The Men Who Dared To Launch A Late-Night Show In The Middle Of The 2016 Election
Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, two Twitter personalities, are quietly breaking ground on a staid platform — and they've done it during the most insane few months in American political history.
On the top floor of the Vice building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there is a particular conference room at the end of the hall with a high amount of traffic going in and out the door. Inside, conference room tables and any semblance of traditional office decor are replaced with cameras, camouflage wall coverings, prayer candles, weathered brown leather couches, and a taxidermied brown bear wearing Timberlands and a Yankees hat. It is a packed day in the makeshift studio with around a dozen people crunched into the sliver of the conference room that's behind the camera. Horns sound from the speakers as two men — both tall, both wearing fitted hats and earth-tone hooded sweatshirts, and both of Caribbean descent — turn to ask who’s playing the Bronx Wedding Song right now. The song? Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz's only hit, “Deja Vu (Uptown Girl).” The men? The hosts of the newest late night talk show on the block, Desus and Mero.
Late-night television has historically been one of the biggest platforms for political commentary. And this year had a wide range of engagement, from the backlash against Jimmy Fallon for not going hard enough on Trump, to viral clips from Full Frontal host Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight's John Oliver, and Late Night's Seth Meyers who all swung to the other end of the pendulum.
To jump in on that conversation on Oct. 17, less than a month before Decision Day 2016, might seem ballsy for two guys known as Yung Chipotle and the Human Du-rag Flap, Yung Hot Take and Curve Gotti, Your Problematic Bae and the Plantain Supernova in the sky — two guys who, three years ago, were just Twitter personalities notorious for Okayplayer message-board comments and blog posts on Noisey, consistently finding themselves in roundups of the best tweets during any major cultural event.
"They refuse to do things the way things have been done in the past."
"There was no grand strategy in figuring out the right date or anything like that," Desus & Mero showrunner Erik Rydholm told BuzzFeed News. They just wanted to put Desus Nice and the Kid Mero on the air as quickly as possible. And because Viceland doesn't have the baggage a network like NBC or Comedy Central does — having never done a daily talk show before — Desus and Mero have had the freedom to say whatever they wanted to say about the presidential candidates.
"If we were on another channel, it'd be like, 'Yo, we can't piss off Trump supporters, you can't piss off Hillary supporters.' Here, it's like, 'Whatever. If you in your feelings, you in your feelings,'" Desus said in mid-October, lounging next to Mero on a patio chair in Vice’s sprawling outdoor space on a post-show break.
The result is this sampling from the day after Trump won the election: "Shout out to all the white people that voted for him. Yes, I said y'all. I'm calling y'all out," Desus said. "Special shout out to white women coming out in droves to not vote for Hillary, but for Mr. Brexit, Mr. Grab 'Em in their Chocha. ... Every time I go past a Lululemon I'm just gonna shake my head."
“It's not only that they don't know what they're doing, they refuse to do things the way things have been done in the past,” Desus said of Viceland. On other networks, “it'd usually be like get a white guy, give him a suit, get an auditorium, get a band, get three guests, boom. Monologue, interviews, we out,” he added. At Viceland, Mero said, it all starts with them asking, “What do you want to do?”
The answer? Create the most humbled production on late night with the most outspoken hosts.
The format of Desus & Mero is simple: They mostly sit at a graffiti-covered wood paneled desk in that crowded conference room, sometimes with a guest wedged between them (on this day, it's fellow talk show host Charlamagne Tha God), as producers hold a monitor behind the camera that plays viral videos for them to discuss. There's a boxing match and a racist white girl, but the conversation jumps from Emmett Till to amputees to “coconut oil for everyone.” The only elements added in post-production are the list of topics that sit in a simple white font on the righthand side of the screen (which came from ESPN-raised Rydholm) and title cards that introduce each topic.
“A lot of other people will spend five million dollars on a set and put a crappy show on it,” said Mero. "Like, the show comes first. The actual content has to come first, and then you build everything around that. … Sometimes we talk about the news, sometimes we talk about Sex in the City and Game of Thrones — it’s whatever.”
Often during tapings, Rydholm sits in the corner opposite the other producers, taking notes on what lines get the biggest laughs. Meanwhile, their longtime manager Victor Lopez — known to listeners of their podcast, Bodega Boys, simply as Victor — sits on a couch just out of frame, essentially functioning as their human Google. Most of what they say is included in the final cut that airs around 10 hours later at 11:00, but a joke about the owner of a huge dog having a lot of peanut butter jars in the garbage doesn’t.
Even with the pressure of a Monday-through-Thursday night show and a weekly podcast, Desus and Mero (who forgo their given names) have maintained the unfiltered, off-the-cuff quality that brought them tens of thousands of Twitter followers. They're becoming some of the most thoughtful public figures without losing their edge, which feels like a particular accomplishment in the wake of Donald Trump's presidential victory. Who else is going to remind people that “crazy” is an ableist slur? "It's a natural political correctness," Mero said, something that he attributes to growing up in the Bronx and "being exposed to all these people and getting their feedback." "We self-censor… just because we are normal people in society, not because you can't say, or like, we're scared about damaging the brand. It's just like, ‘Bro, we're not being dickheads.’"
Their innate ability to be both polarizing and inclusive, poetic and profane is exactly why Desus and Mero are the perfect candidates to get away with launching a talk show a month before the craziest election our country has seen. And they know being on Viceland has allowed them a certain luxury.
"These dudes are all 70-year-old white guys. They're just looking at numbers," Mero said of the executives behind most late-night shows, as opposed to Rydholm, Viceland's president of programming Nick Weidenfeld, and filmmaker and Viceland co-president Spike Jonze, all of whom are in their thirties and forties.
"If a network believed in the Larry Wilmore show, you wouldn't dead it right when the election was starting," Desus said, referring to The Nightly Show, Wilmore's Daily Show spinoff of sorts that was canceled in August.
"They don't care about the significance of Larry Wilmore calling Obama his nigga in the way that we call each other our nigga," Mero noted of Wilmore's controversial comments at the 2016 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. "That's a culturally relevant moment."
And it's something they hope to emulate. "Shoutout to Larry Wilmore," Desus added. "He taught me making people uncomfortable in comedy the right way, which is what he was doing. You know you're touching on something right."
While Viceland's Desus & Mero upholds what has made them popular in the first place — rapid fire banter, the most fuego takes, education on the Bronx, etc. — the duo has come a long way from their first video episode of Complex's Desus vs. Mero in April 2014 where they made news trolling everyone into thinking Desus was white. “It was so funny. I think to this day maybe half the people who've tuned in for that first episode was just, ‘I just want to see if he's white,’” said Desus. “They didn't care about the show, and maybe they stayed for it... Each episode, more people started rocking with it.”
“We're like Reese's Peanut Butter cups," Desus explained. "Some people like chocolate some people like peanut butter, which is funny because he's the color of peanut butter, I'm the color of chocolate.”
Victor had signed Mero when he was looking to adapt to the internet age in 2012 by representing digital talent, and Jenna Marbles unfortunately had a manager already. After a year of working together, they accepted an offer from Complex to do a podcast with Desus, who Mero had already been interacting with on Twitter. During the first test podcast, Victor gave Mero a pep talk. “‘OK, Mero, this guy is really good, but let's beat him,’" he recalled telling his client. "By the third one, I was like, 'Mero, why don't you take a seat? I'm going to sign him.'"
"You gotta go with who believes in you at the moment.”
Desus was reluctant to come on board, but finally did right before they made the deal with Viacom that made them MTV2 mainstays. Around that same time, their following had grown big enough to catch the eye of other industry veterans including Rydholm, who also produces Pardon The Interruption, Around The Horn, and Highly Questionable for ESPN. When he came across Desus vs. Mero while on Complex’s website in late 2014, Rydholm “instantly fell in love.” He saw their podcast “as the ultimate extension of the types of shows [he'd] been creating.” When he first met them in the beginning of 2016, after years of jumping into their Twitter DMs to praise them, Rydholm told the guys, “‘If I can ever help you in any way, get more exposure in an authentic way, let me know."
They still had their deal with MTV2 at that point, but things were bound to change. Desus and Mero had a heavy presence on Viacom's networks. They started on MTV2’s breakout show Guy Code and continued to appear on series like MTV's Joking Off, Wild 'n Out, and the weekly MTV2 talk show Uncommon Sense, where they had their own segment called “Classic or Trash.” As Desus described it, “MTV2 was like, ‘Yo, here's your introduction to actually making television.’ You know, learning about mics, ‘open up to camera,’ editing, standards and practices, all that stuff. So that was like junior college.”
They had leveled up in that they were on TV, but they weren't given the attention they were going after. “I mean, we were never the focal point of anything," Mero said. "If you got these guys who are funny and they have great ideas and they're good on camera, but you kind of just are like, ‘Yo, we got other stuff going’—” “It wasn't a priority,” Desus jumped in, finishing his partner's sentence. “Other channels were kind of like, ‘Yo, just chill there, it will soon be your turn,’” explained Desus. “But it's like, ‘Yo dog, it's our turn now.’ Literally. So you gotta go with who believes in you at the moment.”
"We come in here, we look over a bunch of topics … blow a L, and then go in there and make it happen."
Enter Viceland, which came knocking right when Desus and Mero were in a position to renegotiate their Viacom contracts. “People don't realize, like, once you're on TV, your next job becomes staying on TV,” said Desus. “So it’s not always about the job you have now. You have to have something next lined up. If you don't have something coming up, it's like, What do you do now? You print out a résumé, you start applying for regular jobs again?”
Weidenfeld, Viceland's president of programming, was a fan of Desus and Mero, but Viceland hadn't produced a daily show before. So when Desus and Mero were asked whether they knew anyone who could handle that aspect of it, according to Rydholm, "They said, ‘As a matter of fact, we know somebody!’"
With four episodes in the can, Desus and Mero were already feeling great about the show. Desus was happy with their relationship with the network (“Vice likes us because, yo, we hit the ground running") and Mero was confident in their output (“We don't got a writers' room. Like, we come in here, we look over a bunch of topics with the production team… blow a L, and then go in there and make it happen”).
By Halloween, the ratings for the show were steady and rising, according to a Viceland publicist. Desus and Mero were riding high from the first live podcast they performed (humorously sponsored by Hpnotiq, no less) to a sold-out crowd at a Manhattan club. Back at their conference-room-turned-studio, they were lounging on one of the leather couches, with Desus using the seat of a black folding chair as a footrest. It was clear the day’s taping took some energy out of the pair — or it could be election fatigue, given the fact that days before, FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress about more Hillary Clinton emails.
"Meanwhile, we still have the FBI looking at sexts from Carlos Danger."
“Where are we at with American politics where Hillary's emails were discovered in an FBI probe into fucking Anthony Weiner's dick-pic scandal?” asked Mero. “I'm like, ‘Yo, what the fuck?’ I mean you look at other countries and it's like, ‘Yo, the President of the Philippines is like, “Yo, we should kill all the drug addicts,"’ and then you're like "’Haha yo, that's fucking ridiculous.'" Meanwhile we still have the FBI looking at sexts from Carlos Danger."
When asked how a Trump presidency or Clinton presidency would affect their show, the short answer was it wouldn’t — of course, that was one week before Trump was named the president-elect. “Anyone who gets into office, you know we're still going to flame you if you're acting up,” said Desus. “If Hillary is going to win, we'll be like, ‘Yeah! Hillary's wild problematic.'”
Doubly problematic, though, according to Desus and Mero, is Trump. “He's literally the definition of like, when you think of a New York liberal kissing babies and having fundraisers with Hillary Clinton and throwing parties in Grand Central Terminal, that's him,” said Desus. “But people think he's, like, out there farming with overalls on.”
"When you think 'Republican Party,' you think like, some swaggerless white dude who is like, boring vanilla guy and is for rich people," he continued. "Donald Trump is like that guy times a million. And then you throw in the xenophobia, you throw in the homophobia, you throw in all this shit, and it's just like this wild shitstorm of a thing.”
In short, he concluded, “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Desus and Mero's audience does include some Trumpers, but Mero described them as a more subtle kind, noting he’ll get negative reactions to Trump jokes on social media. “You're like, Why doesn't this guy like me?” Mero said, which then prompts him to dig deeper into the commenter's account. “You realize, like, Oh, it's because you're a fucking racist dickhead.”
According to Mero, their audience includes “old white people, fucking young black people, fucking Asian people, single moms in fucking Idaho.” Internationally, they mentioned their podcast is big in England, Australia, Kenya, and Chad, and they have gotten praise from “people in China and shit."
Of course, the job still comes with naysayers. “A lot of them, the show is just too smart for them. We get a lot of people who completely do not get the satire on the show,” said Desus. And at this point, they avoid checking Facebook entirely because, as Desus noted, “most of the people on Facebook who take Facebook seriously enough to leave comments on like brand pages aren't savvy enough to enter the octagon that is Twitter," which is the pair's preferred medium for fan reactions. “So you'll have people just [Facebooking] straight-up racist shit under their actual name and their actual photo.”
Desus pulled out his phone to read his favorite example so far: “I like these guys, but the darker one needs to learn how not to talk every two seconds; it's annoying as fuck. He's not as funny as the beige one, yet he thinks he's the shit and won't shut the fuck up and let the waffle-colored one talk at all. PS: He's definitely on that coca.'”
It’s never discouraging to them though. “I read a comment like this and I can't wait to come back tomorrow and make another show because I know there is someone sitting in their living room tight, in their feelings about this show," Desus said. "And it's just like, ‘Yo, enjoy all of it. Enjoy.’"
Unlike comedians like Trevor Noah who are haunted by the ghosts of Twitter past when they get their big break, anything Desus and Mero have said before shouldn't be a surprise. “It's very on-brand,” explained Desus. “I think if we didn't have kind of like questionable characters, backgrounds on Twitter, we probably wouldn't have the show on Vice. Like, that's part of the risk. It's like, ‘Yo, Vice is kind of wylin' for even attempting this show with us. Who knows what those two are going to say — they're wild, they're problematic, but at the same time they're talented.’ So it helps us.”
That mentality extends to the show as well. “People on Twitter are like, ‘Change this, change this, change this,’” Desus said. His response? “Come to the Viceland office, sit down with Spike Jonze, Nick Weidenfeld, and Erik Rydholm and when they push their Emmys off the desk so they can see your poor face, you tell them what to change on the show they've created."
But in all seriousness, Desus and Mero are finally at a place where they feel fully supported by their employers. “We all say 'I love you' a lot around here on some real genuine [level]," Desus said.
Three weeks into Desus & Mero, Desus said everyone involved "knows what we are and what our brand is." They're not chasing trends or pitching ideas in an attempt to be viral — it's not like, as Mero joked, “Let's do the whole show in Vines.”
"We got here by chance, but we have the talent to stay here."
“I feel like if you were to come with a stupid idea like that, everyone here would laugh at you because that's so gimmicky,” said Desus.
"We never paid for sponsored tweets or did anything," Mero added. "It was just us doing us, and then people latched onto that and us interacting with them built that even stronger, that connection” — a bond they call the #BodegaHive.
“I feel they can prove how far from left field you can come and make an argument to, at the very least, compete on the same terms, which means network television format programming,” Victor said.
Now that they feel like they're quietly conquering that world, Desus and Mero have their eyes on some interests outside of hosting. “We got here by chance, but we have the talent to stay here. And acting is just another little piece of the apple to cut off and eat,” said Mero. “Also, acting is not that hard. I'mma keep it 100, it's not that hard.”
“Acting is just lying to your girl in front of mad people,” added Desus.
But from Victor's perspective, they still have a lot to prove in this current format. "I don't let them look too far into the future,” he said.
Still for now, they're ecstatic about making the most of their conference room daily. Since the Viceland show started, Desus said, “I've never woken up like, ‘Fuck, I gotta go do this show.’ Sometimes it's 6:30 in the morning, I'm like, ‘Yo, can this fucking car come? I can't wait. Got jokes on deck. Can't wait to talk about this.’ Or I'll see shit from the night before, like, ‘Yo, tomorrow we're going to talk about that, I can't wait.’"
Or, as Mero said more simply, it's great to go into work every day feeling like, “Yo, it's gonna be lit!"