You can't touch her hair, but you can read her thoughts on race, gender, pop culture, and more in her first book of essays.
This article originally ran on InStyle.com.
This past April, WNYC studios premiered 2 Dope Queens, a comedy podcast starring Phoebe Robinson, a writer/comedian/actress, and Jessica Williams, an actress/The Daily Show correspondent. The two friends had been running 2 Dope Queens as a successful regular stand-up show at Brooklyn's Union Hall before they were tapped to bring it to WNYC for worldwide broadcast. Within the first week of the podcast's debut, it hit #1 on iTunes and has continued to gain momentum over sixteen episodes (the second season just premiered last month). This summer, Robinson branched out to a second podcast, Sooo Many White Guys, which was a 10-episode series featuring a conversation between Robinson and a non-white or non-male guest*. (*Save for the 10th episode of the first season, which had comedian and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia on to discuss "maleness and whiteness.")
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But though Sooo Many White Guys is currently on hiatus, you can read more of Robinson's thoughts on race, gender, pop culture, and more in her excellent first book of essays, You Can't Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have to Explain), out now. The beauty of Robinson's writing—and point of view in both her podcasts—is that it's honest and unapologetic. But it's also really funny. Not many people can pull off that balance.
Robinson came to the InStyle offices last week to talk about her book, her shows, and her very favorite band.
YQY*! (*That's Yas Queen Yas, for non-podcast listeners)
You put yourself out there between your two podcasts and your book. Is it weird when strangers talk to you as if they know you?
I don’t get recognized a whole lot but it’s starting to ramp up a little bit. It’s always weird when I’m on the street and someone’s like, "Hey, Phoeb," so then I have that second where I’m like, "Do I know this person?" or is this someone who listens to the podcast and I haven’t met them before. So that’s been kind of weird, but for the most part, everyone has been great and wonderful. I’m not like Beyoncé. I don’t need security to take me to Cuba or whatever. So it can be weird sometimes, but I think people get that that is my podcast and I’m mostly that, but there are other layers to me that aren’t shown on the podcast.
What was the timeline—when did you start the book in relation to the two podcasts?
I got my agent November 2014 and then I sold the proposal January 2015. We started taping 2 Dope Queens in September of last year. Then I did final pass of the book June of this year. So it was a decent process. At times it was definitely tough, but it was so much fun. It’s always been my dream ever since I started my blog (Blaria.com) four years ago to be in this position where I have a book out and my face is all over it. I feel like people don’t remember authors, so you just have to have your face out there—unless you’re Ta-Nehisi Coates and people just see your face everywhere.
Since you’ve been talking about dating and race and feminism so much in the past year on both podcasts, did you keep going back to the book with new ideas?
Yeah, I missed two or three writing deadlines which I heard that happens with authors. It’s really hard to turn a book in on time. But you get to a point where you can’t add anything new, you can only edit down. I wanted to write something about police brutality and they were like, "This idea is great, but we can't add it to the book now because of scheduling." So that’s really the only time I wish I could’ve added something to it. But I think the book touches on so many different things and I feel like it captures who I was at 30 and 31. It feels like a little time capsule. Then when I write my next book, it’ll be where I am at when I’m 35.
Have friends and family read it yet?
No one in my family has it yet. I’m like "You guys can get it when you order on Amazon!" But my parents are so cute. They were like, "We ordered a bunch of copies and we are going to give them to the local library." But one of my close friends Allison read the book. She’s white, from Texas, and she said that she didn’t realize a lot of things about race, so it was a good eye-opening book for her. But yeah, I haven’t shown it to that many people yet because I just want to wait until Oct. 4 when everyone can read it. I really hope that it resonates with people and they feel like they are hanging out with a friend. And I hope it makes them laugh. I’ve read the book like six times so it’s hard for me to be objective about it.
In one of the early chapters of the book you talk about how the way you choose to do your hair affects how you're treated by people ...
Yeah, black hair is really divisive in this country. I don’t think people realize how much pressure black women face to have their hair tell the world who they are where it’s like, "I’m safe" or "I’m professional." Black women aren’t just spending money on hair because we’re frivolous. There’s a lot more that goes into it and I don’t think people realize that. It’s hard because if you have an afro, people will react to that. If you straighten your hair, some people will think you don’t love yourself, which isn’t true. There is so much outside opinion about women’s hair in general, whether you’re black or white. And when you’re black, it’s even tougher.
What is your writing process like?
When I was writing the book, I was at my most disciplined. I broke up with my ex in the middle of writing it. So I moved into my own 2-bedroom apartment and turned one room into an office and I was very good about waking up, turning off wifi, putting my cell phone in another room, and just writing. That was really good. Now that I'm out of the book writing process, I really want to get back into stand-up writing. I want to write four really new solid jokes a week. My jokes seem to be getting longer now, so it feels like that’s a good amount per week. I know there are some people who write everyday, like Jerry Seinfield. I can't do that. It’s too much for me, but it works for him.
Pop culture is a huge part of your writing and your comedy. And there's sometimes a small generational divide on 2 Dope Queens between you and Jessica Williams, who's a few years younger than you. You're an unabashed U2 fan and she just doesn't get it.
Jess recently watched a documentary that had The Edge, Jack White, and Jimmy Page and she said, "You know, I was wrong. The Edge is kind of cute" and I was like, "I know." I know it’s kind of dorky, but I love U2. They make good music. I’ve seen them four times. I want to see them more. I just like big concert shows where everyone knows all of the music, and all of the lyrics, singing together, it really feels like the world is not a dumpster fire. They're really good at doing anthem-type songs and I like that they are philanthropic, which is great because they don’t have to be. They could be just super rich and only care about that but they give back. They work with other artists like Alicia Keys and Beyoncé who want to do more than just get rich. So I like that aspect of them and I like that they are invested in politics … I really like the band. They make me happy. They seem like cool dudes and I hope that they will want to hang out with me one day and I’ll probably cry if they do want to hang out with me.
Have any of your pop culture obsessions reached out to you, after hearing about your admiration on either podcast?
Probably one of the coolest things was when St. Vincent tweeted something like "One of my favorite parts about Tuesday mornings is waking up to a new 2 Dope Queens episode." And I was like, "What?!" She’s really great. Now we follow each other on Twitter. We found out we share the same birthday. So I’m like, we’re meant to know each other. It really feels cool to have awesome artistic women who really like the show a lot. I think the St. Vincent one was crazy because I remember going to go see her when she was performing at Prospect Park and I’ve been such a fan of hers. It’s always that extra level when a rock star likes you; it’s cool.
Are comedians or actors or musicians offering themselves up as guests for either podcast now that they've both done so well?
Yeah, I think it’s easier now. Jess and I want to celebrate women, people of color, people of the LGBTQ community. I think that resonates with a lot of comics who feel like there are a lot of opportunities they may not be picked for because they aren’t a white guy. And with 2 Dope Queens, they can come on and show everyone how amazing they are. So I think with the second season, it was easier because the first season, people were a little scared like oh, a stand-up show is going to be taped and that’s a lot of pressure. So as we were doing the first season, we were kind of loosening up with authors like Lindy West and storytellers on. So I think now with people like Jon Stewart, they don’t feel like I have to do a spotless 15 minutes of comedy. I can hang out with them and have a conversation with them or tell a funny story or read something. So I think people are realizing that it’s a safe space and not this crazy high-pressure situation to have the funniest set of your life which I think is nice. So we want to have RuPaul on. We’re obsessed with her. We have a running list like Sarah Silverman. Alec Baldwin. Jon Hamm ... there’s so many people we’re just like, "Please do the show and we’ll just hang out and be ridiculous. It’ll be the funnest night ever."
You launched a second podcast, Sooo Many White Guys, this summer. How did that that start?
I did a stand-up show in L.A. for a Comedy Festival called Sooo Many White Guys. So I did two of those shows with ten female comedians. There are all of these amazing, talented, funny women that should be on TV shows and movies, and booked at clubs more because clubs are notorious for not booking as many female stand-up comics. So that show ended up being a lot of fun and I thought maybe that could translate to an interview show because there are so many people I’m fascinated by, like Lizzo and Janet Mock and Roxanne Gay. That, to me, was like, this could be a great way to have conversations with people who I think are amazing and geniuses and everyone should worship them the way that I do.
So Ilana [Glazer, of Broad City, who is executive producer and a guest of the podcast] and I, and the producers, sat down to figure out the format, really polish it, and then we're going about booking like crazy. The ten episodes that we did were all with people who we love. And WYNC were so good about being accommodating and they found it in their budget to make this show work. And they put me with producers that are amazing and diverse. I love my producer, Joanna. She’s amazing. Behind the scenes, it was an all-female-produced podcast, which is also the case for 2 Dope Queens as well.
You've been busy the past few years—what are your next few months like with the book release?
October, I’ll mostly be on the book tour. Then, I’ll be back here to do some 2 Dope Queens shows. We’re definitely doing one but we might try to squeeze in two more while I’m in town because Jess’s movie is wrapping this month. So it’s been a crazy time for us trying to meet up and do all of the episodes. Then I’ll be working on a project that I really can't talk about. So that’ll be through the rest of the year. For January, I’m not sure. I want to do a one week vacation somewhere. But I’ve also been thinking about writing and directing a short film, which I’ve never done before. But I don’t think I would be in it. I just want to showcase other talent and just learn how to do more behind the scene stuff. I feel like I’ve gotten really good with behind-the-scene stuff with podcasting and listen to roughs cuts, and listen to what works and what doesn’t, so I really want to do that with film—and eventually have my own TV show.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
It came from John Hodgman. He’s such a delight. I met him maybe three years ago. We did this birthday show in Boston. I was the only woman on the lineup with all these heavy hitters. I was really intimidated and nervous. After the show, they were all like, "Let’s go hang out in the hotel lobby," and I felt really uncomfortable. I get really nervous being around successful people. I’m always in awe of people and I get anxious. They were all just sitting and hanging out. I was like, "I think I’m just going to go upstairs." And then John Hodgman came over and was like, "Hey. What’s up? How’s it going? What’s your deal?" and I was like what do you mean? And he’s like, "What do you want to do?"
I never had a super established comic like that just befriend me that way. He gave me great career advice. I was telling him I wanted to write a book and do a solo show and all of these other things and that I’m not like the stand-up comedian that wants to do four shows a night. That’s just not how I’m built. He was like, "Yeah, don’t let everyone else define who you should be." Whatever career you want to have, have that. He said, "You’re talented, so just do the things that interest you and if other people don’t get it, they don’t need to because it’s not their lives. You define what you want." So now I go through my career saying, I want to do a podcast? I’m doing a podcast. If I want to write a book? Great. I want to do more stand-up? Awesome. Acting stuff? Great. And no one gets to have an opinion about it.