TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests Desus and Mero host the Showtime comedy series "Desus & Mero" Sunday and Thursday nights at 11. Their third season resumed after a monthlong hiatus last night. It was their first show back in the studio since the pandemic. At the heart of the show is Desus and Mero talking to each other, making each other and the audience laugh about everything from politics to viral videos, sports, pop culture and the Bronx, where they each grew up in the '80s and early '90s. The show also has sketches, and in each show, Desus and Mero do an interview. They get high-profile guests like Barack Obama, Anthony Fauci, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chadwick Boseman, Seth Meyers and Chris Hayes, who went to school with Desus.
Desus and Mero are the children of immigrants. Desus' parents are from Jamaica; Mero's are from the Dominican Republic. They wrote about that in their bestselling book "God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons From The Bronx" in which they give questionable but funny advice about drugs, parenting, masculinity, dealing with police and surviving being broke. The duo started doing comedy together on Twitter, then created a podcast called "Bodega Boys," which led to a TV show on Viceland and then a TV show on Showtime.
When Desus and Mero interviewed David Letterman on their Showtime series, here's what he said about them at the end of the interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DESUS AND MERO")
DAVID LETTERMAN: Listen; I'm so happy for you guys. I'm - and for my own ego, when I first saw the promos that you were running years ago on the Viceland outlet thing, I thought these guys - this is it. This is the future. This is the way it ought to be. And it makes me so happy that it has come to pass that way for both of you.
THE KID MERO: This is - bro, bro.
DESUS NICE: Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.
THE KID MERO: This is high praise. Thank you.
GROSS: Desus and Mero, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you on our show.
THE KID MERO: Thanks for having us.
GROSS: So before you started working together, you both had a bunch of jobs before becoming, like, TV and audio people. So you had, like, legal, illegal, semi-legal...
GROSS: ...Kind of jobs. Tell us about some of the most interesting, well, ones that you've had. Desus, you want to start?
DESUS NICE: Oh, yeah, I've had a million jobs, but I think one of the most interesting jobs I had was working at the New York Public Library because I worked there - every job I've had, I've pretty much worked my way through the ranks. And so I started as a computer page at the library, and I worked my way all the way up to - I was almost a programmer for the New York Public Library in just a matter of years. So that - just looking back at that, that was just wild 'cause I was like, OK, maybe this could be, like, my job for the rest of my life 'cause, you know, thinking back in the day, like, people would have a job for 20 years with one company. But it didn't work out that way. And, you know, that was, like, one of the better jobs 'cause I've had terrible jobs. At one job, I had to collect dead rats at a auto body shop. And that was...
GROSS: Whoa. I've never heard of such a job, like a professional rat-catcher.
DESUS NICE: Yeah. If you want to say professional, if you mean, like, a 15-year-old with Vicks Vapor rub on his top lip, that's what...
DESUS NICE: 'Cause the person came the week before, and they put down bait, but no one stopped to think, OK, they're going to eat the bait and die, and now there's going to be this terrible smell inside the building. And then key to the story - New York was in the middle of a heat wave, so it was about a hundred degrees every day that I was working. And the only skill I had was use my nose to smell the dead rat, which was usually under a car or, like, behind something. Use the shovel to scoop up the dead rat, and you put it into a compound bucket, and then you dump the compound bucket into the barrel of used oil from oil changes that got picked up at the end of the week. I lasted two weeks at that job.
GROSS: Wow. Didn't you also work managing a strip club?
DESUS NICE: I did. I - see? That's how wild my life is. That's not even, like, a job I think of off the top of my head. I'm like, oh, yeah, that's something I did. But yeah, working in different nightclubs all over New York City, working in strip clubs - that sounds like a lot more fun than it is. It's a lot of clock watching, a lot of dealing with people's personal lives, like, outside the club so they can come to work. It takes a lot of skill. And the only reason I got that job was because I was at a club, and they were discussing the velvet ropes in front of the club, and they didn't know the name of the poles that the velvet ropes go on. And I said, you mean the stanchion. And they was like, what? And I was like, that's called a stanchion. And they was like, do you know how to use computers? And I was like, yes. And from there, there you go - working a night club.
GROSS: Wow (laughter). Mero, let's get to some of your jobs.
THE KID MERO: Oh, man. I've had every retail job you could imagine. Like, I worked at a Sally Beauty Supply. I worked at a Ann Taylor Loft. I worked at, like...
GROSS: Wait. You worked at an Ann Taylor Loft? (Laughter).
THE KID MERO: Yeah, seriously. And I was in the stockroom. But going back to, like, when did you know you were funny? Like, I would just make people on the crew laugh - you know what I mean? - and people like my co-workers laugh or whatever. And one of the managers was - that was the first time somebody ever called me charismatic. He was just like, you're really charismatic. And I was just like, OK, that's weird.
THE KID MERO: I haven't done my hair in two weeks, and I have gold teeth, so I don't know how you find me charismatic. So then they had me on the floor, like, interfacing with, like, you know, all kinds of people in Manhattan and just kind of, like, selling them blouses.
GROSS: Did you have to say, that looks so adorable on you?
THE KID MERO: Yeah. Like, that - you know, that kind of thing. But, like, I'm a Dominican guy, so, like, I'm very flirtatious by nature. So I sold a lot of blouses using, you know, flirting.
GROSS: OK, what else? What other jobs?
THE KID MERO: But, honestly, like, the two biggest ones for me were - I worked at Lehman Brothers pre- and post-9/11 and precollapse and then working for the New York City Department of Education as a paraprofessional and teaching. Those were the two main ones for me. And, like, the Lehman Brothers one was just soul-crushing 'cause it was just super corporate, and it was just really bad. Like, the hours sucked. Everything sucked. And it was just soul-crushing 'cause I would see all these people, and I knew in my - like, you know, as a kid, I'd be like, you know, I'm never going to see even a quarter of the amount of money that you see. Like, you have 16 monitors in front of you, and you're talking about finance and stuff. I don't know what the hell you're talking about. I just know that you will be rich forever, and I will be broke forever. And I'm going to be changing your water and bringing your mail until I perish (laughter).
GROSS: When you were working in a public school as a teacher's aide or paraprofessional, what did you have to do? 'Cause I remember, I taught very briefly before I was fired. So I walked in, and, like, there was a paraprofessional or teacher's aide. I forget what his official job was. And he looked at me, and he said, basically, you're not going to make it (laughter). And then he gave me some advice, and I want to know if you follow this advice. He said, what I do with the students - if a kid's bad, I take him out of the class, and I holler at him so everybody could hear, and then I start kicking the locker so people think I'm, like, throwing him against the locker, but I'm not; I'm just kicking him.
GROSS: And I thought, like, wow, thanks for being such a great role model for me.
THE KID MERO: Yeah. No, I mean, you know what it is? Some of those, it's case-by-case, you know what I mean? That's the thing, too. Like, it's kind of like being a coach. Like, you have a team, your roster of students, and each one is different. Some of them, you do have to give them, like, tough love and be like, you know, whatever. And I worked in a junior high school in '17 - my alma mater, shout out to them. And it's on 176th Street and Morris Avenue in the Bronx. So, like, you know, it's the South Bronx. It's not a great gentrified up-and-coming neighborhood - blah, blah, blah, whatever you want to call it. So, you know, a lot of those kids, their - both their parents are working, single parents. Some of them are in shelters. So like, you know, like, I know where a lot of the anger comes from, a lot of that, like, you know, quote-unquote, "acting out."
So in that situation, you approach it differently versus a kid who has a stable home, has a PlayStation Five, both parents work, they make money, they're doing well, but you're just like - you just want to be a smartass. So if you just want to be a smartass, I can play that game, too. You know what I mean? It's kind of, like, finding out, like, who's really going through it versus who's just, like, kind of messing around, you know? And I was like - I called myself, like, a bouncer, teacher, crisis, you know, prevention manager - whatever you want to - like, so many different hats on any given day.
GROSS: It sounds like you were really good at it.
THE KID MERO: Yeah. I mean, like, that's the thing, too. Like, I stepped into it thinking, like, I have to be Khaki-Van-Heusen-Button-Up Man, you know, for these kids to take me seriously. And then it was just, like - 'cause, you know, I'm a 20-something-year-old kid. So I was just like, you know, they're not going to take me seriously. They're going to think I'm, like, one of their older brothers if I come in dressing like how I normally dress, so I have to dress the part.
And that was my biggest mistake 'cause my first day, a kid told me, you know, something that rhymes with, you know, tuck my brick when I asked him to read something. And it was - and then the next day, I came in, and I was just like, you know what? I'm not - I'm going to show these kids that I'm from here. Like, I'm from the same community you're from. I'm not, you know, some transplant from New Hampshire. Like, I graduated from this school. Like, I know this neighborhood. I probably know - I probably beat your uncle up.
So the next day, I came in dressed like I normally dressed - you know, hoodie, Yankee hat. And then I went - and I sent one of the kids up to the library to get the yearbook from '97, which is the year I graduated. And I opened it up, and I looked - I said, look at class A221 (ph). Who's there? And they were like, oh, snap, Mister, yo, that's you, yo, that's you. And I was just like, yes, that's me. So now we're going to move a little bit different. And I kind of - you know, I kind of put my foot down a little bit, and then it was working out 'cause then they - them looking at me as an older brother ended up working out for me because they would tell me stuff that they wouldn't tell the teacher or that they wouldn't tell the counselor.
THE KID MERO: And then I can go tell the counselor. Or I could just offline with the parent personally and be like, yo, listen; you know, your son, your daughter, whoever, told me this, you know? I'm a little worried about it; just putting it on your radar in case you're not aware of it.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are Desus and Mero. Their Showtime comedy series is on Sunday and Thursday nights at 11. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "ADRENALINE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Desus and Mero, the duo that hosts the Showtime comedy series "Desus & Mero," in which they talk to each other and make each other laugh about subjects ranging from politics to sports to pop culture and the Bronx, where they're both from.
You're both the children of immigrants. And, Mero, your parents are from the Dominican Republic, and, Desus, your parents are from Jamaica. Did they each tell you a lot about, like, their backstories and why they came to New York?
THE KID MERO: All the time. I think that's, like, the immigrant parent trope. It's, like, they tell you constantly how much they struggled and sacrificed so that you could have a better life. And it's true. Like, now that I'm, you know, a 38-year-old man with four children myself, I understand exactly where they're coming from. When you're 10 years old, you kind of don't want to hear it, but as an adult, it's like - you know, that work ethic, that drive is instilled in you early, you know what I mean? Because it's like, I can't even imagine.
Like, my parents came here, you know, in their early 20s. It's like, yo, I'm going to - as a 20-something-year-old, imagine moving to a place where you don't know the language. You don't know the lay of the land. You don't know anybody there. You're just going there with a couple of bucks and trying to make it happen. And that - just that idea is terrifying to me at 38, so I can't even imagine doing it at, like, 22, 21. They just built different. So, like, you know, to honor them and to kind of show - like, hey, look; this was not in vain. Like, look at what we've accomplished, the three of us - 'cause I have two siblings, you know? And they all - the three of us did what we set out to do, which was, you know, come here and be successful and then pay it forward, you know?
DESUS NICE: Yeah, growing up with my - yeah, my parents definitely - looking back, it wasn't - they weren't like, look; I did this, I did this to, like, berate me or anything. I think, looking back, like, they were just trying to process this themself - to be that young with young children in a country you don't understand. That adds like a different level of stress that I can't even imagine. And looking back, I just always remember my parents stressing about the idea that they came to this country to give me a chance so that I wouldn't just - you know, just squander it because, especially growing up in the Bronx, it wasn't that hard to, like, fall in with the wrong crowd, end up selling drugs or running around with guns and stuff like that. And that would've totally just been a waste of time for what my parents were trying to accomplish.
And then also, living where I lived at the time growing up - I lived in the northeastern part of the Bronx, which is affectionately referred to as Little Jamaica 'cause it has a huge West Indian population, and you - there's a lot of Jamaican stores and restaurants and supermarkets. So growing up, there was definitely a sense of community because everyone around me, basically, was Jamaican, to the point where I - until I got older and started exploring, I thought all of New York was like that. So it was kind of shocking to go to Manhattan. I'm like, hey, there's no beef patty stores down here. But, you know, definitely my parents instilled that and then always put that in me. So it was always in the back of my head.
Also that immigrant work ethic, that - it's just like, you have to work harder than other people 'cause - not that you have more to prove, but you got more at stake. There's no plan B. There's no, like, safety net for you to fall on. And that - to this day, I continue doing that every day when we do work.
GROSS: So you both grew up in the Bronx in the 1980s and '90s. And, I mean, the Bronx was kind of like - during that period, it was kind of, like, the capital of graffiti and hip-hop culture. Which parts of that were most important in your life?
THE KID MERO: I remember - like, I grew up in a household where, like, we didn't speak English. Like, I didn't speak English till I went to school. So hearing hip-hop and hearing the Jungle Brothers' "Straight Out The Jungle" for the first time, like, blew my mind. Like, literal, like - I was like, what is this? This is, like, next level. This is the future or whatever. So, you know, shout out to my cousin Patty (ph) 'cause I would just, like, raid her, like, vinyl and, like, cassette collection or whatever and listen to all types of stuff. But graffiti - and to this day, like, I'm just obsessed. Like, I don't know - I can't even - I don't know if I can even explain it. It's just like an - it's an addiction that I'm not mad I have. I think I said that same exact thing verbatim in the book.
But yeah, it's just like - it's so much fun. It's like an adrenaline rush. And then you drive - it's like putting your autograph somewhere, and then you go and you see your autograph later on. You know what I mean? I don't know. I can't explain to, like, a non-graffiti writer (laughter). But, like, it just - there's this rush where you see - like, if I paint one of those, like, white box trucks, and I just see it, like - I paint it in the Bronx, and then I see it out somewhere on a highway in New Jersey, I'm like, yo, wow. You know what I mean? Like, at least 15 to 20 people have seen my name rolling down a highway.
GROSS: So did you learn English in part by listening to rap?
THE KID MERO: Definitely. Music, television, older cousins that were bilingual. But mostly, like, pop culture - TV, music, stuff like that. Like, I learned a lot of stuff from "Saved By The Bell."
GROSS: But if you were learning English in part from rap, like, you learned English in part in rhyme.
THE KID MERO: Yeah, which is funny because, like, I'm always coming up with these weird, like, phrases or catchphrases or whatever, and I feel like that's kind of like what hip-hop did to me. Like, it made me think in, like, couplets - you know what I'm saying? (laughter) - like, whenever I'm writing or talking or whatever. But, you know, like, that definitely influenced the way, like, I speak, period.
GROSS: What was your best way of hiding from police when you were doing graffiti?
THE KID MERO: All-black outfit. You know, if it's summertime - black T-shirt, black pants, sweatpants, shorts, whatever. And nothing reflective, nothing reflective. Maybe a bandana. You know what I'm saying? But the best thing really is to just have a black plastic bag from a bodega full of paint, and just walk down the street like you're minding your business. That's the thing. That's - the best disguise is no disguise when you're doing graffiti.
GROSS: Right. Desus, what were the parts of hip-hop and graffiti culture that you most identified with or were a part of.
DESUS NICE: For me, it was more music because my father, he was a DJ in Jamaica. Now, when he came to America...
DESUS NICE: ...He still had, like, a lot of vinyl and things like that. Because he had to work, he didn't really have time to DJ anymore. But I always, like, saw the records and saw, like, when he would play music or how excited he would get when he'd have cookouts and barbecues. And, like, he'd, like, arrange the music a certain way. And because of that, like, I was always listening to, like, old-school Jamaican music, old-school dance hall, which helped me - you know, when you start hearing those samples in KRS-One and different levels of hip-hop, and then having so many sisters, they would always be playing hip-hop. They'd always - my oldest sister would always play, like, Tribe Called Quest, whatever new albums came out. She'd be the way I'd find out about stuff because I was too young to go out on my own.
And not only that, my sisters, they'd date guys, and the guys would come around, and they'd play brand-new music from, like, their neighborhood. Like, so that's how I found out about, like, Heavy D and Pete Rock and all those people from Mount Vernon, which is located right above New York because those guys would come visit my sisters, and they'd have, like, albums and stuff there. So I was always - growing up, that was always the vibe of New York City for me, like, just trying to, like, move from, basically, one hip-hop album to another. And shout out to my man G Steel (ph). We used to actually go to vinyl stores. We'd cut school and just go - not just to buy new vinyl, but we'd go and we'd, like - what we called digging in the crates, where you just looked through - because there's no turntable at the time.
So you had to, like, kind of look for old records and judge them, basically, by their cover. And then when you go home, you listen to them. And we weren't producers at the time. But when - something we really liked to do was find an old record and identify a sample. And so you'd buy these old albums. And you're listening to all these old tracks. And then you'd hear, like, a 30-second sample. And you take it back. And this is way before the internet. This is before there was any, like, pop culture, easy way for you to identify samples. And then you'd figure out, oh, DJ Premier sampled this track for this Nas song. And then, like, you know, I'd call my boy G and try to - ride on my bike over to his house to play the record for him. And that's the kind of, like, hip-hop nerd stuff we were doing back in the day.
GROSS: My guests are Desus and Mero. Their Showtime series "Desus & Mero" is on Thursday and Sunday evenings at 11. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN I KICK IT?")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: He's having a ball. And, you know, they asked me to get on the mic. And they asked me, can I kick it? Word. Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can.
(Rapping) Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Can I kick it? Yes, you can. Well, I'm gone. Go on, then. Can I kick it? To all the people who can quest like a tribe does. Before this, did you really know what live was? Comprehend to the track, for it's why, cuz (ph). Getting measures on the tip of the vibers. Rock and roll to the beat of the funk fuzz. Wipe your feet really good on the rhythm rug. If you feel the urge to freak, do the jitterbug. Come and spread your arms if you really need a hug. Afrocentric living is a big shrug, a life filled with - that's what I love. A lower plateau is what we're above. If you diss us, we won't even think of. Will Nipper the doggy give a big shove? This rhythm really fits like a snug glove. Like a box of positives, it's a plus, love, as the Tribe flies high like a dove.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Desus and Mero, hosts of the comedy series "Desus & Mero," which is on Showtime Sundays and Thursdays at 11. Their third season resumed after a month-long hiatus last night. On each show, they riff on all kinds of subjects and interview a guest. Recent guests have included Yo-Yo Ma, Stacey Abrams, Anthony Mackie, Demi Lovato and Kenan Thompson. Desus and Mero grew up in the Bronx in the '80s and '90s. Last year, they wrote a book of advice, of life lessons from the Bronx called "God-Level Knowledge Darts."
Desus, your mother was a librarian. Did you grow up with a lot of books? And I should mention, in the acknowledgements of your book, you say that you - I think it was in the acknowledgments - you say that you were an English major - shoutout to "Jane Eyre" (laughter).
DESUS NICE: Yes.
GROSS: I was surprised to see "Jane Eyre."
DESUS NICE: Oh, yeah. That was a shoutout to my mother. My mother was - when she returned to the workforce after having four kids, she was a tutor at the CRW in the New York Public Library. And my mother started there. From there, she worked her way up to being the branch librarian at the Soundview Library.
But, yeah, my mother instilled a love of books at a very early age with us. The library, when they do circulation and if a book isn't being rotated or no one's reading it, they throw the book away. That's just, like, the weeding and seeding of the New York public library. So my mother would always come home with books for us to read almost on a weekly basis. So there was always this - she would always stress the need to read and a love of reading in our house.
And the "Jane Eyre," that shoutout was a shoutout to College of Mount Saint Vincent, where I started as a computer science major. And I actually was learning programming languages faster than they were teaching them. So my mother was like, why don't you just fall back and be a English major? You can get any job with, like, an English degree. And I said, yeah. And I was pretty much the only - I was the only male in my "Jane Eyre" class at College of Mount Saint Vincent, which was super hilarious.
GROSS: Yeah, it sounds it. Mero, you described yourself - when you were interviewing David Letterman, you described yourself as a hellacious teenager.
THE KID MERO: (Laughter).
GROSS: What made you hellacious?
THE KID MERO: Well, it's - part of it was just kind of, like, rebelling. Because, like, kind of like what Desus said, my mom is a teacher or, you know, a former teacher, retired now, shoutout to her, you know, did her thing. And she was, like, a really good teacher and a really good manager of classrooms, you know what I mean? Like, that's a big thing when you're an educator, is classroom management. Like, can you keep these 40 kids engaged? And my mom was teaching at a time when that was not uncommon to have, like, a 40-child roster, you know, in your room. So - and she was a math teacher, so that was, like, her thing.
And she also was very cognizant of, like, English is my second language. I can speak English, and I can communicate well in English, but I have an accent, and people judge me for that. So she was just, like, super - like, you need to learn how to read and write in English the way that they do here or else people are going to judge you and think - you know what I mean? Like, just - they're going to have to say, oh, you're not American. You're from somewhere else because you don't sound like I sound or whatever.
So every single summer, I went to the Dominican Republic to visit family. But we did not go without an entire duffle bag full of workbooks, novels, you know, math drills. Like, it was like going to school year-round with my mom. So yeah, no. To (laughter) answer your question, I was a hellacious teenager probably because I was rebelling against that. But it worked out because I ended up mixing those two worlds - like, running around in the street, doing all this street stuff, but also having, like, the book smarts that my mom kind of made me enjoy.
Like, you know, it got to a point where it was just like, oh, this is just a thing that I do, like eating and breathing. Like, I'm doing math. I'm actively reading. I'm learning to read and write in Spanish and in English just because it's like, you know, it's an asset. My mom knew that. So she just made it part - she just made it normal. She's - you know, it was part of my everyday life. So I didn't feel like, oh, I'm missing out or like, all my cousins are out at the river swimming, and I'm home, you know, reading "Animal Farm," you know? But like...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
THE KID MERO: But at the end of the day, it's just like, you know, it helped me realize, like, earlier than the other kids that, you know, "Animal Farm" isn't just a book about pigs being in charge. You know, themes and things like that in writing and literature or whatever is something that kind of became apparent to me real young.
GROSS: What did masculinity mean to each of you when you were growing up? What did being - you know, proving that you were a man mean? What did it require?
THE KID MERO: I don't know. For me, it was - my dad is weird because he never was like, this is what a man does. Like, I saw him cooking alongside my mom. I saw him cleaning the house alongside my mom. My dad, you know, would cry and not be ashamed to cry. I always felt like people always kind of said masculinity has to be, like, being stoic and like, you know, be a man - like, man up. But my dad was just like, listen, being a man is being you - you know? - and taking care of what you got to take care of and - but that's just being a human. So like, you know, now that I'm 38, I'm like, well, dad, that's just being a responsible human being. But I guess that's what he meant all along. The concept of masculinity is, like, whatever you want it to be.
GROSS: And, Desus, what message did you get from - about masculinity from your family but also from friends and from people who weren't necessarily your friends?
DESUS NICE: It was never really the kind of thing where it was stressed on you about - be a man, you got to be a man, you got to do this, you got to stand up - especially in my house because there was so many girls. There was no real, like, masculinity stuff going on. It was just like - we were just raised as kids.
But then when I started hanging in the streets with, like, older guys - because those were, like, the closest things to brothers I had. I just remembered them - they weren't the most woke people. And they did terrible crimes. And they were terrible people. But I do remember one of the things that they stressed to me was masculinity is very important - about being able to be proud of the person you are when you look at yourself in the mirror and that you shouldn't define who you are based on what other people say or think about you. And at the time, that didn't sound that revolutionary. But you have to think about it in terms of if someone steps on your sneakers and you shoot them, are you a man for that? You're in jail now. And little things like that, that taught you a different way to view masculinity going forward.
GROSS: Well, you know, you're both now, like, LGBTQ allies. How did you get to that point? I mean, did you grow up with homophobia and with gay being used as a, you know, derogatory term?
DESUS NICE: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Especially being in a Caribbean community, like, you know, you have very popular songs that are about murdering gay people. And you grow up, you don't even realize that's what the song is about, or you're just singing it at, like, a family barbecue. Everyone's jumping around, laughing because that's so - it's, like, so ingrained in Caribbean culture because of slavery and religion and so many different things. And you don't even realize that you're being homophobic. Like, some of the gay slurs are just actual curse words that you'd use if you stub your toe. So when you grow up like that, it becomes - it can become hard for you to realize that you're being homophobic or you're not being - not being woke but, you know, you're being hurtful.
But we - my parents did a good job of making sure we weren't raised in a way like that to the point where one of my little sister's friends, a Jamaican kid, his mother threw him out the house for being gay - literally no other reason, just 'cause he was gay. And she was like, you're not going to do that under my roof. And he came, and he lived with us for a year. And that was, like, my little brother. And he would ask me questions that tried to answer as much as I could. But I was like - I only know so much about the subject.
And my parents were completely fine. They didn't charge him any rent. They just let him live in the house because he had nowhere else to go. And shout out to Derek (ph), who we raised. Like, that lesson right there just really showed me how important it is to be an ally for people and to be in people's lives because if you're not there, who do they have?
GROSS: Well, that's great. And Mero, what about you? Like, your mother-in-law is a lesbian, right?
THE KID MERO: Yes. And my - shout out to Judith, shout out to Claudia (ph), I love - you know, loves of my life, beautiful women. And that - to me, that was, like, not a thing. Like, you know what I mean? Like, it was just like, oh, you know, it's - this is your mom and your mom. You know, and your stepmom, partner. And like, it's weird because, like, I feel like that's like a plot to, like, a '90s movie.
THE KID MERO: Like, you know what I mean? Like, Dominican guy meets Jewish girl at work. They fall in love. Whoa, his mom's - his mother-in-law's gay. Whoa. That's wacky. How are they going to get along? But like, Claudia's a great person. Judy's a great person. And like, I just like good people. Like, I don't care who you sleep with at the end of the night, who you marry, who you date, whatever is going on with you. Like, I just kind of never cared about that type of stuff. You know what I mean? Like - and I don't know. Like, it's just - I don't know. It's a weird question to answer because it's almost - like I said, growing up in New York City, you see it so much. It's just, like, a fact of life. It's just like, yo, you're Puerto Rican; you're gay. You know what I mean? Like, it's just another category of New Yorker, you know what I'm saying?
GROSS: Yes. But like you said, there was so much homophobia in pop culture and in hip-hop at the time. So just to balance what you just said...
THE KID MERO: Right, yeah. And it's so bizarre that there was so much of it. And - but it didn't - I don't know. It didn't - like, it didn't, like, take root in me.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you both here. If you're just joining us, my guests are Desus and Mero. Their Showtime comedy series is on Sunday and Thursday nights at 11. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "TWELVE'S IT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Desus and Mero. The duo hosts the Showtime comedy series "Desus & Mero" in which they talk to each other and make each other laugh about subjects ranging from politics to sports, pop culture and the Bronx, where they're both from. Mero, you said that you realized you had to find a way - and I'm paraphrasing here - to turn hopelessness into comedy. Was that like a revelation you had, or is that something you just naturally did?
THE KID MERO: Yeah. No, it was just natural 'cause it was like, I had to laugh at the roaches in my apartment. I couldn't do anything about it. You know what I mean? I had to laugh, like, you know, drinking water and going to bed 'cause I didn't have anything to eat. I'm a broken record with this phrase. But it's just - like, the best art is honest art. And if you're being honest and you're telling the truth and you're being transparent about your background, who you are, where these jokes are coming from, what inspired these jokes - you know what I mean? - I feel like it's going to be - it's going to come out a lot easier and cleaner. It's not going to be forced.
So like, yeah, man, like, I literally would turn on the light in my apartment and like, do, like, Savion Glover tap dance all over the place to kill all these roaches. And no matter how much bleach I tossed all around the place, it didn't matter 'cause I lived in a building where my neighbor was gross. So I had - by transitive property, I had roaches. You know what I mean? So things like that, like a cop spray-painting brand-new shoes - not getting arrested, like, having cops just mess with you. That's like - it's deflating. You know, I'd rather you book me. You know what I mean? Then like, at least I'll get, like, a sandwich.
GROSS: Wait. So they'd spray-paint your shoes?
THE KID MERO: Yeah. That happened to me a bunch of times. They would spray-paint my stuff, throw - you know...
GROSS: Would they - did they use your spray paint to do it?
THE KID MERO: Yeah.
GROSS: And - but they'd do that instead of arresting you?
THE KID MERO: Yeah (laughter). They'd throw you up - put you in cuffs, spray your shoes, spray your shirt.
GROSS: And then release you?
THE KID MERO: And then uncuff you and then be like, yo, get out of here, you piece of, you know, expletive.
GROSS: And in retrospect (laughter)?
THE KID MERO: In retrospect, I'm like, I don't know if that was better or worse than getting arrested 'cause I got a pretty clean record. But I'm like, man, like, that sucked. You know what I mean? Like, how many pairs of shoes did I ruin, you know?
GROSS: So while we're on the subject of police, did you have serious incidents with police when you were growing up?
THE KID MERO: It depends on what you mean by serious 'cause, like, I've been - I mean, like, it's so wild to me because, growing up, I just thought this stuff was normal. I thought stop and frisk was a normal police thing, you know what I mean? Like, come to find out, like, yo, you're violating my rights. You're stopping me for absolutely no reason, just because I look how I look. And you're rifling through my pockets. And all I did was go to the store to get a Snapple, you know what I mean? And I thought that was normal 'cause that - I had no other frame of reference for that.
So now, like, when you ask that question, it's just like, OK, what's the barometer for that? Is it a cop putting a gun in your face? - 'cause that's happened to me a bunch of times. Is it a cop, you know, driving the wrong way down a one-way street in an unmarked car that you don't know, is this, like, a beef that I have with somebody, you know? And just that terror - that instant like, that - and I wish people could, like - when people talk about encounters with police, like, I want to just have them feel that feeling for, like, three seconds, that sheer terror. That's happened to me. And I've been in a situation where I'm just like, man, like, you know, what's going to happen right now? Is this a cop? Is this not a cop? Is this somebody pretending to be a cop or - you know what I mean?
Like, that's one situation I'll never forget. Like, I'm coming - I'm just going - I'm literally going to the corner store, the bodega, to get something to, you know, roll up in and go back in my house or my girlfriend's house, you know, who I lived with at the time. And a marked car comes blowing it down a one-way street the wrong way, (imitating squealing tires) jumps out, and they all jump out and then throw me up against a wall. I'm like, what the hell is going on? And they're like, you know, well, there's so and so's, you know, armed robberies, blah, blah, blah, you know, BS reason why we're stopping you. I just remember being scared to death. That fear is real. And it's funny because people are like, why are you - well, if you run from police, you should expect to blah, blah, blah. Nah, man, you don't understand. Like, this is, like, almost animal instinct. It's like fight or flight. And you're not going to fight police.
DESUS NICE: Yeah, I got arrested by NYPD, and they falsely charged me for having a gun.
GROSS: And what were the consequences of that?
DESUS NICE: I beat that with a public defender. Because you know what? The thing is, it was the - it was my local precinct. They're lazy. They didn't fill out the right paperwork. I remember the - it was a Black officer that - I remember him pointing at me and saying that he saw me with the gun. I know he didn't. And we made eye contact. Like, I know you're lying. And I remember there was one cop that was like, I don't think - it was like, listen to how he talks. Listen - like, he's following everything we're doing - we're telling him to do. I don't think he was running around the Bronx with a gun. And all the other officers were like, shut up, we know what we're doing. And that cop just stopped. He stopped. That was the only person that night that was like, yo, this - you have the wrong guy.
But thankfully, shout out to The Bronx Defenders, which provide legal services to Bronx people who don't have a lot of money. They were able to get the charges dropped. And the weirdest thing is the reason the charges dropped was the assistant DA in the Bronx recognized me from brunch at Red Rooster in Harlem and was like, there's no way he would have been running around the city with a gun. So they got the charges thrown out. But even that - I just think about so many things had to go right for me not to end up in jail for three years that there's definitely people on Rikers and in prison who just got bamboozled and got railroaded. And they're telling you, yo, I did not have a gun, and no one wants to hear them.
So even that - that interaction right then and there, that just really changes the way you view the legal system and just every incident with cops and just even interacting with the cops because we have cops that come up to us, and they're like, oh, I love your show, I love your show. And I'm just like, fam, in a - if the situations were reversed, you might be the person arresting me or worse. So I don't even know if I could really enjoy the fact that you're watching the show, if you're not getting the messages we're telling you about policing on the show.
GROSS: Yeah. You talk about politics a lot on the show, both in your riffing with each other but also with guests - with AOC, with Bernie Sanders, with lots of other people. You interviewed Obama, and it seemed to me like he knew your show. Are you ever doing your show and thinking, oh, Obama might be listening?
DESUS NICE: It was something we always thought about in the past, but now it's just like - now you're just like, oh, Obama's listening. I'm going to definitely do this joke because what is he going to do?
GROSS: Really - yeah.
DESUS NICE: He has to sit there in the living room and take it.
DESUS NICE: And Michelle is sitting there like, ah, they can't do anything about it, Barry. But no, it's like - it's just the beauty of being on Showtime. You have a higher platform and just more people listening to you. And every now and then we'll do a joke and, like, a celebrity or someone we did the joke about - they'll come up and they'll be like, that joke was hilarious. That joke was hilarious.
And that's part of the growth of the platform, because it's just, like, knowing that you're doing jokes and that you're going to have to one day come across these people you're making jokes about - you have to do these jokes with your chest. You have to say them confidently because the worst thing you want to do is have someone come up, run up on you. Like, yo, why did you say this? And you got to be all like, oh, I didn't mean that (vocalizing), you know what I'm saying? Like, we've had that happen in the past now. And since we've dealt with that, we're not ever going to have that happen again. So now - and most people are good sports about it. Most people - you get a text message like, oh, you cooked me or, oh, you roasted me on that. And people will - they understand it's comedy. And at the end of the day, it's just jokes. And that's a good feeling.
GROSS: Desus and Mero, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.
DESUS NICE: Thank you for having us.
THE KID MERO: Thank you.
GROSS: You can see "Desus & Mero" Sunday and Thursday nights on Showtime. Their book is called "God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons From The Bronx." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review a Pixar film for all ages and a German film for adults. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "CONCEPTION")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang recommends two very different fantasy movies - one for all ages and one for grown-ups. The Pixar animated film "Luca," set in and around a small Italian coastal village, is streaming on Disney Plus. The German drama "Undine," set in present-day Berlin, is available on major platforms. Here's Justin's review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: By curious coincidence, two of the lovelier movies I've seen so far this summer - the family friendly animated fable, "Luca," and the German arthouse fairy tale, "Undine" - tell stories about mythic sea creatures making contact with the human world. That's hardly a new concept, as we've seen in films as different as "The Shape Of Water," "Aquaman" and countless versions of "The Little Mermaid." But as "Luca" and "Undine" demonstrate, there are still fresh stories to be dredged up from those watery depths.
Arriving on Disney+, several months after the Oscar-winning afterlife comedy "Soul," "Luca" is a lighter, mellower brand of Pixar confection. It also happens to be a better, more smartly realized movie. It takes place in and around a small Italian Riviera town whose residents live in fear of the sea monsters rumored to dwell in the surrounding waters. One of these fantastical creatures is Luca, a sweet young boy with blue fins, green scales and a long tail who lives in an underwater grotto with his overprotective parents. He's voiced by Jacob Tremblay, the lead in a strong cast that also includes Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan.
Like the little mermaid herself, Luca becomes fascinated by the world above the ocean's surface. One day, he ventures ashore and finds that after drying himself off, he takes on human form. But he has to be careful never to get wet or he'll be exposed as a sea creature, a supernatural conceit that sets up a lot of the gags in this literal fish-out-of-water farce.
Luca's guide to the human world is another boy/undercover sea creature named Alberto. In this scene, Alberto shows Luca his home in a stone tower just outside town. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCA")
JACOB TREMBLAY: (As Luca) Mother of pearl, you live up here?
JACK DYLAN GRAZER: (As Alberto) Yeah, me and my dad. He's not even here a whole lot, so I pretty much just do whatever I want.
TREMBLAY: (As Luca) Isn't it dangerous?
GRAZER: (As Alberto) Yeah, it's the best. Everything good is above the surface.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)
TREMBLAY: (As Luca) Like what else?
GRAZER: (As Alberto) Air (inhaling).
TREMBLAY: (As Luca, inhaling, coughing).
GRAZER: (As Alberto) Gravity - also known as falling. The sky, clouds, the sun. Whoa, don't look at it. Just kidding, definitely look at it.
CHANG: Eventually, Luca and Alberto make their way into town, which is gorgeously designed in a way we've come to expect from Pixar. The director, Enrico Casarosa, working from a script by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, composes an exquisite visual love letter to Italy's cobblestone streets and scenic piazzas. Luca and Alberto befriend an outgoing young girl named Giulia and enter a local triathlon where one of the events is - what else? - a pasta-eating contest. But in embracing their new life on dry land, they also run the risk of being exposed and even harmed by the townsfolk with their superstitious fear of sea monsters.
When the trailer for "Luca" was released weeks ago, its images of two boys running around a lush Italian paradise led more than a few to wonder, half-jokingly, if Pixar had made its own version of the gay love story "Call Me By Your Name." While there's no romance in "Luca," the subtext is hard to miss. After all, Luca and Alberto are struggling to conceal their true identities in a society that shuns what it doesn't understand. Theirs is a charming story about friendship, adventure and learning to live without fear.
The title character in the melancholy drama "Undine" is also a water sprite who takes on human form, though any similarities between the two movies pretty much end there. An undine - or ondine - is a famous nymph from European mythology, though the German writer-director Christian Petzold puts his own spin on the legend. This Undine, played by Paula Beer, lives in present-day Berlin and works as a city historian. You wouldn't guess that there's anything supernatural about her or that she's bound by a single rule - if a human lover betrays her, she must take his life. We see her preparing to do just that early on when her latest boyfriend, Johannes, tells her he's leaving her for another woman.
Petzold takes a somber, realistic approach to this outlandish premise. There are no obvious visual effects, and Undine's mythological origins are never spelled out. But the story unfolds with such sly matter-of-factness that I soon found myself immersed in it. Before she has time to deal with Johannes, Undine is swept off her feet by another man, Christoph, and the two plunge headlong into a love affair that consumes them both - and like most of Undine's love affairs, is not fated to end happily.
Christoph is played by Franz Rogowski, who appeared together with Paula Beer in Petzold's previous film, "Transit." The actors are captivating to watch, and their reunion here adds to the movie's faintly otherworldly feel. Petzold likes to use genre to illuminate different chapters of German history, and "Undine" is no exception. His filmmaking is so elegant and concise that you may not realize he's slipping in a lesson on the history of Berlin itself - a history of war, devastation and reconstruction to which Undine has long borne witness. She's a truly timeless heroine in a movie that I've seen multiple times now and which becomes more mysterious and magical with each revisit.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the L.A. Times. He reviewed the new Pixar film "Luca" and the German film "Undine."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Renee Elise Goldsberry. She was one of the stars of the original Broadway production of "Hamilton" and won a Tony for her performance as Angelica Schuyler. Now, she's a star of the new comedy series "Girls5eva," about the members of a '90s girl group who reunite when the women are middle aged. Tina Fey is one of the executive producers. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.