Joel Martinez, better known as The Kid Mero of the uber-popular Desus & Mero on Showtime, is not known for his seriousness. As half of the late-night duo beloved for their riffing on current events, Mero seems able to find the funny in almost everything — one of the reasons the former podcasters known as the Bodega Boys have cemented themselves as leaders in the comedy-punditry space. With his adorably, infectiously goofy laugh, Mero turns veritably any topic into an opportunity for lighthearted laughter.
But when TV Guide caught up with him as part of a series of conversations with prominent Hispanic and Latinx voices in TV for Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15), Mero was nothing but earnest as he talked about the importance of representation. As a Dominican man who grew up in the Bronx, Mero says reflections of himself in pop culture were veritably non-existent, which is one reason he’s so determined to represent his culture as hard as he can.
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Is it important to you?
The Kid Mero: Well, as a Dominican, the Afro-Latino really comes in because growing up I saw a very narrow view of what being Latino, Hispanic was on TV, you know what I mean? I had these kind of underground Dominican sources of comedy that my dad had — little tapes or whatever. That, to me was my identity. I’m from the Bronx, and my identities were like, hip-hop, all that, you know, to me, my house was like another world. There’s been a kind of narrow view of what being Latino is. And for me, I want to expand it to include people like me — Dominicans who are black, but also Latino. It’s a widening of the lens.
I was curious about your parents. Oftentimes the story we hear about immigrant parents is that they want their kids to be doctors, lawyers, etcetera. What did your parents want you to be and then how do they feel about saying you’re going to pursue comedy?
Mero: I never really had a conversation about it. It just kind of happened. Originally, it’s funny because my mom used to listen to 1010 WINS in the morning, dropping me off at school — I took to science really well. I was always getting perfect scores. Science and reading were my two biggest fortes. I was a voracious reader growing up. So she was just like, ‘You should be a meteorologist.’ My dad wanted me to be an engineer because before he came to the U.S., that’s the path that he was on. He has a degree in engineering, chemistry, all that stuff, and then had to come here and kind of start from scratch, educationally. But my mom realized early on, ‘This dude is not going to be a doctor or a lawyer, or whatever.’ So she kind of like played to my strengths. And at the time I was super into graffiti. She’d look at my sketchbooks and be like, ‘Hey, why don’t you go into art?’ She tried to help me build like a portfolio and try to get me around Pratt and that type of stuff. And that didn’t work. She finally gave up and was just like, ‘Get a city job that has benefits.’ Eventually [after blogging took off] MTV said ‘Hey, we want to scoop you up. ‘ For her, even being an immigrant, that brand is so strong, she was like, ‘Yeah, right. Get the f— out here like.’
What do you think makes you quintessentially Dominican on TV? And, knowing how TV is notorious for trying to make people of color as palatable to the masses as possible, were you ever advised to tone it down?
Mero: Originally, I think I was just happy to be there. I was thinking in a very immediate practical way: I have to feed my family. I have two kids. I have one on the way. So like, that was my main thing. When I was financially comfortable, I was like, ‘Okay now, What can I do with my platform?’ And that’s when I really leaned into like, ‘Yo, I’m Dominican bro.’ Not, ‘Oh, it’s the Puerto Rican dude.’ Nah, bro, I’m Dominican. I’m gonna start waving my flag. I’m gonna start speaking Spanish. And in the Dominican fashion, which you know, is not textbook Spanish. Dominican Spanish is like Jamaican English. It’s English, but a different type of English.
We’re in this space where like, people are like, ‘Yo, I want to be represented,’ so I’m gonna let y’all know that I am Dominican. When we had a show where the one guy from the Washington Nationals (Juan Soto) — young guy super Dominican, limited in proficiency with English — and [the show staff] was like, ‘He’s around, and he likes the show, do you think you could do something with him?’ And Desus doesn’t speak Spanish. So we could have just [killed it] right there. And I was like, ‘No, we’re gonna do this, this is a big moment. Let’s do it.’ When he plays in the Dominican Winter League, he plays for a team called Tigres del Licey. And my team is Águilas Cibaeñas. There’s a rivalry. When he came on the show, I purposely wore the rival team’s hat. And we had him just sit in the audience. And we’re not going to do like a stupid bit with you, where we try to make you say lines and s–t like that. We just kind of planted him in the audience. And we were like, ‘You look like you could be a baseball player.’ And then he gets up and people start to realize what’s happening, like, ‘Oh, that’s Juan Soto!’ We had this kind of like Spanish exchange on a premium network, late-night show and to me, that was groundbreaking enough, you know what I mean? It was like me going on Jimmy Fallon and dancing merengue with my mom, you know? Like, boom, yo, we’re here. Look at us. On the representation tip, that was was a major moment for me.
It’s interesting to hear you say this because, on the show, you guys are so light-hearted; not a whole lot makes you get super serious. But representation sounds really important to you.
Mero: Yeah man, for sure. A hundred percent. When I worked in school, the schools that I worked in were majority Black and Latino. Now, the students that I’ve worked with are in their 20s. They’re always hitting me up on Instagram, like, ‘I’m starting to do this thing.’ Now being in the industry and working behind the scenes, I can give them a glimpse into a world that they don’t have access to. I tell them ‘You could be a writer, dog, you can create your own world, you can speak in your own voice. And if you need help doing that, I’m here because I don’t have my foot in the door. I’m in the door. So like, I put my foot in the door for you to come in.’ And I’ve been able to bring some of them up. If I can, like, put my name on stuff as an executive producer, producer, whatever, and have people put their eyeballs on it, I’m happy to do it — being like, the Dominican Judd Apatow.
Desus & Mero is on Showtime.