• VICELAND’s Desus & Mero: Late-Night Television With a Laugh (And Plenty of Thought)

    By Thomas Klepacz

    On the Wednesday, November 30th episode of VICELAND’s new daily program Desus & Mero, the show’s two hosts — Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez (or as Twitter and the world knows them, “Desus Nice” and “The Kid Mero”) — discuss the Charlotte Police Department’s withholding of charges against the officer who shot and killed Keith Scott, a 43-year-old man of color with a history of TBI (traumatic brain injury). As follows:

    DESUS: “The DAs say Keith Scott could’ve raised a gun and killed any of those officers when he got out the car, even though the video they showed showed he had no gun in his hand…And they actually showed a bulge in his pants that they say was the gun, so they’re saying he could’ve reached for it or something like that? In an open carry state, which isn’t necessarily illegal… but, you know, there’s different laws for different people.”

    THE KID MERO: “So, the officers were triggered by this guy having a “weird look in his eye,” which is commonly referred to as fear of death…fear of being shot to death by thirteen police officers? You know what I’m saying? Fam, this is the thing… Imagine a cop screaming at you saying “get outta the car” — it’s a jarring experience, you know what I’m saying b? It’s hard to get out and respond and be like ‘Yes, of course, well here is the thing that you have requested.’ That’s not how it works, b. Human beings are human beings, and they have adrenaline, and emotions, and variables.”

    The room surrounding the two — the conference room of the VICE office in Brooklyn, complete with various PAs, plants, rugs, wallpaper depicting a forest, and a stuffed bear with Timberland boots and a Yankee hat on — typically erupts in laughter as Desus and Mero complete each of their talking points. This time, however, the room responds with pindrop silence — so much so that Desus, typically the calm driver of dialogue, can only chuckle and reach for his coffee mug. “So much for that shit killing the vibe in the room,” he says as he sips.

    The moment is a shift from the show’s usual tone, albeit an important one. Oftentimes the program, which launched in October of this year, involves quick, witty banter on topics ranging from the New York Knicks (who practically have their own segment on the show) to viral animal videos and sneaker releases. Celebrity tweets are a common facet — fitting, since both Desus and Mero first gained prominence through hilarious and cutting takes on US pop culture via Twitter. Takes like thesethese, or these populate each of their (still) tremendously popular pages. As Mero once told Rolling Stone, his approach towards Twitter comedy is something like:

    “…high school: chilling in the parking lot, riffing on shit, making fun of people, but in a funny way, not a bullying, ‘I want you to commit suicide’ way…Go to any New York public school right now, there’s 15 dudes standing in a circle making fun of each other. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School, and the shit motherfuckers would say waiting for the 40 bus or the 6 train is the shit we say now. It’s an extension of that.”

    But now, the riffing is broadcast for a combined total of 360,000 Twitter followers (and many other viewers on VICELAND). It’s as though the communal, familial act of “shit-talking” one’s peers — typically an intimate experience between, as Mero says, “15 dudes in a circle” — has suddenly been given the grand cultural stage of a late-night TV show. As ads for the show proclaim, Desus & Mero is SNL with no white guys; Jimmy Kimmel without a band; Conan with no Brad Pitt guest appearances. Desus and Mero have matched the loudest late-night voices of the world — the white-guy salons of David Letterman and Jay Leno, so to speak — with a voice of their own. Desus & Mero also happens to be much better.

    If anything, the quality of Desus & Mero speaks to the merits of populist selection. Less than ten years ago, both Desus and Mero weren’t “Desus Nice” and “THE KID MERO” — they were New Yorkers who made Twitter accounts. In the case of Daniel Baker (“Desus”), Twitter membership came as a response to overwhelming boredom felt in his job as a business journalist.  As Desus has said, also to Rolling Stone, “I was writing articles for small businesspeople about tax codes. It was the worst. So I started tweeting about how bad things were at my job, and it was comical to some people. It was therapy to me.” Mero’s start came from a similar place: while working as a teacher’s aide at a Bronx school, a friend recommended he join Twitter. “It sounded like the stupidest shit ever, but I was like, what else am I gonna do? I come home and and play Call of Duty for 12 hours then go outside and hope somebody buys me a beer.”

    Within two years (when I first came across the pair on Twitter, in 2011) each had gained tens of thousands of followers. Their early personas were essentially the same as what we see on Twitter (and TV) today — Desus wrote witty cultural criticism in short, lower-case quips, while Mero made hilarious all-caps pronouncements on topics ranging from Bronx rapper French Montana to his beloved Yankees and Knicks. They had met in person before, but their shared interest in true New York cultural heritage lead them to reconnect online, and @s at one another frequent. They generated their own world via Twitter; a unique crowd-sourced space in a corporate-driven web forum that allowed for a free exchange of ideas similar to those disseminated on crowded 6 trains. Within five years of joining Twitter, the two had a podcast with Complex called Desus vs. Mero where they talked about things they tweeted about. And within seven years, they had a daily late-night show on a TV network where they — yes — talked about what they tweeted about.

    Many of their discussions still focus on those same topics they have always tweeted about: the successes of a Latvian sort-of-superstar on the Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis (referred to as “Porzingod” by the pair), are a common facet, as are hilarious one-off moments like the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson decision to drink a Coors Light during a post-game conference. They feature guests like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Instagram star Amina Blue, and legendary Yonkers rap trio The Lox. In nearly every case, the pair integrates guests seamlessly through discussions of the cultural topics that drive the show forward.

    In light of recent events, however, many of these subjects have shifted — or at least taken a political turn. Nearly every episode of the show includes a discussion of contemporary US politics, whether it’s Trump’s terrifying policy stances or celebrity response to the nomination (like Kanye West’s recent handshake with the President-elect, a moment Desus and Mero dubbed “Illuminati Dap”). While the pair have always shown a distinct regard for prescient political matters, content regarding socio political subjects has seen a rise in coverage — and in some cases, has even subsumed discussions of “sneakers” and “mad kids” like VICE describes. Almost always, these discussions are bookended by a laugh. Except the moments in which they don’t — like the discussion on Keith Scott’s tragic and unjust killing.

    This is precisely where the show — and Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez — become great. In a world of late-night entertainers that jostle and kid with Donald Trump, Desus and Mero maintain cultural critique that sometimes doesn’t allow for a laugh. Although the two often joke about Trump (Mero refers to him as a Cheeto at times), his egregious picks for cabinet positions (framing them in smart, cutting quips like saying Ben Carson’s only background in housing is that he’s lived in one), and the general background of white hatred from which he derives, there are certain moments of darkness that a laugh can’t cut. No hair-rustling — only an unplanned, unrehearsed dialogue between two men entirely disgusted by the way in which many Americans treat people of color.

    But many Americans also choose Desus and Mero. Through likes, retweets, and endorsements, the comedic talent of Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez has traveled from Twitter pages in 2009 to cable-television screens in 2016. In its truest sense, Desus & Mero is late night television by the people and for the people — a legitimately honest, smart, and funny voice in a world that needs them now more than ever.