Desus and Mero represented the New York that mainstream media ignored

The comedy duo proved that NYC’s lifeblood comes from Black and Brown communities that are rarely given opportunities to thrive.

Greg Endries/SHOWTIME

There’s a natural irreverence that evolves out of surviving the brutality of a city that seems exceedingly determined to make it clear that your presence is unwelcome, no matter what cultural contributions or community you may have established; it sharpens you like steel, donning an “us-against-the-world” mentality like armor. This is the ecosystem that much of the Bronx has existed in — dismissed not just by clueless tourists, but within NYC’s five boroughs, by people who are quick to use the northernmost region of the city as a quick punchline. It’s a sensitive but oft-retread spot for many of us who claim Uptown as our stomping grounds, and a unifying source of the defiance that rounds out our speech much more than any specific accent, lingo, or generation.

It's nestled within this tension that much of the most iconic exports — and occasionally, overdone tropes and phraseology — would make their way from the Bronx to the greater mainstream. While the rest of the city was ready to dismiss the Bronx as a blight, a counterculture we now know as hip-hop was born. And in a time when the faces of NY media — including street culture reporting — were overwhelmingly white and dominated by people who had moved here and weren’t molded by the city, Desus & Mero stepped into the scene. Two Black boys from the Bronx were somehow let in the back door, ending up at Showtime, where they ended their eponymous late-night comedy show this week after four seasons. Their brilliance showcased what we’ve all long known — that the cultural lifeblood of this city is maintained by Black and brown communities who are rarely given opportunities to thrive or meaningfully represent their experiences, on or off camera.

Listening to early recordings of Desus and Mero’s forays into original programming as a duo is like eavesdropping on a rapid-fire conversation between rowdy teenagers on the back of a city bus: an unformed stream-of-consciousness that is dizzyingly sharp within the unstructured chaos of thunderous opinions. Over the course of their rise, they would continuously be referred to as “unprecedented” — and while I innately understood the adjective to be a reference to the pair being the proverbial flies in the buttermilk that is the late-night TV market, I couldn’t help but think about how their relatability to the Uptown everyman — Black or Latinx, quick-witted, working class, living check-to-check and with interests that often widely vary from mainstream media coverage — is what made them appealing to me and so many of my friends. In other words, what resonated for me and others in the local demographic was just how familiar it felt.

That off-the-cuff cadence where insults are used as punctuation with a context-specific application is a highly specific art form, especially in a world where the inflections of Black New York are commonly reduced to a caricature of Timberland boots and incessant utterances of “deadass.” But Desus and Mero navigated it with seasoned expertise. While they would often use the phrase “the brand is strong” to refer to their far-reaching influence — their rise in prominence from 2014 onwards happens to coalesce with the near-ubiquity of the chopped cheese outside of Harlem and the Bronx in late 2016 and beyond — they would occasionally escalate it to the New York-patented status of “the brand is brolic” when appropriate. The claim added emphasis to their splashy declarations of being the “No. 1 show on late night,” even if it was by a rubric assessed by no one other than themselves and their loyal fans. I no longer had to explain to someone that “suck my dick” isn’t an immediate call for violence when Mero would create a tonal spectrum out of his go-to “suck my dick from the back,” ranging from bemusement to aggression — and that aggression led to some classic tag-team moments, from their legendary beef with The Breakfast Club host DJ Envy (and continued trolling of him) to their abject disgust with DJ Akademiks’ attempt at a back-and-forth with them. (And yes, they did eventually get a capsule release with Timberland, which I am still remorseful about missing out on to this day).

This is by no means intended to detract from the skill it took for both of them to maintain their momentum as their popularity grew. As they evolved from Complex to Viceland to Showtime, I watched them mature as hosts and interviewers, mastering the ability to catch heavily media-trained celebrities off-guard in an organic, revealing way. It wouldn’t always land — the segment of Anna Kendrick in the Bronx was a personal cringe moment for me — but when the stars aligned, they created an experience that was impossible to duplicate. Try as he might, Trevor Noah can’t get Denzel to ask him to name legendary stops on the 2 train.

Their ability to take a trending moment on Black Twitter and take a scalpel to add local layers to the conversation not only added entertainment value; it also invited us into a dialogue where we were spoken to and not spoken about, a nuance that many media platforms with an emphasis on street culture failed to grasp without their guiding hand. Complex and Vice, respectively, had developed reputations for taking “whitewashing” and “poverty tourism” approaches to interacting with subcultures before bringing Desus and Mero into the fold. Their bonafide cultural dexterity, formed out of experiencing New York as more than a transient city for the arrested development of twentysomethings, led to them showcasing some of the most viral and bizarre corners of the city with humor, empathy, and humanity. This segment from Episode 9 of Complex’s Desus vs. Mero, which was an extemporaneous reaction bit to a viral fight video that led to the defeat of a boastful New Yorker at the hands of two men who embodied the stereotype of more provincial white counterparts, is a great example:

Mero: This is 2014; UFC is very popular. All these white dudes is taking MMA classes, and their favorite thing to do is get on the ground with you and roll around—
Desus: Ground and pound.
Mero: Ground and pound dog. So listen, keep a razor in your hat. if that nigga was a real Bronx nigga, he would have had a razor in his mouth and—
Desus: That Gemstar under the tongue.
Mero: Or under the brim of his hat that he would have just cut fucking Tyler and Hunter in half, dawg.
Desus: Like a Jamaican chick in high school
Mero: You know what I’m saying, carve niggas up.
Desus: Solve all your problems with the Gemstar. This bitch think she cute. *whoosh* not anymore!
Mero: Hold that!
Desus: Shout out to all my girls out there that gotta wear my doobie like this because they caught the hot 150 across the face — happens. Shout out to Truman and Evander.
Mero: Shout out to my alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Where all the kids from Bronx Science get robbed on a daily basis.
Desus: Constantly.

Their animated banter indisputably makes the dialogue amusing upon listening — but it’s a connection with the New York experience that makes this joke interactive and gives it meaning and depth. The duo never bothered to offer what Code Switch’s Gene Demby often refers to as the “explanatory comma” — you either knew the reputation of Evander Childs or you didn’t. Just like you had to know that specialized high school Bronx Science (my alma mater) and DeWitt Clinton were on the same block, and the increasingly sparse presence of Black and Latinx students in the former institution over the years still took resources from the latter — including use of its athletic field — while still operating in fear in the neighborhood.

This applied to so many of their ongoing bits. Yesenia was more than a comic relief character they developed for their podcast, she represented an amalgam of people that so many of us knew well: the ones who were commonly mocked and dismissed but kept the city’s segregated and substandard health care system afloat, whether it be Bronx-Lebanon, Montefiore, or Harlem Hospital (which, since I was a child, we used to say you should only go to for bullet wounds or childbirth). Their much-beloved AKA segment began in the very first episode of their cult-favorite Bodega Boys podcast with a mere four to five monikers a piece and quickly ballooned to a nearly 30-minute segment to close out the episodes. The segments had sounds inherent to Uptown interwoven throughout: a play on Black Rob’s “I Dare You,” coupled with a reference to Dyckman stomping ground Mama Sushi; declared fealty to the Dipset (pre-Verzuz); an extended riff mimicking the bombastic style of the DJ personalities on 97.9 La Mega.

At their best, their specificity would showcase why they reflected the culture of “the real New York” without even trying. A random aside would reveal that they had shared a MetroCard to record the first episode of the Complex podcast; a brief mention of Nas on the Questlove Supreme podcast would reveal that Desus was part of a legendary music-ripping collective, leading to a story involving “Beanie Siegel beating up interns,” the Roc-A-Fella street team and the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Desus Nice and The Kid Mero might be an unprecedented story for the late-night world, but they felt like they belonged to us, and they made pains of reaffirming that whenever they could, noting that “few people represent the Bronx after they get a little money.”

That was what the Bodega Boys represented in iconography, no matter what platform they were on: an ode to a community that was easily discarded. On the very first episode of their Complex podcast, they joked, “everybody in the Bronx lives in one giant project building on Jackson Ave. ... Papoose is the super ... we got a bodega on the ground floor ... and on the side, that’s where you see the Big Pun Memorial.” It was a dramatization of how people commonly perceived the area they called home, and all of the little totems that became canon to their brand over the years — from the crates, shipping barrels and quarter waters on set at Complex to the Catholic prayer candles at Vice and branded rum and beer at Showtime — were an homage to that experience.

When the duo made their appearance on the Questlove Supreme podcast, Desus addressed the lingering concerns of their transition from Viceland to Showtime. “There’s a fear of it because you definitely see fans. Like I love the last show,” he said. “But it’s like, fam, we just keep leveling up. You have to come with us. You have to believe in the brand. You have to believe in the message.” To be frank, the concern from fans was validated; as the show expanded their audience, the voice felt a bit diluted as well. But their commitment to experiences like their five-borough tour with a triumphant stop at the world-famous Apollo Theater, and a committed team that came to understand their voice more as the seasons progressed (although it was always obvious when they were riffing), assured that the brand had so much more to come, which is why so many fans are reeling from this abrupt split. But as Desus has oft-repeated on the podcast, “everything is finite,” and there is no reason why the two breakout stars cannot continue their unprecedented success individually. And while they may never have received the Emmy they always wanted, the Number 1 show on Late Night will always be Triple Platinum in the hood.