Feature: How ‘Desus & Mero’ Conquered Late Night

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!”


Paula Patton on Desus and Mero’s show.

From Viceland

But the jewel of the afternoon was Morgan, who arrived in a royal blue sweater, a blindingly white durag and a dookie chain. Once the cameras were on, Morgan spoke nearly without interruption for upward of 26 minutes, giving an inspirational, rambling sermon that touched on helping the needy, losing his close friend in his 2014 traumatic car accident, Obi-Wan Kenobi, creating a legacy for his great-grandchildren, school shootings, the importance of forming spiritual connections with your partner, what he had for dinner the previous night, Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life,” the exhaustion of having an affair, being a runaway and, in detail, his sexual proclivities. (“You ain’t never had an interview like this on this show,” he boasted at one point.) Midway through the interview, Baker looked worn out, suffering from intellectual whiplash; Martinez, on the other hand, glowed with glee, nearly incapacitated by his own happiness. There were interview prompts for Baker and Martinez on a computer screen — Morgan was there to promote his new show, which he would ostensibly want to talk about — but they let Morgan go on, not only because they knew that they could run the full version online, but also because that’s just how a conversation can go: When you make a plan, Tracy Morgan laughs.

Over time, they have become known for their relaxed interview style: It’s a conversation among three people on equal footing. Once they get past the introduction, questions are asked in the style of a curious friend: “How much money do you spend at the club?” “What video games are you playing right now?” “How many cars do you have?” Their first year, booking guests for a talk show that no one had ever heard of proved challenging, so most of the interviews were conducted with friends or friends of friends, many of whom were names in New York media circles: the actress Awkwafina; Charlmagne tha God, a host of Power 105.1’s “The Breakfast Club”; the Instagram celebrity the Fat Jew. Those interviews were a little clunky, but with time, their interviewing skills and guest pull improved. (They’re still not great at reading that computer screen, though.) Now, in Season 2, guests have included Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael B. Jordan, Melissa McCarthy, Spike Lee and Chadwick Boseman, as well as interviews that provide an esoteric insight into black culture, with people like J. Prince, the man who cooled off the recent feud between Drake and Pusha T.

After wrapping up that day, Morgan commended Baker and Martinez, likening his experience to being on Howard Stern, who, he said, used to let Morgan just let loose, with interviews often lasting more than an hour. “In my last life,” he said, returning to his contemplative mode, “you were probably my favorite [expletive] cousins.”


Tracy Morgan on the show.

From Viceland

As a teenager, Martinez used to watch Morgan on “Def Comedy Jam” and “Martin.” But he also saw him at a Twin Donut in his Bronx neighborhood. Morgan grew up in Brooklyn, but, for Martinez, the idea that someone like him — another black person, another person from the hood — could make it big as a comedian, without having to change himself, stuck with him. Martinez was born into a large extended family in Washington Heights, moving to the Bronx as a young child. (Fluent in Spanish, he has caught flak from people, unfamiliar with Afro-Latinos, who don’t realize that many Dominican people are black and think he’s appropriating black culture.) He discovered his comedic talent early. An uncle would say something stupid, and Martinez would parrot it back perfectly, sending the room into fits. (The talent persists: Over one of our conversations, his voices included Nick Cannon, Diddy, a North Carolinian, a West African parent and the “job-interview voice.”) His childhood nickname was Romiro, which he tweaked when he started tagging.

After high school, he worked his way from the mailroom at Lehman Brothers to the I.T. department. Eventually, he started working as a paraprofessional in a special-education class at I.S. 117, his alma mater, in the Bronx. He was satisfied with going through the motions until, one day, he handed a student an assignment, and the kid popped off, refusing to do it. Martinez got his class yearbook and took it to the students: “I’m not one of those Teach for America [expletive] from New Hampshire,” he told them. “I’m from the hood, just like you.” The moment created a bond with his students. Even now, Martinez speaks about the experience with reverence; he even toyed with the idea of becoming a guidance counselor, because he so admired their work. “But then I was like, ‘[Expletive] it, I’m trying to make money.’ ”

When he wasn’t working, Martinez was blogging; a friend suggested that he sign up for Twitter, believing that his bon mots were well attuned to the platform, and he quickly amassed a considerable following. One day he got an email from an editor at the a pop-culture website Complex, asking him if he had any free time to chat about job opportunities. He responded: “I work at a public school, and it’s Rosh Hashana, my guy. I’m in the crib eating challah bread French toast, watching ‘The Sopranos’ with a fraudulent HBO Go login. Holla at me.” The editor mentioned that he’d also invited another Twitter favorite to the meeting: Desus Nice.

Baker grew up in the Bronx neighborhood of Wakefield, the son of Jamaican immigrants. He has joked that all they had when they came to America was “a goat and one Bitcoin.” He got into computers as a teenager, hanging out in chat rooms, cracking unsecured servers and often fixing his family’s computer, prompting them to call him Jesus, which he personalized with a D. As a student at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, in Riverdale, he found himself too advanced for the college’s course offerings in computer programming, so he switched to English. After graduating, he worked a number of jobs — mechanic, construction worker, domain-name salesperson, club manager, bartender, D.J., coat checker, programmer, web designer — eventually landing as a small-business reporter at a trade publication that he found so absurd that he couldn’t help live-tweeting his day-to-day: the Christmas party where the only offerings were fried chicken and coleslaw, the boss who regularly fell asleep in meetings, a co-worker who refused to wear shoes, arguments over whether more people in the world eat goat or pasta.

He used Twitter largely to vent about his job, but he also tweeted about the Bronx, catching the attention of Martinez, who was doing the same. They had attended the same summer school, so they were already familiar with each other, but their online chemistry came naturally, with the two retweeting and piggybacking off each other’s jokes. That Complex meeting resulted in a podcast called “Desus vs. Mero,” a more caustic, coarser version of the show they have now. Before long, Complex relaunched their podcast as a web show; in 2014, the pair departed for a bigger contract at MTV2 but struggled to find their footing, mostly appearing intermittently on other talking-head shows. (Around this time, they started a new podcast, “Bodega Boys,” that is still running.) The two balked at using teleprompters and having to write scripts that executives needed to approve. Only two years into a three-year contract, they were filming what would be their last show when the teleprompter failed. They did the show off the tops of their heads, and the audience loved it.

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