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The Brand Is Strong: Desus And Mero On Talking Their Way To A TV Takeover

With one show on Viceland and other projects in the works, former Twitter stars Desus and Mero are seeing how far fast talk will take them.

The Brand Is Strong: Desus And Mero On Talking Their Way To A TV Takeover
Desus Nice and The Kid Mero together are The Bodega Boys, cohosts of Desus & Mero on VICELAND

In the back of the studio, perched on a mossy boulder, is a stuffed grizzly bear wearing a Yankee fitted and wheat-colored Timbs. He has a vaguely sour expression on his face, like he can barely believe some of the things he’s heard.

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Just in front of him, at a heavily graffiti’d table, is the source of this bear’s audio trauma: Desus Nice and The Kid Mero. Both are decked out in the typical uniform of hoodies and hats with pancake-flat brims, and they’re already locked in animated, blurry-hands banter when I enter. It doesn’t stop for 45 minutes. Being in a room with Desus and Mero is like having twin hyperverbal AK-47s pointed at your ears, loaded with infinite ammo. They’re precise, effective, and inexhaustible. As I take a seat across from them, in the Vice studio where the pair film their TV show four days a week, the air around us converges into a giant word cloud.

“This feels like either a job interview for you or like we’re codefendants on a court case,” Desus says.

Before I can acknowledge the wisdom of this observation, Mero jumps in.

“You could sit on that couch over there instead,” he says, “But then it would feel like therapy.”

I don’t admit it out loud, but I’d gladly accept free therapy from these guys. They seem tuned into some cosmic frequency that catches channels far beyond most mental terrestrial radios. Over the past few years, Desus and Mero have managed to jump out of their Twitter timelines and into a series of increasingly sophisticated recording rooms. They’ve gone from podcasts to TV shows to top-secret deals they’re not allowed to talk about just yet—which is ironic since what got them here is their ability to talk in an entertaining way about literally everything else.

Release the Art

It all started uptown in the Bronx, where Daniel (Desus) Baker and Joel (Mero) Martinez grew up in the 1990s, getting the finest possible education in shit-talking.

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“We were trained classically in the New York public high school system to be out here roasting for hours and hours,” Desus says.

Although the two knew each other back in the day, they only realized they had conversational chemistry when they reconnected on Twitter decades later. At the time, Desus was writing for a financial magazine (not Fast Company) while Mero worked as an aide at a junior high. Any time they tweeted back and forth, though, it flowed like crackling dialogue between veteran comedy writers. Anyone following them both had front row seats to watch ideas bloom skyward in a Dr. Seussian super-stack. Even on Twitter, it was clear that Desus and Mero complemented each other like Reese’s ingredients, and fans urged them to team up on a project. All that remained to be seen was whether the digital seeds of their dynamic would flourish offline.

A lot of funny people on Twitter fail to click in real life. It takes them longer to react to each other’s words, they have trouble reading each other’s faces, and they run out of things to talk about shockingly quick. Not these two, though. During a brief meeting at Complex Media, which had been courting the pair for a potential podcast, their real-time interaction made good on the promise of their dueling Twitter accounts. Complex wrote a check and it was time to get down to business.

“What a lot of people don’t realize about starting a podcast is that it’s not as easy as it looks,” Desus says. “The recording might sound shitty, the audio levels could be off. A lot can go wrong.”

If a motivated Russian hacker saw fit, he or she would find tucked away on Desus’s phone the initial three test episodes of what became Desus vs Mero. The owner of these recordings refuses a gentle request to play me a snippet, although he says they might host a listening party for them some day. While Complex took care of the technical issues to give these early episodes a crisp sound, Desus and Mero’s flow was apparently less fluid. They talked over each other a lot, instead of punctuating their finished sentences for emphasis like they do now. It didn’t take long after the launch in December 2013, however, before they found their rhythm—and an audience to go with it.

The alcohol and weed-drenched conversations on the show were loose but densely joke-packed, and made listeners feel like they were sharing a couch and a blunt with two funny friends. Desus and Mero flitted between the street wisdom segment, Knowledge Darts, hip-hop and sports talk, and blissed-out hypotheticals like what if Gummi Bears were the size of real bears. They went in on New York’s abundance of young female phlebotomists, and the overwhelming dad-ness of late-period Jay-Z, who was now “washed”—the worst thing a once-hot performer could be. Desus and Mero turned out to be superior in podcast-form than on Twitter. Maybe an even more optimum medium for their voices lay in store.

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Early on, there were a couple moments of frustration where the show didn’t seem to be catching on fast enough. Desus would sneak out of his job early to get to the studio on time, grumbling on Twitter every step of the way. (These complaints only endeared him further to his followers.) When a swarm of fans did show up, though, they proved rabid. If episodes were ever late, feverish Twitterers demanded to know when Desus and Mero would “release the art.” By the ninth episode, Complex recognized it had a hit on its hands and dedicated money to make the show available in video form as well.

Not long afterward, high-profile fans started pouring in. A-Trak, a producer and label head who is also Kanye’s tour DJ, soon asked the duo to host his Fools Gold Day Off festival in Brooklyn, and they accepted. Although Desus and Mero had never hosted anything before, the next thing they know they were on stage in Coney Island, in front of thousands of day-drunk hip hop heads. In between introducing sets from hometown heroes like French Montana, the two more or less performed their podcast live onstage. By midway through the day, the crowd was chanting the hosts’ names. After it was all over, several people told them they’d come to the festival just to see Desus and Mero.

“That’s when we knew we were onto something,” Mero says. “We were like, this should be bigger. That’s when we started having ideas, like this should be more than a podcast.”

It’s Lit

At the point when Complex’s DvM contract was nearly up, MTV emailed Mero out of the blue to ask if he and his creative partner wanted to be in business with the network. Mero thought the message might be spam, but after a day or two, he passed it along to the Money Team–a braintrust comprised of his and Desus’ two lawyers and Victor Lopez, their always-hustling manager, who helped them navigate new opportunities.

“If someone wants us in a commercial for tractor and fishing supplies–” Desus says, and Mero immediately picks up the thread, wide-eyed acting out how a D&M tractor ad might go, complete with south-of-Mason-Dixon accent work.

“That’s not our natural demo, though,” Desus says when Mero finishes. “So Victor would advise against it. Also everyone who shops there probably calls me racist online.”

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When it came to the MTV opportunity, though, The Money Team agreed with the pair’s interest, and arranged a meeting where they could lay out some of their many programming ideas. MTV was impressed and duly signed Desus and Mero to an overall deal, not long before the final episode of DvM dropped, in January 2015. The only problem was the network had no idea what to do with them.

“We kind of just sat there for two years,” Desus says. “We did a lot of things but we didn’t produce anything, and that was what we were there for.”

He and Mero would appear on MTV2’s ill-advised advice show, Guy Code, or the zinger-delivery system, Joking Off, but neither was ever a perfect fit. On Twitter, Desus and Mero crafted concise, self-contained jokes; in person, the natural improvisers’ best bits emerged from riffing and feeding off each other’s energy. The structure and tone of these shows never captured Peak Desus and Mero.

“Some of the stuff we did on MTV hasn’t been stuff we’re super proud of,” Mero says. “From the podcast, we knew we were funny on camera, and we thought now it’s time to create a vehicle–not something that someone dropped us into but something we came up with for ourselves.”

Fans were frustrated too. They’d see the duo pop up on MTV2 for maybe a minute, not realizing that what they were seeing was the only minute of airable content the legal department let slide. Meanwhile there was no podcast; no art for anyone to demand they release. Fans did not remain silent about this injustice either, tweeting out occasional accusations of washedness. The outcry helped keep Desus and Mero on their toes. Other deals had been popping off—Mero teamed up with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig to sell a sitcom treatment about working in the Bronx public school system—but for now, fans had very few ways of finding them. Sick of being stuck on the shelf, the two quietly plotted a return to podcasting and a bridge to the next level.

Coincidentally, it was Ezra Koenig who helped steer them toward a new home for their show. When Desus and Mero appeared on Koenig’s Beats 1 show, Time Crisis, they were struck by the studio’s state of the art set-up. One of the other guests that day, grimy New York rapper Despot, mentioned that he had an in with Red Bull, who had a similarly decked out studio. Despot made the introduction, which is what lead to Red Bull partnering up with Desus and Mero to put out their new podcast, Bodega Boys.

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“We were trying to shop it around and other companies were like, ‘What the hell is this? We don’t want this?’” Desus says. “And Red Bull was like, ‘We’ll take it. Do whatever you want. We won’t edit a thing.’”

Although Desus and Mero were pretty sure that with their rising profiles, they’d attract an audience for this new show right away, they opted not to do any advance promotion for it. Instead, they quietly dropped the first episode of Bodega Boys just after 9/11 in 2015, tweeting out the link with zero warning. Red Bull would have been happy with a few hundred downloads for such a low-key release. What they got was 80,000 practically overnight. In the ensuing months, devoted fans flooded Red Bull Studios with constant gift packages for Desus and Mero, and posted Instagram selfies in front of the building with captions like, “Yo, I made it to Mecca.”

The Brand Is Strong

The instant success of Bodega Boys proved that Desus vs Mero was no fluke. There were no audible signs that nine months had elapsed since the duo had last released the art. Rather, it sounded like they’d been having an endless, resin-caked conversation the entire time and had finally bothered to hit record.

The two were happy to be kayaking their audience’s ear canals again each week, while still appearing on MTV2 shows. They wanted something more, though.

“Being on MTV was like community college,” Mero says. “It was like if you graduate and do two years and transfer to a four-year. We learned all the ins and outs of TV—like blocking, opening up off the camera, looking into your camera—because it was a real official operation. The stuff we were trying to make we weren’t making, but we learned a lot in terms of like ‘How do you make TV?’”

Less than a year later, they were able to put those lessons to use.

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Nick Weidenfeld, the development exec behind some of Adult Swim’s biggest hits was a Desus and Mero fan, and had befriended the two online. During the summer of 2016, when Weidenfeld was transitioning into his new role as president of programming at Vice’s nascent TV channel, Viceland, he decided to get in touch. At the time he reached out, Desus and Mero were nearing the end of their MTV contract and weighing options for their next big move. It was perfect timing. It was also the culmination of vocal podcast fans and insiders like Emmy-winning producer Erik Rydholm laying the groundwork for their unstoppable march to TV. On October 17th, Desus and Mero debuted on Viceland and has been growing strong since.

“We know the shit is fire,” Mero says. “That’s not even a gassed statement or whatever because it’s like if 5000 people tell you, ‘Yo, you have a wicked jump shot,’ you’ve got a wicked jump shot. But you need those people who are in that gatekeeper position to know it too before they allow you into these places.”

Beyond the Viceland show and Bodega Boys and the sitcom with Ezra Koenig, there are other mysterious projects Desus and Mero are sworn to secrecy about for the moment. There’s one more that they mention, though. Just as the show with Koenig will draw from Mero’s former life working in a Bronx public school, Desus is putting together a series about his old office job at a financial magazine. It’s still in the early stages, but if all goes according to plan, it will be one of many future DVR-ables starring these two. Desus and Mero basically want to storm the studios with so many shows that the fans they’ve worked hard to energize become permanently sick of them. It just may happen, too. For now, though, as they regularly say, the brand is strong.

“The brand is brolic right now,” Desus says, raising a fist. “It is HGH.”

“It’s so HGH,” adds Mero. “Barry Bonds asterisks.”

And what would it take for the pair to be washed all of a sudden, other than having entirely too many TV shows on air at once?

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“Not much,” Desus says. “A couple of bad quotes.”

“The internet will destroy you as fast as it made you,” Mero confirms.

“Even faster.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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