applesauce. Sometimes you have to . . . I have a dog, OK? If you have to give him a pill, you wrap it in ham. Stay with me here. But like, I think some of the heavier issues, the way we deal with it is like with a little levity. Because if you have a long day at work, you don't want to come home and someone's like preaching at you like, "Bah, race relations, da, da, da, da!" But it's conversation that has to be had. We kinda work it in between the jokes, and sometimes we do jokes that seem very, like, very low brow. And then you stop and you think about it afterwards, it's like, "Yo! Right, like I didn't think of it like that."
Mero: It's like "Oh! They're pointing me to this!" You know what I mean? They're steering me in this direction, but it's not heavy-handed. It's not ham-fisted, we just work it in what we are already talking about.
Or if the topic at hand is one of those issues, we approach it from an angle that most people wouldn't. You know what I mean? So, it's like the levity, like you said, is still there, but the seriousness of the topic is not lost on us.
Desus: For example, you'll see a show, and it'll be like, we're discussing police brutality and we have to stop police brutality. We actually have a running joke where we play Staten Island cops, who are clearly, like, terrible people. People were just like, "Wow, that's really how cops sounded," and people started out like, "Wow, your relations with cops is just terrible," you know? If you're a white person, you might not stop and just think about that, and you're like, "Wow, that's actually the reality."
Mero: Someone was like, "You guys don't like the cops." It's not that, the cops don't like us.
Desus: So, you gotta get them to start seeing your side. And they're like, "Yo, I didn't think about that." We try to move like that.
Mero: I feel like I've said something like, "Oh, have you ever had a cop's boot on your head?" Or something like that. Something in the premise of a joke, or whatever. And it's not funny, 'cause it happened to me, you know what I mean? Like when it was happening to me it was not funny.
Mero: But then you reflect on those things and you're like, "You know, let me find the humor in this," to bring it to people. Because, if you're a marginalized person, or you're just like a regular working class person, you spent eight hours, ten hours, however long at work, you wanna come home and relax and laugh. But you gotta get some medicine with the sugar, like you said.
What topics are you guys looking at for your new show that might have you thinking, "OK, this is gonna be a little bit difficult to grapple with"?
Desus: Oh, you know, the upcoming presidential election. You have all these candidates, and then it's just like, they're probably gonna want to be on our show. And we have to be like, "Should they be on our show? What are their platforms? Are they coming on the show just to pander to the black folk?" Because if that's the case, we don't want them on the show.
Desus: Are they just trying to get millennials? What is their true background? That's something we have to figure out how to navigate, because, at the same time these people want to come on the show, but . . . they're gonna have staged answers, and it's like, no, we want the real answer. How do you really feel about this? How do you really feel about gun control? Or whatever.
Mero: So finding a way to be able to get people to come on the show to be honest, but not us selling out politically; this is something we're trying to navigate right now.
Sometimes having those kinds of situations, though, can be useful for the future. I'm thinking specifically like when Lindsey Graham went on “The Daily Show” on before Trump was elected, he was joking to Trevor Noah about how terrible Donald Trump is: “Ha ha ha, you'll get deported!"
Now, flash forward a couple of years, we can pull up that footage and say, "Hmm, seemed to have changed your tune on that one." And I can just picture you two kind of having a field day with that situation.
Mero: Oh, yeah, we bring up receipts.
Desus: Yeah, that's the thing.
Mero: We bring up receipts. We're like, "Oh, oh, this is how you feel?" And it's funnier now, with this administration, it's like, the receipts are a week old. You don’t have to dig ten years back, you know what I mean? It's like, Tuesday.
Desus: Monday! And then also with that, if the candidates know that they flip-flop on something, and they come on the show, they can't be like this, "Don't talk to me about that.” Because that's not our show. You know, if you're like, "I don't wanna talk about whatever,” then don't come on the show.
Mero: That’s how we do it. You're stepping into our arena.
Desus: You gotta keep their feet to the fire, keep them honest. And also, we're the people bringing these candidates to the audience, so it's just like, if we're not responsible for what we do, we could lose the respect that we've earned from the fans. If we're not doing a good job of like exposing these candidates, and showing how they think, our fans will know it, and you know, they'll probably stop being our fans. Because what they really love about us, is, we're authentic.
Desus: And we're real. And if we start getting fake and Hollywood, and taking some money under the table . . .
Mero: “Hey! Yo, hey! That's my man over here! Hey, he wants to deport my entire family! Ha ha!”
Mero: You know what I mean?
Desus: You ever see us with MAGA hats? Yeah, we sold out.
Mero: Yeah. No, never never.
Desus: Never, never, never!
Mero: I'd rather wear no hat, and I'm balding.
No. Let's talk about the fact that this news cycle is a lot faster than ever. You two were able to keep up with your previous show because even though it was a slog you did, what, 160 episodes?
Now you have one show a week. So how do you plan to contend with that? You could be confronted with a story that kicks off and is utterly insane at the beginning of the week, and then by the end —
Desus: It’s turned into something else?
Either something else, or something has completely flipped the script.
Mero: That's a double-edged sword. . . . It could be a bad thing, it could be a good thing, but I see it as a potentially good thing, because it's like, you could just touch the tip of an iceberg on a topic on a Monday, right, and then like Tuesday say, OK, we're doing something different. With this it's like we're watching something develop, you know what I mean, over time. And then we have the entire story, and then we give it to you on Thursday.
Desus: And then also, the news cycle moves so fast now, that it's just like, certain things you would think are like a huge story, they just leave —
Mero: And have legs.
Desus: If this was four years ago, we'd be talking about this story for three weeks.
Desus: Today, we didn't even cover this for an hour. . . . So having all this news and stuff gives us more pockets to pull from for our show, and define what exactly we want to talk about; because we don't wanna be talking about the same topic as every other talk show.
That was actually the next thing I was going to say, is that one of the most effective things that people like, say Hasan Minhaj is doing, and a few others, is that he’s examining topics that no other shows are talking about. And in part, it’s because, culturally speaking, he brings a point of view others don’t have.
There's a lot of room in that space for a lot of different takes. So what are the particular things topics that are close to you, that only you guys can talk about, because nobody else is addressing it?
Desus: Here's an example. It's kind of a sketch we just did, with the Bodega Boys. In New York City, Bodega owners are being fined for having illegal signs in front of their stores, to the point where they're getting like $6,000 fines, and having to take down their signs.
And no one knows who is reporting them. It's not the government, like someone's calling 3-1-1, and snitching on them. And we actually did a segment about this, and we talked to bodega owners about how they were, you know, what's causing it, do they think it's gentrification.
But the thing is, it's funny. You're not sitting there like, "Oh wow, this is so sad.”
Mero: "Oh man this is depressing!"
Desus: It's like, "Yo, we’re go to the bodega because we care about Papo. Papi, what's going on?" And the when we're interviewing him, and he's just like, "I can't run the business, I've gotta pay $6,000."
Desus: You know, no other show would interview this guy. Like, no one even knows about this bodega problem. But that's something near and dear to our hearts, and that is like an example of something we would put on the show, to show people. And on a broader scale, it's like, this is a small business. You know what I mean? You know how much damage you're causing to a small business when you throw a $6,000 fine at them?
Mero: So it's like, that's something that seems like really local and like specific to the Bronx, but it's macro.
Desus: On a bigger level.
Mero: You know what I mean? Like, you're looking at it, and it's like "Oh, these guys are just talking about bodegas," when no, we're talking about small businesses and how regulations, taxes, operating expenses, gentrification and stuff like that harms these type of people. You know what I mean? Like $6,000 fine might make Papi shut down the bodega. And then boom, you've got a 7-11 there, or you got like, some other chain there.
Desus: There goes the heart of the community. Because a bodega, you know, you can go there, you can leave your house keys there for your kid. They'll lend you money; you can get milk, or whatever. And it's like little things like that. You get rid of the bodega — say one turns into like, a condo — that changes the whole fabric of the neighborhood.
Desus: So, something as inconsequential as an illegal sign, it could have devastating effects for a neighborhood. And so we point something like that out on our segment.
That’s one element I've always loved about you two, is that in this whole post-election narrative about, "Oh, we haven't been really kind of paying attention to the working class" of course what they really were talking about was the white working class.
Desus: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
But you've been really wonderful about talking about subjects that relate to the entire working class as a whole, but putting it in a framework that takes an issue in your neighborhood and creates a broader frame of reference.
You’ve also brought up the fact that that hip hop is today’s true pop music.
Do you feel like you're kind of riding the pattern established by the culture, by that art form? What I mean is, here's this musical form that was thought to be very specific to just black audiences, or Latino folks, but now it's like everywhere. It's the universal pop music. Is that something that informs your strategy as you're putting the shows together?
Desus: What's funny, is, on a different network, I think I said it on the panel, someone said, "You guys are too New York. You'll never be national, people are going to reject us." They actually were trying to make us less New York, and it just was not working whatsoever.
The fact is that it’s kinda like, I guess what Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash did: they invented this genre of hip hop. And we've invented this TV show that, yes, it's a late night show, but it's not like any other show you've seen on TV. And it's to the point now, that you’ll see other networks trying to copy it, but you can't.
You can't, because the meat of the show is us. We have our little path going there and people are rocking with it. Like, people who you would not expect to rock with it … check it out, and next thing you know, they're hooked. So in a way, it does kind of feel like hip hop, like, we're old school guys.
Mero: Also, like we grew up in that culture, it's like engraved in us, you know what I mean? I grew up in, I'm Afro-Latino, you know what I'm saying? So I grew up in a household where it's like the only music that was played was like Merengue, Salsa, and hip hop, you know what I mean? And I remember being like seven, eight years old, and stealing my cousin's Jungle Brothers tapes, and like whatever, and that's just part of who we are. As people, that just comes out organically in what we do, you know what I mean? It is what it is.