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‘Desus and Mero’: How Two Friends Make Late Night Comedy Seem Effortless

Eschewing the format of a gimmicky persona helps the show's central pair succeed with politicians and entertainers in a way that few others can.

Desus and Mero Showtime

Greg Endries/Showtime

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Last week, there was an episode of “Desus and Mero” so good that Desus Nice and The Kid Mero (the stage names of hosts Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez) knew it as soon as they walked off the set.

“When we’re in the green room afterwards, you can kind of tell. We have fun doing the show, so me and Mero are cracking up afterwards,” Desus said. “We came off and we basically were like, ‘We bodied it.’ It felt like one of our live shows.”

Four months into their run on Showtime, “Desus and Mero” has found a late night sweet spot by staying relaxed. It’s a tricky balancing act to make their conversational riffing feel as spontaneous in the final product as it does in the studio. But part of that success has come from trying not to be too polished.

“In the beginning, we would stop because a bottle was facing the wrong way or a stagehand was in the shot or, you know, something like that. And it was just kind of like, ‘Well, fuck it! We’re on a roll, so let’s just keep doing it,'” Mero said. “Let people see how TV gets made a little bit. We didn’t just magically appear in these two chairs. There’s [people] behind the scenes that are working and making this shit with us.”

After debuting on Showtime as a once-a-week show, “Desus and Mero” will air new episodes Monday and Thursday nights through the summer. The pair’s previous run on Viceland saw them putting together a half hour of TV every weeknight, and bringing that number down from five to two seems to have settled the show right into a sweet spot for what it does best.

Part of that is realizing that there’s flexibility in what the show can cover on a show-by-show basis. During the opening segments, when the two joke about viral clips, celebrity slip-ups, or offbeat local news stories, the show is often drawing from a different pool than nightly shows, which are often locked in to the day’s headlines. As a result, some of the clips that may otherwise burn out quickly on social media become the perfect jumping point for adding the “Desus and Mero” extra layer that will hold up weeks (or even years) after the show first airs.

“I’m not going to say it was the goal, but it’s a happy accident. We’re just having fun and goofing around making jokes and those jokes won’t have a shelf life. We’re not attacking a joke or an issue the same way that everybody else is. So you can come back to that joke and it doesn’t feel dated,” Mero said.

There’s a similar effort that goes into the show’s interviews, which range from actors to directors to musicians to random residents of the Bronx. One of the trickiest challenges facing comedy shows in the run-up to the 2020 election has been figuring out a way to have politicians on as guests while cutting through the highly regimented nature of policy conversations. After bringing Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in studio on their Showtime debut, “Desus and Mero” has gone on to do segments with Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, and most recently, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“Usually when politicians come on TV shows, they come with their guard up. Whereas on our show, people tend to be more relaxed and they know it’s not a hit job. We’re not there to embarrass them or make them make some huge social faux pas,” Desus said.

“You’ve already seen this politician give their five talking points everywhere else. So when they come on our show, it’s ‘Who are you?’ Not ‘Who is running for office?’ Who are you?” Mero said. “And not like in a corny way either. Just, ‘What do you like to eat? What do you like to do? Who are you as a person?'”

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has become a rising figure within the Democratic party, even flipped the tables on the show’s hosts.

“We brought up sweet grits vs. savory grits with Stacey Abrams and she schooled us. You’re not going to see that on any other show,” Desus said. “Even if you hate Stacey Abrams, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we eat the same breakfast.’ And maybe that opens your mind and makes you a little more receptive to her message. Or maybe you hate her now because she doesn’t put sugar in her grits.”

Desus Mero Stacey Abrams

That sense of healthy, spirited debate is built into the show by virtue of Desus and Mero bringing different perspectives to each segment, whether it’s an interview or a parody of “Green Book” or responding to the internet’s wildest recipe for an Old Fashioned.

“You can see a little bit of yourself in either one of us. If we both had the same view on everything, the show wouldn’t be fun,” Desus said. “He doesn’t believe that the Filet-o-Fish sandwich is one of the most delicious sandwiches ever made in the history of mankind. Little things like that. But I think that shows you that we’re actual friends and you can see it’s natural. It’s not something that was created in some board room, or like an algorithm put it together.”

In making the network switch, the environment surrounding those two chairs in the center of the set went from an impressive piece of taxidermy to a more detailed reflection of New York City neighborhood life. Now that viewers of the show have had time to adjust, another reason the show has kept its relaxed feel is that the two hosts have maintained their signature looks, courtesy of stylist Satthra San.

“She’s been with us for like three networks now and she keeps track of all our outfits, our hats, our sneakers, everything. She has a database, she keeps us fly. She’s always getting new pieces from designers,” Desus said. “It’s important to keep the same aesthetic we had on the last show, but also she dresses us the way that we would normally dress if we weren’t on TV. If we were doing the show and we were wearing suits and tuxedoes, that would seem very weird.”

So whether it’s having conversations with Spike Lee, giving windows into each other’s lives, or narrating baseball brawls, “Desus and Mero” draws its comedic strength from not having to worry about filters. Making TV is hard work, but there’s an ease at the heart of the show that lets these two flourish and connect with an audience at the same time.

“If we were fake, it would be exhausting to get up in the morning and put on your Mero face or your Desus face. And we don’t do that,” Desus said. “So it’s like, ‘Hey, if these guys aren’t taking themselves that seriously, let me relax.’ And then you drop all these pretenses and just enjoy the show.”

Desus & Mero” currently airs Monday and Thursday nights at 11 p.m. on Showtime. 

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