Photo by Elizabeth Renstrom
In the past few years, podcasts have crept back into the mainstream and captivated listeners—there have been crime-driven broadcasts, such as Serial, or advice series, such as Death, Sex & Money. Personally, I got into them by listening to The Read, a show on which two black hosts discuss hip-hop and popular culture using irreverent banter and black vernacular. Since then, I've only listened to podcasts that featured hosts of color. They're the perfect antidotes when I'm working a long day, or I need to pass the time when there's no one around. I love the parlance, inside jokes, and rawness that these hosts deliver, and Phoebe Robinson, one of the hosts of 2 Dope Queens, is no different. Whenever I listen to that podcast, I imagine I'm in someone's living room, drinking sangria with Robinson and her co-host, the former Daily Show senior correspondent Jessica Williams. I wanted to interview Robinson for this profile at Corner Social, my favorite haunt in Harlem, but plans changed because she didn't have much time. Once we linked up, I could see why: Robinson is having a moment.
The 2 Dope Queens podcast was born of "Blaria LIVE!," Robinson and Williams's monthly Brooklyn-based stand-up performance, named for Robinson's reputation as being like a "black Daria." The shows—a mix of storytelling, traditional stand-up, and candid conversations with a diverse range of other comedians—address everything from when the hosts lost their virginities ("I was trying to give it away. It was like a Bed, Bath, & Beyond coupon," Robinson told the audience), to their Backstreet Boys preferences ("I was into Kevin. You know, the oldest- looking one? I was like, He looks like he pays his child support on time!"). I consider myself a bit boy-crazy, so I was drawn to how open Robinson was when talking about her dating experiences and the rest of her personal life with rapid-fire wit and ease.
I arrived for our interview at L'Express, a French bistro located in Gramercy, about ten minutes early, and I needed every minute to prepare. I wasn't necessarily nervous, but the amount of perspiration I had accumulated during my trip downtown made it seem otherwise. It was 78 degrees, incredibly humid, and I was worried that my sweat stains and glossy face would read as unprofessional. While I wiped my body with paper towels in the bathroom, I thought about all the questions that I'd like to ask. I hadn't prepared a strict script, because I assumed that since we are both black women who love versatile hairstyles, we would have enough in common that the conversation would go smoothly—and luckily, I was right.
Robinson was already sitting in the far back corner of the bistro with three of her female colleagues at WNYC, the broadcaster that backs 2 Dope Queens as well as Robinson's new solo talk-show-format podcast, Sooo Many White Guys, which premiered in July. SMWG is executive produced by Ilana Glazer, a Comedy Central fixture and star of Broad City, for which Robinson used to be a consultant. When I found her she was fresh-faced and lovely, sidestepping a professional handshake for a warm hug. She sported a sew-in with blond highlights and was rocking a hilarious shirt that said, Dorothy in the streets/Blanche in the sheets—homage to The Golden Girls. I settled in at another table and waited for her to finish the potatoes she'd been eating and say goodbye to her colleagues. She left their table, brought her near-empty glass of rosé sangria over to where I sat, and said, "Are you going to order the rosé sangria? I think you should. It's delicious." How did she know that sangria was my favorite drink? I was hesitant to order any alcohol during our interview, because I'm a lightweight and I had nothing in my stomach but popcorn and strawberries. But I honored her request (along with an order of roasted half-chicken and fries to ward off tipsiness).
She's a workaholic who has built her profession around finding what she enjoys and figuring out how to market it. And it's working.
These days, there is a proliferation of people of color on podcasts, such as Crissle and Kid Fury of The Read or Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton of Another Round , but white men still dominate the medium, and that's something that Robinson is adamant on changing. Between 2 Dope Queens and SMWG, she gets to enjoy making that difference. "I've been doing stand-up stuff for the past eight years, and it feels really cool to be like, Oh, finally I'm getting used to the career that I've envisioned," she told me. "I'm soaking it all in."
I first came across Robinson through 2 Dope Queens. Besides her talent for playing off Williams's topic of choice—a skill they both acquired through years spent in improvisational troupes—I admired her absolute candor, especially in regard to sexual positions and the perils of dating through Tinder. She told me the dating landscape has changed so much since the beginning of the four-year-long relationship she'd recently ended, and she admitted that discussing it publicly with a friend in an honest and funny way has been cathartic for her. SMWG is a bit different but still provides catharsis. On the show, she interviews other artistic women of color, such as Janet Mock and Nia Long, and with those conversations, she's hoping that she can help to dismantle the idea that black women can't simply be actors or comedians like anyone else. "I'm asked, 'What's it like to be a woman in comedy or a black person in comedy?' I don't want to validate that stupid-ass question. People get so hung on gender, sexuality, and race, and they don't see you as a creative as they might, say, Jerry Seinfeld." It's the kind of project that, in addition to adding one fewer "white guy" voice, she hopes will allow people to see that marginalized celebrities are human and do not have to be relegated to only discussing their otherness.
Growing up in the 90s, Robinson saw firsthand how women of color were able to tell their own stories, and she believes that the kind of creative autonomy embodied by TV shows of that era, such as Living Single, is becoming in vogue once again. "One time, I had someone come up to me after a show and she was teary-eyed, and she thanked me for showcasing black-woman representation," Robinson told me. "We're making people feel less alone. That's awesome." It's one of the memorable moments of Robinson's life that she doesn't take for granted.
As we drank, she confessed to being obsessed with Orange Is the New Black and the Hamilton soundtrack, but she also said she's a workaholic who has built her profession around finding what she enjoys and figuring out how to market it. And it's working. In addition to her two podcasts, Robinson wrote for MTV's Girl Code and currently contributes to Vulture.com and VanityFair.com, where she writes about some of TV's juiciest dramas. Her debut essay collection, You Can't Touch My Hair, will be published by Plume next month. In short: She is a Jill of all trades. When asked about how hair relates to her identity and presentation, Robinson cheerfully relayed that her hairstyles are just as flexible as her creative endeavors. "Right now I have a sew-in, before I had red twists, and then I'm gonna go back to an Afro after this." The subject of hair ignites a passion that dates back to her Blaria blog. In 2012, she posted about the significance of Olympian Gabby Douglas's hair, in which she wrote, "Okay, black women are not to wear their hair natural AND if a black woman chooses to straighten her hair, let's still attack her if her straight hair isn't looking perfect. Enough is enough!" And even now, on the 2 Dope Queens podcast, Robinson and Williams constantly discuss black people's hair.
Periodically, Robinson checked her watch, and I was certain that I was going over time and she would have to hustle to another commitment. I asked her if I was keeping her from something. "No, I'm just checking to see if I got any water on my watch," she warmly assured me. "You're fine."
She is a Renaissance woman, able to fold popular culture into works that carry a serious message, the way Roxane Gay did when writing about rape culture and abuse by picking apart pop songs and pop stars in the best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist. This balance between the serious and not so serious, the highbrow and the accessible, strengthens her art. In a few years, Robinson said she imagines herself writing a novel or perhaps another essay collection. She's looking at trying her hand at on-screen work after filming a pilot, too. Whatever happens, Robinson is not planning to slow down anytime soon. She'll only be saying "no" to the opportunities that don't excite her: "At first, I was auditioning for everything like sassy assistant and funny black friend to white ladies. Now I'm like, 'I'm gonna pass on that.'"