Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens Talk About Their New HBO ShowPhoto by Mindy Tucker / Courtesy of HBO Comedy Features 2 Dope Queens
When it launched in 2016, actress-comedians Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams’s podcast 2 Dope Queens became the cathartic release that so of us many needed: two well-educated black women talking unapologetically about everything from hair care to U2.
Most importantly, one of the most impressive things about their podcast is that it proved that people with varying backgrounds besides their own would tune in and care deeply about it. So it’s a no-brainer that HBO signed the duo for a four-episode live special. Premiering on February 2, not only are they all directed by comedy badass Tig Notaro, but they also spotlight lesser-recognized comedians and ask guest stars like Sarah Jessica Parker and Jon Stewart (Williams’ former boss on The Daily Show) all-important questions about things like pizza choices and hair care.
“There’s a tendency for people to think that if a project is created by a person of color or queer people or women, it’s just for that marker that society uses to recognize our identity,” Robinson told Paste when we asked at HBO’s Television Critics Association press day in Pasadena, Calif. “I don’t think white guys sit down and go ‘I wonder if women are going to get my sense of humor?’ They assume that everyone will see their perspective and that’s how we went into our show.”
Williams echoed this by saying “truth in comedy is universal.”
“My favorite thing is when I get white dudes who come up to me and go ‘I really like 2 Dope Queens,” she says.
Below are the ladies’ answers to other questions that we and other journalists asked during their press panel.
How did the live shows keep the spontaneity of the podcasts while also factoring in the planning and pre-written scenes that a stage show necessitates?
“A huge part of 2 Dope Queens is the spontaneity,” Williams says. “Sometimes, we’ll have a story for each other and we won’t tell each other before we tape or record because we just want to explore that on stage. And the responses that we get from a lot of that comedy is from that spontaneity, so we didn’t want to lose that.”
This also carried over to the live show’s celebrity guests.
In order to keep that vibe, Williams says, they worked with head writer Amy Aniobi to get a “general outline, but still keep the surprises for the stage.” They also made sure not to ask celebrity guests “canned questions.”
“When we have celebrity guests on the show, we like to ask them things like ‘what do you think about cocoa butter’—things that we actually think about,” Williams says. “What’s great about these guests is they were really excited to do the show and they were ready for anything.
How did it come about that Notaro would direct all four episodes?
“We have a very specific type of humor and we really felt like she could handle anything that could come our way,” says Williams. “She would know how to gingerly cut or add to a stand-up’s bit.”
Plus, as Notaro is a middle-aged white woman, Williams says “we felt like she would be able to look at [the show] from a different perspective.”
How did they decide on the themes of the live episodes?
“We have recurring themes,” Williams says. “We decided New York City was one because our baby, 2 Dope Queens, was made in Brooklyn. We have another one that’s called hair because hair and black women are like peanut butter and jelly.”
Other themes are hot peen—because they both enjoy naked men—and “blerds,” or black nerds.
For the uninitiated, much of 2 Dope Queens focuses on blerds. But how do they differ from white nerds?
Williams explains that, growing up in the suburbs, “all I wanted to do was play Sims and read Harry Potter”—hobbies that her cousins would mock. She says, “we wanted to capture the excitement that goes with nerdinness” because “back in the day, it was difficult for black people to publically geek out and enjoy them.”
“There are so many layers to the black female experience and I think being a nerd—or a black nerd—is a part of that,” says Robinson, a professed Game of Thrones fan.
Each special also includes performances by other stand-ups. How did they choose who would get to perform?
“On our show, we try to have stand-ups and storytellers who are usually women or members of the LGBTQ community,” Williams says. “because, I think, oftentimes people see black women or queer people and label them and assume they are all the same … We try to have multiple people of color because we are so different and we are so unique and our voices are not the same.”
Guest comedians are Michelle Buteau, Mark Normand, Baron Vaughn, Aparna Nancherla, Rhea Butcher, Sheng Wang, John Early, Jackie Kashian, Kevin Barnett, Naomi Ekperigin, Al Jackson and Gary Gulman.
While the episodes were filmed before the #MeToo movement really took hold, it is there in spirit.
“We didn’t integrate #MeToo because it didn’t make it in, but we are that,” Williams says. “We are always pushing for equal rights to other people. I always want to aim to create something that is morally and politically where I stand.”
Inevitably, some jokes are going to have to get cut from the special or podcasts. How do they decide what stays or what goes?
“We have a lot of jokes in there, so as long as we have the narrative of each episode in place we can kind of take out jokes that derail us from that,” Robinson says.
Williams and Robinson are working actresses and writers. How has the success of the podcast changed how they are cast on shows and movies?
“I think the biggest thing for us is people see us as content creators,” Robinson says. “2 Dope Queens has taught me how to really truly believe in my voice and keep creating content for my voice.”
2 Dope Queens premieres on HBO on Friday, Feb. 2.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Esquire, Elle, Complex, Vulture, Marie Claire, Toronto Star and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and very photogenic cat.