TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, comic and actor Phoebe Robinson, is the co-host and co-creator, along with Jessica Williams, of the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens, which also had a series of HBO specials this year. Robinson also hosts the interview podcast, Sooo Many White Guys. She was a writer for the TV series "Portlandia," and next year she'll be in the movie "What Men Want" starring Taraji. P. Henson. Robinson's book "You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have To Explain" was a best-seller. Her new book, "Everything's Trash, But It's Okay," is a series of funny, conversational personal essays on subjects including being a feminist, nearly getting evicted when she was going broke trying to make it as a comic, going from a four-year relationship to being single again, and then being in a relationship again and what it's been like as a black woman to be in interracial relationships.
Phoebe Robinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you on our show. So you started in comedy about eight years ago?
PHOEBE ROBINSON: Ten years.
GROSS: Ten years. OK, OK.
GROSS: So what was the gender-race atmosphere in comedy clubs like for you then?
ROBINSON: I think it's the same as it is now. It's a lot of straight white guys, some women, some people of color, a few queer people, you know? It's a very white, straight-male-dominated industry. And that can be exhausting, I think is probably the most polite way to put it. There's just a way that it seems like a lot of the white straight guys want comedy to be done.
And if you don't do it that way - if you don't do sort of the hanging out that you do, I think it can feel sort of lonely in a way that I would say almost none of the other things that I do - writing, acting, 2 Dope Queens. That stuff doesn't feel lonely. But a lot of times, stand-up feels incredibly lonely for me.
GROSS: You know, you're right that male comics talk all the time about their body functions and their man parts. But if women do it, it's considered gross. So what kind of reactions did you get when you were starting in comedy? When you started to talk about...
GROSS: ...Body issues and things like menstruation...
GROSS: ...And there were a lot of, you know, men in the audience.
ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, I think - just - I just want to be clear that when anyone starts doing stand-up, like, you're full trash. You know what I mean? Like, you're just, like, not that great. You're really sort of coasting on personality. And you're hoping your jokes are kind of funny. And, you know, I've been doing comedy for 10 years. And I think I've finally gotten to a place where I - can I curse? Is that allowed? No.
GROSS: We'd have to bleep it. So why bother?
ROBINSON: I don't want to do that.
ROBINSON: Yeah, I don't want it. I don't want to do it. I'm not Lil Wayne, OK? I'm not going to curse.
ROBINSON: So I just really got to a place, you know - I think, honestly, the place that I got to happened when I went on tour last fall with Ilana Glazer. We did our YQY tour across America. And we were both kind of being like, oh, we're funny. We've been doubting ourselves this whole freaking time, and a lot of that has been informed by the fact that we have different energy than a lot of the male comics. We carry ourselves different. Maybe we tell our jokes in a different way or a different style.
And we were beating ourselves up and allowing that sort of - kind of patriarchal sort of energy to affect our self-esteem. And then I was like, yeah, I'm good at this job. I was going to - I was going to quit doing stand-up. Honestly, after that tour, I was going to be like, all right. I did one stand-up tour. I'm done. I won't do stand-up anymore. I don't fit in. And then I was like, why are you allowing this to overpower you?
GROSS: OK. You also say, in your book, that you made jokes when you were starting that you wouldn't dream of making today. Can I put you on the spot and ask you for an example of a joke you wouldn't dream of making today?
ROBINSON: Yeah. I had this one joke that I used to do pretty early out. And I took all my early, like, stand-up clips off YouTube because who needs to see that train wreck? I don't. I was just Dunkirking (ph) it up. But anyway, so the joke basically is I was watching the slavery documentary with a white friend of mine. And it got like really awkward. And I was, like, oh, don't worry about it. I - because I'm lighter skin, I would've been in the house. And it always got a laugh. And I would, like, go and, like, make jokes about, like, you know, me and Thomas Jefferson. And it always just kind of like - now I'm like, are you kidding me, dog?
ROBINSON: Why would you ever make that? It's so ignorant. And it's so just kind of, like, you know, when you're early, you're like, oh, I got to be provocative. I have to be edgy. I have to, like - if I'm going to talk about race, I have to do it in, like, this crazy way that I think has never been done and make people uncomfortable or make people, like, really just, like, kind of laugh out of, like, shock rather than laughing out of, like, truly, like, enjoying that joke thoroughly.
And that is a joke where I'm like, maybe you, like, just don't need to joke about slavery like that. I'm sure there's a great slavery joke. But I haven't cracked that nut yet. And it's fine for me to not tell garbage ones in the meantime.
GROSS: So you talked about your discomfort in comedy clubs performing when you started out, and it took you until like last year (laughter)...
ROBINSON: Yeah, I know (laughter).
GROSS: ...To feel like you could really do it. But You and Jessica Williams started the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens. And, you know, you also just talked about wanting to do comedy in an environment where queer people and trans people could come and not feel like they risked being the butt of a joke. But that's how it is on 2 Dope Queens.
I mean, when you and Jessica Williams, who's your partner on that show, put it together, like, what was your goal in terms of the kinds of comics you wanted to showcase? Because it starts with you and her, you know, talking in a funny way about things recently happened to you. And then you bring up several, you know, stand-up comics to perform it. And it's done from a theater.
GROSS: So what was your goal in terms of showcasing comics and creating a type of environment for the audience and for the performers?
ROBINSON: The fact that it's on HBO now - we started working together four years ago - is truly bonkers, crazy, banana sandwich in the best way possible. And when Jess and I met and just - even before her and I met, I just would always notice, like, I would watch these late-night shows. And it'd usually be, you know, straight white guys getting these opportunities. And every once in a while, you'd see a woman or every once in a while you'd see, like, a black guy.
And I would just see it. And I'd be like, oh, OK, yeah. All these people are funny. I'm not taking anything away from the people that did get those spots. But I'm like, I'm surrounded by so many funny women, so many funny people of color, so many funny queer people who might not get those same opportunities to submit their tape to a book or to get greenlit to talk about different things from their perspective.
And so when Jess and I met, we were just kind of like, we know so many hilarious people who don't have maybe the platform they can to express themselves in a way. And we're like, well, it would be really dope - no pun intended - but it'd be really dope to not only have a show that sort of showcases, you know, my improv and Jess's improv abilities both singular and together, but also use the show as a platform to just bring our friends along and be like, we're supporting everybody.
This is a show for everybody. If you are funny, there's no reason why you're not going to be on this show. And I think a lot of times, you would just hear, you know, in the industry, oh, they're just like aren't - just like aren't any funny black women or we just, like, don't know where to look. And I'm like, that excuse doesn't fly with me anymore. There are so many talented, amazing people. And if you're not booking them, it's either out of laziness or the fact that you really don't care.
GROSS: So you're pretty successful now in comedy and with your podcast and the HBO specials of 2 Dope Queens, but for years, you made next to nothing as a comic.
ROBINSON: Yes. Oof.
GROSS: Yeah. And you were getting, like, dunning calls from the student loans that you owed. You were nearly evicted from your apartment. But you were given a reprieve of, like, several weeks or a couple of months to raise the $5,000 that you needed to stay in your apartment. How did you handle the anxiety of not being able to pay your student loans and then not being able to afford to have an apartment and nearly being evicted?
ROBINSON: Yeah, you know, there were a lot of tears, just, like, not being able to sleep at night. There was a lot of feeling like a failure, of feeling like maybe me trying to pursue comedy is a little nutty - because I really didn't start making a really solid living doing comedy until eight and a half years in. And, you know, I was kind of like, well, maybe it shouldn't take this long. There are other people around me where it's like, it's not taking them eight years to, like, sort of, like, you know, get their career going in the way that they want it. And you know, looking back on it now, I'm just kind of like, you can't control when that happens.
I think, yes, it was kind of irritating that it took me this long. But I think I was so fully ready for the opportunities that arose by that point. So like, you know, 2 Dope Queens being on HBO didn't scare me. Having to write a book didn't scare me. It's like, OK, I've been blogging and writing for three, four years making - what? - 50 bucks a blog post. OK, yeah. I can - this - writing this book is going to be hard. But I'm not going to run away from it.
GROSS: Well, let me re-introduce you here.
If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Phoebe Robinson, who hosts the podcast and HBO specials 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. And she has a new book, which is called "Everything's Trash, But It's Okay." We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH'S "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comedian and actor Phoebe Robinson, who hosts the podcast 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. They co-host it together. And they also have a series of four HBO specials by the same name. And they have four more set for 2019, right, Phoebe?
ROBINSON: Yes, I'm so excited...
GROSS: Yeah. And now Phoebe has a new book called "Everything's Trash, But It's Okay." You and your brother went to a private Catholic high school. And you say that you were one of two or three black students in the whole school. And you were the only black person in your graduating class. Why did your parents send you there?
ROBINSON: Oh, I was the only black girl in my graduating class. There...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
ROBINSON: Yeah. So there was four of - wait. Yeah, four of us black students in the graduating class, and I was the only black girl. You know, my parents are huge into education. And they are just like, that is the key to everything. They were like, if you want to have, like, a really full, happy, like, fulfilled life, education is the way to go.
So they sent us to Gilmour Academy. And it was - my brother totally, like, excelled and, you know, was, like, an A student and, like, Mr. Popular and, like, truly just, like, rocked it out. And I was a hot mess. Like, I, like, was such a slacker. But, yes, I ended up going to Gilmour. And I was kind of, like, coasting and, like, not really, like, living up to my potential, which infuriated them so much. But, yeah, they - I think they just wanted us to have, like, all the advantages they could possibly give us in life.
And I think even though I was kind of like a crummy student there, I think I did learn a lot. Like, I did work study there. So I think from, like, a young age, like 14, 15, I always, like, was learning, you have to, like, earn your keep. You have to, like, work hard to be able to be in a place that you're in.
GROSS: So when you weigh the discomfort of being, like, the only black girl in your graduating class with the fact that you probably did get a really good education, how does the balance come out?
ROBINSON: I think in the end, I think it was worth it. I will say it would have been nice if there was another black girl in my grade. I think there was, like, one black girl in my class. And there was one Indian girl and one Asian girl. And I'm sure we - you know, not to be like, it's nice to have, like, a matching set. But it would've been nice if we could've each, like, you know, looked across, you know, during Mass and saw someone else who looked like us.
Whenever we talk about, like, representation and, like, diversity, I don't think, sometimes, people fully understand how hard it is to not see yourself. Especially if you're living in a society or a culture where you are so reflected at every possible turn, I think it's hard to, like, imagine what it's like to not have that. And so, you know, I do think that, like, if there was, like, a 2 Dope Queens, that would've been a game changer for me, to just, like, hear two black women - like, young black women. LOL, I'm, like, 34. But I'm like, young black women.
ROBINSON: But, you know, to hear two, like, young black women talking about, oh, this one time I got my hair done at this salon. And they did this to my hair. And it, like, totally, like, messed it up. I couldn't talk about my black hair woes in high school with, like, Laura (ph). She doesn't know. She doesn't - she just wakes up, and she has flawless, like, straight hair. Like, she didn't have to go through, like, what I had to go through. And so I think in the end, it worked out OK. But I did have to do a lot of work on myself. I did have to kind of, like, be OK with being outnumbered, in a way, and not letting that make me so sad.
And then, also, I think I was very lucky to be a child in the '90s with, like, "Moesha," you know, "Martin," "Family Matters," and "Girlfriends" and all these sort of shows where you could still see, you know, like Tracee Ellis Ross. Or I could still see, like, Queen Latifah or Kim Fields and be, like, oh, OK, cool. So I could kind of see what I could be like if I was, you know, an older black woman.
GROSS: You write about body image in your book. And you say...
GROSS: ...That since you were 14, your brain has been consumed with all the ways your body is, like, not good enough, meaning not attractive to straight dudes and for failing to meet fashion industry standards. And you say even at age 34, with a deeper understanding of how we've been conditioned to have unhealthy relationships with our bodies, you're still kind of fixated on it.
So how have you tried to, like, overcome that? Because it sounds like your, like, intellectual knowledge of how women have been expected to conform to certain body standards is at a different place than your just kind of visceral, like, I-gained-too-much-weight kind of feelings.
ROBINSON: I think that everyone has that sort of battle inside themselves about something, whether it's body or, you know - I'm a writer with no other analogies. Great, moving on.
ROBINSON: But you know what I mean. There's always that thing that - it's like that you - mentally, you know better. But conditioning still makes that self-doubt come. And so I think what I have done is I have chosen to refocus that energy. Like, I'm getting back into exercising, but not - like, I don't have a scale in the house. I'm like, it is not about a number. If you're just going, like, I need to make sure I'm strong enough to get through the day rather than I want to make sure I look good in these pair of jeans, I feel more powerful.
The little bit of experiences that I have gotten with, like, styling and doing like these photo shoots - and, again, these are champagne problems. I just want to preface, I know that. But they're - they'll be like, oh, yeah, we only have a size 4. And it's like, that is unacceptable to me. To only have a size 4 is truly ignorant and inexcusable. Or I go to these, like, shoots. And I tell people, I'm a 10, 12. That's just what it is. And they'll be like, here's a 6. It's like, how dare you? Truly, it's like, how dare you be like, oh, well, we couldn't find anything in your size? You didn't look because I dress myself every day...
GROSS: (Laughter). Yeah.
ROBINSON: I dress myself every day. And I find everything I need. I - this sort of, oh, well, we only have a zero, 2, 4, so you either fit in that or you're screwed is not how you should treat anybody. I would do these fittings, and 90 percent of the stuff I wouldn't fit into. And every time I didn't fit into something, I'd be like, I'm sorry - every single time...
GROSS: You'd be apologizing?
ROBINSON: I would apologize. After every single outfit didn't fit, I'd be like, I'm so sorry. And I'm like, they knew what size I was for weeks before I showed up. It is not my fault I'm the size that I am.
GROSS: There's an afterword - an addendum to your book. And part of your book is about being single and the ups and downs of being single. And then the addendum is, I have a boyfriend now. Well, I had a BF at the time I turned this in to my book editor. So you're still together?
ROBINSON: Yes, we are still together. We - we're going - we're, what, 15 months? 16 months? I'm pretending like it's a child. 16 months. We're doing great. And we just moved in together.
GROSS: On which coast?
GROSS: Because he was from Portland, I think - living in Portland. And you're in New York.
ROBINSON: Yes. He's originally from Bournemouth in the southern U.K. And then he moved to Portland. And now he moved to New York for me. I do my terrible British accent all the time for him, and he loves it. Not at all.
GROSS: So you were single for at least two years in between...
GROSS: ...Your previous boyfriend and the person who you're with now. What have you learned about yourself from the periods where you were single and lived alone?
ROBINSON: Before I met British Bake Off - that's what we call him. Before I met him, I really just was - I really love romantic comedies. And I really was, like - wanted to have that moment in my life where I'm, like, dating this guy and then he just is, like - gives his verbal approval or whatever about me and is like, you're amazing. And then that would make me realize I'm amazing. And then we would have this happy life together.
And so that was, like, one of the biggest lessons was, like, not looking for this great relationship to sort of define me or make me realize that I'm lovable. I just had to sort of figure that out for myself and be OK if I don't date someone for two years or two and a half years or five years. And if I haven't, like, found my soulmate or my partner by then, does that mean that I'm a terrible person? You know what I mean? It's, like, all these, like, value systems you, like, place on yourself. And it was all predicated on what someone else thought about me. Never once did I check in and see how I felt about myself.
GROSS: Did you have to learn how to fully enjoy yourself when you were not with somebody, whether it's going to a movie by yourself or having dinner by yourself and just feel like, I'm consuming this. I'm watching this, and I don't need somebody with me to fully appreciate the experience.
ROBINSON: Absolutely. I mean, I did all that stuff, where I just - and you always think - like, you go out to, like, a diner or a movie. And you go by yourself, and you think everyone is just, like, dropping - like, you're at a restaurant. Everyone's dropping their forks and are going, there is a woman, single, by herself. Ain't nobody - they're all, like, focused on their quinoa. They are not thinking about you, you know?
And it was just - was so sort of, like, self-absorbed where I'm like, everyone's judging me for being single. And yes, there are certain people in everyone's lives who will, like, judge them for being single. But it was just kind of like, who cares? Big whoop. Am I not going to enjoy my life? Am I just going to put my life on pause until I find a partner to do stuff with?
GROSS: My guest is Phoebe Robinson, co-host with Jessica Williams of the comedy podcast and HBO specials 2 Dope Queens. She also hosts the interview podcast Sooo Many White Guys. Her new book is called "Everything's Trash, But That's Okay" (ph). We'll talk more after a break. Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "Washington Black" about a runaway slave. Then we'll hear from the author, Esi Edugyan, who will find out tomorrow if her novel has won the Man Booker prize. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE AND GEORGE DUKE'S "MCDUKEY BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic and actor Phoebe Robinson. Along with Jessica Williams, she co-founded and co-hosts the comedy podcast and HBO series 2 Dope Queens. She also hosts the interview podcast Sooo Many White Guys. Now she has a new book of comic personal essays called "Everything's Trash, But That's Okay." When we left off, we were talking about being single. Her book ends with her being in a committed relationship.
Your boyfriend is white.
GROSS: And you say that...
ROBINSON: He's OG white because he's British, honey.
GROSS: ...You write, when you're in an interracial relationship, you get mail or queries from black men wanting to know why you're not with a black man. And then you write, funny, when I'm single, these same black dudes aren't asking me out. So elaborate on that for us.
ROBINSON: Well, you know, I just want to preface - most of my life is me not getting asked out. Like, this is not - you know what I mean?
ROBINSON: Just to be clear, I'm not Rihanna, where guys are throwing themselves at me. So I just think in general I'm, like, not getting asked out a lot. And I used to just be like, I will just wait for a guy to ask me out. Like, I really was sort of - and my mom didn't teach me that sort of, like, cuckoo behavior. But I was like, I'm just going to wait for a guy to - so that's, like, truly, how I was dating. And I would just wait for someone to ask me out. And if no one asked me out, I just wouldn't date, which is so ignorant and also like, huh? What you talking about? You got a job. You can ask people out. So, you know, that's just really where I was.
And so, you know, I think interracial dating is just really tricky for a lot of people because I think, a lot of times, people want to find a reason for why you're not dating within your tribe. And I'm always just kind of like, you just meet who you meet. And if the timing is right - like, I met British Bake Off at a U2 concert. LOL - truly, like, hilarious because his band was opening for U2 at the time. And, you know, we sort of hit it off - like, not even right away. I was like, I don't care about this guy. I'm just, like, focused on U2. But, like, eventually, I realized British Bake Off was kind of dope. And then we just ended up dating from there. But, again, that was not - it just wasn't preplanned. I, like, didn't even, like, really give them a second glance when I met him.
GROSS: So I've mentioned that you and Jessica Williams host 2 Dope Queens. You have your own podcast, called Sooo Many White Guys, in which you interview people, as opposed to doing stand-up. And...
ROBINSON: I interviewed you. It was a great episode.
GROSS: And that was really fun. I really enjoyed that a lot. I was really glad I did that. So how did Sooo Many White Guys get its name?
ROBINSON: Well, because, you know, most podcasts are hosted by white guys.
ROBINSON: And then they interview other white guys. And you're like, cool.
ROBINSON: So you're just going to have - you're going to have steak and eggs every day? OK. Enjoy your life. And so I just kind of wanted to be like - I'm going to poke fun of like, there's so many white guys. But actually, the thing is there's only one token white guy for a season. The rest of the episodes are just women, queer people, people of color. And those are, like, the majority of the guests.
GROSS: So now that you're starting to be cast in roles, do you look at casting calls or the equivalent - 'cause you write something very funny about that in your first book. But are there kind of casting calls where you know that they are not - they're definitely, like, not entertaining the idea of having a black person in that role. Like, is there any kind of coded language that you can see when a black person would even conceivably be cast in the role?
ROBINSON: The lead. You're like, oh, so the lead's going to be Renee Zellweger? Cool.
ROBINSON: OK. So I'm the best friend? OK. Cool, cool, cool. I got that. You want me to sound like this? OK. I'm not going to do that. But I'd say there were two big things that I - you know, when I started acting, like, pretty recently, I had to have a conversation with myself before even, like, going to my agents or whatever. And I was always like, I don't want the thankless part of a wife answering a damn phone call from her husband and giving him some motivation. I don't want to do that. I don't want to be on the other line, being like, you got this, baby.
ROBINSON: I have no agency, no life. I'm just at home, holding unfolded laundry. I will never - you will never see - I hate to use the word never, but you will never see me on screen holding a basket of unfolded laundry. I will not do it (laughter).
GROSS: But wait, wait, wait. If you were living alone and doing your own laundry, that would be perfectly fine.
ROBINSON: That's OK. But if I'm, like, on the phone with Channing Tatum and he's out, you know, freaking saving the president and I'm at home stepping on a Lego, folding his, you know, gym shorts, that's not the part for me. You know, I think the language in a casting call is like all-American is white. Beautiful but doesn't know it is white. And then usually, It'll be, like - open to all ethnicities is when you know that that is - oh, that's a role that - they can envision someone not white doing it. But it's like all the roles should be open to ethnicity. Do you know I mean?
Like, there is no reason why it took, you know, 20-some odd years for that to be a "Crazy Rich Asians." There's no excuse for that. They could've been leads in romantic comedies this whole time. And so whenever I see that stuff, I always, like, think about, like - because I have a niece, and she's 5. As long as it's, like, not inappropriate terms of language or sex, is this a part that, when she gets older, would I be embarrassed to show her that I did? You know what I mean? And so that's kind of always, like, sort of my needle in how I operate.
And it's hard being in an industry where, you know, if you're not the mainstream sort of thing, you're just not going to be considered. But I think on the flipside, what's great right now is that this is an industry where creators shine, where they can swim, where you can have, like, an Issa Rae. You can have, you know, a Phoebe and Jessica do 2 Dope Queens. You can have an Abbi and Ilana. You can have all these sorts of people sort of just creating their own opportunities and their own lanes.
GROSS: Well, Phoebe Robinson, it's just been great to have you on our show. Thank you so much.
ROBINSON: Terry - and honestly, this has been a delight of my life. And we got to hang out. I know we were supposed to see Bruno Mars together, and we couldn't do it.
GROSS: No, because we're both working so hard (laughter).
ROBINSON: Yeah. So just let me know. Who do you want to see? Def Leppard? Who do you want to see in concert?
GROSS: I'll pass on that one.
GROSS: We'll get it together.
ROBINSON: Let's go see Beyonce.
GROSS: Sure, yeah.
ROBINSON: We'll see Beyonce.
GROSS: Yeah, you get the tickets.
Phoebe Robinson's new collection of comic personal essays is called "Everything's Trash, But That's Okay." After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel "Washington Black" about a runaway slave. Then we'll hear from the author, Esi Edugyan. This is FRESH AIR.
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