2 Dope Queens: Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson on why Oprah is their dream guest
2 Dope Queens
It’s only aired one episode so far, but already, 2 Dope Queens appears to have made a seamless transition to the screen.
The acclaimed podcast co-hosted by Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson was picked up by HBO for four hour-long late-night specials, the first of which premiered on Friday at 11:30 p.m. ET. Critics who screened episodes in advance raved about the show’s new format, particularly praising Williams and Robinson’s banter, the quality of underrated comics they showcase, and their freewheeling interviews with such guests as Jon Stewart and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Noted for its commitment to inclusion and diversity, as well as its sheer level of funny, 2 Dope Queens is proving to be a hit with its new, cable-based audience. Before its premiere last week, Williams and Robinson spoke with EW about how they adjusted 2 Dope Queens for HBO, what it was like to work with Tig Notaro as a director, and who their dream guests are if they get to come back for a second cycle. (Hint: The woman at the top of the list may run for president.) Read on below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you describe the ride so far, getting 2 Dope Queens all the way to HBO?
PHOEBE ROBINSON: It’s been like a lot of build up. I want to say it’s like we have really bad gas — like, “Oh my God, we need to fart.” [Laughs] But I’m fine. Readers: I don’t have gas. Just the emotion of it. I’m just anxious for this release. I’m really proud of the show that Jessica and I put together and everyone involved, like Tig Notaro, who was our director, and Amy Aniobi, our head writer. I just think everyone really came together and made four incredible episodes. I hope that people like it.
JESSICA WILLIAMS: 2 Dope Queens started because Phoebe was working background on a Daily Show piece I was doing, and she invited me to cohost a live show that she was hosting. I remember going to cohost that, and we were both like, “Wow, this is crazy chemistry. We have a lot of really good chemistry.” We just had a really good time. So then we just kept doing shows, and the shows kept getting bigger and bigger, and we even had to change venues. We decided to make a podcast pretty early on because we both like standup and we like storytelling, and we wanted to make sure that our show had either standup storytellers who were people of color or women or from the LGBTQ community. So we set that up and we partnered with WYNC, who were excellent producers on the podcast and really encouraged our voice, and then we decided that we would do these TV specials. HBO seemed to be the best network to work with because they know comedy specials, and they were amazing. Initially, we walked in and asked HBO and were like, “How do we make 2 Dope Queens HBO-ready? What cool things do you need us to do?” HBO was just like, “We just want 2 Dope Queens.” We were like, “Are you sure?” Hell yeah. We ended up doing that, and we got a really awesome nail, hair, and makeup budget and getting Tig Notaro to direct the special. She was really great.
Talk a little bit about working with her. There are so many swirling parts to the show, and yet it all manages to flow so well.
JESSICA: Tig was at the top of our list to direct the special, just because I think Phoebe and I, while different, have similar vibes and zones. Tig was great because she brought a completely different energy. She could catch certain things that we didn’t. Not only that, but Tig’s an incredible standup; she has standup specials, so when it came to the standup that we had in every episode, she would have such a good and thoughtful eye for cutting and for adding and all of those things. And she’s just a friend of mine that I’ve known for a few years now. We just knew that she was a fan of the show and she was a fan of the podcast, and that she’d be really great to work with.
PHOEBE: I’ve been doing standup for 10 years, and I think anyone who does standup has an immense amount of respect for Tig. When we were all just sitting around talking about who we wanted to direct, I know with a lot of comedy specials, even when it is a woman who’s in front of the camera, it’s usually directed by a man. I thought it would be really cool if we had a female director, [Tig] is dryer and can really build tension out of silence; it was a nice juxtaposition. We didn’t want the director to be someone who was just like us, because then you can be a little self-indulgent. She’s directed other specials — I think she directed Ellen’s upcoming special — so we just trusted her decision-making not only as a comedian but also as someone behind the camera, helming everything. She’s been nothing but wonderful and so smart and kind. It was really great how she was able to keep the essence of 2 Dope Queens and really have it be something that remained true to our voice as opposed to what she thought. A lot of times, people can come in and try to change the project in terms of how they would do it, and kind of lose the magic. She was really smart about giving suggestions while also doing our thing.
The show maintains the podcast’s intimacy and that feeling of being right there. Was it more difficult to do for TV?
PHOEBE: By their nature, with podcasts, you’re in someone’s ears, whether they’re at the gym or at home doing dishes or taking a road trip. It’s already built-in. When you transfer it to TV, sometimes the bigness of it can make you lose it, even if you’re at home watching it. We were just very sensitive to the fact that we wanted to maintain that feel, like it’s two girlfriends hanging out. We really wanted the celeb interviews to stay funny and loose instead of “Hey, Jon Stewart, do you want to promote a thing for 12 minutes?” or “Hey, Sarah Jessica Parker, do you want to talk about your TV show for 15 minutes?” We wanted to keep the essence of it that it felt like you were at a really fun party in Brooklyn. I think we were able to do that.
JESSICA: We were really excited to shoot them in the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, just because our show has always been in Brooklyn. That’s where we live, and the Kings Theatre is really, really large — it’s a 3,000-seat theatre — so we wanted to make sure that we had enough cameras where it still felt intimate. I think with our 2 Dope Queens shows, as well as for our live shows, we try to make sure that we’re delivering a really strong show and that the energy is crackling.
Were there any logistical challenges or changes you made in making this move to HBO?
JESSICA: There really [weren’t], honestly. We were just in more responsible hands: We had A24 and their incredible team, on the production side we had Tig, so we knew we were in good hands. Our head writer was Amy Aniobi, who is a writer on Insecure, and she’s also a fan of the podcast, so she knew what general things we always wanted to talk about. She knew our lives and personalities. And we had awesome producers on our show who had been working on the podcast since day one. We had the same old familiar faces. We just had more money involved, which is always nice. [Laughs]
PHOEBE: It was a seamless transition. It still came down to us and focusing on who the comics were going to be — we had a booker, and I gave her a list of comedians that I loved, and then we collaborated on that — so I think we were able to keep the same process that we had, and then just add the TV element. So: camera blocking, doing walkthroughs, that sort of thing. But we really tried not to over-complicate the process. The heart of 2 Dope Queens — whether it’s the standup, Jessica and me, or Jessica and me with a celebrity — is that connection. To connect with someone, you really don’t need anything other than an open heart and to listen.
You always feature up-and-coming comics, and people watching might not know them. I imagine that was especially important to you, with HBO being such a large platform.
PHOEBE: All of these comics I’ve known for years, and I’ve been huge fans of all of theirs. They’re not necessarily on the late-night circuit or household names. It was really nice to just ask people who I’m a huge fan of to be like, “Do you want to go on this journey with Jessica and I and do standup for HBO?” Which is not a scary journey at all! That’s kind of the pinnacle of comedy for certain standups. But it was really easy just to find people who are unique and funny and smart and different than what we’re normally used to, and bringing that to HBO. They all killed it, so I’m really proud and happy for them.
JESSICA: There’s a lot of talk about how people can be more diverse and inclusive, and I think a lot of that has to do with, even if you’re a straight white male ally, it’s about: The more successful you get, the more you look around and see “Okay, there’s something missing here.” It’s about seeking out talent and pulling those people up with you. That’s what we try to do with this podcast and with these specials, and I think that’s what we should do in the entertainment industry.
If you get a second run on HBO, who are your dream guests?
JESSICA: Oprah and Gayle. Oprah and Gayle. That’s the main one: Oprah and Gayle. Oprah and Gayle forever.
PHOEBE: I’m a huge Oprah fan. As a kid, I’d come home from school, I’d watch General Hospital at 3, and then Oprah at 4. I remember the episode where Oprah and Gayle went on a road trip, or they did one where they went camping. I would love Jessica and I to just do a road trip with Oprah and Gayle and do some sort of outdoorsy stuff that clearly none of us are equipped to do — we’re neither physically nor emotionally able to handle the difficulties of nature — and I think that could be a really fun segment. Another dream guest maybe would be Joe Biden. I think he’s really funny, and I think we would have a lot of fun with him. It’d be a ball.