Queens of Comedy
Hot off their YQY stand-up tour, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer interviews actress, comedian, and podcast icon Phoebe Robinson
Eavesdropping is a habit of mine—I’m practically a professional. But while my skills are usually wasted on coffee shop convos, this piece afforded me (and now you!) a prime “fly on the wall” situation: Who wouldn’t want to listen in on Ilana Glazer and Phoebe Robinson? I’d say these two women are at the top of their game, if I didn’t think that “top” was only climbing higher. You might know 33-year-old Robinson as one of “2 Dope Queens,” the hilarious, real-talk podcast-turned–HBO special she hosts with Jessica Williams. Or from supporting roles on shows like Search Party and I Love Dick. Or perhaps you’ve read her New York Times–best-selling memoir, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain. We asked Glazer, Broad City powerhouse and former Tidal cover star, to interview Robinson after the two women wrapped their stand-up tour, and the result is this BFF-style chat about discovering comedy, finding your voice, and marrying Robert De Niro. —Lisa Butterworth
Ilana Glazer: I want the Tidal readers to get to know ya real quick. Set up your context: Where ya from? What’s your sibling situation?
Phoebe Robinson: I’m from the suburbs of Cleveland. My parents are still together—Phillip and Octavia, yaaas. I have one older brother, Phil, and a sister-in-law, Liz, and a little niece named Olivia, who is awesome and super cool and pretty much better than literally anyone else on the planet besides, like, Barack Obama and Oprah.
What were you like in school—middle school, high school? What was your deal?
I was very dorky, and I watched a lot of movies and TV shows, and I was suuuper into Ricky Martin. I was like, he’s so hot.
He just is. So. Hot. I’d still absolutely hit it if he’d have me.
Yeah, it’s just like, I have good taste. I was obsessed. And then super into U2, obvs, and was the most virgin someone could be. That’s what I was. I never kissed; I had little bangs.
Little bangs! Got it, got it.
I wore Docker khakis. Full on not-hot with, like, Skechers, you know what I mean?
I know exactly. What. You mean.
I was not cool, but also, it’s preferable to not be cool in high school. ’Cause a lot of times the people who were cool in high school, it doesn’t work out for them.
That’s right. Delayed gratification and then be-a-baller-throughout-your-adulthood is preferred for sure. OK, what was your college self like? Where did you go, and what did you think you were going to be?
I moved to New York. My goal was to go to NYU, but NYU was like, lol, your grades are trash, so no. I got rejected and I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I wanted to be a screenwriter and producer of intense, Oscar award-winning films, and I wanted to marry Robert De Niro.
Lol, Robert De Niro! Wait, current Robert De Niro, when you were 18? Or a fictional version of his younger self?
Yeah, I think it was current. So he was probably, what, like a crisp 45?
Bitch, you wish! He was like 60!
Lol, whoops. I was on my college campus’s improv team, and I really loved going to school. I studied writing with a focus toward screenwriting.
When did you find comedy?
I graduated Pratt in 2006, and I was like, All right, well, I’m going to stop performing and get a job at a film company, so I could get in on the business side. I became a receptionist at New Line Cinema and then was promoted to be the assistant to the head of their indie company, Picture House. But I didn’t like it. It was really long hours, it wasn’t creative, and being an assistant is a thankless job. A friend of mine, Lindsey, wanted to take a stand-up class at [NYC comedy club] Carolines. This was summer 2008, and she wanted me to do it with her and I was like, No, I think stand-up is kind of dumb. I knew the big names, but I never really watched it. I was like, It’s not a career. It didn’t make sense to me at all. And Lindsey was like, “Well, you hate your day job, so this could just be like a fun eight weeks where you have something to look forward to and are not annoyed.” So I was like, all right, fine, and I ended up loving it.
Wow, that is fucking cool. After this class, were you building up to the point where you were doing shows night after night?
Yeah, I started listening to comedy albums and going to shows in midtown and barking people in [to my shows] like, “Hey, wanna come see Jerry Seinfeld tonight? Just kidding, he’s not gonna be here, it’s me.” All that kind of stuff, where you bring 15 people to see you for like 8 minutes.
Fuck, and they each have to spend 25 bucks on two shitty drinks.
Yeah, it’s so disrespectful to make people see your garbage stand-up. Horrific. So I was like, Yeah, I’m going to keep doing it and figure it out, and then I got laid off, October 2008.
But I got this severance package and was just doing stand-up every night.
I mean, it wasn’t that great of a severance package. I legit blew through it, like, on U2 concert tickets and furniture from West Elm like a fucking idiot.
OK, West Elm is egregious. U2, I’m like, Fine, that’s spiritual for you. West Elm is egregious.
So ignorant. Like I needed a fancy coffee table from West Elm when I lived in Kensington, Brooklyn?
And Kensington 10 years ago? Yikes.
Yeah, Kensington is great now, but back then it was like low-key trash.
Like the guys delivering the table were scared.
Yeah, but then I did stuff where I pimped at MAC, just like packing makeup to be shipped out for Fashion Week. I pimped out at an ad agency/marketing place as a receptionist. I did that for like nine months and I got another full-time [job]. So I was going to work during the day, and every night I was out doing stand-up. I was going to Staten Island, Long Island, everywhere.
Oh god, Staten Island. Literally never been. I’ve done the ferry but I see it and I’m like, There it is.
You don’t need to go.
So Phoebe, we just did this fucking tour that was so much fun, like an endless slumber party with purpose. It changed my brain chemistry. Something about it clicked shit in. Not only the repetition of night after night, but also being with you. The tour was just a couple of weeks, but neither of us had toured as stand-up headliners. How do you feel about it? What did it do to your brain?
It gave me confidence in my stand-up that I didn’t quite have before. This tour made me realize I have figured out my own path, and I do feel different. I’m a black lady doing stand-up. For a while, I was trying to get on all these shows and appease all these people. And then I made a change. I needed to start my own thing ’cause I think I’m funny. And that’s how I started my blog Blaria. And that led to the Blaria LIVE! show, which led to “2 Dope Queens.” I just kind of decided I’m going to do the things I’m interested in, and I don’t really care if I am not going down the “traditional path.”
Right. Well, traditional is being a straight, white guy. That’s the “tradition” in every field. I was doing Broad City and wasn’t doing stand-up consistently, and when I went back on our hiatus, I was like, ew, I suck, I’m not a stand-up. And we were saying to our former selves on tour: “No. You think you suck because you don’t resemble what you mostly see.” So it feels like something that is Other, but it’s not. It’s just expanding the definition.
You’re coming up on your 10-year anniversary of stand-up; are any cycles completing for you?
The main thing happening for me is not caring. In terms of like, I kind of don’t care what other stand-ups think about me. I don’t care what shows I’m not doing. Life is truly so short. And it requires so much brain power and energy just to have a career in the first place that I don’t have any time to worry about things that aren’t worth being worried about, that I can’t control, and that ultimately get in the way of me doing my work.
I think it really does start to take about 10 years before you truly trust your voice and you’re like, This is the stuff I want to talk about, and I’m fine if people say or think this. Like, OK, go ahead and think it! Say it! I don’t care.
It’s very freeing to know instinctually how to improve a joke over time. Both of us on tour got good at tweaking our sets. We weren’t sitting down writing for hours, but we’re in the moment being able to sort of write on stage and tweak a joke and figure out how to punch something up or what to cut. I think that’s all stuff that, when you’ve been doing something long enough, you get really good at the editing. People forget that. Your first draft is always gonna be trash.
Even the most seasoned stand-up: first draft, trash. I was particularly blown away at how quickly your material formed because you were coming off a movie for two months. We did this residency in Brooklyn the week before the tour just to get the juices flowing, lube it up real quick. And you did all of it very quickly and leaned so instinctually into the strong areas and then backed off the weak areas. It was so fun and also such a privilege studying each other’s comedy every night. It was such a good way to learn about stand-up. Last thing: I just want to speak to you saying “I don’t care.” How do you do that?
I think it’s a lot of repetition. You could do the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing. The more you practice whatever—tennis, writing, stand-up, ballet—the more you master whatever insecurities you have. Master whatever flaws you have. Master your weaknesses and learn how to turn them into advantages. Deadlines are the ultimate motivator. I love a good deadline.
I’ve also been realizing lately no one else has it all figured out. It’s like, Serena Williams still has to get up every day and hit balls for four hours. Just because she’s the greatest in the world, it’s not over because of that. It’s a constant trying to better yourself. Your pleasure can’t be tied to the end result. It has to be tied to the process, because that’s all you can control. I’m in the middle of writing this book now, and writing book two is so much easier than writing book one. Because I know this part, where I’m formulating the sentences, and I’m making myself laugh in my parents’ house while I’m upstairs writing. That is the reward.
The means is the end…
Yeah, for sure. And obviously I want this to be a New York Times best-seller, but if it’s not—
Sorry, you want it to be your second New York Times best-seller?
Oh yeah. I want it to be my second New York Times best-seller [laughs].
Sorry. I’m just tryna be clear…
But if it’s not a best-seller, then what? It’s worthless? Or it didn’t bring me joy? Americans particularly are very results-oriented, myself included. I love crossing goals off my to-do list, but I think it can’t just be about achieving a certain thing and not really experiencing the thing as you’re working on it.
Right, right. I love it.
I feel like I talked a lot. Lol.
That is the point. We did it.