Bronx natives Daniel Baker (Desus Nice) and Joel Martinez (The Kid Mero) met in high school. After honing their rapid-fire cultural commentary on Twitter, Baker, a former small-business columnist, and Martinez, a onetime public-school teacher, parlayed their viral popularity into a podcast on Complex before adding TV, first with an ill-fitting stint at MTV2 and then with a hit nightly show on Viceland. Now, the sons of Jamaican and Latino immigrants, respectively, are working with a writers’ room for the first time and translating their off-the-cuff humor for a broader audience with the seven-month-old Desus and Mero.
Fast Company: Desus and Mero doesn’t follow the same template as other late-night shows. For example, there is no opening monologue. What did you set out to give your audience instead?
Daniel Baker: I think the perfect late-night show would be something I could show to my parents and they’re just like, “What the hell is that?” Something that makes other people uncomfortable, like The Eric Andre Show, on Adult Swim. The problem with [most] late-night television now is you have to reach a certain [level of fame] in order to be invited on [as a guest]. They’re behind the curve: We’re going to have this person on because we see that you guys liked this and we don’t have any feelers on the ground. Whereas we’re in tune with the culture. We have our ear to the streets and we know things way before it’s in the zeitgeist for other people. If you’re just picking up on something after it’s already hit mainstream, you seem antiquated, like, “Hey, fellow kids.”
Joel Martinez: It should be conversational. It should feel natural and not just like, you know, “Rim shot, here’s so-and-so, blah blah blah.” It should be more like Talk Soup, [which was] super lo-fi and you would occasionally hear the crew laughing. Also, I want to see somebody who might not necessarily come from where I come from, but who is in tune with what I’m in tune with and makes me feel like I’m a part of it.
FC: Viewers today—especially younger viewers—watch television differently. They’re mainly just watching clips on their phones. How does that affect the way you approach your work?
DB: We’ve been guests on network shows where someone in marketing says, “Just have a viral moment.” That’s not how viral moments work. You can’t plan for them. In television, they want this moment to go viral and they don’t put that same effort into the rest of the show. If something happens and goes viral, that’s cool, but we never sit down like, “Yo, we need this to trend!” On our show, people see things in the news and they tweet directly at our account. They will say, “We want to see this on the Monday night show,” and we have no choice but to follow. We have a direct connection with our fans. It’s hard for the bigger platforms and bigger shows to have that intimate relationship with an audience.
FC: You have both acknowledged saying things in the early days of your comedy that now seem controversial, such as when you mocked leaked nude pictures of celebrities. What do you think about comedians who complain about not being allowed to make the jokes they used to make?
JM: It’s lame. Imagine if the NBA was still the NBA of the 1950s, and Bob Cousy was, like, the best dribbler you’ve ever seen in your life. There’s no evolution there. It would suck. I wouldn’t watch basketball if it looked like that. I watch basketball because people are dunking and the game evolved. Comedy evolves. You’ve got to either evolve with it or become extinct.
DB: They’re complaining, “You can’t say this. You can’t say that.” No one says you can’t say that. It’s just that if you say that, you’re not going to get this commercial or this Netflix special or such and such. If you elevate your comedy and make people actually think, or show that there’s some compassion or humanity in it, people appreciate that, and they talk about you on a different level.
FC: Twitter is where you two first gained recognition, back in 2009. Desus, you’ve said that “the point of Twitter is to use Twitter to get off Twitter”—and that you might be some of the only people who’ve done that. What do you think of the platform these days?
DB: It’s a hellscape. They should just shut it down. Twitter used to be fun. I know I’m going to sound like the wild old 80-year-old comedian talking about PC culture, but before, Twitter was like, Oh, here’s what happened to me today. Now everyone’s using Twitter to become popular or viral. It’s not the same; it’s not authentic. Before, people used to use it like a diary and show real emotions, and now you wouldn’t dare put anything personal on Twitter because someone might throw it back in your face or you get doxed.
FC: During the show, you two talk to each other, dissect the news, and interview guests such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Issa Rae. But you’re also working with a writers’ room now and featuring scripted sketches for the first time. What has that transition been like?
JM: It was difficult at first. Coming into a writers’ room expecting everything to be a smash hit is the wrong way to go. We might not like 8 out of 10 things submitted, but those 2 things that we like, we’re going to beat up into something really good.
DB: It’s difficult for the writers of our show because we’re not scripted people. It’s like, “All right, thank you for your script, we’re going to freestyle this part or improv this stuff.” As long as it’s a safe space and no one feels like they’re going to get embarrassed or chastised, you’re going to get the best ideas. No one’s afraid of pitching something in fear, like we’re going to say, “That was stupid. Get out of here.” We’re not at that point yet. Season 5 definitely gonna be like that. [Laughs]
FC: On your show, just as on your five-year-old podcast, Bodega Boys, you riff off the news of the day, cold. How do you decide what topics to cover?
DB: [The producers] tell us ahead of time. I try not to look at the news stories because I’d rather be surprised, the same way the audience is surprised. If something is trending that weekend or something big happened, we’re going to cover it.
JM: If you follow us on Twitter and are listening to the podcast—if you’re already a fan—you can tell what’s going to be on the show. Like, just by what’s making the rounds on social media and what people are talking about and what’s getting memed to death. And then we both have our own interests.
FC: So much changes between the live show you perform for the audience in New York and what gets edited into the half-hour version on Showtime. Does it feel like you’re making two shows at once?
DB: Most people don’t realize how much extra stuff we leave on the floor. We’re interacting with the crowd. Something we’re working hard to do with the TV show is capture what makes it feel not prompter-ish, not scripted, just off the cuff, just homies chillin’.
JM: We’re glad people are allowed to have their phones [on in the studio], because so many videos pop up on Twitter of people in the audience, like, “Yo, I’m going to a live taping of Desus and Mero. It’s like a two-hour bonanza.” And it’s true, there’s so much stuff. We have the floor for as long as we want. You know how some talk shows have a warm-up comic who’ll come out throwing T-shirts into the crowd and be like, “Hey, I just flew in from Chicago and boy my arms are tired?” That guy? We don’t need that guy because we are that guy. And we’re not corny, so we just come out and do what people want more of, which is back-and-forth banter about whatever, that could go in any direction.
FC: How do you get hyped up to do your show twice a week, and your weekly podcast? And how do you decompress afterward?
DB: To get hyped up, we look at our day rate. To calm down at night, we look at our bills.
Talking the Talk: How Desus and Mero leapt from Twitter to Showtime, while keeping it raw
2009: The high school acquaintances reconnect and start trading jokes on Twitter, swapping quips about pop culture and oddball news.
JM: I called it “joke tennis.” I would say a joke, and then he would piggyback off it, or he would say a joke and I would piggyback off it, and it [would go] back and forth.
2013: Donnie Kwak, then an editor at Complex Magazine, persuades the duo to try out their offbeat riffs on a podcast, Desus vs. Mero.
DB: Kwak pitched it to Complex. We did a test recording. I remember it was us and a guy in a room with one of those MP3 recorders. I still have it on my phone. Complex was like, “This is gold, right here.”
2014: MTV2 signs the comedians to a TV show. Creatively dissatisfied, they start another podcast, called Bodega Boys, on the side.
DB: Part of [the MTV2 contract] was “you have to end Desus vs. Mero.” After [we restarted a podcast], [fans] were like, “This is the kind of humor we want from you. We don’t like what you were doing over there at Viacom.”
2016: Vice Media gives the duo a nightly show broadcast on Viceland.
DB: Making our show at Vice was a great experience. It was where we learned how to make a TV show—camera blocking, sound, creative concepts, etc.
2019: Baker and Martinez score a deal with Showtime for a weekly show, which debuts in February. It’s so popular that it begins airing biweekly in May.
JM: Having done as many shows as we did at Vice, we were able to figure out how we wanted to take our show to the next level, which is what we are doing now.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.