When David Letterman retired from hosting the Late Show back in May of 2015, there was a great deal of analysis lamenting the idea that “late night TV would never be the same.” Taking nothing away from the esteemed career of the great David Letterman, I couldn’t help but think that this analysis was more than a little misguided. I found it hard to fathom that there were this many people who had objectively evaluated the creative state of late night television in 2015 and concluded, “I think it’s good! I want it to stay the same!”
A few months later, Vanity Fair ran its now-infamous story, entitled “Why Late-Night Television Is Better Than Ever.” The immediate backlash to this ostensibly rhetorical statement proved that I wasn’t alone in my thinking. While the majority of this backlash zeroed in on the lack of gender and racial diversity reflected across the genre, much of the criticism also focused on a perceived creative stagnation, or in harsher terms, outright devolution that had begun to characterize these late night shows more broadly. A mandate to make these shows as widely appealing as possible had led to an oversaturation of tepid monologue jokes, segments that reeked of desperation for viral uptake, and rehearsed interviews that were essentially just thinly veiled native advertising segments. Watching late night television felt increasingly like watching a glorified version of The Price is Right featuring prominent celebrities, and a few moments where you may not necessarily laugh, but you’d consciously think “ha, that’s kind of funny.” In the year that has passed since this Vanity Fair article became the subject of controversy, late night comedy has undergone few small shakeups, but by and large, many of the same criticisms still ring true.
Entering this cultural context are Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, a pair of comedic personalities from the Bronx, whose late night talk show, Desus & Mero, premiered on Viceland back in October. Unlike other late-night talk show hosts, Desus and Mero didn’t get their start in standup, improv, or television writing. They began their careers – like many people in today’s day and age – writing jokes on the internet. As it turns out, they were just much better at it than everyone else. After building an organic following on Twitter, people began to notice that the two shared similar comedic sensibilities, and they were eventually paired together to collaborate on a podcast for Complex Magazine. From the first episode onwards, it became immediately apparent why these two were so much better at writing Twitter jokes than everyone else was – they were incredibly quick on their feet and they possessed a generally underrepresented perspective stemming from their Bronx upbringing. Desus and Mero were throwing away jokes in casual conversation that a middling standup comedian would tour the country with and put on their album recording.
A couple of years later, after a brief stint at MTV – where many would argue that the pair’s talents weren’t being utilized optimally – Desus and Mero are now back to doing what they do best, exchanging banter in front of a camera. Their show, which airs at 11pm from Monday to Thursday on Viceland, is very loosely structured, with a list of discussion topics that runs down the right side of the screen, and a guest interview that usually feels like the best five-minute excerpt from an hour-long podcast. Desus and Mero go into each episode with minimal preparation, no script (they don’t use writers), and a stated desire for every moment to feel genuine. They film each episode in a make-shift Viceland studio, in front of an audience of a few producers and interns, and on a set that is decorated by a taxidermied bear that is wearing a Yankees hat and Timberland boots. Absent is the pageantry of other late-night shows, allowing the jokes to take front and center.
And that is precisely what the jokes do. Here’s an excellent distillation of Desus and Mero’s rapid-fire banter from a recent piece by Yahoo TV Critic, Ken Tucker:
Desus and Mero have opinions about everything, from Trump’s neckties (Desus: “Our president-elect cannot tie a tie. Why does he look like he’s in juvenile court about to see a judge and his defense attorney tied it for him?” Mero: “You can’t even flex a double Windsor, my n—a?”) to Ben Carson’s qualifications to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Desus: “Donald Trump said, ‘What are you good at?’ Ben said, ‘Fixin’ brains.’ Trump said, ‘Bang! You’re in charge of the projects!’” Mero: “He thinks running housing means, like, replacing the toilet paper when you run out”).
I had the opportunity to speak to Desus and Mero on the phone earlier this week, to ask them about their unorthodox approach to the late night format, their unique comedic sensibilities, and their ambitious undertaking of filming 162 episodes without writers.
So, I think one of the things that sets your show apart is that the reference points are very specific to your personalities. Was that always the approach, to build a show around your personalities and the things you’re interested in?
Mero: I mean, as soon as we landed here, the whole philosophy around the show, was like “what do y’all do best and we’ll build the show around you.” It wasn’t like, “let’s make a show and then insert these two guys in it.” It was always like, “What are your strengths? What are your best qualities? We’re going to build a show around that.” It helps when the people who are behind it are fans of the work, too. Erik Rydholm and Nick Weidenfeld [producers of the show] – shoutout to them – they were both fans before they started working on the show, so they knew our sensibility.
At the same, however, because the reference points are so specific, was there ever any trepidation that if you were to do a four minute long segment about life in the Bronx, or something like that, that it could potentially alienate people across the country?
Desus: Well, I think that’s the thing with some of the other places we worked at. We weren’t making specific content for people, or making it for a specific demographic. We were just making like really bland, tepid comedy that nobody liked and was very safe. Anyone from America could just login and get it and be like, “Haha, that’s a dad joke.” Whereas this is more like “Yo, you may have to put in effort to get some of these jokes, but the payoff is worth it.”
Mero: That’s really true, man. When you try to please everybody, you don’t please anybody, you know what I’m saying? Like, we’re just doing us, and if you fuck with it, thank you.
I think that’s also one of the things that makes the show so endearing. The viewers feel like they actually know you guys because they get a sense of what you’re actually like. It’s not like you’re just some guys who are fake laughing at a celebrity’s jokes.
Desus: Right. And also, all the jokes are our own jokes. There’s no room full of writers, putting lines in our mouth, like “Yo, try to get this punchline in here.” When we do a joke, it’s very specific to our humor. I feel like only we could pull off a lot of our jokes. If other people were to try to make those kind of smart, but kind of street jokes, they would just fall flat on their face.
So, I know you do the show without writers completely, so could you take me through the process of how you decide what to talk about on each show? Do you get the topics ahead of time? Are you thinking of jokes throughout the day?
Desus: It’s usually all off the cuff. In the morning, what we usually do is go through what’s trending and what we’re interested in – politics, pop culture, rap/hip-hop, whatever people are talking about on Twitter – and we might read an article or see a headline and go off of that. We don’t sit down and write anything. We have producers who might say, “Do you guys want to talk about Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian?” And if we say yes, they’ll go look for articles and graphics. Sometimes, we specifically request them to pull up a new article or a new photo as we’re recording, and that also helps the show. But, it’s not like the producers are telling us to “think of three funny punchlines about Rob and Black Chyna.”
That makes sense. Because sometimes, you guys will be watching a video on the show, and the viewers can tell that it’s it’s your first time seeing the video.
Desus: Right. And we try to keep it like that, because your first time seeing a video is always going to lead to the most authentic reaction. We want to capture that. That way, the audience can feel like they’re watching the video at the same time us. It’s not supposed to be like, “Yo, let’s watch Desus and Mero watch videos.” It’s supposed to be like, “Let’s watch videos with Desus and Mero.” It’s supposed to feel like we’re all in the same room, we’re all rolling a blunt together.
Standup comedians are always talking about how annoying it is to meet people who will say things, like “Hey, why don’t you tell me a joke?” or “Why don’t you be funny?” But, for you guys, it seems like you’ve kind of built a career out of just being funny on the spot. Is it ever tough – if you’re having like a bad day or something – to just switch on the funny when the cameras are on?
Desus: Not really, because I think a lot of our comedy is so dark and disturbed, so when we’re in a bad moods, the jokes are even funnier and darker. Those are great days – when we can just come in and be like “Hey, we’re all going to die, the sun’s going to burn out of the sky, we’re all going to perish, and when our generation’s gone, no one’s going to remember you.”
Mero: Also, that constant cracking of jokes is kind of ingrained in us. We both grew up just hanging out in large groups of people where you’re just constantly talking shit about whatever. So, it’s kind of a reflex. And, to me, personally, I like to laugh. So if I’m having a bad day, I’m looking forward to coming in and talking shit about whatever, because it’s going to be cathartic.
You guys were broadcasting live when the election results came in. At the same time, I was scrolling Twitter, and everyone was having a complete meltdown. What was it like to process the information in real time, and also have to crack jokes about it on air?
Mero: I mean, I never had faith in Middle America anyway or – and this is going to sound wild terrible – the American public in general. So, I kind of felt it might happen. Also, if you’re a person of color, shit has been kind of wack for a while, you know what I mean, so It’s like…
Desus: I was pretty shocked, I’m not going to lie. I think most people were because all the pundits were saying he didn’t really have a chance to win. But, then again, we were pretty smacked when we were on the show [laughs]. And we knew everyone else was going to be wild heavy and serious that night. Like, the Daily Show, MSNBC, Fox News, it was like they were reporting from a funeral. So, we knew everyone that was watching our show, they were watching because they wanted to laugh. Plus, we had Cardi B and Jim Jones on. They’re not going to give you like thoughtful geopolitical insight into the Electoral College. At the end of the day, Desus and Mero is still a funny show. We could say brash and irresponsible things like, “Donald Trump is going to bring back slavery” and people will laugh because they know we’re not being serious. If MSNBC or the Daily Show did that, they’d get the wild protesters outside their office. Us knowing that, we’re playing with house money. We can bend the rules a little more and take more risks. I think people appreciated that on election night.
In terms of the guests you have on the show, do you ever feel like it’s hard to make a guest appear funny, or that you have to edit it down a lot if they’re going on tangents?
Mero: I feel like most of the guests are people we kind of fuck with to begin with – people we already have a pre-existing vibe with, you know what I mean? And if we don’t, it’s our show, so we steer the conversation in the way we want it to go. People who are serious are going to say serious things, and it’s our job to bring the funny.
Desus: We don’t ever want the guest to feel like they have to come in here and do a tight five or be funnier than us. Just come through, chill, kick back, if there’s any lulls in the laughter or whatever, we’ll take care of it. A lot of times, we’ll just sit and talk regularly with the guests beforehand to warm them up and make them comfortable.
Do you do ever do a pre-interview? I know a lot of late night shows will do that produced segment beforehand. Or are all the interviews also off the cuff?
Desus: That’s off the cuff as well. Like, we’ve literally had times when the guests walked in while we’re filming the first part.
Right. I feel like that may only hamper your style.
Mero: Exactly. It kind of kills the spontaneity of the shit, which is what we thrive on. The idea that you never know what’s going to happen. Like, we could have a guest where you think you’re going to get a certain thing out of them and then you get a whole different side. That’s what happened when Chris Hayes came on, because Chris Hayes went to school with Desus. So, you’re not getting MSNBC Chris Hayes, you’re getting the real Chris Hayes. A long time ago, we interviewed Iman Shumpert, and that was one of the main things people took from that interview, like “Yo, these people who come on and have canned responses to shit and are taught to talk in certain ways, they kind of get off that when they’re talking to you guys.” There’s more comfort and transparency there.
In today’s day and age, people don’t watch TV on actual television as much as they do on YouTube and the little clips that get uploaded on social media. With that in mind, do you ever feel any sort of pressure to make content that will go viral?
Mero: No way! That’s a huge problem. People are always trying to chase eyeballs. If you’re doing good shit, people are going to watch it. The impetus is not on us to be like “Yo, let’s make this two minute chunk of programming that people can enjoy on YouTube.” It’s like “Yo, take any two minutes out of our show and throw that shit online and it’s going to work.” You know what I mean? That’s not even me being gassed, that’s just our process. I feel like people have focused in on that a lot, like “You guys are very different from other late night. What makes you so different?” And it’s not just the look of the show and the things we’re talking about, it’s the entire process. There’s no canned anything. There’s no re-anything. It’s all brand new, fresh. And I feel like that, in a strange way, makes it more replayable. We get people in the comments all the time telling us that they re-watch old episodes. And even though it’s a topical show, the jokes are still hilarious. It’s all because we’re not trying. We’re just doing it.
Desus: Yeah, what happens a lot of times is that these shows become so fixated on getting that viral moment that they sacrifice the rest of the show to get, maybe, a funny 30-second clip. And then they run to the social media intern, like “Yo, tweet this out, put this on Tumblr.” But, what about the rest of the show? Why would people watch the rest of your show when you just spent all this money to get, like, a 30-second viral clip? You have almost 20 more minutes to fill! What is the rest of the show going to be about? Meanwhile, we come from the internet, so, we’ve never been pressed about the internet. Whereas, these other people, they’re on TV and they’re trying to figure out how to get on the internet. They’re like “Yo millennials love viral videos, they love Vine, make something popular, use this hashtag, make the host dab” and we’re like, we’re not doing that! You don’t come to our show like, “Yo I just want to see the interview.” You come because you want to watch the whole thing. You want to catch all the jokes and get all the little references. Even though it’s segmented into clips, you definitely get the feeling that this belongs in a bigger package and that there’s a narrative that flows through it. And I feel like that’s what makes a lot of people say that they’re at home at 11 o’clock to watch the show. That’s wild! That, in 2016, people are making it a point to watch the show on TV. And we try not to take that for granted. So, we try to give it our all in every episode. Know what I mean?
For sure. But, at the same time, if someone told you that you had to do a Carpool Karaoke through the Bronx, who would the ideal guest be?
Desus: If we had to do a Carpool Karaoke through the Bronx? Uhh, Neil Degrasse Tyson. Or Obama!
Mero: I feel like Obama’s about to have a lot of time on his hands. We might be able to get him to do it.
Desus: No, for karaoke driving around the Bronx? I’d have Rick Rubin. I’d have the drop top, pull up in the fucking Miata, going down the Bronx river parkway, black tint—
Mero: I’d want to have Prince.
Desus: Prince Died.
Mero: Yo, we gotta end this interview, man.
Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto, whose writing has appeared on popular websites like Pigeons & Planes, Pacific Standard, and The Hill.