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From The Bronx To Cable Stardom, Desus And Mero Are Remaking Late-Night

Desus Nice, left, and The Kid Mero attend the FYC Event for VICELAND's <em>Desus & Mero</em> at the Saban Media Center on April 20, 2018 in North Hollywood, Calif. The duo has launched a new program on <em>Showtime.</em>
Charley Gallay
Getty Images for VICELAND
Desus Nice, left, and The Kid Mero attend the FYC Event for VICELAND's Desus & Mero at the Saban Media Center on April 20, 2018 in North Hollywood, Calif. The duo has launched a new program on Showtime.

When Desus and Mero stopped by NPR's New York bureau the day after their buzzy new late-night talk show debuted on Showtime, they were still taking it all in.

"We're still a little hungover from the premiere party," says Daniel Baker, also known as Desus Nice. Joel Martinez, or The Kid Mero, chimes in, "I can barely speak, I'm so exhausted."

In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, the comedy duo say they can hardly believe their newfound success.

"You're asking me if five years ago Vanity Fair would've called me handsome?" Mero says, dismissing the idea offhand with a profanity.

Desus adds, "Definitely last night was one of those moments like in a movie where you sit around just staring at everything, trying to take it in like, 'Yo, is this for real?' I'm starting to feel a little afraid, like this might just be like a really long dream."

"Like I'm just going to wake up out of a Xanax nap in the White Castle on Fordham Road," Mero says.

They throw the joke back and forth, serving and returning banter in a style they call "joke tennis."

In the crowded field of late-night talk show hosts, Desus and Mero are unlike any other. Their irreverent comedy is anchored in their Bronx upbringing, and the two have an informal familiarity with their interview subjects — whether it be rapper Diddy or former attorney general Eric Holder or New York Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand.

Both on their new show — and on its predecessor, which aired on VICELAND — they've ditched the typical uniforms of late-night hosts. Instead of suits, they wear hoodies, hats and sneakers.

"There's like a looseness to it," Mero says. "We just want to keep things as light and off-the-cuff as possible ... you're not getting that anywhere else on late-night."

"Our show is like a deconstructed late-night show," Desus adds. "What you see on our show hopefully you won't see on any other show — and shoutout to Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon — we know those guys and we've done their show, and there is definitely a market for it, but the show has been done so many times, you know the format: monologue, house band, guest one. While that works, there has to be some sort of change or a different option on late-night and that's what we're trying to deliver on our show."

Their rapid-fire humor was honed in New York City public schools, where they met in summer school before reconnecting on Twitter years later. The two bonded over a shared hatred of their monotonous jobs.

Desus calls their high/low brand of humor "very New York."

"That's the tradition in New York City public schools," he says. "You have to learn how to be really quick and fast and you roast people. And ... we do have very eclectic backgrounds. I was working at a financial magazine, so I probably know more about tax forms than the average person. So stuff like that you can work into your riffs and people appreciate that. We're able to be like, 'Oh this reminds me of the treaty of Versailles,' or something like that. You could just really mix it up with people and they're like, 'Wow, this isn't all just hood jokes about drugs and guns. There is a level of intellect here."

With their first in-studio guest, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., they had the chance to flex both their Bronx bona fides and their ability to pull off a substantive interview with a newsmaker. After asking about the Green New Deal and Twitter trolls, the two paid a visit to the congresswoman's D.C. office on Capitol Hill where they gifted her some reminders of the Bronx, including a rack of plantain chips and a Puerto Rican flag. They left a pair of sneakers hanging by the laces on the chandelier on the ceiling.

"We call it late-night for the people, because there's a demographic of people who do not see themselves represented in late-night or don't see the comedy and information they want represented in late-night, so we're trying to deliver that," Desus says.

They say they don't worry about suffering the same fate as Arsenio Hall, Larry Wilmore or W. Kamau Bell — other comedians of color who attempted to bring a different aesthetic to late-night, whose shows were short-lived or eventually canceled.

"I think those people were kind of brought up in the framework of Hollywood, being writers, being in writers' rooms, working under the structure of Hollywood," Mero says. "And you could be super talented, super funny, super smart ... But if you're working within these constraints ... you're still kind of doing the same thing that the other people are doing. It's just that you're not white."

Desus says another advantage they have is in how their show is marketed.

"Our show has never been advertised as a show for black people," he says. "Yes, I happen to be Jamaican. He happens to be Dominican ... But if you watched the first episode, the jokes weren't so coded in Ebonics that you couldn't understand. They're very accessible."

They say their families, who previously took little interest in what they did for a living, are slowly coming around.

"My father texted me last night," Desus says. "He was like, 'I laughed during your show,' which doesn't sound like a lot. But he's gone from not acknowledging I was on TV to actually being excited for the Showtime show ... He's like an older Jamaican man — they don't laugh at anything except like if the price of heating oil comes down. So for him to laugh at last night's show means the world."

Mero, who often imitates his family's Dominican accent to great comic effect, says his father remains "confused" about his line of work, but the rest of the family is impressed.

"My cousin sent me a video of all my old uncles sitting huddled around the TV watching the show last night, and I was just like, 'Wow!'" he says. "All that making fun of them and impersonating them when I was like 6 years old paid off. "

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Janaya Williams