Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson: 15 Minutes With the Charmingly Nerdy '2 Dope Queens' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson are the dopest.
In HBO’s 2 Dope Queens, a four-part special based on their popular comedy podcast, Williams and Robinson bring the same laid-back charm and spontaneous humor that earned them legions of fans, elevating their nerd game to yet another level as they transition their act into the TV spotlight.
Filmed in front of a live audience in Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre and directed by Tig Notaro, each hour-long episode revolves around a theme, from New York City to hair to black nerds; features interviews with special guests like Williams' former Daily Show colleague Jon Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tituss Burgess; spotlights many of Williams and Robinson’s favorite stand-up comedians; and, of course, includes hilarious, off-the-cuff banter between the two hosts.
Williams and Robinson's goal for the TV version of 2 Dope Queens wasn't to turn an already successful thing into something totally different, but to enhance the experience and cozy vibe -- creating the illusion for viewers that they're really just at a slumber party with good friends, only slightly fancier.
"We wanted to elevate it. We wanted it to feel bigger and more us and even funnier, sillier," Robinson says. "It was really good that we got to figure it out on the podcast. If you listen to the first episode of the podcast [from April 2016] and watch the HBO special, you can see the growth, not only comedically, but our personas. The HBO special is the greatest hits of what Jess and I did on the podcast."
In January, ET spent 15 glorious minutes with the pair at a five-star Pasadena, California, hotel to get to know Williams and Robinson on a more personal level and learn why they're proud to be self-proclaimed "blerds" (aka black nerds), the importance of showing female friendship on TV and their undying fandom for Game of Thrones and Harry Potter.
ET: What were the challenges that you faced transitioning the 2 Dope Queens podcast into a visual format like television?
Jessica Williams: For this one, it was just a bigger production, so there were a lot of moving parts. We needed the sets to be this amount of time from the stand-ups and we had to hire a booker, Hillary Kun, who I worked with on The Daily Show to hire celebrity bookers. We needed them to be there at a certain time. It was a whole production, but what was great about it [was] a lot of the production was women and it was a lot of women coming together to put on these four specials that we taped for HBO. It really felt like everybody was firing on all cylinders.
That aspect of it seems to be a very important point for the both of you -- to practice what you preach in regards to keeping the womanhood strong in front of and behind the camera.How are you continuing that throughout your careers?
Phoebe Robinson: After we decided that we were going to work together with HBO, we noticed that a lot of comedy specials -- even if a woman was doing stand-up -- would often be directed by a man. What if we had a woman direct ours? There are so many funny women who know how to direct, why not use them? We both love Tig and we did her Bentzen Ball festival in Washington, D.C., a few years ago and she was a guest on 2 Dope Queens [the podcast] for the Women's March episode. For us, we wanted to have that female perspective, not only in front of the camera but behind the camera, from the producers to the writers to Tig to us.
There's a comfort between the two of you that comes across onscreen, where we really feel like we're your friends and we're all just having a night in discussing the humor in life. Do you attribute that casual vibe to your personalities or your friendship or something else?
Williams: I think it's both of those things. One of the first things that we did together -- [Robinson] already had a live show that she was doing at Upright Citizens Brigade East -- and she invited me to co-host it with her because I told her I'd always wanted to try stand-up. I went to go host with her, and afterward we were like, "That was super fun. Should we do this again?" We kept doing it and the more we did it, the more our audience grew, we moved theaters a couple of times and three and a half years later, we have these HBO specials. A big question that we get is how do we cover our topics and how do we decide what we want to talk about when she and I do the banter in between the stand-ups, and we really try and make sure that we are discovering things about each other onstage. I know for me, because I think Phoebe is so funny, that I really try and make her laugh and I think she really tries to make me laugh, so we're doing that and messing around. I hope that the audience is laughing, too, and I think that's what adds to the electricity that we have and adds to the chemistry to the two of us. We think similar things are very funny. Certain people can run side by side with each other and it makes sense; I really do think that we're like that. That is what translates. Also, people want to see women talking to each other...
And being friends.
Williams: And being friends! People want to see that, yes!
It's something that we don't often see explored on TV, which is a discussion in itself. Women aren't constantly fighting in real life -- or at least, I hope not.
Williams: No, and it's not just us. Phoebe has an amazing group of women that she's friends with, and I do too. We want to see the women that we love represented onstage and so do other people. The best compliment that we get and I know I get is when people come up and say, "Oh, my God, I love your podcast! I'm such a fan of you and Phoebe. It feels like I'm hanging out with my girlfriends when I listen to you guys." I'm like, hell yeah, that's awesome. What an honor to have people connect with us in that way.
You guys really are friendship goals.
Williams: Aww, thank you.
Because you've been working together for almost four years, what have you learned about each other that has brought your friendship even closer?
Robinson: Because none of us have done comedy partnerships before, we learned how to be partners. We learned how to produce the podcast and the HBO specials. We learned these tools that I think women of color aren't taught. We're not taught to be leaders, we're not taught to collaborate with others. We're not taught to create our own content. A lot of the times women are taught to wait and hope that you're picked. Being black women in comedy and working together, we learned how to push each other. It's great to have someone push you comedically and push you professionally, and I think working together has really been cool. I think it's made us stronger, not only as a partnership but also individually. Her acting career is skyrocketing and it's cool to witness and see the different projects she's working on.
Williams: And yours, too. She's killing it. She's a New York Times bestselling author [for 2016's You Can't Touch My Hair (and Other Things I Still Have to Explain)]. It's insane and awesome. I do agree, you do learn a lot. It's like a relationship, and in relationships, romantic ones, it's like a mirror to yourself so you learn about yourself while learning about the other person.
Sarah Jessica Parker appears in the second special. How did you get her to come on the show?
Williams:Sex and the City has always been a recurring theme on the show. Her hair is amazing!
Robinson: She liked the podcast.
Williams: And we have an amazing booker. Sarah was a fan of ours, and what was great about her, and people will see in her episode, she's so charming and sweet and likable but she was really brave in asking questions about our hair. She didn't front like she knew about black hair, she had legitimate questions and obvi, we were more than excited to talk to her about anything. I remember we walked offstage thinking, "She's amazing." She really wasn't afraid to put herself out there with us, walking into a show that's already established a routine could be otherwise intimidating. I was like "Damn, Sarah Jessica Parker is badass."
Were there or are there any topics that you wouldn't or won't address?
Robinson: It's mostly free game for us. We want to make sure that we're not trashing anyone. We also want to have fun. Jess owns her stories and I own my stories. Jess is never like, "Oh, I overheard this person," so this is going to become my thing. I think it's great that we're able to be open and vulnerable and have fun.
Jessica, you've been very vocal about your love of Harry Potter and you're in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel. How did that come about?
Williams: I've never heard of that franchise. (Laughs.) I started doing The Daily Show when I was 22, so that was six years ago, and my second year, I was shooting a field piece and I saw something on Twitter that said "J.K. Rowling started following you" and I was like, maybe this isn't real, maybe it's a bot. So I looked and saw that she was actually following me and I was like, this is weird. That was when I stopped tweeting, because what do I have to say now? Then she slid into my DMs maybe two days later -- I always knew Harry Potter and I had the same birthday, but J.K. Rowling and I also had the same birthday. She said, "I was going to wish you a happy our birthday but I forget. Anyway, I think you're funny, talented and brave, and I always know it'll be a good Daily Show when you're on," and I just lost my mind. Ever since then, we had correspondence. I went to London to promote my movie, The Incredible Jessica James, and I met up with her and we had this crazy dinner. I came back to New York and she was like, "I've been kicking around this character for Fantastic Beasts and I think you'd be perfect for it." She had emailed me this incredible breakdown of this character. That was how I got to be in Fantastic Beasts.
Will we recognize you in character?
Williams: Like, will you see me? Oh yeah, you will absolutely know it's me.
Phoebe, being a diehard Game of Thrones fan, how are you coping with the long wait for the final season?
Robinson: It's tough! My boyfriend is a superfan. He's seen each season like five times.
Robinson: Oh, yeah. We've been talking about that. If he's on the road -- he's a tour manager -- I will fly to see him so we can watch an episode together or we'll FaceTime and watch each episode. We follow Game of Thrones fan accounts and Instagrams and show each other videos. It's really an addiction. (Laughs.)
Williams: I'm scared. (Laughs.)
Robinson: Yeah, it's a lot.
Who do you consider "dope queens" today?
Williams: Emma Watson's one.J.K. Rowling's one, obviously.Kamala Harrisis definitely a dope queen. Janet Mock.
Robinson: Ashley Graham, I love her. Ava DuVernay, obviously. Maxine Waters. Ilana Glazer, hi!
2 Dope Queens premieres Friday, Feb. 2 at 11:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.