–Original article published on Chicago Tribune 6/7/18–
Since its 2016 debut, Viceland’s “Desus & Mero” has launched its titular stars into the buzz-culture stratosphere; publications from The New York Times to Vanity Fair hailing the duo as what late-night television had been missing: a balance of poignant, common sense observations and irreverent comedy recapping the day’s events, wrapped in made-in-the-Bronx authenticity.
New fans have embraced them as the hosts of “the number one show in late-night, with nothing but illustrious guests.” Others have known them since late 2013 as the hosts of Complex TV’s “Desus vs. Mero” and their own “Bodega Boys” podcast recorded out of Red Bull Studios, picking up where Complex left off, in 2015.
The latter brings the pair to the Chicago Theatre Saturday night for a live show. But on a call from the East Coast post-Memorial Day weekend, the duo was just trying enjoy their week’s vacation.
“I just went to the supermarket and I was chuckling, like I got people asking me why are we off, so that was fun,” jokes Desus Nice (aka Daniel Baker). “It’s appreciation. They realize that the show’s good and it’s become such a part of their normal schedule. Even tonight at 11 o’clock, I’m going to be a little shocked that there’s no new show, so I understand how they feel.”
“Desus & Mero” offers more of a “kick back with friends at the end of the day” treatment of current events than the usual, buttoned-up talk show; the pair’s chemistry evident in their repartee, complimenting each other — Desus often taking on a more level role against Mero’s commentary bombast (and ever-present, hilarious-if-NSFW catchphrase) — while maintaining an effortless ease. Stripped of a slick, shiny studio, they’ve ditched the suits and ties for fitted hats, sneakers and a stuffed grizzly bear wearing Timberlands — with a side of viral videos that span the spectrum of human interest (niche, taboo or otherwise) from rap beefs and terrifying robot prototypes to politics and protests.
“It’s dope, man,” says The Kid Mero (Joel Martinez) on the response they’ve gotten. “It’s amazing. People will post like ‘Me and my girlfriend, we didn’t have much to talk about at first, but we bonded over your show. It’s a beautiful thing, man’ and you’re just — it means a lot.
“We’re both children of immigrants, you know?” he continues. “My mom’s dream for me was to be a lawyer, or at the very least have a city job where I had a pension and benefits. I’m a (expletive) comedian, her mind is blown.”
The friends initially met in high school and ran in similar circles, but were never close. It wasn’t until they began interacting on Twitter, bantering back and forth about life in the Bronx, trading hot takes on entertainment news that folks took notice.
“Without Twitter, we would not be here right now at all,” Desus says of their use of the social media platform as a way to brand and promote an accessible presence to build a career upon. “People were able to see that we could consistently be funny. People learn your joke flow, they start to understand your sensibilities. They know when you’re being sarcastic and when you’re not, then they start coming to you.”
“It puts you in front of the right eyeballs,” Mero adds. “There’s always producers and executives trolling social media for someone who has something to offer in entertainment. That and word of mouth. That’s how our podcast took off, people would just share that it was really funny.”
They do admit they were unsure if the show would find its audience early on. Apart from their beloved borough, their heritages — Desus is Jamaican, Mero is Dominican — are often, and proudly, referenced in their work. That bond over how their upbringings differed from those of their peers has always shaped their perspectives, and now sets them apart while welcoming a different audience to the conversation. Much of which currently circles around politics.
“Desus & Mero” premiered two weeks before the 2016 presidential election and one of its earliest notable episodes was its live election night coverage, which featured guests Cardi B, Talib Kweli, Krishna Andavolu and Jim Jones. Afterward, the duo tried to move away from the Trump talk, but their outsider (obviously under-represented) perspective had already begun to resonate. And as they say, life doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
“The demographic we have with the show — a lot of those people would usually never, ever watch anything about politics. I remember going to the barbershop and the guy says to me, ‘I know the name of the Soviet prime minister because you guys roasted him the other day,’ ” says Desus. “That’s when I was like, OK we’re onto something here.”
As for comparisons to other late-night hosts, the duo claims it’s all due to their time slot. They say more people watch their show early in the morning — half-jokingly citing MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski as their true competition. On “Desus & Mero,” the structure of cold opens and segment blocks is gone; opting to keep the dialogue as free flowing as possible. The pair has final say — from topics to guests, which have included everyone from political analysts to legendary reggae producer, Lee “Scratch” Perry.
They’re now hoping their vibe translates to the stage, in front of an audience on “The Bodega Boys Live” tour. After kicking things off with a five-night, five-borough stint in New York in April — the pair will travel to cities such as Seattle and Atlanta through early July.
“Imagine Wieners Circle with no hot dogs, that’s what it’s gonna be like,” laughs Desus, prepping for their Chicago appearance. “I got the references on-deck already. We might bring cameras. I want them to let us work behind the counter.”
“There’s a lot of crowd work, too,” adds Mero. “The fans are so engaged, they want to interact. There’s literally nothing written down. It’s going to be completely organic.”