Television

Desus & Mero Isn’t the Future of Late Night. Yet.

The internet-savvy duo’s Showtime show is off to a slow start, but that happens when you’re paving your own trail.

Desus and Mero on their show.
Desus Nice and the Kid Mero on Desus & Mero.
Greg Endries/Showtime

Desus Nice and the Kid Mero are very easy to root for. The charming Bronx natives and comedic heavyweights came to prominence via a completely different trajectory than any of their peers’. Stuck in dreary day jobs, the two separately wrote funny tweets about their predicaments and current events, jokes that got them noticed by digital platforms. Then came a podcast and web series on Complex, guest appearances on MTV shows, another still-running podcast called Bodega Boys, and a late-night show on Viceland that aired four days a week. A spat with that network—where they were far and away the biggest audience draw—led them to take an offer with Showtime, where since February they’ve been the hosts of Desus & Mero, the network’s first-ever late-night talk show and, according to Desus, “the No. 1 show in late night.” (Fact check: No, sadly.) It’s been a splendid come-up for the two—real names Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez—who seem made for this: to keep making each other, and the world at large, laugh with short, biting quips, whether in the form of the written word or a verbal jab, through a smartphone or a TV screen.

The structure of Desus & Mero is much different than that of other late-night shows, with a core firmly based in the format they’ve trafficked in since Complex’s Desus vs. Mero. Instead of a monologue that breaks down the news of the day, the two go through viral videos and noteworthy news stories one by one, reacting in real time to each zany event that comes their way. (“We want the show to basically be like a Twitter feed,” Desus has explained.) Desus sits on the left, Mero on the right, with bottles of booze between them, and a conveyor belt of stories comes their way, featuring bizarre real-life characters and scenarios waiting to be roasted. The two don’t have a sidekick, but they chat regularly with their friendly producers, whose voices have become familiar although their faces are rarely seen. They also regularly interview famous guests in a relaxed fashion, continuing a tradition that started with their Viceland show, Desus & Mero, setting up conversations that are typically short on substance but high on laughs and autobiographical anecdotes. It’s all worked well for them so far. According to the New York Times, Desus and Mero have the youngest and most diverse audience of all the hosts in late night.

Showtime has given the duo their biggest platform to date. It’s quite a gamble, considering their unconventional approach and the fact that, unlike at Viceland, they are by no means the primary driver of their new network’s ratings. Nonetheless, Showtime has gone all-in. With the increased budget has come a diverse, elite writing staff, a larger studio, more venturing outside of that studio, prominent publicity, and a blitz of early advertising. As the two repeatedly boast, Desus and Mero get a lot of freedom from Showtime to basically do what they want; even the writers seem to be there more to offer prompts and suggestions than to dictate full scripts. It seems to be a mutually beneficial partnership: “We’re opening them up to an audience they might not reach, and they’re opening us up to an audience we might not reach,” Mero claimed in an interview. (Recognizing the disparity in their established audiences, Showtime offered a discount subscription especially to Desus and Mero’s fans.)

We’re now seeing what happens when two internet natives far removed from the traditional comedy pipeline come into their own, reaching out to audiences who may not even know what Black Twitter is. The results have been mixed. After the first episode, when over 100,000 viewers tuned in to watch Desus and Mero hang out with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ratings have dropped off sharply. The show’s frequency has been increased to twice a week, and its structure has also been tweaked as it’s gone along. The signature riffs at the top of the show are always there, but there are new additions: outings with celebrities and presidential candidates, musical performances, sketches, Q&As with New Yorkers on the streets, and other experiments (a recent episode consisted solely of bloopers). The interviews vary in quality—sometimes they feel stiff, sometimes superficial, and sometimes completely joyful. (The best have been with subjects who can match Desus and Mero’s energy, like Spike Lee and Bill Hader.) The comedic sketches, besides the first episode’s hilarious Green Book parody, mostly fall flat or come off confusing. And the special celebrity outings—distinct from the standard interviews—which feature situations like songwriting with Lin Manuel-Miranda and John Legend or faux therapy with Amy Poehler, tend to come off as dull and pointless.

The core of Desus and Mero’s appeal is their unleashed nature; their inspiration is not Johnny Carson and David Letterman but the unconventional shows of Arsenio Hall, Dave Chappelle, and even Eric André. Desus and Mero seem at their most comfortable—and, thus, funniest—when they’re in full Don Rickles mode, riffing off each other with frank thoughts or chopping it up casually with strangers on the street. Pretaped sketches and contrived celebrity hangouts don’t play to their strengths. It’s true that a half-hour of cackling at viral videos would wear thin, no matter how consistently clever the jokes are. But while it’s good to see the duo exploiting Showtime’s resources in full, they could be put to more effective uses.

When Desus and Mero were on Viceland, I kept up regularly with the show, even without a subscription. Vice’s online presence made promotion easy and widespread, and plenty of clips were circulated on YouTube and social media, including an infamous spat with DJ Envy. Showtime’s digital promotion, by contrast, seems lacking—I didn’t realize how much bonus material was available on the show’s YouTube channel until I stumbled upon some playlists while looking for clips for this piece—and the viewership numbers on some of those videos seem to reflect that others have had similar difficulty locating them. No matter how traditional the cable broadcasts of most late-night shows remain, hosts from Seth Meyers to John Oliver have broadened their reach and their appeal by actively courting an online audience. Considering how many of Desus and Mero’s viewers are digital natives, the network could afford to be savvier—although the show has now started promoting its YouTube extended interviews on the broadcast.

There could still be other reasons why Desus & Mero hasn’t totally soared yet. Maybe it’s that it’s still not even a half-year old, finding its niche as a new type of show on a network that’s never done a late-night show before, much less one as off-the-beaten-path as this one. Maybe the sense of humor that worked so well in certain online corners was always going to have a rough time translating to bigger audiences.

But the fundamental nature of the show is too valuable to change. It’s something unprecedented—the unvarnished viewpoints of two black men in America on a major network—that very much has the potential to reach an audience way beyond the typical late-night viewer, as America’s population continues to diversify and young folks of color become more involved in creative and political processes. Desus and Mero have been influential in all corners of the internet, from music pirating to blogs to digital magazines to web shows to Black Twitter to podcasts to memes. It’s safe to say that they’re the Most Online of all late-night hosts—they can see more clearly than most where the culture is coming from and where it’s going.

Despite the kinks, Desus & Mero is still a joy and even a potential game-changer. As late night changes and develops, it’s inevitably going to resemble something closer to what these two are offering: a more online-informed sensibility with segments that play out like social media feeds, hosts from digital spheres who resemble what Americans actually look like now (like Carson Daly’s successor, Lilly Singh, who is an Indian American vlogger), different perspectives on the world offered to receptive audiences, and a sharp change to the comedic status quo. If the new show is still figuring some things out, it’s because it’s also paving the way. They could be the future of late night, if only they can actually make it to No. 1.