The moment I knew that the higher-stakes, higher-profile, and (relatively) higher-budget Showtime reboot of Desus & Mero would be OK—that it would remain, despite the various premium-cable upgrades, its uproarious, anarchic, crass, untameable self—came when the ascendant late-night duo’s inaugural guest, freshman U.S. Representative and permanently viral fellow Bronx superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, took the stage, hugged both her hosts, and then took a seat at a simple table, right in between them. Not off to the side on a stuffy couch or something. Between them, at a simple rectangular table. As though they were merely lounging in a diner booth. As though The Tonight Show never existed. The sigh of relief I breathed in this moment was audible from space. Maybe you heard it, too. Maybe you added to it.
That sigh of relief was so loud, in fact, that it nearly drowned out anything anyone said. (AOC’s best line, FWIW, in reference to her geriatric social-media critics, was “How do you have a computer that runs Windows 95 and Twitter at the same time?”) The details mattered far more than any of the punch lines on Thursday night, as the world-historical comedic duo of Bronx buddies Desus Nice and the Kid Mero, immortal podcast heroes and burgeoning talk-show disruptors, upgraded once again, from Twitter to Complex to MTV2 to their stint on Viceland to their new home on Showtime, every impressive jump nonetheless leaving their raw charisma intact. Desus & Mero might be the one late-night show with a legit shot at revolutionizing the genre—or ensuring, for that matter, that the genre survives the next five years at all. But it has to get the details right and hold tight to its own spare idiosyncrasies. This show is a carefully constructed deconstruction, an inelegant and ribald and beautiful thing. At first blush, it looks like Showtime managed to give these guys a much higher platform without stealing their souls.
The whole show is—and always has been and, god willing, always will be—a simple matter of putting these two humans in a room together and letting them rip. That’s it. No distractions or formalities or convoluted frameworks. The Viceland version of Desus & Mero, which ran from October 2016 to June 2018, was a decidedly lowbrow and low-key affair (save for the giant stuffed bear) with a cheery and revolutionary vibe to it: Their guests, from Erykah Badu to Bill Hader to Sean Combs to Rosie Perez to Melissa Harris-Perry, got on the same loopy wavelength, but even the gaudiest stars didn’t have a prayer of outshining the hosts, who in the course of merely riffing on the news of the day can regularly convince you that they’re the two funniest people alive. Showtime’s Desus & Mero has a writers’ room, which for any other talk show would be an absolute necessity, but in this case might’ve been a liability: No two people alive need a writers’ room less.
But Thursday’s premiere was a lovely and silly and splendidly casual mix of the premeditated and the blessedly spontaneous. As a cold-open skit, Desus and Mero visited a grade-school Career Day and let a bunch of little kids snap on them: “If you’re famous, how come I don’t know who you are?” “Why are you wearing hats indoors?” “Aren’t you the guys who got dragged by DJ Envy on The Breakfast Club?” “You’re older than my dad.” “You guys seem a little too ghetto to be on TV.” Midway through the episode, there was an elaborate fake-movie-trailer parody of Green Book, with Desus as Mahershala Ali and Mero as Viggo Mortensen, never laugh-out-loud funny but never unpleasant. (This new movie was rated WG, for White Guilt.) The bulk of their Ocasio-Cortez interview was a trip to her office on Capitol Hill, a loose hang, also featuring fellow young congressional stars Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, that mostly resulted in shaggy bodega jokes. (Desus and Mero brought AOC some gifts to remind her of the Bronx, such as a Puerto Rican flag, a Fat Joe VHS tape, some all-purpose cleaner, a Cardi B Fathead, and a copy of AM New York.) The closing shot of a pair of beat-up shoes hanging from her chandelier was a nice touch.
But it was far more important that the show’s core element—Desus and Mero, alone, bullshitting, with no filter and hardly even any format—survive this jump intact. It did. Conversational topics included Barack Obama’s bizarre and hectoring anti-twerking speech (‘“He’s like a Dominican father at a wedding”), Zion Williamson’s exploding-shoe injury (“If you are an immigrant child and your parents got you sneakers at Payless, you know this pain”), Vladimir Putin’s judo adventure (“That motherfucker runs like my 2-year-old daughter”), and Tekashi69’s imminent move to witness protection. (They Photoshopped him into a Best Buy uniform.) No matter the delivery system, no matter how fancy the stage—the Showtime digs have a brick-and-steel and bodega-facade opulent grittiness to them—to watch these two guys crack each other up has long been one of the purest joys in semi-professional comedy.
The Showtime version, god bless, is just professional enough, but no more. Which is why I found myself laughing like an idiot as these guys laughed at that horrible viral video of a rapping fentanyl bottle. “OK, you said this video was problematic,” Desus boomed. “You didn’t say the fentanyl was spittin’. He’s still better than British rappers, though.” Let’s just say that any talk-show premiere that features a Funkmaster Flex joke is a rousing success. Let’s just say that any talk-show premiere that also features Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explaining marginal tax rates is a small miracle that’s getting bigger all the time.