THE EQUALITY ISSUE
The week of January 18, 2015

Me IRL: Desus

By Ramon Ramirez

Desus is a warhead in the culture battle for hearts and minds.

His handle, @DesusNice, offers the best sociopolitical comedy on Twitter. It’s humor that attacks privilege, class, and hip-hop culture through common online mediums—Twitter, podcasts, Complex Media—and rises organically. On his Complex Media webseries that debuted last year, Desus V. Mero, a joke about something as innocuous as pro football quickly builds into a zinger about Darren Wilson.

The Bronx-raised comedian is still just Desus to the public, but he’s such a transparent comic that only his vitals matter­—public school sultan of zingers, Jamaican heritage, socio-political awareness on 100. He’s been put up to the ALS Ice Bucket challenge by NFL stars, and he and co-host Mero are translating their politically charged, hip-hop culture-tinged comedy for MTV.They’re already talking heads on Guy Code, and an MTV2 series tentatively called Joking Off is on the docket for April.

Here’s a joke about how Steve Harvey’s traditionalist, post-Bill Cosby condescension standards are absurd.

Here’s a great joke about white people.


And another one.

Here’s the really important stuff—the blender of ideas that exists to call out the side-scrolling appropriation and class-driven perils that eat at America.

Did I mention he recently trolled local news by pretending to not know who the Beatles are?

Desus spoke with Kernel about his comedy, where it gets its edge from, and how he’s setting the table for a monstrously aware campaign of 2015 jokes.

“My outlet became Twitter. I’d sit there all day and just tweet about how terrible my job was.”

You’ve been loudly tweeting since 2008. What was life like on the path to Twitter stardom during these last few years?

I had a terrible day job writing small business articles. It was a soul-crushing job. I’m self-taught with computers—I know PHP, I know HTML, I have this wild technical background—but this job would only let me write articles. I wasn’t allowed to, like, tweet from the corporate account. It was so soul-crushing that my outlet became Twitter. I’d sit there all day and just tweet about how terrible my job was.

Your tweets are hilarious but for all anyone knows you spend an hour writing them. But then you watch Desus V. Mero and you guys riff on a scary-good level. When did you realize this was going to be a thing?

We recorded the first podcast—it never got released—I think I still have it on my phone. And it was just like a test version to see how good we work together. From right there, right I away I knew—and the people at Complex were just like, “This is amazing.” I had never been on camera before. I’ve DJed before and done mixes, but I had never done off-the-head riffing like that.

There’s a real, biting “two Americas” element that translates in just about every joke. How much do you guys think about the sociopolitical edge on the show?

That just happens with the jokes. And that’s not just on the show, like, when me and Mero are hanging out normally it’s the same kind of jokes—a little political humor, here and there. I guess that was us before Twitter. Living in the Bronx there’s always been that kind of, like, there’s two worlds out there [feeling], and now it’s magnified because you’re able to look in and see what other people weren’t seeing and that’s always an easy part to incorporate into humor.

On that idea of living in New York City but living it through the Bronx, you guys were the recent subject of a New York magazine profile. Did getting that endorsement from an upper-class beacon of white intellectualism do anything for you?

I mean that was cool. When New York magazine reached out that they were going to do the article, you know, that was pretty big. I’m not sure if that exposed us to more people—I want to say it did—but you know I grew up with Chris Hayes from MSNBC and he always retweets my stuff and a lot of my followers are really intelligent white people that get the jokes. Spencer Ackerman, I think that’s his name, he’s a national security reporter from the Guardian and he’s always retweeting my jokes. So I think those [New York magazine] readers might have been in on it, but that was a good look.

“I have a really good talent at being able to joke around things that are really horrible and show different perspectives.”

In that piece, Miss Info called Black Twitter “the digital version of the Apollo Theater.” How do you feel about the term and do you still enjoy it? Are you at that Dave Chappelle/Chamillionaire level where it bothers you because white fans are processing your jokes the wrong way?

We’re close to it. I remember one experience where we were hosting a party in a club and this white guy comes up to me and he’s like “yo, let me take a photo with the dirtiest n***** in the Bronx,” and I was like “whoa, whoa.” (Editor’s note: That’s a line from the Desus V. Mero theme song) The term Black Twitter—I really enjoy it. Even if you don’t want to use the term, it’s definitely something that’s there—and it’s not just necessarily Twitter made by black people tweeting. I think a more correct term would be Brown Twitter, especially with Ferguson and Mike Brown and all the shootings and then the NYPD protests. You definitely see a different undercurrent of tweets coming from a certain socio class. For them to use Twitter as an amplifying device to get their voice out there, that’s pretty cool.

On Twitter, how much of a duty did you feel to go back into entertainer mode during the Mike Brown verdict?

There’s certain things you can joke about. I have a really good talent at being able to joke around things that are really horrible and show different perspectives—you know the “gotta hear both sides” thing. You can find some sort of element of humor. It was just such a messed-up situation that it was very hard to find humor; for me it was more poking fun at how the system was failing people. You have to be very sensitive about a situation like that. It was an emotional topic—I can see myself as Mike Brown, as that image of him lying in the street. I don’t think I did that many Mike Brown tweets. That was a little too close.

What about the Eric Garner ruling in your hometown?

You knew it was coming. I tweeted it out way before it happened: “did the prosecutor come back and say ‘not guilty’ yet?” Because you know there’s not going to be justice in these cases. You can have a million funny tweets lined up in your head but when they actually say “not guilty,” that feeling of having all the air knocked out your chest—there’s nothing you can say. I think all I tweeted out was something about the three-fifths compromise. That’s what it felt like—you’re not a human.

“I don’t think I did that many Mike Brown tweets. That was a little too close.”

 

The “gotta hear both sides” thing is a go-to joke you’ve coined on Twitter. Where did it come from?

Some 90-year-old lady had gotten shot in Brooklyn. And everybody was like “this is terrible.” I don’t use it on every story but it’s also such a ridiculous notion that it’s funny. You can use it to apply in any situation.

How far away are you and Mero away from falling out and having an epic celebrity feud?

We work with each other every day at MTV now, and Mero has little annoying habits. I have little annoying habits. We get at each other. We hang out in real life. Maybe in five years when we separate and we start touring in Vegas.

We had known each other way back in the day in high school. The thing about the Bronx is that it’s huge, but the Bronx is tiny. For all its land mass there’s maybe 20 like actual people.

The Bronx is such an abstract thing to everybody. Americans visit New York and never go there. How does it shape how you view the world?

In the Bronx, a lot of stuff is a struggle. Everything—you know the train system. You’re always trying to catch the bus and train to go to work, to come back and go to work and stuff like that. Because you have other real-life stuff going on, you don’t take Twitter that seriously. Being from the Bronx, you’re going to get into like skirmishes and arguments constantly so that also helps you in the way that you carry yourself online. Part of our whole wit is from inner-city schools and joking with other kids and dissing contests and arguments on subways. Thinking on your feet helped us in a big way.

Illustration by J. Longo