It’s just past lunch time on a cold December day in the lead up to the holidays. While most people are fighting to keep their eyes open after slamming a sandwich at their desks, six of the cast members of MTV2’s Guy Code gathered around a conference room at the media giant’s headquarters in Times Square are just getting warmed up.
Among them: Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, a comedic duo who both hail from the Bronx and host Complex TV’s popular web series Desus vs. Mero; Upright Citizens Brigade regular Dave Ebert (who you’ll immediately recognize as the bearded crooner in the Cran Brrr Rita commercial); Matteo Lane, a standup comedian with a penchant to pepper his biting commentary with a few bars of operatic arias; and Charlamagne Tha God, also known for his unflinching turns behind the host mike at NY’s Power 105.1 FM where a criticism of Kanye West earned him a comparison to Howard Stern.
Fueled by soda (or in Matteo Lane’s case a grande-sized coffee), attempts to answer questions about the evolution of their careers before MTV often devolve into rapid-fire verbal sparring with each other (“Matteo’s a horrible person to work with,” quips Mero. “You made me realize I don’t like Dominicans,” Lane retorts), but the groups’ frequent bursts of laughter makes it clear it’s all in good fun. And all in a day’s work.
For these performers (and the rest of the cast who aren’t gathered here today), being featured on MTV2 represents a stage larger than the one they’d command at a comedy club or behind the mike of a podcast. Though some have honed their craft at the standup circuit, and others like Desus Nice, have made television appearances, they still have a way to go before breaking into the ranks of Jon Stewart, Adam Sandler,Aziz Ansari and others who were on MTV early in their careers.
According to Chris McCarthy, general manager of MTV2, mtvU, and Logo TV, bringing fresh faces to shows like Guy Code is all part of an overarching strategy for the channel to be more “relatable, provocative, but also very communal,” he says.
“Comedy is the currency in which they speak,” McCarthy contends. “It’s important they have it, so that they can work within our environment, challenge each other and raise each other’s games,” he explains.
This recruiting tactic is meant to build on MTV2’s winning streak as it enters its fourth consecutive year of growth. The channel originally debuted in 1996, and is now distributed in over 80 million homes. After a few shifts in programming direction from all music to a combination of music videos and original non-musical shows MTV2 finally aimed squarely at an audience of young men between the ages of 12 and 34. When Guy Code premiered in 2011, it was the most watched series premiere in the network’s 15-year history. MTV2 now leads the top 25 cable networks for the highest increases in viewing among that demographic in its current broadcast year. Last year, MTV2‘s ratings jumped 10%, according to the company.
For McCarthy, the recent uptick in viewers is the result of the network homing in on a comedic voice that resonates with young men who are looking for an uncomplicated space to unwind. “It’s aggressively laid back and funny,” he asserts, in a time when most youth are grappling with school or early career angst in addition to wrapping their heads around news of the latest terrorist attacks and other global conflict. Along the way, it’s become fertile breeding ground for seriously funny talent.
Capturing emerging performers and building a community around them is actually a prime opportunity for the network, says McCarthy, because helps set MTV2 apart in a landscape littered with visual entertainment, some as lengthy as multi-season series like Breaking Bad and others as brief as 6-second Vine videos.
“We have to be part of that conversation,” he says. Getting a viewer to the TV screen when they are checking their phones 150 times a day, is important. But once there, MTV2s young talent have the social networks to keep them engaged, says Paul Ricci, MTV2‘s SVP and head of programming and development.
It also helps MTV move like a startup, says McCarthy. “The metabolic rate [audiences] consume content,” he says, “we use to keep the process moving.” If something doesn’t work, they’ll know it right away, through viewer feedback. In the parlance of Silicon Valley, McCarthy says, “It’s fail fast and fail forward.”
In another echo of the startup scene, neither he nor Ricci came from a traditional production background (Ricci holds a degree in English and McCarthy an MBA), but McCarthy says they intuited their casting strategy based on the way comedians test their own material at standup gigs to see what gets a laugh and what falls flat. And while comedy clubs are the most likely place to scout for fresh voices, Ricci says no social media stone is left unturned. “We are working with Viner King Bach and Timothy DeLaGhetto of YouTube,” he says, both of whom have already amassed a loyal (and large) group of devotees.
Beyond demonstrating that they have a following, Guy Code’s latest new talent passed a few early tests. Ricci describes how one MTV exec was following Desus and Mero on Twitter and brought them in for a meeting. “They made us laugh for 20 minutes,” he recalls. That’s when the MTV2 team started brainstorming on ways to work with the duo.
For their part, Desus and Mero claim they are just doing what comes naturally. Mero, who used to be a teaching assistant in a Bronx public school (“A bouncer,” he wisecracks, “I was the one who broke up the fights”) says, “Me and Desus are just riffing on shit that happens.” Their podcast, while organized by talking points, isn’t scripted, he says. So their turn on Guy Code, where performers are asked a question and deliver their often side splitting commentary directly into a camera, just builds on their already-proven skills.
Ricci and McCarthy assert that though contracts vary among Guy Code’s performers, MTV2’s goal is to bring them in and feature them in other shows where it makes sense. The opportunity to appear in multiple shows is a talent magnet, they say, and just helps build the audience.
In Charlamagne Tha God’s case, appearances on Guy Code led to his own show Charlamagne and Friends. For the radio host who hails from a small town in South Carolina’s Low Country (“I was raised on a dirt road, in a town with a population of 8,000”), Charlamagne claims never to be anything but himself. “[MTV2} is such a natural transition, because the only thing I know how to be is the best me I can be.” McCarthy agrees. “He is funny as hell even though he doesn’t consider himself a comedian. He has a persona but he’s relatable.” And he’ll soon be heading up another show called “Uncommon Sense with Charlamagne.”
From there, some of the emerging stars that have risen from MTV2’s cradle of comedy have gone on to do other, larger projects.
Fans of Saturday Night Live will immediately recognize Pete Davidson’s boy-next-door face and his disarmingly goofy grin. Davidson was part of the ensemble casts of Guy Code and Wild ’N Out before breaking out at SNL. More recently, Julian McCullough stepped from the set of Guy Code to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and NPR’s This American Life, as well as his own half-hour special on Comedy Central.
Likewise, Jermaine Fowler’s recurring appearances on Guy Code have led to Comedy Central and TruTV’s sketch comedy Friends of the People. Notably, both McCullough and Fowler are now developing their own semi-autobiographical comedies for NBC and ABC, respectively. Though Fowler’s is yet untitled, McCullough’s project is dubbed and it’s in collaboration with Ed Helms (star of The Office).
But Dave Ebert makes it clear that he doesn’t consider MTV2 or Guy Code a stepping stone. “It is a home,” he argues, noting that the other cast members have been very supportive. Ebert describes the experience of joining the cast as surreal. No surprise, for a guy who grew up on a horse farm in a fundamentalist family that discouraged listening to music. “I didn’t see MTV until college,” he says. Now, he says, it’s great to have a place to consistently work on his comedy.
Guy Code veteran Chris DiStefano who joined the conference room coffee klatch later in the conversation, points out that he still does standup every night. “That’s what got me on MTV,” he observes, but being on the show forced him to think about topics he never considered. “Then you go and write a bunch of new material,” he says with a wide smile.
Ricci notes DiStefano recently got approached to do a show on Comedy Central. Like the other performers, he says, a gig like that only helps build the performer’s brand. The network tries to keep the talent’s schedules as flexible as possible, and ensemble shows like Guy Code help when an opportunity to appear elsewhere might arise.
The bottom line, says Ricci, is that while MTV2 is offering many of these young performers their first break on television, it isn’t amateur hour. Thanks to the more seasoned comedians in the cast and the crew, Ricci says the environment encourages experimentation and learning. “They are genuinely hungry and want to prove themselves,” he says, “They have respect for the other [cast members] but want to see if they can do it better.”
Guy Code started its fifth season January 14.