The comedy business, like so many others, has a diversity problem. Phoebe Robinson believes that the only way to fix it is to start at the beginning. The podcaster, author, and TV host, who got her start in stand-up before joining fellow comedian Jessica Williams to create the 2014 podcast 2 Dope Queens, is working to develop a fresh wave of talent via her new production company, Tiny Reparations, and a book imprint of the same name under Penguin Random House. Finding diverse writers and producers “is not going to work if you’re only looking for white guys named Scott!” she says. “No offense to all the Scotts out there.” Robinson recently debuted an advice podcast, Black Frasier (after the TV psychiatrist), and her new Comedy Central show, Doing the Most With Phoebe Robinson, airs next year.
Fast Company: How did you get into stand-up?
Phoebe Robinson: I was working at an indie film company in 2008. One of my friends was taking a stand-up class, at Carolines on Broadway, in Times Square, and I signed up. The first class was just going to watch a stand-up show. Seeing the energy of everyone laughing, and realizing, “Oh, Kevin Hart performed here!” was the coolest thing. I got laid off from the film job and took it as a sign from the universe to dive in. I would do shows at an Irish pub, or take the $10 bus to Boston to do a show and sleep on people’s couches.
FC: Do you feel like comedy has changed?
PR: I am seeing changes. I love seeing Bowen Yang on Saturday Night Live. I think about how [his casting] is going to make things easier for the next generation. A lot of people in comedy are defensive and act like they are on the outskirts of society. They think there should be this total freedom in being a comedian. And to me it’s like, yeah, there is freedom, but also, we all live on the same freaking planet. You can’t operate like you’re not tethered to the world the way the rest of us are.
FC: In the wake of protests against police brutality targeting Black people, some networks have pulled episodes of TV shows, such as 30 Rock, where blackface was used. Do you think that’s the right thing to do?
PR: I’m kind of like, maybe we could just stay away from doing that? Blackface is just trash, so let’s not ever do it. I will say, I’m a huge fan of Mad Men. There’s a scene in the show where [advertising-executive character] Roger Sterling is in blackface, and it felt like social commentary. Mad Men was reflecting the fact that the ’60s were not great for Black people. The narrative reasoning behind that makes sense to me.
FC: How did you and Jessica Williams meet and decide to create 2 Dope Queens?
PR: In 2014, I saw this listing [to act in the background of a scene] on The Daily Show. It was on a segment that Jessica [then a correspondent on the show] was doing about Black women’s hair in the military. We met and hit it off. I asked her to be a guest on my podcast in my rinky-dink one-bedroom apartment that had a mold issue. [When we were taping the podcast] she said she wanted to try stand-up. I asked if she wanted to cohost a show with me at Upright Citizens Brigade East. [When we] got up onstage [to do Blaria Live!], we felt chemistry.
FC: How do you approach hiring people for your various shows and projects?
PR: When I am looking for a writer or a story producer, I just say, “I’m not going to start the interview process until the list of candidates you send me is diverse.” I set [that requirement on Doing the Most], and [Comedy Central] came back with an amazing list of candidates. I think a lot of times in this industry people say, “We’re trying, but we can’t find the right people.” It’s actually that they haven’t made [diversity] a priority.
Sooooo Many Projects
A guide to Phoebe Robinson’s ongoing multimedia breakthrough
2 Dope Queens (2018, 2019), HBO
Doing the Most With Phoebe Robinson (debuts next year), Comedy Central
You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain (2016)
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay (2019)
Tiny Reparations (launched 2020), New imprint with Penguin Random House
FC: The podcast field has gotten extremely crowded. How do you plan to make Black Frasier stand out?
PR: When I was in major financial debt, in 2009, I never talked about it with anyone because I was just so embarrassed and felt so much shame. I got more comfortable talking about my problems as I got older. I stopped [adhering to] this narrative that society perpetuates, which is that by 30 you should be married and start having kids. There’s no one-size-fits-all way of living. And I thought, I’m going to share my truth [on the podcast]. Let me hear yours. Let’s talk about it. And then let’s feel a little bit better afterward.
FC: Doing the Most takes a similar format, but it adds more of you, conquering your fears. Why was this important to you?
PR: I am either working or going to a U2 concert. That’s [been] my mission: I want to do comedy and hear “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” in every different time zone. But because [of that], I haven’t developed skills I need. I don’t know how to drive. I’m afraid of heights. I wanted to do a show where I got to learn how to be a person while having great conversations. Doing activities [on camera] lets my guests talk about things outside of whatever project they’re trying to promote. It was fun to have [Queer Eye’s] Tan France teach me how to bake. He got to talk about growing up and things that he’s overcome.
FC: Let’s talk about the name of your new production company, Tiny Reparations. What does it mean to you?
PR: I always joke that I’m never going to get that reparations check the government owes me. So instead, whenever something good happens in my life, I exact my tiny reparation. For example, when Bono sent me flowers for my birthday, that was a tiny reparation. When I started the production company, I took the name more seriously. Everything that I put out, that’s my reparation. That’s my way of helping to make things more inclusive.
FC: Recently, you launched a book imprint under the same name, with Penguin Random House. What kind of stories are you hoping to tell, and what voices do you hope to amplify?
PR: It’s wonderful when Crazy Rich Asians or Little Fires Everywhere breaks through, but a lot of times it does not happen for authors of color. I [also] think there is this assumption that because you are a person of color or because you’re a queer person, all you want to do is write about race or sexual orientation. But that’s not the totality of who everyone is.
FC: What have you been reading or watching to get through quarantine?
PR: I’ve been rewatching Living Single, because my British boyfriend—I call him British Baekoff—has never seen it. I’ve also been watching How Stella Got Her Groove Back to feel inspired. Recently, I read this book, Franchise: The Golden Arches of Black America. It talks about how McDonald’s reshaped Black communities across the U.S. I’m still listening to the U2 radio station. Their music has helped me out of the depressing energy that is 2020. It’s not all bad, though. I’m doing this interview in my apartment on the couch, and I’m actually not wearing any pants.