After leaving Viceland, “Desus & Mero” is getting a major upgrade when it premieres on Showtime Thursday night. Hosts Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, aka The Bodega Boys, aren’t sweating the transition though. “In the alternate universe, we are probably working at the bodega, stocking shelves,” said Mero at a Television Critics Association press day earlier this month. Desus added, “When we first started our show, we were so broke. He had to scan me in on the subway because I had no money to go to the studio. That’s where the confidence comes from; we can’t lose because we already won.”
Showtime is just as high on the two Bronx personalities: The network put an offer out to Desus and Mero even before Viceland dropped them, and hyped the premiere with a Super Bowl spot and some synergistic ads. Showtime Entertainment co-president Gary Levine said, “I’ve often been asked, ‘Why doesn’t Showtime have a late-night talk show?’ And the answer has always been that, ‘We never want to mimic shows that are on other networks.’
“Frankly, we were never that excited about putting another guy behind a desk, but then came ‘Desus & Mero,’ and suddenly we knew exactly what a Showtime late-night talk show could be. These guys are authentic, surprising, funny, hip, and perceptive. They can talk politics with politicians, they can talk ball with ballers, they can swap stories with the stars, but they are always singular, always real, and always funny.”
Born Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez, Desus and Mero first met each other in high school and reconnected about 10 years later on Twitter. They first collaborated on the Complex TV podcast “Desus vs. Mero” and continued with the wildly popular “Bodega Boys” podcast.
Viceland gave them a nightly late-night platform in 2016 with “Desus and Mero,” where their fame achieved new levels, earning the duo voice roles as Gottlieb and Lexy on Netflix’s “Neo Yokio” and a book deal with Random House. Their unique talk show style is deceptively simple but charismatic and effective; the two of them sit in armchairs and riff on whatever piques their interest — whether it’s sports, viral clips, “Black Panther,” or their neighborhood. There’s no suit, desk, house band, or monologue.
“A lot of late-night shows are [just] you watching. Our show is like, ‘Come sit on the couch with us, and we’re going to watch what happened today and we’re going to discuss it like homies. You’re not watching us, you’re watching with us,” Desus said.
Their interview style doesn’t necessarily follow the usual promotional agenda of practiced, sanitized sound bites and talking points. Here’s a taste from their Viceland show:
“We had Michael B. Jordan on, and he had done 50,000 interviews talking about ‘Black Panther,’ doing the ‘Wakanda Forever’ thing or whatever,” said Desus. “Our interview with him was completely different, because we were talking about, ‘What was the press room like? What do you like about living on set?’ We try to ask questions that allow them to promote their picture, but at the same time show the humanity behind the person. One of the questions we ask in most of our interviews is, ‘What question do you never want to be asked again?’”
Although the first guest on their Viceland show was Awkwafina (long before her “Crazy Rich Asians” fame), with the Showtime series, they’re dipping their toes into political waters with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as their first guest. The congresswoman, whose youth and social media presence has created a stir since she took office, is the perfect fit for “Desus & Mero”; she represents New York’s 14th congressional district, which includes the Bodega Boys’ beloved Bronx.
The show isn’t overtly political, but they won’t shy away from sharing their strong, left-leaning opinions either. “People like to throw around spicy words, like ‘radical’ and this and that. And it’s, like, bro, George Washington was radical,” said Mero. “You can’t make change without making change. You can’t, like, ‘Oh, let’s eke a little bit to the left.’ That doesn’t work. You have to take stock of what is actually happening in the country and be like, ‘This is being fucked up.’”
Part of taking stock will be looking forward to the 2020 presidential election. “We are trying to interview everyone that’s running for president… within reason,” Desus said. “We would love to have them on the show and just sit down, talk with them, see what they feel, what’s their position, because our audience needs to be informed… We have a platform. We have to use it for a good purpose.”
“For good,” Mero echoed. “Because I got kids, and I can’t tell them I use my powers for evil.”
They’re open to inviting people with dissenting opinions, but the overall vibe of the show is just hanging out, not a debate. Therefore, anyone with an opposing or antagonistic agenda probably won’t show up. “If their policies don’t align with our policies, why would we allow you to use our platform to amplify their message?” said Desus. “You won’t be seeing us in MAGA hats.”
A bigger budget and changing from a nightly to a weekly show also affords them some other significant changes, such as actually having a writers’ room. The writing staff, which includes three women, consists of Desus and Mero, Claire Friedman, Ziwe Fumudoh, Josh Gondelman, Heben Nigatu, and Michael Pielocik.
“At first we thought we should just get a bunch of new writers fresh out of school who have no experience, but then it’s like, ‘Yo, this is Showtime. We should put our best foot forward.’” said Desus. “Most of the show’s writers are our personal friends. To have a room full of brilliant comedic minds that gets the bodega universe energy is just amazing because it gives us a chance to make the show bigger, and we add the Bodega Boys spice to it. People would know if it’s not our voice.”
The show can actually add production value to their more comedic, off-the-cuff bits. “It’s like the old stuff that we did where it was just us in a chair, those kind of [Upright Citizens Brigade] moments, where we would act stuff out,” said Mero. Desus added, “Now we can take a little funny interlude we had and blow it up into a bigger sketch.”
Additional staff also affords deeper research for their community pieces. “We like to keep our ear to the streets and see what the people are concerned about,” said Desus. “We want to talk about bodega signage problems in New York. We want to talk about student loan debt. But before, doing a daily show, you don’t have time to do deep dives. Now we have a research team, we have writers, so we can actually get fact-based information and put it forward on the show.”
A bigger budget also means that some of the kitschy touches from the original Viceland show will get a snazzier upgrade. The original “Desus & Mero” show placed two arm chairs in front of nature-themed wallpaper and a taxidermied, Timberland-wearing bear named Jukebox. Instead, the set for the Showtime series will channel the aesthetic of the Bronx. No word on Jukebox yet.
As for their signature segment in which guests declare what their personal “rainbow” would say — whether it’s a motto, catchphrase, or something else altogether — those details will only be revealed in the premiere. “We’ve got Showtime R & D working on that. We might give people actual physical rainbows, like have a rainbow machine in there, some pyrotechnics,” said Mero. Desus added, “You want to elevate and change things, but kind of leave it familiar.”
Despite the fancier set, well-researched segments, and scripted jokes, Desus and Mero want to reassure fans that they won’t over-produce their act. They’ll still be bringing their off-the-cuff energy and style to the show. “We just go with the flow. We have no idea where anything is going. When we walk onto the set, we have no idea what the jokes are going to be,” Desus said. “We have no idea where we’re going to end. We have no idea what the topic’s going to be.”
Mero said, “We’re on a runaway plane, but it’s … going to land perfectly. We are the Sullys of cable television. You know what I’m saying? Land in that Hudson.”
”Desus & Mero” premieres on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 11 p.m. ET on Showtime.
Additional reporting by Steve Greene.