The finish line for a comic’s set on 2 Dope Queens, a four-part HBO comedy special which ends Friday, is almost always the outstretched arms of co-hosts Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams.
As guests head backstage, Robinson and Williams envelop their fellow comics in cheers, dance sessions with baby twerks and hugs with quick back rubs full of longing, exhaling love. Director Tig Notaro’s otherwise charmingly energetic camera sits on these moments for a few breaths, culling out the undeniable magic between busy friends who respect one another’s hustle.
“It was truly a celebration,” Robinson said a phone interview, seemingly with a smile across her face. “It was like, I can’t believe we’re doing this right now.”
Robinson is, indeed, coming off an incredible two years. In that time, she’s published You Can’t Touch My Hair, a bestselling collection of essays, started two podcasts and has now produced an ambitious HBO special alongside her friend and work wife. She’s admittedly “dog-tired,” but with boosts like getting booked by the goddess Oprah to having Sarah Jessica Parker do live shoe repairs on her high heels, Robinson has been delightfully surprised the whole way through.
Mic chatted with Robinson ahead of the show’s finale to talk about her comedic rise, explaining blackness to her audiences and big moments with Tituss Burgess and Sarah Jessica Parker.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: I dig the outward love y’all showed onstage. It’s very clear you all are friends, but the camera hung around the hugs, the dances and the camaraderie between you, Jess, the comics and even some of the guest stars. How did it feel to experience the accomplishment with that mix of friends and the stars you grew up idolizing? Was that something y’all talked about going into the show?
Phoebe Robinson: Those instances really happened in the moment. It was truly a celebration; we’d done four seasons of the podcast and half the comics who’d been on had done the podcast. So we did some of our favorites, some fan favorites; we definitely wanted to have them on the HBO special. Then there’s others like Sheng Wang that we’d been friends with forever, but because of scheduling we couldn’t [get him on]. So, the fact that he was on the [special] was like, “Yaaaas we’re so excited!”
If you have Tituss Burgess come out with pinot noir, you’re gonna lose your mind so that’s very exciting. When SJP walked out and I was jumping up and down, that was purely like, ‘I’m on stage with SJP!’ I’m wearing my hot pink high-waisted pants I picked out specifically for her. It was such a cool moment. It was like, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this right now, can you believe it?’ We were just reacting from our hearts.
What do you think about balancing the need to “explain blackness” to your audience? Is it something you consider a focus of the show?
PR: I don’t know if it’s necessarily ‘explaining,’ but it’s more like, these are conservations that black women have with each other and we just happen to be doing it in front of others. The black hair segment we did with SJP, I just thought that would be fun — especially because of Sex and the City — her hair was a character on the show, which was so great. So Jess and I were like, we can flip it. Instead of, ‘Let’s talk about your hair,’ it was more like, ‘Let’s teach SJP about black hair.’
There was one moment during the segment, SJP was talking to the audience, ‘You know I’m asking all these questions that you don’t have the answers to either!’ It was a really cool moment where we were being honest about teaching her, she was being honest about not knowing something and the audience — who isn’t familiar with black hair — got an education.
“She was being honest about not knowing something and the audience — who isn’t familiar with black hair — got an education.”
Also, black people who were watching might’ve been like, ‘Oh, this is so fun, this is a nice way to talk about black hair,’ you know? I think a lot of the times it can be heavily politicized. This felt very much like a conversation where she was really curious, like, ‘Black hair is awesome, how do you do it?’ Like, ‘Yes it is awesome, thank you for acknowledging that.’ For the most part when Jessica and I — when we talk about the racist encounters with cab drivers or something sexist that happened in our lives — we’re not necessarily thinking about explaining this but more it being 2018, and [racism] or [sexism] being something we still have to deal with.
Even if you don’t look like Jessica and I, you can relate. Like having bad service, now just imagine adding race into that. I’ve had an awful dating experience, now imagine some guy or some woman saying something really offensive to me on top of that. So even if you haven’t experienced it completely the way we have, Jessica and I talk about universal things. So you can still get it through context clues. The intonation in our voices, the pop culture we use to help describe what we’re going through. I think we do a good job of thinking about our day and educating a little bit.
Have you ever gotten those people who are like, “Why are you telling all the secrets, why are you divulging all this black information?”
PR: I haven’t gotten those people. But when we first started the podcast and did the Facebook page, we’d get messages from white people like, ‘I like the show, but why do you guys talk about race so much?’ It’s just a part of our everyday lives. We’re not making up racist experiences to have them to talk about. Like literally, I haven’t seen Jessica in a week and we both had something racist happen to us, so we’re going to talk it out. For the most part, we’ve gotten really positive reactions, like, ‘Oh, you sound like my friends and I’ or ‘Oh my god, the same thing happened to me the other day, I can’t believe it happened to you!’ So it’s been mostly positive, which is phenomenal.
One thing that might’ve been lost on the podcast that the show helps to reveal is that you’re a pretty physical comic. Y’all are really interacting with the stage, jumping up and down. What did you learn in transitioning to the HBO special that you couldn’t learn anywhere else?
PR: When we did the podcast, it had that live feeling, but it was still a chill version of it. The HBO show is grander. The biggest thing I learned was truly being an executive producer on a TV project, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m a fairly good leader, so it was nice to learn how to delegate, how to make decisions in fashion, to talk about creative things and marketing. I know it sounds really nerdy, all the behind-the-scenes [stuff], but it’s what I really like to do.
To be on HBO and be like: ‘I’m creating an HBO TV show.’ It’s a crazy sentence to say. The experience overall made me more confident as a person and, more importantly, as a businesswoman. It’s called show business, so there are two elements to it. You can’t only focus on the creative; you have to think about, OK, social media marketing, doing press, interacting with people who watch the show. It’s all those things you have to take into consideration. It really gave me an education into the process of what it takes to make a TV show. And it made me want to do more of that, even though I am dog-tired. It makes me want to do more and I couldn’t have learned that anywhere else.
You’re wearing so many hats now. It’s almost like you’ve become the hyphenated New York hustler you described in You Can’t Touch My Hair. Did you think choosing to get back into stand-up all those years ago would have opened all these doors?
PR: What my mind said when I started stand-up was, ‘I’m just going to see where things take me and I’m just going to say yes a lot.’ This was before Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes, but I did go into it like, ‘I’m just gonna say yes to shows and if it takes me to screenwriting, great; if it takes me to podcasts, great; to HBO, great.’
If you told me when I started doing stand-up 10 years ago that Jessica and I were going to open for Oprah for her SuperSoul Conversations she tapes in New York, I would’ve been like, ‘OK, you’re an idiot. I’m never gonna meet Oprah. What are you talking about?’
I feel like what’s really cool about entertainment is that you can really wear so many hats. This isn’t the 1920s. Cary Grant wasn’t a producer and also in a movie. But Jessica and I can produce a TV show and still act in it. Or I can write a book and she can act in a movie. You can make yourself unique in this industry. What she does is different from what I do, and that’s what’s great about us coming together. We’ve reached our peak powers coming together. I’m always pinching myself.