Desus & Mero On Scaling Up, Spotting Fakes, And Sneaker Budgets

The concept is simple: take people who do interesting work and let them be interesting and fun. The layers upon layers that have been piled on top of that simple, foundational late-night talk show concept are… fine, I guess. It’s all a matter of taste and some hosts do it better than others. But, to an extent, the massive band, the cavernous set, the high production value sketches designed to go viral, sermonized monologues, regular monologues, and the very fancy suits all add to the expectation of something epic and, at its worst, something homogenized. Sometimes marrying that simple concept to something smaller and uniquely executed can be better.

I didn’t get on the train as early as a lot of people did with Desus & Mero. I was aware, I was interested, but the time wasn’t there in an age when there are so many viewing options and, to an extent, responsibilities. When I came to understand my imperative need to go deeper, though, I found what one does when they watch the show — an aversion to bullshit, a commitment to that simple late-night idea, and ceaseless originality, charm, and chemistry, all thrown at the audience with a speed and recklessness abandon that is missing from more buttoned-up and risk-averse late-night and comedy, in general.

Check out their recent interview with John Mulaney that no one on that stage seemed to want to let go of. There are no modern comps. He was funny, Desus and Mero were funny, it had a comforting feel of randomness, and Mulaney is 100% right about the ’90s Chicago Bulls being the greatest team of all time and so much better than the John Starks Knicks. His words! (Kinda!) And that’s all the point — people being funny and oh by the way he’s there because he was plugging SNL.

The following interview with Desus & Mero is… not as funny as that interview. Sorry! As I am reminded when I look at my deeply unimpressive suit collection, my unslender figure, and non-famous person bank account, I am not John Mulaney. But what we do have for you is a different thing that, I hope, brings a little bit of fun and some insight into how Desus & Mero comes together, and how they don’t come apart.

So, first off, what are you looking for when you’re looking for someone to come on the show?

Mero: Just variety and somebody where the conversation will be enjoyable. You know what I mean? Or [where we can] maybe show a side of somebody that the general public hasn’t seen yet. You tend to get a lot of canned answers from celebrities. And I feel like the thing that we do really well is kind of turn that switch off and have them be themselves. Have them be human.

Desus: I think when we get guests for the show, it has to be someone that we are genuinely interested in and we enjoy their work or we know who they are. We try not to have guests that are mandated by the network or just someone who we interview just because they’re notorious right now. Like, there has to be some sort of actual chemistry between us and the guests. And there has to be a sense that we actually want to get to know this person. When we do our interviews, it’s more of a conversation versus an interview, where we’re getting to know this person and we’re taking the viewers along on the same path as we’re going. So, if there’s not, like, natural chemistry or at least some sort of desire to find out who these people are, that person would never be a guest.

Obviously, your profile has been rising for the last few years. How on guard do you have to be about people trying to come on to just get at your audience, take advantage of the show and get that exposure?

Desus: Oh yeah, we can see that a mile away. You can tell someone we don’t rock with or who doesn’t rock with our show or wouldn’t be a good fit for our show. Or just someone coming on the show to do politics. That’s not what our viewers want and we wouldn’t want that, so we wouldn’t have someone like that on the show. But you can always kind of tell because most of the people we have on the show, it’s a personal relationship we have with them. It’s not so much like their handlers reach out. We’ve gone to dinner with these people, or a friend of a friend might recommend them. So, for someone to just come on and we know nothing about them, that probably would never happen.

Would you want to have a Trump or a Bloomberg on to see the chaos?

Desus: Kind of sort of just to see… The problem is, they get softball interviews. No one asks them real questions. If we were allowed to interview them and it’s no-holds-barred, we can ask them real questions, I think those would be some pretty interesting interviews. Because no one ever asks Trump any secondary questions. If he says something wild… If he just’s like, “the moon is made out of cheese,” no one’s like, “wait, why do you think the moon is made out of cheese?” They just let him keep talking. So, if you were to have an interview the way we do interviews, we’d have to press him on some things. I think people would probably learn a lot, or see just how crazy he is.

Mero: The thing about that, about having a Trump or a Bloomberg or something like that is that, yeah, you would get an awesome look into that. But realistically, these people have teams and have publicists and they have stuff like that. So, that show would never see the light of day. It’ll be the best interview you never saw. You know what I mean?

Oh yeah, that shit’s going to like Area 51.

Mero: Oh, forget about it. These people are so in control of their narrative and what they’re pushing that they wouldn’t let the truth come out. You know what I mean? If Trump came on the show and we interviewed him and we did hit him with hardball questions and he started stuttering or whatever, his people wouldn’t let this shit come out. Which is unfortunate, but you know, rules are rules.

I really liked the focus group, are you planning on doing more remotes like that as the election nears?

Desus: Oh, definitely. It was one of those things where it seems like a lot of work. And we had to go all the way up to New Hampshire and recruit people to be in a focus group, but it paid off. It paid dividends. It was fun. It was farcical. At the same time, it was actually exposing what minorities cared about in New Hampshire. Everyone at that focus group said, “Thank you for coming up here. No one ever cares how we feel.” When the New Hampshire primary is happening, everyone talks to everyone else except the minorities up there. And we realized it’s an untapped market and it’s these same people, they watch our show. So, it’s a perfect combination. It’s giving our viewers a voice. You really see stuff that, I can guarantee, you’re not going to get on any other channel. It also taught me something about the primaries. They’re always interviewing old people who are eating in a diner somewhere. Like, if you’re eating breakfast at 7:00 AM in a diner, I don’t know if we have the same views.

Mero: Staring into your black coffee, way in the back.

The praise that Letterman laid down for you guys in the middle of that interview, how impactful was that for you guys? I’m just curious, at this point, how impactful is any kind of praise? Because you guys get a lot of it all the time. Do you really take that in? Or do you just have to move through it and keep doing your thing?

Mero: Well, you got to keep doing your thing, you can’t get too big-headed. But coming from somebody like Letterman, who said very literally in the interview, “If I had my way, this was the show that I would have done from jump…” That just goes to show that having control of what you’re putting out is super important. Because it’s like, somebody like David Letterman, who most people consider to be, like I said, the Michael Jordan of late night… And then to pass the torch like that and to also, on top of that, say this is what a late-night talk show’s supposed to be, that’s high praise. But at the same time, you can’t let yourself get too hyped about it, because then you’re like, “Oh, we’re here, we arrived.” You know what I mean? We don’t got to do nothing else.

Desus: I mean, I feel differently. It’s like when people give you praise… The idea like, praise is praise is praise, it sounds like a stupid statement. But you have to just take it equally, because yes, David Letterman is… He’s a god. But you gotta temper your expectations. You also gotta have the same respect for the security guard who’s like, “yo, I fuck with the show.” You know what I mean?

Having Letterman be like, yo… It’s amazing. It’s amazing. That was a moment, because that was more like, someone who does the same occupation as you recognizing what you’re doing… and that means a lot. Because David Letterman knows all the technical details that go into it. He knows about booking guests, he knows about conversational flow, how to direct the interview and all that stuff. So, to have someone who does that and they know how hard it is to do it and then they throw it back to you and they’re just like, “fam, you’re killing the game…” That was super high praise. That was a moment. I think you could actually see our faces on there. We’re like, “Yo, is this really happening?”

Yeah. But like you said, that security guard though, I mean, knowing what that means to that guy. Just to get a little bit of time away from the chaos of the world. I’m sure that feels fantastic too.

Desus: Yeah! That’s when [someone’s] like, “I love to get home and after a long day of work, me and my girl we roll up a blunt and we watch your show together. That’s what we look forward to.” And I’m going to say, “Wow.” So much crazy stuff going on in the world, like that… For half an hour, twice a week, you get people’s minds off their problems and we make them laugh. And that’s the best feeling in the world.

You’ve been paired together for a while. Jumping from Complex to Vice to now Showtime, doing the show, podcasts, everything, now you’ve got a book coming out (God-Level Knowledge Darts) in April. How have things changed? Because obviously keeping any kind of friendship together for a long time like that, it comes with challenges.

Mero: Yeah, I mean, it’s a scale. We just scaled up. We’re delivering the same product but a bigger scale, you know what I mean? It’s not like we’re totally changing, doing a 180 from what we were doing before. We’re just growing and scaling up as we’re supposed to. I keep having kids. That’s how my life has changed. I got more stuff on the plate, you know what I mean? So, adding collaborations with clothing companies, adding the book, adding these kinds of things… It’s dope. But it’s just scaling up. What was an idea has become a company essentially. Like a brand. You got to be cognizant of that and not lose track of what got you there, which is your humor, intellect, your view of the world, the way you relate to people, and stuff like that. But other than that, it’s just more hours. It’s just like putting in more hours, which is cool with me.

Desus: And then there’s also… things change because some of the stresses that I had when I was at MTV or Vice, now being at Showtime those are removed. I have an assistant now, I have a driver. So, it gives you more of a chance to work on other projects. It’s like, good and bad, things change. You have less stress but then you have new stress. You have to fly places more often and you have to know the schedule, you’re constantly doing interviews. So, it’s all of that, just having people there to help you get through it. And just not becoming overwhelmed and also always remembering that this is not the easiest job, but this is probably the easiest job I’ve ever had in my life and I enjoy doing it. And having a chance to have a job that you like doing every day is so rare that you try not to take it for granted. So, you keep that in mind, whenever little obstacles come up in the friendship or whatever.

What prompted the book? What made you want to do an advice book?

Mero: It was a logical next step. You know what I mean? We’ve done TV, we’ve done podcasting, we’ve done… What other media could we take a stab at and do well?

Holograms. Do hologram tours like Tupac.

Mero: [Laughs] All that shit. Stay tuned for that, yeah, stay tuned for that, because we coming. Yeah, no, but like I said before, scaling up. You know what I mean? If you do a podcast and it’s popular and it turns into a show that becomes popular it’s like, “Okay, what other avenues could we explore to get this stuff into people’s hands?” And books, it’s just another medium to get people the brain.

Desus: I mean, I always wanted to write a book and to be approached by Random House… Yo, that’s official. You know, sometimes you gotta self publish, sometimes you got to sell it yourself but Random House was like, “yo, we want a book from you.” Also, people are reading the tweets and stuff, so it was like the next logical step.

One of the things you talk about in the book is how much is too much for shoes. What’s the right answer there? Help me justify my addiction to my wife.

Mero: Well, I think, if it’s something you really really want, then there is no limit. If it’s something that will make you happy. Like Marie Kondo says, “If it sparks joy…” Then she got a show.

Desus: Yeah, there’s definitely a little bit for sneakers. I’m going to have to go with your wife here. If you pay over… Wait, do you have kids?

No, no.

Desus: Okay. No kids. All right, so you’re living for sneakers. I’m going to be generous here. You could, without feeling bad, you could pay up to $1,200 for sneakers.

You mean total? Or for a pair?

Desus: Total.

Oh, I’m fine then.

Desus: Here’s the trick. You have to sell your wife on the sneakers by saying they mark a special occasion or you did a special interview. Or you got a special column printed that you want to celebrate and then you treat yourself to a pair of the Jordan 1 Off-Whites.

All right, so now I’ve got the strategy down.

Desus: There you go.

I appreciate that. That’s helpful.

Desus: No problem.

What is it that people miss about what’s special about the Bronx right now?

Mero: A lot of New York is very sterile. You know what I mean? You go to Manhattan, you go to Midtown, or something, it’s cool. But there’s like a special flavor in the Bronx. It’s totally indescribable. It’s the last bastion of New York. When people think about New York… I’m not talking about New York like, “Oh, you’re going to get robbed there or get shot.” It’s just, like, people eating food from where they come from and speaking different languages and just… You know what I mean? Just like a different vibe, or just a different feeling you get there that you don’t get in Williamsburg or Bushwick anymore. You know what I’m saying? It’s just different. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. There’s just something different about it.

Has your appreciation grown for it? Because I know you’re living out in Jersey now. Has your appreciation grown as you’ve gotten some distance from it? Since you’re not there every day.

Mero: Yeah, no, my sister’s there. We still have our own apartment. I’m there every weekend. My nephew’s there, my whole family’s there. So, I’m there constantly. And I always go back and eat where I used to eat. And it’s just comfort and familiarity and just your friends and the people that you grew up with and all that type of stuff. So, you need that. And that is part of what keeps you grounded. It’s like, oh, the people there are like, “Yo, man, I remember when you were making a $150 a week, homey, before taxes.” You’re mellow. You know what I mean? But all the other people that are just learning about you now, they have a different view of you than the people that you grew up with. And there’s a sort of sense of pride of coming back to where you came from and being like, “Yo, look, I did this.” You know what I mean? I achieved this. And you all helped me.

I know we were talking before about hologram shit and progressing from the podcast to the show to the book, but seriously, what’s the five-year plan? Where do you guys want to be in five years?

Desus: Richer.

Mero: Producing, doing more behind the camera stuff, writing, bringing up other voices. Just experiment.

Desus: Yeah, like the sky’s the limit. Because I mean, we already probably exceeded most people’s expectations of us. Just having a successful podcast at one point was like, “yo, could they even pull that off?” And now, we’re on TV and cable. So, up next, I mean, movies, maybe write the next Hamilton, maybe we bring back Bill Nye The Science Guy, literally anything. We can do anything.

All right. I look forward to seeing Bill Nye and the holograms and all that shit. Hologram Bill Nye, whatever you need to do.

Desus: Great, we’re doing it all.

Mero: Hologram Bill Nye riding a Peloton, let’s go!

‘Desus & Mero’ airs Mondays and Thursdays at 11pm ET on Showtime and ‘God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons From The Bronx’ comes out on April 14.