“Kids are fucking mean!” says the Kid Mero. The 30-year-old Bronx native, born Joel Martinez, recently translated buzz as a rambunctiously funny tweeter into multiple television-development deals, but right now he’s recalling an unglamorous patch of his résumé: “I worked as an aide in a junior high school. You’ll have a kid that’s 12 years old saying, ‘Suck my dick, faggot!’ If I sucked a dick every time a kid in my class told me to suck a dick, I’d be the world blow-bang champion — I would have sucked a million trillion dicks, fam!”
A few feet away, Mero’s creative partner, who goes by Desus, smiles. The duo — who signed a development deal with MTV last year, and who will be appearing as regular contestants on Joking Off, MTV2’s new social-media-driven faux-game show — share a consummately digital-age success story. Several years ago, they were working jobs they hated — Mero at the middle school, Desus at what he calls “a niche financial magazine for black people. I was writing articles for small businesspeople about tax codes. It was the worst. So I started tweeting about how bad things were at my job, and it was comical to some people. It was therapy to me.” Mero found a similar outlet on Twitter, too. “This girl I was hanging out with at the time said, ‘You should get on Twitter, it’s this new shit, it’s gonna blow up, you’re perfect for it — you can write jokes,'” he recalls. “It sounded like the stupidest shit ever, but I was like, ‘What else am I gonna do? I come home and play Call of Duty for 12 hours then go outside and hope somebody buys me beer.'”
Both struck upon sly comedic voices as they vented about work (often while they were at work), poked fun at pop culture, and commented on oddball news. “I’d write about, like, the dude who went to Afghanistan with a ninja sword and said he was gonna kill bin Laden himself,” Mero recalls. Their breakthrough project was Desus Versus Mero, a cult podcast and web-series that suggested a scrappy, hip-hop-generation take on The Daily Show. The pair’s riffs, which they staged behind a stack of milk crates evoking a New York bodega, were improvised, and rappers were frequent targets. On one episode, Desus deemed J. Cole boring via a wonderfully pithy slam: “This nigga farts out dreamcatchers.” Commenting on a buff-looking image of Drake, Mero said, “He’s been going hard at Curves.” “We just go at it — there aren’t even talking points,” says Desus. “I think the setup time for the show might be 20 minutes: wire us up, hit us up with the lint brushes to make sure we’re not covered in cat hair, and sit us on the stage.”
Desus first met Mero years ago, long before Twitter, “at summer school,” Desus says. “Later on, I ran back into him online and we hooked up.” By that point Desus, whose real name is Daniel Baker, had earned a degree in literature at the College of Mount St. Vincent, in the Bronx. The two attribute their chemistry to shared uptown backgrounds. Desus is the son of Jamaican immigrants, and hails from the Bronx’s Wakefield section. “My parents are the same as his, but they speak Spanish,” says Mero, who’s Dominican.
Today their fans include celebrities who respect their comedic chops: Seth Rogen, Anthony Bourdain, Hannibal Buress, Chelsea Peretti. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig got in touch with Mero about developing a sitcom set in a middle school. (Last September they landed a provisional commitment from a respected cable network.) There’s a degree of shock-jock to Desus and Mero — they’ve taken flak for mocking stolen celebrity nudes on their show — but they aren’t mere cynical button-pushers. “It’s kind of like high school: chilling in the parking lot, riffing on shit, making fun of people, but in a funny way, not a bullying, ‘I want you to commit suicide’ way,” says Mero. “Go to any New York public school right now, there’s 15 dudes standing in a circle making fun of each other. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School, and the shit motherfuckers would say waiting for the 40 bus or the 6 train is the shit we say now. It’s an extension of that.” He adds: “It’s a cool thing for white people to exploit and appropriate, and sooner than later, hopefully, we’ll be doing Kashi commercials.”
“People generally have this idea that if you’re from the Bronx you’re uncultured,” says Desus. “Because most people from the Bronx never leave. You stay in a four-block radius around Yankee stadium. But Mero and I have white friends, Asian friends, gay friends, transgender friends — living in New York, that’s the people you’re exposed to.” On their show, they support gay rappers (“Let ’em cook!”), breezily assail white privilege and “black respectability” politics, and for whatever it’s worth, once mocked a nude shot of Omarion, to help remedy the nude-pic-leak gender imbalance.
“People say, ‘Your show is like overhearing two guys in a bodega,'” says Desus. “That’s the feel we want it to have; a couple homeboys chilling. You can’t get enraged when we make some off-the-wall comment — it’s not NPR!”