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Desus, Mero & Ziwe
Andrew Zaeh/Deadline

Desus & Mero And Ziwe Are Pulling Late-Night And Sketch Comedy Into The 21st Century

Late-night television hasn’t changed a great deal since Johnny Carson took over The Tonight Show nearly 60 years ago. There’s been the odd exception, such as Arsenio Hall’s syndicated show finding a young audience and bringing Bill Clinton’s saxophone licks to the country, or Joan Rivers briefly interloping on Fox. However, it’s largely been the preserve of middle-aged white men, wearing suits, joking about the events of the day with a few celebrity guests and sketches thrown in.

Enter Desus & Mero, and more recently their protégée Ziwe.

Desus & Mero, otherwise known as Desus Nice and The Kid Mero (or Daniel Baker and Joel Martinez), have brought a louder, more youth-skewing, social media-friendly take to the genre, a gonzo, weed-smoking sensibility with fresh kicks.

First breaking through via online brand Complex and their Bodega Boys podcast, before scoring a series on Viceland, which ran for over 300 episodes on the hipster network between 2016 and 2018, their profile has risen exponentially over the last couple of years thanks to their eponymous Showtime series, which is now in its third season.

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The momentum has been growing, and even in the last twelve months they’ve been kicking on, scoring interviews with the likes of Joe Biden, before he became President; Kamala Harris, two months before the election; Dr. Anthony Fauci, two weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic; and most famously, President Barack Obama, preferring to riff about basketball rather than promote his book.

Then, there’s Ziwe, otherwise known as Ziwe Fumudoh, who got one of her big breaks as a writer on Desus & Mero, before breaking the internet last summer with her Instagram Live series Baited, where she teased stars such as Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan into answering tricky questions about race. This led to her own six-part series, also on Showtime, which launched in May.

Together, the trio are dragging late-night comedy into the 21st century and appear to be having some fun with it.

Desus & Mero

Desus & Mero
Andrew Zaeh/Deadline

Desus & Mero have been tagged as new kids on the block, and while they haven’t been on air as long as Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, they have already racked up nearly 500 episodes of television as well as 240 episodes of their podcast.

Mero says that while things have been moving quickly for the pair recently, it hasn’t been a “quick ascent to stardom” as they’ve been “grinding for close to a decade”. Desus adds that it feels like the show has “forward momentum”.

When the show launched in February 2019, they became Showtime’s first ever late-night hosts, and last July ViacomCBS execs gave them a “huge vote of confidence” by moving their show from Monday night to Sunday night, in addition to their Thursday night episode.

“Late-night is so established and formulaic, and here we come with a deconstructed late-night show and it’s something that a new generation is used to, similar to TikTok, in little chunks,” Desus says. “We’re spinning late-night on its axis and people really like that. Shout out to Jimmy Fallon or Trevor Noah, but what they do is different; our show is structured differently to theirs. We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing, we just took the late-night avenue and made it our own and that’s what people appreciate.”

Mero adds that comparing their show to Last Week Tonight or The Daily Show is like comparing “apples and oranges”. They embrace a chaos that many other shows hide. “We’re not turning the camera off if Desus is getting his makeup touched up,” says Mero. “It shouldn’t feel like you’re watching a show, it should feel like you’re part of a show and me and Mero are in your living room.”

Authenticity is at the key to their momentum; the pair are essentially the same, gregarious, sometimes obnoxious, Twitter-baiting, New Yorkers that they’ve been since they first met online a decade ago, except a little more grown up. Simply, it’s not a shtick. “It would be exhausting to be a persona for ten years. We’re not classically trained comedians or actors, we’re trained by the New York City public school system. That’s where we learned comedy. Essentially, this is us all the time,” says Mero.

Desus, who jokes that this can be somewhat challenging for those who work with them, adds, “It’s like any friendship or relationship, people grow. When we’re together in the room it feels the same as it always did, it’s the same energy. People think we need to become Desus & Mero before the show… but if this was a job, it would be draining to do.”

The Viceland show was essentially the pair of them in the Vice offices chatting and interviewing guests, often in the middle of them, while the Showtime series has afforded them a slightly higher budget, meaning that they can do field pieces and sketches. “It’s scary to a point because you might make a joke that we should do an interview on top of Mount Everest and then the next day you get a PDF with your flights to Everest,” says Desus.

One of these recent examples was an interview with Yo-Yo Ma in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the celebrated cellist took the pair to a barbershop. They evidently enjoy getting out into the real world, particularly after having spent more than a year making the show in their own homes.

Desus says that it’s these types of moments that mean they’re unlikely to make more than two episodes a week. “You can’t do that if you’re doing the show four days a week,” he says. “You don’t realize how hard it is to make television until you make television. It’s not a burn out thing, it’s about making the best show we can.”

Making the best show they can was more of a challenge over the last 14 months, but given that a large part of the appeal of the show is watching the pair banter, Desus & Mero was one of the few remotely-produced shows to feel more relevant than ever during the pandemic.

Arguably this has increased their chances of getting nominated for an Emmy in the late-night category. There were whispers last year that they might get nominated, but it feels like if they’re ever going to get on the list, it’s this year, a year in which they’ve also been given an outside chance of hosting the Emmys given their ViacomCBS connections.

But they face tough competition from entrenched nominees such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which has won five years in a row; The Daily Show with Trevor Noah; Full Frontal with Samantha Bee; Jimmy Kimmel Live; and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. There’s also competition from the likes of Late Night with Seth Meyers, and the Television Academy voters have had a soft spot for The Late Late Show’s James Corden over the years.

Last year, Desus said the snub put the show in “Susan Lucci territory” and the pair were somewhat ambivalent about missing out. Now, they are aware of what it would mean for the “whole squad”. “It’s not about me,” says Desus. “It’s about the show and the recognition that comes with working on an Emmy-nominated show. It feels different now.”

One of the reasons things may feel different now is how they’ve cemented the show to be a key spot for politicians and other establishment figures. In December, they scored an in-person sit-down with President Barack Obama. While 44 is a noted fan of late-night and has regularly and recently appeared on the likes of The Late Show, The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Late Late Show, his appearance on Desus & Mero felt different.

Firstly, while he was ostensibly there to promote his book, A Promised Land, it appeared Obama was more interested in roasting the pair’s New York Knicks or bringing up the controversy around wearing that tan suit, something that Mero said made him look like the “illest Remax realty salesman in Carbondale, Michigan”.

Desus & Mero
Showtime

“I don’t want to say life-changing because that’s very hyperbolic, but to an extent it was,” says Mero. “We had an inkling that he was into us and was a fan but that solidified it.”

Obama was evidently aware of the pair, more than any briefing notes would have provided. “I’ve known people who work in his administration and he is familiar with us,” adds Desus. “The stuff he brought up wasn’t necessarily on our Wikipedia page. It didn’t feel like we were talking to a former President, it felt like we were talking to our cool uncle Barry.”

Prior to Obama’s appearance, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), who was essentially in charge of the country’s response to the pandemic, made headlines with one of his first late-night interviews at the end of March 2020.

Mero says it was clear that Fauci wanted to get his message out to people who didn’t necessarily watch the news every night or who were slightly less trusting of politicians. “The pandemic was crushing the Brown and Black communities, so you needed this information, and if it’s your guys delivering the news, I feel it’s a little more palatable and people will take it a little more seriously. It’s like taking sugar with the medicine.”

Desus adds that Dr. Fauci’s appearance was also when he was being sidelined by President Trump. “You can have on a million comedians but if there’s a pandemic and you can get the word out there and help, you’ve got to do that.”

Desus & Mero used to shoot, with a live audience, at the CBS Studio in New York. However, before the pandemic, the pair actually bought their own facility—the old Al Jazeera studio, complete with bulletproof glass. Desus says they’ll go back there fully when they can, and it will mean less of a crunch on production. “The way we work, sometimes we go for hours and go on rants and you don’t want to cut the camera because you’ve got to load in the next show,” he says. “The beauty of it means that we don’t have to break down the set, it’s always there so that means you can do digital shoots or change things. It’s our space and we can do whatever we want there. It’s our petri dish so we can try things out and when you remove the time stipulation, that allows more creativity to work.”

The pair are evidently keen on working on other projects from acting to writing and producing or as Mero says having a “farm system” where they can bring in young talent to work with. They also recently made the New York Times bestseller list with their life-advice book God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons from the Bronx, dropped a collaboration with boot company Timberland, and an ice-cream deal with OddFellows. Their ice-cream range, which was done for charity, has some unusual flavors such as a Bacon, Egg and Cheese tub. This essentially sums up their show. As Desus says, “It’s a weird flavor that you might not be ready for, but once you make the effort and try it, you’re going to love it.”

Ziwe

Ziwe
Andrew Zaeh/Deadline

Ziwe kicked off her eponymous Showtime series in May by asking Fran Lebowitz whether she hates slow walkers or racism more. It’s a question that perfectly sums up the emerging comedian.

Her eponymous show, Ziwe, lives in the same universe that birthed The Colbert Report and Da Ali G Show; a series with an unusual character picking at the absurdity of politics, culture and society through the lens of comedy.

It’s no surprise, then, that Ziwe got her start after signing up to the Chris Rock Internship at Comedy Central, a gig that helped her get a joke on Stephen Colbert’s right-wing parody series. “I interned there for a week and I was such a chatty intern that I got a joke on the show,” she says. “I was introduced to The Colbert Report when I was 14 in high school and I remember thinking that he’s so rude and you can say anything if it’s a joke.”

She says that her wish was for her show to be the daytime talk show version of that. “I pull from CBS This Morning and The Oprah Winfrey Show and even a little bit of Ellen. You can really see that I’m satirizing the media at large because I’m so inspired by those shows.”

There’s a dichotomy between episodes and guests, where one week, Ziwe is asking Gloria Steinem about white feminism and the next interviewing Rachel Lindsay, who appeared on The Bachelorette, and Eboni K. Williams, who stars in The Real Housewives of New York, before getting into the weeds with New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang the following week.

She calls the character hyperbolic. “It’s ridiculous to ask someone like Fran Lebowitz, who was friends with Toni Morrison, what is worse, slow walkers or racism. That’s a ridiculous question, but in that absurdity comes honesty because she’s thrown off guard and I don’t know if she’s going to lean into that question. I am constantly trying to combine high and low. You talk to Gloria Steinem one week and then you talk to a Bachelorette the next, but the Bachelorette is also a lawyer and her dad is a federal judge. Things are not as they seem.”

Ziwe was a writer for The Rundown with Robin Thede and, as mentioned, Desus & Mero, but she essentially got her own show after Baited became the viral sensation of the summer, putting people such as Alison Roman and Caroline Calloway on the spot with uncomfortable (for them) questions about race.

“The show is an amalgamation of the creative that I’ve been doing for the last five to ten years,” she says. “[My] Instagram Live show blew up and all of a sudden I was the must-see television show on Instagram. With that in mind, I was able to sell a television show.”

Showtime took the bait and, after securing the order, she partnered with A24, the hip production and distribution company behind films such as Uncut Gems, Minari and Midsommar. This, she says, was because of the company’s reputation with talent and its interest in aesthetic.

The show is hyper-stylized with Ziwe wearing leather knee-high boots and performing in music video-style sketches. “The set feels like Barbie’s dream house and I have a strong POV,” she says. “Intentionally, I wanted to stand in contrast with the Jimmys and the Johns of late-night. So often, when I was aspiring to become a late-night host, you were nodded in the direction that smart women wear pants and glasses and blue and are very serious and femininity is not someone who is necessarily an intellectual. I really wanted to defy the idea of what it means to be an intellectual and a woman.”

The guests are briefed as to who Ziwe is and that she’s playing a character, in that sense more Colbert than Sacha Baron Cohen. But the character does allow her to have conversations that may be tougher to have without a satirical mask on. Having said that, there’s a strange authenticity behind these absurd interactions. “I am uncomfortable all the time talking about race. Since I was a kid people have been talking to me about race. I was in the mall and people are talking to me about the Black friends they have, and I thought, Who cares? Why are you bringing this up? All of these micro-scenarios that existed all of my life, I thought, What if there was a camera to see how stupid it was, how absurd these conversations were?”

Ziwe
Greg Endries/Showtime

It’s about accountability, rather than cancel culture, she says. “We’re not trying to cancel anybody or ruin anybody’s career. We lead with kindness with the hope of making funny, thoughtful comedy.”

Ziwe’s six-episode series is being put forward in this year’s Emmys as a variety show, a smart move that will see it go up against the likes of SNL and A Black Lady Sketch Show for a nomination, rather than the plethora of late-night shows. “This is a variety show in the truest sense of the word, because there’s music, guests, field pieces, sketches and fake commercials. I am just making important work that is hopefully funny, so the show is what you interpret, it fits into several genres. It’s stretching the definition of what comedy means,” she adds.

Next up, she hopes that the premium network will pick up more episodes and she is already planning her roster of guests. “Is there a season where I interview Hillary Clinton and Kim Kardashian or talk to the Obamas? What’s nice about the show is that I can talk to anyone, I can talk to Duck Dynasty or the President of Morehouse. I just look forward to meeting new people and having more compelling, interesting conversations and constantly pushing the boundaries,” she says.

However, she’s not all that interested in people knowing too much about her personally, hoping that she can remain somewhat of an enigma, more Sacha Baron Cohen than Stephen Colbert in that sense. She concludes, “I’d like it if you knew nothing about me. Who am I? Why do you care? I want to give people the tools to laugh and to think and give everything a critical eye including myself. Why is my favorite ice cream important?”

Showtime

Ziwe on Desus & Mero on Ziwe

Desus & Mero’s move from Viceland to Showtime in 2019 triggered the introduction of a writers’ room for the pair for the first time. Ostensibly designed for sketches and field pieces, rather than a group of monologue writers, the team is a hivemind for the two men, a gang of idea folk who have the duo’s backs.

The group consists of experienced writers such as Claire Friedman (SNL), Josh Gondelman (Last Week Tonight), and Mike Pielocik (The Late Show) as well as newcomers such as Robert Kornhauser and Heben Nigatu, plus Julia Young, who is also the voice of God on the show. This group, in fact, just won the Writers Guild Award for comedy/variety, beating Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

“That award counts for more because it’s from other writers. It’s like Steph Curry complimenting your shot,” says Desus. “I don’t want the WGA to take away the award… but it doesn’t really feel like a writers’ room. Our writers know how to put things in our voices, and they know what we wouldn’t rock with.” Mero calls the room a “hangout”.

One of those that was previously in the hangout, and one of the winners of the WGA award, was Ziwe, who spent two years writing on 75 episodes of the show.

Ziwe says that she used to watch Desus & Mero’s show on her computer at work, when she was pretending to be working on spreadsheets. “I would not be here if it wasn’t for the people that were willing to stick their neck out and give me opportunities when there were so many other easier choices.”

She calls the pair “brilliant, wild geniuses”. “They influenced me to be proud of who I am, to push the boundaries of jokes and value my culture. Working for them and seeing them practice that, as well as being kind, benevolent employers, was a privilege and I think my show reflects that spontaneity. I don’t think I could have got to that place emotionally if I had not seen them when I was younger and then worked for them for two years.”

Deadline presents AwardsLine: Comedy
Read Deadline’s comedy Emmy issue for 2021, featuring Desus & Mero and Ziwe on the cover, here. Deadline

Desus & Mero are similarly complimentary of their young protégée. Mero says it was evident when she interviewed for the writing job. “It was obvious she could write and perform and carry a show on her own. We knew that was going to be her next step. She was going to write the shit out the park in the writers’ room and then ascend to the Ziwe show, and we love it for her.”

Ziwe scoring her own show was like watching “your kid graduate” adds Desus. “She’s our homegirl, we’re super proud of her and love her show. The fact that she’s also on Showtime is great because it’d be really bad if she was on another network and we’d be rivals.”

Joking aside, Desus says he was pleased that the network had picked up her show, highlighting its increasing inclusion. “Before we got to Showtime, people were saying it was a very white network, there wasn’t a lot of diversity, but shout out to them for being more accepting and open. If you look at the range of shows now with The Chi and Good Lord Bird they’re opening and extending their universe. They’re [also] not picking inauthentic voices. It’s easy to just get a Black show; you have to get a show that exists not just because it’s a Black show.”

Mero adds that it’s not about “giving the hottest Black person in Hollywood a show” but finding “diamonds in the rough”. “Forget the tokenism, find real voices and put them out there.”

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