When HBO gave Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams the opportunity to spin their podcast 2 Dope Queens into a four-night comedy special, there was just one mandate from the network: Don’t change a thing.
2 Dope Queens premiered in 2016 to instant success, staying No. 1 on iTunes for a week straight. The formula is simple enough: Robinson, an author and veteran standup, and Williams, a former correspondent on The Daily Show, banter live onstage in Brooklyn about their lives, with appearances from celebrity guests and up-and-coming comedians. Their HBO special, directed by fellow comedian Tig Notaro and premiering tonight, follows directly in that vein, featuring Jon Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tituss Burgess, and Uzo Aduba.
What Robinson and Williams have found in building their podcast is that they can create in the space of their authentic selves without being confined by their intersectionality as young, black women. 2 Dope Queens isn’t just “a black girl” thing–but that doesn’t make it any less so.
“The rapport that Jessica and I have isn’t often celebrated in comedy, so I think that we represent an audience that’s underserved. And people who don’t look like us also identify with us,” Robinson says. “That’s really the key, that no matter what your background is, you can relate to having terrible customer service. You can relate to having a date go wrong. You can relate to being in high school and having a crush on the hot person, and the hot person not giving you the time of day because you’re a dork. Even though Jessica and I do talk about lotion and black hair, 80% of things we talk about are absolutely universal. I think HBO picked up on that, and I am so grateful that they’ve given their stamp of approval on what we do.”
And to reach that stamp of approval required absolute tunnel vision.
In many ways, society has conditioned women–especially women of color–to second-guess their authority. For Robinson and Williams, earning their rightful place in HBO’s comedy special hall of fame was a lesson in realizing that they are, in fact, two dope queens.
“The biggest lesson I learned was about things being a straight, white guys’ club and allowing that to make me question what my voice is and what I bring to the table,” Williams says. “If I could talk to younger me, I would say, ‘Stay true to what is important and authentic to you. Don’t look to the left or the right, just focus on what you’re doing–your art will make room for you.'”
“I’ve learned to stop begging or trying to force someone to understand [me]–either they get you or they don’t,” Robinson adds. “And to stop giving people the power to say yes or no. You say yes or no for yourself and people will eventually come around. When you work hard and you have a good product, people always come around.”
That said, when people finally do come around, knowing what you’re worth and fighting to see that reflected on a paycheck is imperative.
Across the board, the pay gap between what black women earn versus everyone else is trending in the wrong way. Academy Award-winning actress and comedian Mo’Nique recently brought this discrepancy to light by calling out Netflix for offering her only $500,000 for a comedy special when Amy Schumer was given $13 million.
“Jessica and I have been really savvy about making sure we fight for what’s ours. When you come into this industry, you’re made to feel like you’re highly replaceable and there’s nothing of value you bring,” Robinson says. “You have to make yourself indispensable and undeniable. If someone doesn’t recognize that, you go where you are appreciated. We were so grateful that HBO respected us and wanted to pay us what we’re worth.”
But Robinson and Williams are not just focused on ensuring their own success–they’ve been adamant about using their platforms on their podcast and now with their HBO special to spotlight overlooked talent.
“From the beginning, we wanted to make sure that in every episode, we’d either have a woman or person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community doing standup or storytelling because oftentimes we are supporting characters in other people’s narrative–we wanted to give them an opportunity to be the stars of their own narrative,” Williams says. “The more you rise up, you need to keep looking around and being like, okay, where are the women? Where are the queer people? Keep looking no matter how successful you get and pull people up with you. That’s super essential to making sure that we foster a creative community that’s inclusive.”