Phoebe Robinson: When funny meets fate

How this best-selling author achieved her comedy-writing dream life.
By Keysha Whitaker | Published: May 30, 2017


Phoebe Robinson

Photo: Mindy Tucker

Destiny. Intention. Coincidence.

An atomic collision of hard work, talent, and reward.

Call it what you want, but the career of Phoebe Robinson has whatever that is written all over it.

In 2010, Robinson had recently entered the New York comedy circuit. And like most new comics, she hustled for any stage time she could get, paid or unpaid (mostly unpaid).

It’s at one of those shows where I – who’d just taken a standup-class myself – met Robinson. After watching her set, I decided to interview her for a now-defunct women’s website that I ran. (RIP, singlewomenrule.com.)

At the time, the New York Times ran an article on the summer comedy series “Laughter in the Park,” produced by Suzette Simon’s nonprofit NY Laughs. The photo featured Robinson, one of the performers. Besides doing stand-up, she was working full-time and co-producing a podcast, “Shelarious.”

I asked Robinson where she saw herself in five years.

“At the end of the day, I’m 26. I’m in New York. I know what I want to do,” she said. “[In five years] I’ll still be living here, doing comedy full-time. If I have a day job, it will be [in comedy].”

 

Enter 2016, when I had the opportunity to interview Robinson again. In just over five years, she’d become one-half of the ultra-popular comedy duo “2 Dope Queens,” whose podcast debuted on New York’s WYNC in April 2016 and hit No. 1 on iTunes, and author of the New York Times best-selling essay collection You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain.

When I spoke with her last August, she was preparing for a tour to promote You Can’t Touch My Hair. At the start of our telephone interview, I warned Robinson that I would read her something that she said six years ago.

“I hope it’s not something stupid,” she said with a chuckle.

But after I finished her quote about where she saw herself in the future, she wasn’t laughing.

“Wow,” she said after a few moments of silence. “OK, cool. That’s uh – yeah, I feel that’s scary in terms of [how] that’s pretty much what my life is now.”

In addition to recording “2 Dope Queens” with comedian and actress Jessica Williams, Robinson appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Last Call with Carson Daly,” and – in a fiery red dress – on TBS’s “Conan.”

“I think we always say ‘this is my plan for my life, and this is what I want to do for myself,’” said Robinson, who’d forgotten she’d made the prediction. “I guess I was just still internally working towards that even though that was something I said almost six years ago.”

“2 Dope Queens” is a podcast born out of a comedy show started by Williams and Robinson, who are best friends on- and off-stage. They’d been doing the live event for nearly two years before they pitched it to WNYC.

“They fell in love with us the way we fell in love with them,” Robinson said.

Each podcast opens with a conversation between Williams and Robinson, followed by sets by featured comedians, all interspersed with more “Queens” comedy. But the show is more than set-ups and punchlines.

“We really just want it to be a safe space where we can talk about issues that affect women, issues that affect Black people,” said Robinson. “[We] also have amazing comics come on from all walks of life, but we really want to highlight comics of color, female comedians, and comedians from the LGBTQ+ community.”

Robinson’s solo podcast, “Sooo Many White Guys,” produced by Ilana Glazer (co-creator and co-star of Comedy Central’s Broad City) and WNYC, serves up that mission statement in an interview format show that features comics who, as its website proclaims, “are killing it in their fields – AND who aren’t white dudes!” (Each episode also includes one token white male – “it’s only fair,” the website explains.)

“I think both of those podcasts represent different parts of me. I’m able to show who I am alongside highlighting funny people, smart people, intelligent people that I adore,” Robinson said.

She recommends that writers – and anyone – should look to “whatever creative outlets speak to you” to build a platform and craft your voice.

“If you want it to be a podcast, cool. If you want it to be, you know, sketches that you write and cast your friends in to do, you should do that,” Robinson said. “I do think that podcasting is a great way for people to kind of hone their voices, and if that informs your writing, that’s great.”

 

Robinson’s own voice caught the attention of an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. – Robert Guinsler – who cold-called Robinson and asked if she ever thought about writing a book; turns out, she had. The two met in November 2014. Robinson shared her idea, and Guinsler encouraged her to write a proposal – one he eventually sent to Plume Editor Kathleen Napolitano.

“As soon as it landed in my inbox, I called up Robert and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for a book from her,’” Napolitano said.

Robinson had been on a list of comedians and “general cultural tastemakers” that Napolitano kept.

“It was one of those projects where I immediately opened up the proposal, and I sat at my desk and read it – I was cracking up throughout it – and by the end, I was like ‘I need to publish this book. I have to be the one to do this,’ ” Napolitano said.

She bought the book in January 2015 and began working with Robinson, taking her from writing in the blogosphere to more book-length-appropriate work, she said.

“Phoebe and I had a conversation about things that, editorially, I would work with her [on] to bring the book to its fullest place. It was just a joy to work with her throughout the editorial process, but it was fated from the beginning, I’ve been saying as of late,” Napolitano said.

Robinson acknowledged Napolitano’s guiding pen.

“I’m very lucky my editor was great at pushing me and helping me craft and shape the book,” Robinson said. “It was really hard, but it definitely was such a good experience.”

The book dropped in the middle of “2 Dope Queens’” rising popularity and became a fast best-seller: You Can’t Touch My Hair hit No. 8 on the New York Times best-seller humor list, topping Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance.

The book, with a forward by Williams, meshes pop culture and social commentary. Robinson seamlessly transitions from talking about having a “lady boner” for Ricky Martin to an analysis of post-racial America. She bonds with the reader over mundane personal experiences “like deleting your parents’s long-ass voice mails without listening to them.”

“Phoebe has the ability to talk about topics that are both very deep and personal, and make the reader feel as if they are sitting right beside her,” Napolitano said. “She’s able to really create a sense of warmth on the page where the reader feels that they do know her.”

When humor writers work in a narrative format, she said, the anecdotes should lead, not the punchlines: “In Phoebe’s case, the jokes enhance the conversation that she’s having – but they don’t distract the reader.”

Distractions are exactly what Robinson avoided to finish writing the book.

“It was a lot of, ‘turn Wi-Fi off and put your cell phone in another room. Write for a few hours. Take a break, eat, write for another hour,’” Robinson said. “That’s what I was doing to get the book done, because I was traveling so much.”

Despite this discipline, she says that if she could go back to January 2015, she’d tell herself to “say no to more things.”

“It’s OK to go into hibernation sometimes. Your friends will understand. Your freelance gigs will understand,” Robinson said. “You’re writing a book, you don’t need to feel like, ‘if I can’t balance everything, I’m not good enough.’”

Helping others to feel like they’re good enough might be a core message of Robinson’s comedy, one that especially comes out in You Can’t Touch My Hair. Robinson’s celebration of Black hair might be seen as a subtle message to women of color: Your hair is good enough.

“I’ve always been obsessed with Black hair,” Robinson said. In middle school, she realized that she’d “never pause a game of volleyball to quickly tuck a flyaway behind my ear. Nor would my hair ever move effortlessly in the breeze; instead, it would stand still like a villain atop a building, surveying Gotham City,” she writes in You Can’t Touch My Hair.

The book includes photos of her own natural hair (including after it has taken the shape of the wall she’s leaned up against) and photos of celebrities’ hair with commentary: Halle Berry’s 1994 pixie was “the ‘Rachel’ haircut for Black people” and Cicely Tyson’s 1973 cornrows “broke the trend [of Blacks wearing bob cuts and bouffants] and opened up the world’s eyes to what Black hair could look like.”

“In this country, Black hair is still really divisive, which makes no sense, so I think it was just kind of important to show those visuals,” Robinson said.

The use of mixed media was not new to Napolitano.

“If you have the right photos, it can kind of work on a different level to enhance your joke, particularly for personal essays, if they’re using it in sort of a self-effacing way,” she said. “So when Phoebe was writing these personal experiences, that’s when I was like, ‘Do you have a photo of this?’ And so we worked that out together.”

Despite the success of You Can’t Touch My Hair, Robinson is dismissing thoughts to capitalize on her popularity and write a second book.

“I want to make sure I have something new to say. I don’t want to waste people’s time with a book that’s not necessary,” Robinson said. “There are so many books that come out, so if I don’t need to clutter the landscape with nonsense, then I won’t.”

For now, she plans to “live life a little,” but in five years, then what?

“I will be about to turn 37. I would like to own an apartment in New York, and hopefully be in a really good and solid healthy relationship,” Robinson said. “Career-wise, I’d like to have my own TV show on the air and also [be] producing other people. I want to get to a place where I can help usher in creative talent. I probably will have written another book and [done] a stand-up special. I’ve been really doing a good job of seeing my family more. So I hope to keep that going. I think that’s it.”

She paused.

“Maybe, like, meet Oprah and have brunch with her,” she laughed, then stopped mid-chuckle. “I just should put that out there. I want to have brunch with Oprah.”

If her recent success is any predictor, by that time, Oprah might wish to have brunch with her.

 

 

Keysha Whitaker’s work has appeared in The Writer, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. She has an MFA from The New School.

 

 

 

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