All you need to know to understand the comedy duo of Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson is that they call themselves the “2 Dope Queens” — and that the title is entirely accurate.
Every time Williams and Robinson kick off one of their shows, they burst onto the stage with mile-wide grins and an elastic energy that promises anything could happen. Their chemistry is instantly noticeable and completely infectious. No matter the venue, they establish their reign over the stage in a matter of moments.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime connection,” Williams recently told me of working with Robinson. “We had no expectations the first time she had me co-host a show she was already hosting ... but the response we kept getting when we did these shows is amazing.”
“What I like about working with Jess is that it’s just really easy onstage,” said Robinson, who had been doing solo standup comedy for years before she met Williams. “There’s no one I can riff as well or as easily with.”
“It’s like good boning,” Williams added, laughing, but totally serious in her enthusiasm. As far as the two of them are concerned, they’ve found something special — and they’re not alone.
What started as an experimental show in Brooklyn, blending Williams and Robinson’s hosting with abbreviated standup sets from a wide variety of comedians, has quickly become something of a mini comedy empire. In February 2016, 2 Dope Queens became available as a WNYC podcast. In 2017, Williams and Robinson took the show on the road and toured the country. And in 2018, as of February 2, 2 Dope Queens will hit HBO in four(!) separate specials.
Having seen the first two, I can report that the crackling, startlingly intimate energy Williams and Robinson have honed over the past two years is well intact — even though they taped their HBO specials in Brooklyn’s 3,000-seat capacity Kings Theatre, a far cry from the dark comedy clubs they first called home.
The 2 Dope Queens still improvise banter with each other and their audience like they’re in their own living room (almost always with special recognition for black women, their “cocoa Khaleesis”). And when they bring out celebrity guests for a loose interview — the first two being Sarah Jessica Parker and Williams’s old boss Jon Stewart — they immediately wear down their guests’ guarded exteriors to get to something more casual and real underneath.
“That adds to the magic of the show,” Williams said of their commitment to keeping things loose. “We try to make sure we’re always having fun, even if we’re tired or had a weird day at work or whatever … be spontaneous and make each other laugh.”
The 2 Dope Queens are also very aware that having multiple HBO specials offers a huge platform not just to them but to the standup comedians they welcome to their stage — most of whom aren’t the typically straight white bros comedy has traditionally uplifted. The first couple of episodes, for example, include comedians like Michelle Buteau and Aparna Nancherla, Baron Vaughn and Rhea Butcher.
“It’s really fun to have our own platform that we’ve created, not just for ourselves but to create that for other people,” Williams said. “It’s the dream.”
Both emphasize the importance of the fact that a team composed primarily of women brought 2 Dope Queens to life on HBO, including head writer Amy Aniobi and director Tig Notaro. “What’s great about working with really smart, interesting women [is that] we were able to just push and pull. There wasn’t an ego there,” Williams said of the experience. “It felt really good to have all these women that we love and respect come together to create this.”
For the 2 Dope Queens, bringing in people who don’t otherwise get these kinds of chances is an instinct — which, of course, stems from the fact that they are both black women who have had to make their own opportunities in an industry that typically doesn’t make room for them.
In that respect, Robinson said, she is sick of being asked for her solutions to comedy’s diversity problems. “I would like to stop being asked what it’s like to be a woman in comedy and how it could be different,” she said. “Ask men how they could make comedy different, and why they aren’t as inclusive as they should be. The responsibility should not be for us to explain why men aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
And not for nothing, the 2 Dope Queens are frankly too busy to explain why others should be doing better. They’d rather just do it, and let the hilarious results speak for themselves.
The first of four 2 Dope Queens specials premieres February 2 at 11:30 pm EST on HBO.