When I was a boy, the late-night TV shows — and there were only two, Johnny Carson and SNL — were my window into the world of grown-up entertainment. Back then that meant smoking and double entendres and casual conversation about sex, politics, changing mores, all that mysterious stuff adults talked about. Everything else on TV was geared to viewers like me. Late night wasn’t. Staying up past bedtime to watch those shows was not unlike hanging around your parents’ cocktail party. A lot of the chatter went over my head. But that only added to the allure. Watching those shows was a way to see into my future, they made me feel older.
I don’t need help feeling older anymore, but I still try to approach popular culture the way I did as a kid — just wanting to be in the room when the cool adults are there, trying to understand them and learn their ways, whether it’s the comment board on Anne Helen Petersen’s Substack or Jason Snell and Dan Moren’s Apple insider podcast. And that’s the same motivation that’s gotten me watching Desus and Mero, the late-night talk show featuring longtime friends Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez, aka Desus Nice and The Kid Mero.
Not unlike Jimmy Kimmel, these two did not strive to become a hot act in late-night so much as catch a wave that took them there. In Kimmel’s case it was ABC’s need to be a player in late-night entertainment (and get over Bill Maher). In the case of Desus and Mero, it was the industry’s realization it had utter disregard for Black comedy voices in the one part of the TV landscape where they ought to be thriving.
The Bodega Boys, as they call themselves, grew up in the Bronx smoking weed and talking smack about everything. Along the way they discovered people get a kick out of listening to them. They launched a podcast, which led to a show on Viceland, and now they’re in their third season on Showtime. Desus and Mero may be the most cutting-edge thing that Showtime, the Kohl’s of premium cable, has aired since the Garry Shandling era.
The duo are returning to their studio this weekend after more than a year of remote shows. Their guest — Lil Nas X — is only the latest illustrious celebrity to find their way into their corner of the cable universe. Nothing says “your moment has arrived” quite like hosting Barack Obama on your show … unless it’s then-candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Eddie Murphy, Missy Elliott, Yo-Yo Ma (an improbably great live chat and performance filmed in a barbershop), and the ultimate seal of approval from David Letterman: “I’m so envious of this … When I was a kid this is the show I wanted to do!”
But most of the talk isn’t with the guest, it’s these two guys reacting to stuff they and their writers found on the web. Here’s Mike Pompeo, then still in government, telling CPAC activists they need to “be a pipe-hitter,” apparently unaware what that means to anyone who uses a bong. Here’s a news report about Bill and Melinda Gates’ statement that their marriage is “irretrivably broken,” prompting Mero to crack, “It’s ‘irretrievably broken’ much like the coding system used to create Windows 10.”
But those are the jokes I got. My wife, watching an episode with me, said, “I’m only getting about half of this,” mere moments after I’d written this in my notes: I can’t understand half what they say but it’s still hilarious. Some of this is simply the large volume of crosstalk on the show. It’s hard enough to follow two guys yelling over each other without having to go to my iPad to look up their obscure name-checks. Then again, I never felt the need to catch every Dennis Miller reference back when his show was a happening thing. You don’t need to “get” everything Desus and Mero say to enjoy the hell out of their act. (Ziwe, Showtime's newest late-night talker, wrote for Desus and Mero, but her show is more like Space Ghost or Between Two Ferns, a parody of the traditional talk show.)
Desus and Mero is the future of late night not just in the presence of two Black men at the helm of a successful comedy talk show. It’s also what so-called “late night TV” has become in the YouTube era. Airing only twice a week at 30 minutes a pop, with mostly comedy and one guest, it culls most of its viewership online after the initial airing. And like so many TV shows with a studio audience, it really didn’t need one. COVID, as I argued last year, exposed the folly of networks stuffing audiences into seats to watch news-talk programs. And Desus and Mero are more like two demented newscasters than a pair of traditional comics. Of course Showtime will insist on the audience to make them legit, but they’re already legit.
Speaking of Showtime, the fact that Desus and Mero isn’t on a network is further evidence of the diminished value of broadcast TV, which doesn’t allow shows with a hard TV-MA rating and whose late-night real estate isn’t worth anything near what it used to. NBC has already exited the late-late-show business, and with ratings pretty sad for the trio of 12:30 a.m. network shows, expect Seth Meyers and James Corden to find landing pads elsewhere. And expect the Bodega Boys to make their way to Paramount+ in the not-distant future. Streaming is the future of TV, and Desus and Mero are the future of late night.
Desus & Mero airs on Showtime Monday And Thursday Nights At 11:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.