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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
A lot of parts of television production changed practically overnight when COVID-19 began to spread in the United States in March of last year. One corner of TV that's carried on is the late-night talk comedy show. There have been no live audiences and in some cases, no studios in use. But projects like Showtime's "Desus & Mero" have carried on nonetheless. I'm Linda Holmes. And today on NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about what it's like to write and produce a late-night talk show during the pandemic. So don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us from his home in New York is stand-up comedian Josh Gondelman. Josh is the host of the podcast "Make My Day" and the author of the essay collection "Nice Try." He's also a writer and producer for the Showtime talk show "Desus & Mero." Welcome, Josh.
JOSH GONDELMAN: Hey, thank you for having me. So nice to see you, Linda.
HOLMES: It is so nice to see you. You know, you were on this show visiting with us a few years ago...
HOLMES: ...But it's been a while. And it was before you got this awesome gig running this awesome show. And then, we had this very unusual year for television production. How did you get everybody set up technically? I know you talked a little bit about the equipment, but what's that process like, making sure everybody has everything that they need?
GONDELMAN: I mean, our post department did an amazing job. And it was, like, a lot of, like, stuff was selling out, too because I think just like, oh, I need this mic at home. And there's a run on podcast mics the same way (laughter) there was of toilet paper.
HOLMES: Oh, for sure.
GONDELMAN: So it was - yeah. It was seeing what was available, seeing what we needed to send to, first, Desus and Mero so that, like, there could be cameras and mics on them...
GONDELMAN: ...At their homes. And then our producer, Julia Young, who is amazing, who talks to the guys and you hear her voice throughout the show, she had to get some stuff upgraded. And then it was like, do the editors have to have better Wi-Fi to get these huge files in and out, you know? So like, there were all these little levels that had to be taken care of beyond, like, OK, can we see the hosts and hear them on camera? Because there are so many different moving parts. Like, Desus and Mero themselves kind of had to become tech experts, like, recording themselves at first and sending these big files to our assistant editors to prep - or associate editors to prep and then sending them to the editors to work on.
And I'm now, when we shoot remotely, like, on Zoom calls with one editor all day. Julia is on with another editor all day just, like, getting the pieces into shape. So it is, like - it's an incredible technical marvel. And our post-production department just did, like, such a truly unbelievable job. I want to say heroic, but I feel like doctors might get mad.
GONDELMAN: But I do feel like, as far as television production, it is (laughter) heroism.
HOLMES: Yeah. How did you - how do you think it has changed the show not to have the audience?
GONDELMAN: I think we are fortunate in that so much of the rhythm of the show is dictated by Desus and Mero and then Julia's kind of interplay with them as well. But I mean, so much of it is driven by Desus' reaction to Mero, Mero's reaction to Desus. And there aren't, like, built-in laugh lines that they know they're going to have to pause through. Like, they just kind of move at their own pace.
HOLMES: And they have a long history in podcasting and stuff, right? So they've done this before as kind of them bouncing off of each other.
GONDELMAN: Absolutely. Right. So they have the "Bodega Boys" podcast that they're still doing. We had the very fortunate set of circumstances where, like, the hosts of our show are used to performing to each other. And they're, like, great at it. And it feels so natural for them to do.
HOLMES: Yeah. It's also been a year, I think, where, just in general, comedy is complicated I'm just going to say. Just because it has been a year when people really have needed to rely on things that are funny and fun, but where, you know, concentrating on those things has not always been easy, I think. Tonally, how have you sort of dealt with making a mostly light and fun show in a difficult period of our - all of our lives?
GONDELMAN: I think in a way it's, like, easier to know what's funny because you definitely know what's not funny this year.
HOLMES: Mmm hmm.
GONDELMAN: And I think, like, you want to talk about what's relevant to people's lives - right? - and what everybody is thinking about all the time. And so with the pandemic stuff, there has been for - throughout most of the year, people saying ridiculous things about it. While we were still in the studio, this artist, this music artist named Yofrangel put out a series of, like, coronavirus pop songs with these videos. One of him is in the back of an ambulance. And it's just like, OK, this is so ridiculous to the point that, like, it bears commenting on. It's fun to, like, riff on.
I think the mission statement of our show - not to put words in anyone else's mouth - is more to comment on what's in culture. And so I think, like, it was a little easier lift than maybe some of the other shows had where you have to, like, look down the barrel of, like, you know, hard medical realities, whereas we're like, Rudy Giuliani looks like he's melting. That's just something...
HOLMES: Right. Sure, sure, sure.
GONDELMAN: And it's like, we're just going to, like, go in on that. And plus, there was a culture drought for a while, I think, like, towards the beginning of the pandemic where all the news was just coronavirus, it felt like. Like, even the election took a huge backseat. And then by, like, May, it felt like things are starting to happen that you can talk about, like local news stories even that you can riff on - that kind of thing.
And I also think, like, during the part of the year that felt the, like, heaviest and then the hardest to make light of - which, to me, was, like, the really necessary and widespread Black Lives Matter protests throughout June specifically - we were off the air. So we fortunately didn't have, like, to immediately go, OK, is there something funny about this? And when we came back, we talked to an NFL player who had been arrested at a protest and, I think, looked at some things very sincerely but, I think, looking for the stuff that was funny on its face to, like, kind of tee off on and focus on.
HOLMES: Yeah. You know, I don't know if you know this, Josh, but you are a white dude.
GONDELMAN: I've heard.
HOLMES: Yeah. And, you know, you are working as a producer and writer on a show with very beloved Black hosts and, I think, that has a very devoted Black audience. And it's interesting to hear that you - to be reminded that you were not on the air at that time. But what has this really heavy year been like for you kind of navigating that job? Has it felt - do you think it has felt different to you than, you know, a previous job like your job on John Oliver's show or something like that would have felt?
GONDELMAN: Sure, yeah. I mean, I think one way that I have been able to react to this - and this is, like, a real privilege - is I think if I had been working for a white host, there would have to be kind of, like, layers of, like, ooh, what is it our place to say? But I kind of feel like I had the privilege of, like, taking cues from the hosts of the show and so not feeling like I have to, like, take the lead and instead use my experience and skills as a writer and producer to, like, facilitate the things that the hosts want to say or that members of the writing staff or production team think we should move to the forefront, which is nice. I don't have to be like, oh, what should I think about this? I can be like, oh, I can - like, people who have a more immediate and relevant and necessary reaction - I can kind of work in support of that.
And even the kind of adjacent stuff that was not specifically, like, protest-related or police violence-related - like, we did what I thought was a really great interview with the musical artist Lady A, who was involved in this dispute with the former Lady Antebellum, who changed their name to Lady A without checking to be like, is that already a person? And she is. And she was amazing. Like, watching her interview and watching Desus and Mero, like, respond to her and ask questions of her was really cool. And, like, it was just a perspective that - I'm so glad that I got to be, like, a little part of, like, bringing that to TV by just, like, helping edit that - you know what I mean? - and try to keep in the things that I was like, wow, this really kind of blew my hair back. And I think this - people really responded to this.
HOLMES: Yeah. As a writer, how is it different for you when the whole - when all the writers are not kind of able to be in the same place physically? Is it different for you writing in that kind of collaborative environment but with a different kind of setup?
GONDELMAN: It is a little different. I mean, we just, like, miss being together, I think. I really love our staff. It's just full of wonderful people and wonderful writers. And I think there's, like, a real energy to, like, pitching stuff in the same room and working on it together. And our staff is very small, and the writers room is everybody kind of in a room all the time. And so it's very easy when you're, like, working on something to go like, hey; what do you think about this? You know, and just like, look to your left. Look to your right. It's, like, harder to do those kind of, like, gut checks, joke checks. Like, hey; is this anything? I feel like there's no one to ask that to more of the time.
GONDELMAN: And you kind of have to be more intentional about, like, seeking collaborative work. And my boss Mike Pielocik, who's our head writer, has been really great at being like, hey; if you're working on this, feel free to grab someone else in a Zoom and, like, bounce ideas together. But one thing I think that we were able to do or that this - the situation of working remotely kind of forced us into was we found all sorts of, like, really interesting and new ways to produce segments for the show. Like, Desus and Mero do a lot of, like, man on the street stuff, and that's really fun. Getting them out - they love to, like, get out in the street, talk to people, riff with people, just, like, see who's around. But we did those as man on the couch segments, so we could talk to anyone anywhere, which was really cool.
And we brought in a bunch of really interesting people for various different segments we were doing. And we did a lot of, like - we set up green screens in the guys' house, and we have them do, like, silly character stuff. But this is like, they're in their own houses. Everybody's very comfortable. It feels, like, low-risk. You know, there's not, like, a whole team. And it's also - this is how we can produce a sketch. You know, we can produce via green screen. There's no option to just, like, do the real thing. If we want them to look like they're in a parlor making music - we did, like, a fake versus battle of, like, classical musicians. And it was so much fun. Heben Nigatu pitched it and wrote it. And it was amazing. And that was a great green-screen sketch. And, you know, I think that kind of stuff was enabled by like, OK, I guess we have no choice but to do things this way.
GONDELMAN: And some of the results were really fun and exciting.
HOLMES: Yeah. I feel like television and maybe late-night even more than a lot of other places can get to that point where the format is kind of running everything. The format is sort of dictating what happens. And it almost seems like being forced to reconsider some elements of that format has led a lot of people kind of - well, what is going to be our version of this, right? Or is it going to be Seth Meyers up in the captain's whatever he calls it...
GONDELMAN: Mmm hmm.
HOLMES: ...Singing sea shanties (laughter) to himself?
HOLMES: Is it like what is going to be our particular take on this? Has it felt like there are some freedoms that come with not being able to continue to kind of follow the format that's been established?
GONDELMAN: Yeah. I think the freedom from kind of having to make everything look exactly like what it is, if that makes sense. Like, these green-screen sketches that I mentioned were kind of enabled by the fact that, like, when you're shooting a sketch, a lot of the time, unless you want it to look kind of goofy in, like, a Conan O'Brien, like, mouth-over-someone-else's-mouth way...
GONDELMAN: ...You want it to look smooth and good and, like, tone perfect. But because that was just impossible, we were like, OK, we're going to do all the stuff. We're going to have the guys pretending that they're the only two fans in the NBA bubble. And we did that all - like, our graphics department just, like, kept knocking things out of the park all year in just, like, making it look really fun and bright and cool. But like, if the green screen glitches when one of their arms goes up or, like, out of the frame, it's like, hey, this is - there's a global health emergency. Don't complain about this. This is the least of (laughter) anyone's...
HOLMES: And there's no illusion to shatter because people don't - people already don't have that illusion.
HOLMES: They know that you're not all hanging out, shooting remotes in the - I mean...
GONDELMAN: Mmm hmm.
HOLMES: ...So there's no - there's sort of nothing to break. There's no reality to break.
GONDELMAN: Yeah. And I think we were able to do some really nice and heartwarming stuff, too. That - like, the guys officiated a wedding over Zoom for a couple. And we threw them separate bachelorette parties over Zoom, one with Desus, one with Mero. And we, like, hired - we had, like, strippers (laughter) for one of them over Zoom, which is like - I was just like, that's very fun to me to kind of, like, go, hey, we - let's create this closeness or approximate it as close as we can get. And it was really sweet. And they were fans of the show. And it just felt really nice. Like, it felt nice. Like, any kind of outreach we could do during, like, this time where everybody felt so alone...
GONDELMAN: ...Even over the Zoom just felt, like, really warming and heartening.
HOLMES: Yeah. I do want to ask you one more thing, which is, from the point of view of being a stand-up, how are you holding up not performing with crowds of people?
GONDELMAN: I miss it. I like it, and I miss it. I've done one live show. I did one outside live show. And I was very stressed because I've been, like, very cautious the whole time. And the whole audience was wearing masks. And it was only about 18 people kind of spread out - or 25 people in a backyard in Brooklyn. And I was the only comic that did this, but I kept my mask on to perform even. And everyone's mic had a little mic prophylactic on it that you would peel off after your own set. And I was like, oh, I do like this.
'Cause I have really enjoyed the experience of, like, being home at night. And I have tried to - instead of focusing on, like, I can't do this thing that I love, it's like, oh, well, I get to stay home. And I make dinner every night for me and my wife, Maris. And I'm trying to retreat into that a little bit. And that's been really lovely, like, that stuff. And I hate saying silver lining because it's like, well, you don't have to wait until a quarter of a million people die to have dinner at home with your wife. But I do think, like, I've tried to adapt in a way that feels emotionally healthy and nourishing. And part of that - I think part of my missing stand-up less is, like, having this comedy job that I do all day. So when I hit the end of the day, I'm like, great, done. And then having - starting a podcast, I'm like, oh, I, like, get to mess around with, like, comedian friends and writer friends...
GONDELMAN: ...For an hour every week. And that's been really helpful.
HOLMES: I hear that. Josh Gondelman, we appreciate so much you coming here to talk to us. People can watch your work on "Desus & Mero." They can listen to "Make My Day." They can buy your book, "Nice Try." Anything else they should know?
GONDELMAN: Oh, gosh. I mean, I think that's more than enough. If people do all those things, they'll certainly - they'll be like, oh, that's plenty (laughter).
HOLMES: (Laughter) Thank you very much, Josh Gondelman. We appreciate you being here.
GONDELMAN: Thank you for having me.
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