INTERVIEW

How ‘Desus & Mero’ Conquered Late Night

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–Original article published on New York Times Magazine 6/18/18–

Despite his wife’s earlier attempt, it was Kanye West who finally broke the internet. Throughout his ascendance, the rapper and designer had fashioned himself as a mouthpiece for the black community, but then, one morning in April, West tweeted support for Donald Trump, posting a photo of himself in a Make America Great Again hat. (His previous political apex, after Hurricane Katrina, was claiming that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people.) He appeared on an hourlong episode of “TMZ Live” on May 1, on which he claimed, among other things, that slavery was a choice, an assertion that exploded in a shower of think pieces centered on the same question: What do we do with him?

Everyone, it seemed, felt the need to weigh in. Twitter erupted in the parlor game #IfSlaveryWasAChoice, with memes and GIFs with pedestrian occupational gripes (one person posted “Massa: I’m sorry but you don’t meet the full requirements for this position,” with a photo of Rachel Dolezal looking miffed; another tweeted a GIF of an exasperated Viola Davis grabbing her bag and leaving with the caption “When the plantation meeting could’ve been an email”); John Legend lit up West’s phone trying to change his mind via text (which West rejected, took screen shots of and tweeted out); Ta-Nehisi Coates meditated on West after Michael Jackson and in the age of Trump. Van Lathan, the black TMZ employee who repudiated West’s comments on camera, was quickly championed as a hero.

And then the sun set, and it came time for the late-night hosts — a legion of mostly white men who, in the post-Trump media landscape, have been heralded as model liberal beacons — to respond. West’s comments were a dicey topic: They were offensive but inescapable. All the shows had to say something, but it appeared no one quite knew how. On “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Kimmel delivered a cursory monologue where he said he couldn’t handle both problem children — West and Trump — in the news, and barely discussed the specific slavery comments. On “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” the host said, to his credit, that commenting on a black man’s opinions on slavery wasn’t something he was comfortable doing and outsourced a response to Amber Ruffin, a black female comedian. On “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah showed a ham-handed edit of what he called “12 Years a Voluntary Slave,” where the correspondent Roy Wood Jr. extolled slavery between cuts of the actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o looking miserable.

And, in Brooklyn, on a scrappy set in the Vice office, the comedians known as Desus Nice and the Kid Mero were filming their own response. For two seasons, their comedy-cum-current-events show, “Desus and Mero,” has been the answer for anyone in search of a rundown of pop culture from young people who also regularly waste hours surfing the web while slightly stoned. But more important, in a landscape in which black people dominate the culture but have few recognized channels to respond to it, the show, which stars two American black men, provides a venue for black authority in the mainstream. Their rapport has proved so popular that more-established networks have taken notice.

Unlike their late-night peers, the pair don’t have an impeccably plotted approach to the show: They just talk, a geyser of whip-smart running commentary, seamlessly building off each other’s jokes, able to anticipate and carry each other like dancers or jazz musicians. That night, they did a seven-minute segment on West’s appearance on TMZ, offering very little setup — if you knew, you knew. Instead, they just reacted to what they saw, talking in between snippets of footage, saying the same sort of thing we were all thinking, but funnier.

Desus, or Daniel Baker, and Mero, Joel (pronounced Joe-él) Martinez, sat in the shiny leather armchairs in which they conduct the show, with votive candles bearing their likenesses standing between them. Baker, who has a full beard and an air of felinity, lazed on his side for the duration of the show, subdued and dressed in a Carhartt T-shirt and ripped jeans; the cherubic and excitable Martinez, in a sweatshirt and a fitted cap, sipped from a mug filled, most likely, with the contents of the bottle of Brugal rum at his feet.

As the TMZ footage ran, Martinez did a genuine spit-take when West asserted that Trump was “his boy.” “The Kardashians,” Martinez said, “got the reverse Erykah Badu effect: You become unwoke once you [expletive] a Kardashian.” (“Their vaginas are the actual sunken place,” Baker ruled.) Baker began impersonating slaves refusing to pick cotton, disputing work conditions: “I was told I was supposed to be in the house, and I’m in the field, so is there an H.R. rep?” Mero reached to the floor, pretending to pick up an object: “Let me get this paper bag.” He held it up to Baker’s face. “No, you’re in the field.”

What they were able to do that night, better than anybody else on the air, was capture how black people really felt about West’s comments. About halfway through, Baker said: “He doesn’t realize we just want music and sneakers from him. That’s it. That’s it. We don’t want you to change the world, none of that [expletive].” He added: “I just want all white people to notice how black people are not trying to stop Kanye. We’re just looking at this like: ‘Word? You’re on your own, my nigga.’ ”

And their assembled audience — drawn from their respectable Twitter following (about one million people, combined), a good portion of black and Latino people in the New York City area under 35, and anyone who didn’t want to see a white man in a suit pontificate about what might be going through West’s head — rejoiced! Here were two down-to-earth guys assessing the situation for what it was, with the cultural awareness that necessitated the conversation but none of the corniness that typically comes with having a show that comes on after 10:30 p.m. Finally! Someone who knew what they were talking about.

For the past year and a half, Baker and Martinez have traveled four times a week to the unassuming concrete building on the Williamsburg waterfront that holds the Vice offices. Their show is filmed in what’s called the Bear Room, named for the full-size taxidermied bear that permanently resides there, which, because it was Weed Week when I visited, was dressed in four green Timberlands, a bong mask and a baseball cap that read “Legalize It.” When I arrived, Baker and Martinez were discussing the ubiquity of fecal matter in New York City while their makeup artist powdered their shiny spots. Moments later, when the camera switched on, they went into professional mode, which wasn’t that different from how they had been speaking moments earlier.

On most late-night shows, when the host, whether it’s Meyers or John Oliver or Samantha Bee, introduces a segment, it can be tonally similar to the actual news, with detailed context to a story and graphics over their right shoulders. Even the purely comedic bits on these shows are traditional: setup, punch line, audience applause.

Baker and Martinez, on the other hand, rely on a conversational comedy that comes naturally to them. They balance each other: Baker tends to lay down the foundation of a joke, and Martinez heightens it with sound effects, physical humor or a string of expletives. Their show is built partly on the ebb and flow of black Twitter, which is less a tangible space and more an educated curation; Baker gave me the most lucid description of it I’ve heard: “The other day somebody was like, ‘There’s no such thing as gay sex because gay sex to gay people is just sex.’ Black Twitter is just Twitter for black people.” Even if you’re not following black Twitter, you’re likely consuming the media it produces without realizing it: Everything from viral memes to hashtag movements that can bleed quickly into the mainstream, often without attribution. “What black Twitter says is often ignored,” Victor Lopez, the pair’s manager, told me. But because both men are immersed in it, they can, he explained, “represent that on TV.”

Baker and Martinez once told me the story of the rise of Tyrone Hankerson Jr., who was accused of stealing $429,000 from Howard University’s financial-aid office. The morning the story broke, students from Howard were tweeting excitedly at Baker and Martinez, anxiously awaiting their take. The pair held off at first, but by the time they started taping that afternoon, the story was all over Twitter, inspiring a day of memes and jokes. That night’s episode opened with Hankerson. Whatever black Twitter is talking about, Baker told me, “that’s what the show is talking about.”

The show is divided into three sections. In the A block, they riff on the day’s pop culture (on the Kentucky Derby: “Who won? Justify the winner. What does he get now?” “He gets to not be glue. For another two years”), politics (on the coal baron Don Blankenship’s Senate run:“You don’t hear that term anymore in 2018 — coal baron.” “What does he do in his off time, tie people to train tracks?”) and sports (on a distant home run in Fenway Park: “He hit that ball so hard it landed where the black people in Boston be at. Interrupted a Bell Biv Devoe concert”). Then they move on to guest interviews, and shout-outs, where they discuss their favorite viral moments from the week. There are no writers: Every morning, the small team of producers collects news stories and videos they think the pair will enjoy discussing, often from Baker and Martinez’s own Twitter feeds, and drop them into a Google doc, which is on display on a large computer screen just out of view of the camera. The producers will write a few introductory sentences setting up a clip, but then Baker and Martinez just riff, saying what they want. It’s a humble effort: The full staff numbers only about 25 people. “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” by comparison, employs almost seven times that.

Chris Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s “All in With Chris Hayes,” appeared on “Desus and Mero” during its first year; he and Baker attended Pablo Casals Middle School together in the Bronx and still keep in touch. He told me that he appreciates the show’s specificity of a world that’s so rarely represented on TV. “As a person who exists in the world of making a TV show and often feels like the power of convention can be really overwhelming, there’s something extremely refreshing about how different that show feels in its entirety,” he said. “It just feels like a new thing, and that’s really hard to pull off on TV.”

“Desus and Mero” clocks in as the late-night show with both the most diverse audience and the youngest: 35, on average. And though their viewership is dwarfed by behemoths like “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “The Daily Show” or even Andy Cohen’s minor-league “Watch What Happens Live,” their audience has grown each quarter in the past year, most likely because of their appearing as regular guests on those other late-night shows. They’re a late-night host’s late-night host: brash and goofy and relaxed, stars for being able to pull a show off with a tiny team. Meyers, who has hosted the men twice, considers himself a superfan. “If you were at a party, and they weren’t your friends, you would still try to be within earshot,” he told me. “You’d find a corner and try to keep one ear open, because there’s a real magnetism to the way they express things and the fact that they really are talking about a wide breadth of things, from politics to pop culture to sports, in a way that fans out.”

“Desus and Mero” will move to Showtime this fall. Martinez told me that their vision for the new show is a “mash-up of ‘The Daily Show’ and the Chappelle show,” a comedy show that covers the culture while remaining unabashedly black. (They’re considering a weekly format.) Unlike on Viceland, where their comedy was purely verbal, the move will give Baker and Martinez the ability to blow their jokes out visually, potentially write their own sketches and hire correspondents. The new show might look a little more polished — “because if they’re offering more money,” Baker said, “we’ll probably just wanna spend more of it” — but the conceit and execution will more or less remain the same.

The day I visited the set, the pair were filming a few intros and interviews with the actress Paula Patton, the rapper Lil Yachty and Martinez’s hero, the comedian Tracy Morgan. Patton was a pro; chatty and luminous. Lil Yachty kept his eyes on his phone until the second he had to be on camera. Baker and Martinez transformed into nice guidance counselors, trying to politely and supportively goad him into participation. They opened by insisting he brag on himself, and over 15 minutes, Yachty went from stone-faced to cheesing for the camera, delivering the hit line of the interview: “I’m not trying to be the best rapper — I’m rich!”

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