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Phoebe Robinson: There's No Excuse For The Lack Of Diversity In Comedy

Phoebe Robinson has set out to change the demographics of comedy: "It's a very white male, straight male-dominated industry — and that can be exhausting," she says.

Two years ago, Robinson and her fellow comic Jessica Williams launched 2 Dope Queens — a live comedy show and podcast showcasing comedians from a variety of different backgrounds. The show is now a series of four HBO specials, with more in the works. She also hosts the spinoff podcast Sooo Many White Guys.

Robinson calls the success of her projects, "truly bonkers, crazy, banana sandwich — in the best way possible." And, she notes, it presents an excellent counter-argument to those in the industry who claim they can't find a diversity of voices in comedy.

"A lot of times you would just hear in the industry, 'Oh, there just, like, aren't any funny black women,' " she says. "That excuse doesn't fly with me anymore. There are so many talented, amazing people and if you're not booking them, it's either out of laziness or the fact you really don't care."

Robinson's new book of personal essays is Everything's Trash, But It's Okay.

Interview Highlights

On casting calls that exclude people of color

The language in a casting call is like, "all-American" is white. "Beautiful but doesn't know it" is white. And then usually it'll be like "open to all ethnicities" is when you know that that is a role that they can envision someone not white doing it. But it's like, all the roles should be open to ethnicity. Do you know what I mean?

There is no reason why it took, you know, 20 some odd years for there to be aCrazy Rich Asians. There's no excuse for that. [Asian actors] could have been leads in romantic comedies this whole time.

It's hard being in an industry where if you're not the mainstream sort of thing you're just not going to be considered. ... But I think on the flipside, what's great right now is that this is an industry where creators shine, where they can swim, where you can have an Issa Rae [creator and star of Insecure] you can have a Phoebe and Jessica [Williams] do 2 Dope Queens, you can have Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer of Broad City] you can have all these sorts of people creating their own opportunities in their own lanes.

On being broke early in her career

There were a lot of tears. There was a lot of not being able to sleep at night. There was a lot of feeling like a failure, of feeling like maybe me trying to pursue comedy is a little nutty. I really didn't start making a really solid living doing comedy until eight and a half years in. I was kind of like, "Well maybe it shouldn't take this long? There are other people around me where it's like not taking them eight years to get their career going in the way that they want it." And looking back on it now I'm just kind of like, you can't control when that happens.

On going to a photo shoot and only being offered clothes that are too small

The little bit of experiences I have gotten with styling and photo shoots — and again these are "champagne problems," I just want to preface I know that — but they'll be like, "Oh yeah, we only have a size 4." Or, I go to these shoots and I tell people "I'm a [size] 10, 12. That's just what it is." And they'll be like, here's a 6."

It's like, how dare you! How dare you be like, "Oh well, we couldn't find anything in your size!" You didn't look, 'cause I dress myself every day. I dress myself every day and I find everything I need.

It's not how you should treat anybody. ... They knew what size I was for weeks before I showed up. It is not my fault I'm the size that I am.

On not allowing her own comedic style to be defined by male comics

I've been doing comedy for 10 years. ... When I went on tour last fall with Ilana Glazer. We did our "YQY" tour across America, and we were both kind of being like, "Oh! We're funny." We've been doubting ourselves this whole freakin' time and a lot of that has been informed by the fact that we have different energy than a lot of the male comics. We carry ourselves different — maybe we tell our jokes in a different way or a different style — and we were beating ourselves up in allowing that patriarchal energy to affect our self-esteem. And then I was like, "Yeah, I'm good at this job."

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.