‘Desus & Mero’ Wants To Change The Face Of Late Night, Casually

Uproxx’s (slightly extended) Late Night Week continues with a look at an innovative talk show imported from the world of podcasts.

When you watch late night TV, you know you’re watching a television show. There’s a theatricality to the typical late night format – the host, the live audience, the celebrity guests, the bits and sketches – that creates neutral, easily digestible pre-bedtime programming. It’s a sharp contrast from the world of podcasts, where the production elements include not much more than a couple of microphones, and where the audience is a comparatively smaller concentration of likeminded listeners. Desus Nice and The Kid Mero honed their collective voice in this world, using the inherent freedom of the web to translate their years of Twitter hot takes on sports, music, and the world-at-large into a podcast that reflected their personalities: sardonic, naturally funny, and explicit in both ideas and language.

Their audience has gotten larger since their show, Desus & Mero, debuted on Viceland in October, but their biting pop culture commentary has remained intact. The transition from the web to television has been smooth in large part due to minimal network interference. “Viceland doesn’t really restrict what we say,” Desus told us in an interview. “We can basically talk about any topic we want. It’s a lot like a visual podcast.”

The “podcast on TV” approach doesn’t fit tidily into the conventional late night arena, but it’s a refreshing perspective. Rather than watching a television show, watching Desus & Mero is like watching your friends (or friends you wish you had) bounce jokes off of each other in your basement. The show resembles a real-life Wayne’s World by way of The Soup and Pardon the Interruption. There’s a healthy variety of politics, sports, entertainment, and web culture news bits per episode, all of which are treated with the same levity. (Though conversations surrounding critics of the Knicks tend to get them heated, and Desus has some impassioned thoughts on Carrie and Aiden’s relationship on Sex and the City. When we asked him about it, he warned, “Don’t get me started.”) The shoot-around approach to the discussion heightens the Desus and Mero’s well-established comedy style, in which one quip informs another until the jokes build into a minutes-long back-and-forth that barely resembles where it started. You get the feeling the two could riff on one topic for hours unless something else caught their attention.

An episode’s development includes exactly “zero writers.” Rather, Mero explains, “It’s just us. We sit down with the production team in the morning and talk about what we think is interesting, like what we saw on Twitter, on the news, on the street. Anywhere. Sh*t that we just want to talk about.” A typical episode features 10 to 15 topics that are listed on the right side of the screen, and might include video clips of an overzealous fan giving Russell Westbrook the finger, takes on the post-election safety pins worn by liberal allies, and deep analysis of Nat Geo Channel’s video of penguin home wreckers. Often, an episode of Desus & Mero will begin with a bit about the current state of politics, but tends not to bring it up again in within the same episode. For comedy, Mero said, “Trump is the gift that keeps on giving,” until the fatigue set in. “It got to the point where we were like, ‘this isn’t funny anymore,'” Desus added. “The humor went from really farcical and lighthearted, and to really serious, and then it got a lot darker.”

Desus & Mero even did an impressively upbeat live election night special. Though Mero described it as “like the Titanic was sinking,” the episode was kept lively by the hosts’ sense of pragmatic optimism and a series of guests, like rapper Jim Jones and Viceland’s own Krishna Andavolu. Each episode of Desus & Mero features an in-studio guest, including Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, adult film star Janice Griffith, and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco. If you don’t recognize the guests, that’s by design. There is no contractual obligation to stop by and chat on Desus & Mero, and because of that the conversations with their guests never feel forced. “We try not to have anyone that wants to pitch things,” said Desus. “If you’re on our show, we’d hang out with you in real life.”

Viceland launched in February of 2016 as an off-shoot of the Vice media empire, and has already shown a predilection for unusual programming. For that reason, it’s easy to imagine that the network (for which filmmaker Spike Jonze serves as creative director) was drawn to the duo’s lack of pretense and audacious style. But their perspective is also an asset because it’s one that’s not often heard on TV. (A promo for the show describes it aptly: “No Big Guests, No Audience, No White Guys.”) Desus & Mero stands out from Viceland’s lineup, since most of their shows are docuseries, but the hosts feel the same responsibility to inform as their channel’s fellow shows. Their topics of discussion may include things as inconsequential as penguins getting into fights, but Desus and Mero see their mere presence on TV as informative. No matter what they’re discussing, Mero explained, “our background, ethnicities, and race ties into our view of the world. And the views of the world you’re getting on TV are usually white, male views. So any break from that is educational.”

Desus and Mero know what they want their show to be, and it seems to stem from a willingness to be interested in constructing parameters for conversation, and how that conversation makes for a more genuine and honest viewing experience. It’s the combined focus of maintaining the show as a visual podcast, allowing themselves to trust their instincts when choosing what topics to discuss, and contract-free guests that gives Desus & Mero its fresh, easygoing vibe. This organic method of creating what is essentially a talk show makes it clear that hosts are not consciously trying to reinvent late night, even if that’s what they’re doing. Though the show airs at 11pm Monday through Thursday, the two consider their show to be “late night” only in timeslot: “As far as the formula that you’ve been seeing for the last 40 years, it’s not that at all,” Mero said. Rather, it’s “two dudes just talking from a perspective that’s not on TV.”