Q&A: Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson talk ‘2 Dope Queens’ on HBO and taking a break from the podcast

Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams have translated their podcast "2 Dope Queens" into four TV specials for HBO.
Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams have translated their podcast “2 Dope Queens” into four TV specials for HBO.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

A conversation with Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, the comedic duo behind the popular WNYC podcast “2 Dope Queens,” can ping across a variety of topics — today’s begins with a shout-out to Target panties (“they get the job done,” Williams says) and ends with talk of Robinson attending a celebration of author Judy Blume’s 80th birthday in New York.

It’s the type of fluid, at times random, back-and-forth that’s typical of a friend catch-up session that has made their podcast — which is sprinkled with guest stand-up comedians and celebrity cameos — a fan favorite.

“The best compliment that we get,” Williams says, “is women coming up to us and being like, ‘Oh my gosh ... I love your podcast. When I listen to it, I feel like I'm hanging out with me and my girlfriends.’ That's kind of the dream.”

Now, they’ve taken the hangout to the small screen.

Their comedy podcast, which launched in 2015, has been translated into four HBO specials. (The second, which features HBO darling Sarah Jessica Parker, airs Friday.)

Ohio native Robinson, 33, and L.A.-bred Williams, 28, met in 2014 while working on a segment for “The Daily Show.” Williams, who was a senior correspondent on the political satire talk show, was doing a segment on black women’s hair in the military and Robinson was a background actor. It wasn’t long before they were creating podcast magic.

The HBO-ified version of “2 Dope Queens” arrives as the pair temporarily step away from the podcast to pursue other projects. Robinson is writing a follow-up to her bestselling book, “You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain” and will also appear in the Netflix film “Ibiza” later this year; while Williams is developing a comedy for Showtime that she’ll star in and will appear in the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” sequel due out this fall.

Had you been looking to bring the podcast to television?

Robinson: Well, we've been doing the podcasts for, like, three and a half years. We both felt like we had a really well-oiled machine. I was like, "I think this could live on a place like HBO." And she's like, "I totally agree," and we just rallied the troops and then my manager, Chenoah Estrada, came up with the idea of: It should be four episodes during Black History Month. And I was like, "You sneaky little bitch!"

Williams: We came in with big-budget plans. We were like, “What if we CGI Jon Hamm into it ...”

Robsinon: And they're, like, "We really can't do that." HBO’s [programming exec] Nina Rosenstein, to her credit, said: "The magic of '2 Dope Queens' lives on the podcast." It’s the chemistry between Jessica and I. It’s the fact that we have very diverse stand-ups — women, people of color, queer people. So, HBO was really smart to be, like, "What you guys do in the podcast is perfect. We're just going to elevate it and put that, like, HBO sort of stank on it." Although they don't stink.

Williams: It's like when you hear about, like, pheromones — HBO has a delicious pheromone. Definitely not a stank.

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson in a scene from "2 Dope Queens." Mindy Tucker / HBO

Is there a standout moment for you from the specials?

Williams: Talking to Sarah Jessica Parker about black hair.

Robinson: She kissed my shoe. She knelt down and kissed my shoe and it was pretty cool. I was like, "Hey, Carrie Bradshaw, what are you doing down there? And also, why'd you pick Big? It should have been Aidan.”

Williams: I don't know, I've been converted. John Hodgman was on the show and he was talking to us and he was like, "No, they deserve each other. Big and Carrie deserve each other." I meditated on it since he's been on the show, which was maybe five months ago, and I was like, "Yeah." Nah, you know, even when I catch the reruns on E!, I'm like, “Yeah, they deserve each other. This works.”

This is putting you on a bigger platform at a time when you both have so much going on. The podcast will be taking a hiatus for a bit — is it important to venture outside of it in order to keep it fresh?

Williams: Yeah, we both have separate projects in the works, which is really exciting, and what's nice is that “2 Dope Queens,” even as our careers have been on the rise, has always been something that we can come back to when we want to and just, like, have fun.

Robinson: Exactly.We do our thing and then we sort of do the victory lap with “2 Dope Queens” and then, like, go our separate ways and do more solo stuff and just grind it out. Be in the gym, if you will.

Williams: Grind it out at Equinox, baby. Because, I mean, you have to have stories on our podcast. So when she says, “How was your weekend?” I can be like, “Girl, I have the craziest story about when I went to Michael's," and then we'll just be backstage and be like, "Wait, wait, wait, tell me onstage," because that's the fun part, that adds to the spontaneity, the electricity, that we really try to bring to our live shows and to our podcasts and now to these four specials, discovering things about each other and making each other laugh.

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson are no strangers to TV comedy. Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Do you have an idea of when you will return from hiatus?

Williams: We don't. We want to roll these out and then see what happens.

What many people respond to with this podcast are your voices — two black women talking freely. How hard was that to achieve, to not compromise yourselves? And to extend that idea to the comics you invite on the show.

Robinson: We both come from improv and I've been doing stand-up for 10 years and so we both come from worlds where it's heavily white straight males. And the goals are, like, a late-night set, a half-hour special, and an hour special. And you look at the landscape and see who's being given those opportunities by gate-keepers. And we were just like, well if we're going to do a comedy show that's just going to do more of the same — putting white guys on with beards who are unattractive versions of, like, the Brawny man — I don't know that that's really going to help matters. We know so many funny people like Michelle Buteau and Naomi Ekperigin, John Early and Baron Vaughn. These people are geniuses and brilliant and they should be celebrated just like a lot of their white counterparts.

Technology has been the great equalizer, you can find your audience, you can build your brand, and the people that are into you, great. They're going to follow you to whatever platform you go to. HBO has been really smart in recognizing that we have a great voice. That people like Issa Rae, all these talented women can, like, create their own voice and they don't have to necessarily compromise. We’re not trying to sound like Ira Glass — that's just not us. And so, I think they recognize that's what people gravitate toward.

Williams: Honestly, we're just ourselves. The podcast has created this really awesome bubble in a way where we're just like, "Alright what we going to talk about? Girl, let's talk about period panties." And we're like, great, but we weren't being, like, “this is a statement about period panties”... sometimes being black and a woman your acts are inherently political, even if that's not necessarily what you set out to do. We're just two black female comedians, but there are so many black female comedians that are incredible. There are so many LGBTQ comedians that are incredible. And all they just really need is the platform. Sometimes it’s just being who you are and climbing and doing what you want to do and finding your passion and the world can’t help but make room for you.

What podcasts are you listening to right now?

Robinson: There's this guy, his name is Gary Vaynerchuk, he does this podcast called “The Gary Vee Audio Experience.” He is a really super smart business guy. He's, like, really in your face and he's a very intense guy, but he's very smart about business and social media and branding and being, like, an authentic person which I think is what we're also about, too. So, that's, like, my number one. And then also, "Making Oprah," like, I love that. You get to [hear] her journey — she's been a part of our lives ever since we were little kids, but, it's like, you go back and remember where she came from and she's just not always been, you know, Mother O, Black Jesus that we know her as now, so, those are my top two.

Williams: [scrolls through phone] I listen to “Radiolab,” “Dan Carlin's Hardcore History,” I love “Pod Save America.” And there's this one called, "Sleep With Me" and it's just this guy's reading really boring things in a monotone voice to help you fall asleep. It's so good. And then “Unexplained” because I like the paranormal and I like histories.

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‘2 Dope Queens’

Where: HBO

When: 11:30 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)