Reviewing late-night shows based on only one episode can be challenging, especially when the hosts are unknown quantities lacking any familiarity with the format. It’s less of a challenge when it comes to Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, whose self-titled Showtime series Desus & Mero premiered on Thursday.
Desus and Mero have worked their way up from a podcast and web series to a nightly show on Viceland to this Showtime incarnation that marks both their biggest platform and Showtime’s biggest push into the late-night space. The Showtime series carries over the name from the Viceland version and illustrates that, as Desus and Mero themselves would joke, the brand is strong. They know who they are, they know what they want to do and one Showtime episode is enough to illustrate that even if they still have some tweaks to make, especially when it comes to only doing this weekly, the premium cable network apparently isn’t asking them to be anything appreciably different.
Anybody worried that Showtime would try sanding down Desus and Mero’s Bodega Boys roots will surely have been reassured by a premiere that included jokes about their DJ Envy/Hot 97 beef, a reference to “Future Knicks Draft Pick Zion Williamson” and a pretty savage tear-down of New York radio legend Mike Francesa and his review of Green Book. As they become more and more national personalities, Desus and Mero are holding onto as many local references and recurring jokes as they possibly can.
Meanwhile, their literal production stages keep growing, becoming less intimate and claustrophobic and more polished and industry-standard. When it comes to their set, the almost public-access charm that was even carried into their Viceland show is basically gone and the well-lit, expansive stage they now film on, in front of a boisterous but unseen studio audience, could basically be lifted from any ESPN “casual” talk show or any late-night program going for an “urban chic” backdrop. Nobody will describe their set as looking like somebody’s basement or a Bronx dive bar ever again, though that isn’t nearly the same as the production having fully gentrified.
The show kicked off with a familiar rundown of recent headlines, minus the Pardon the Interruption-style sidebar of topics they used on the Viceland version. The choice to launch with a series of jokes gently chiding Barack Obama for an impressively square recent appearance talking about hip-hop and youthful dance trends was a good illustration of Desus and Mero’s particular generational appeal and their refusal to restrict their targets on strictly ideological grounds. The chosen headlines weren’t always the freshest, but the show is more about the interaction between the hosts than their ability or willingness to debate political topics.
The reality is that in a late-night landscape that remains far more homogenous that it should be — BET’s shortsighted move to cancel the tremendous The Rundown with Robin Thede was a big blow — Desus and Mero could probably go through five or 10 more phases of gentrification and still be making jokes that nobody else in their space is attempting. Though in that respect they probably need to keep an eye on at least one part of their competition, since Trevor Noah ran through a series of basically identical Tekashi69/witness protection punchlines the night before. Noah had also done a long segment on the pharma industry and the opioid epidemic the night before, but credit Desus and Mero for a very specific lampooning of a pharma-sponsored music video that let them also mock British rappers.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was an inspired choice as their first Showtime interview guest, as their shared Bronx roots made for a casual conversation full of laughter and hugs. The guys tend to try to make their interviews light, emphasizing an interruption-filled back-and-forth, yet they still let AOC touch on at least some substance, offering her a forum to quickly explain both a marginal tax rate and why her Green New Deal isn’t going to legally force veganism on the public.
The casualness of sandwiching the interview subject between the hosts could use some spatial refinement and the transition that left AOC standing alone and looking confused as Desus and Mero shifted back to another part of the stage should have been edited out or cut away from. It’s all a learning curve. A subset of Democratic 2020 presidential contenders should be able to watch this interview and go, “I bet I would shine in this loose-and-silly context!” And equally as many should probably be cautious, because the potential for awkwardness could be epic.
The in-studio interview was complemented by an even better filmed segment at AOC’s Washington office, with guest appearances by Ocasio-Cortez’s freshman congressional colleagues Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib and the presentation of office decorations, including a rack of plantain chips.
The newest embellishment to the Desus and Mero formula here was a couple scripted sketches. I loved the opening introduction with the hosts appearing at a school for career day and answering questions from kids including “If you’re famous, how come I don’t know who you are?” and “You guys seem a little too ghetto to be on TV.” It was a nice spin on the way Full Frontal with Samantha Bee kicked off its premiere with a faux press conference, with reporters asking her already boring questions about being a woman in late-night.
A Green Book parody trailer was decent and might have seemed even sharper if Late Night With Seth Meyers hadn’t aired a comparable trailer for a movie called White Savior on the same night.
As Desus & Mero progresses, they’re going to have to figure out how they want to avoid the inevitable overlap between what they’re doing weekly and what a slew of comics are doing every night — and what another group is also doing weekly. A Thursday slot should let them rewrite some monologue material if they need to, meaning that filmed sketches are going to be under the most pressure to be distinctive and fresh. That’s a lot of weight since it’s the thing with which they’re least familiar.
Personally, I don’t have time for another nightly show in this genre, which was part of why I was only an occasional viewer of their Viceland show. I’ve always got room for another weekly half-hour, though, and after this promising debut, I’m ready to add Showtime’s Desus & Mero to my rotation.
Airs Thursday nights at 11 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.