Having one’s own TV show comes with a lot of perks, but these days regular grooming is the one The Kid Mero often misses most. Along with his comedy partner Desus Nice, Mero hosts Showtime’s Desus & Mero, a show for which he normally gets his hair and makeup done before going on air. Now, New York’s shelter-in-place guidelines mean no more regular barbering. “In about a week,” he says, “my beard is going to be long enough for me to start drawing faces on random balls around the house and calling them my friends.”
The show might be hairier, but it must go on. Desus and Mero aren’t the only ones showing up on late-night TV a little more au naturel. The social restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic make it impossible to bring together the full crews necessary to put on a talk show, let alone assemble a studio audience, so in recent weeks many productions have been experimenting with filming their shows remotely. John Oliver reports from what looks like a vacuum for HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has a new camera operator: his wife, Nancy Jovonen. For a brief period early on, Stephen Colbert was doing The Late Show from a bathtub. Adapting Desus & Mero had an added challenge because, as its title suggests, it’s not one guy sitting behind a desk. “The big dilemma: We have two humans,” executive producer Tony Hernandez says. Hernandez watched how other late-night hosts had started shooting remotely and realized it wouldn’t work for his program. “They both needed to talk, to interact with each other.” Producer Julia Young, who guides the show’s flow by teeing up videoclips and making jokes with the hosts, needed to be in the mix as well.
What’s more, the heart of the appeal of Desus & Mero is its goofy, conspiratorial hangout energy, like eavesdropping on the funniest people you know shooting the shit. That mood of intimacy “brings a different quality than other late-night shows have,” says Desus & Mero producer Victor Lopez, who is also the duo’s longtime manager. Re-creating that feeling while its hosts were sequestered separately proved to be a challenge. “A big part of our chemistry is me and Mero being in the same room,” Desus says. Now they’re not even in the same state. Normally filmed in a midtown Manhattan studio with a live audience, Desus & Mero is currently working with two ad hoc sets: Mero’s basement in his New Jersey home and Desus’ “sneaker room” in his New York apartment.
Initially, the desire to stay close-knit had the crew floating other ways to keep the show on before they realized how long this crisis would last. “We were going to just hunker down in the studio with all the staff members,” Desus says. “We were just like, ‘What if we just get a lot of food and everyone just stays in the studio? We could just live here because it used to be the old Al Jazeera studio. So it’s bulletproof, fully protected, and self-contained.’ So in theory, we could have probably stayed there for a couple weeks. But, you know, people have families and kids.” The remote option quickly became the only option.
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The hosts are using some of their own equipment, but much of it was either sent over from the studio or, after the studio abruptly closed, ordered online and shipped to their homes. “No matter what limitations we had, the tech team figured it out,” Desus says. “The Showtime tech team virtually went into my MacBook and had the unmitigated audacity to tell me my MacBook was too old to run the streaming software! So I was sitting there in my feelings like, ‘How dare they?!’ But because it’s Showtime, the next day there was a fresh-out-the-box MacBook Pro at my door, and I had to spray it with Lysol and keep it moving.”
Desus tried to set up his living room as his home office but didn’t like the way his white walls looked, especially after he compared his background to MSNBC anchors and Trevor Noah’s setup. “Everyone has a really nice house. So I was like, ‘I have to find the best place in my apartment so people don’t think I’m broke.’” He settled on his sneaker room, a small second bedroom where he keeps his expansive shoe collection. “I’m not going to lie. Every time I look at it on TV, I’m like, ‘Wow, that looks cool as hell.’”
Mero, meanwhile, has turned the “weed-smoking basement” in his suburban home into his studio. “I have four kids, so that makes recording anywhere else in the house pretty much impossible,” he says. As all of the children are currently being homeschooled, Mero says being able to lock the door is crucial to avoiding constant cameos from his offspring. Plus, he often writes in the basement, so it feels like a comfortable space to create, especially now that he’s loaded up with gear. “There’s four microphones in a stand, there’s headphones out the wazoo, there’s all types of hard drives. And there’s multiple monitors,” Mero says. “I look like a conspiracy theorist. It’s wild, but it works.”
With the crew’s help, the technical elements of producing the show haven’t been as challenging as anticipated. “If I had to do it on my own, forget it, I’d be lost in the sauce,” Mero says. “You know how people say something was a team effort but one guy scored 45 points? Like it’s just the polite thing to say? Well, this really was a team effort.”
Desus was also impressed by how simple the production team made the process of establishing a home set. “It actually did not take as long as I thought it would take to set that up,” he says. “Maybe 20 minutes.” His biggest challenge was finding an extra-long cord to connect to his router, which he keeps on his roof. “It’s a huge credit to the guys, we’re so lucky that they are both very tech savvy,” director Dave Drusky says.
Drusky was tasked with figuring out much of the logistics of remote shows, and every cast and crew member WIRED spoke to complimented his nimble problem-solving. Like so many other stressed-out workers adapting to a new, teleconference-heavy workweek, Drusky found himself quickly enamored with Zoom, which he uses both to communicate day-to-day needs and to connect the hosts with each other, as well as with their guests.
“Before this two weeks ago, I had never used Zoom. I had heard the name but did not really know much about it,” Drusky says. “But I feel like between myself and working with our tech, Zoom is now all I know.”
“Shout out to Zoom,” Mero says.
“Shout out to Zoom,” Desus echoes—although he was reluctant to use it at first.
“The first time they sent over an email about we’re using Zoom, I sent over like five articles about its security flaws,” Desus says. “But we’ve set up really tight security, because in the same way that virtual classrooms are getting Zoombombed, if our recording session gets Zoombombed, we have to throw away the entire session.” After creating a set of safety protocols including two-factor authentication and password protection, he’s slightly less concerned. “You won’t see a broadcast that gets hijacked with porn and racial slurs—unless we do it.”
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Aside from security concerns, the stilted nature of talking over video chat was a worry. “There’s that awkward thing where it’s like, You go—no, you go—no YOU go,” Mero says. “But there’s none of that.” Because the pair have been talking to each other across so many platforms over the years, from face-to-face to their long-running podcast Bodega Boys to goofing around on Twitter, they’ve grown accustomed to anticipating how their conversations will flow. “It feels like we’re back to the essence of trying to make each other laugh and let everyone in on the conversation,” Mero says. “It’s just me and Desus, no audience.”
Plus, there are some upsides to the remote setup, even if they can’t hear any applause. “I get to do the show only dressed from the waist up,” Mero says. “I wear basketball shorts and I’m barefoot every single time. And it’s amazing because I get to wiggle my toes while I’m talking about Meghan Markle!”
The first remote episode featured Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old immunologist who is the face of the scientific response to Covid-19 in the United States. Getting Fauci as a guest highlighted the show’s mission to entertain without ignoring the gravity of the situation. “We’re a comedy show, and things should always be light. But it’s a moment where things aren’t really funny,” Lopez says. “I was like, ‘Hey, guys, it’s a really weird time, so when we speak to Fauci, if we can just make the man laugh …’” They did, balancing education-oriented questions about the pandemic with lighter conversation about Fauci’s New York roots. “If you can laugh about [coronavirus] stuff, even in the face of how scary it is,” head writer Mike Pielocik says, “that can be really cathartic and fun, too.”
The show plans to run remotely until further notice, and even as the Desus & Mero staff get more comfortable with the setup, there are a few lingering challenges of creating a professional talk show several times a week in unpredictable and improvised conditions. “The thing I’m worried about is lighting my house on fire with my power strip,” Mero says. “Now that there are like 85,000 things plugged into it.”
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