You Can't Touch My Hair

Podcast queen Phoebe Robinson on comedy and PC culture

Courtesy of Phoebe Robinson

At the moment, it doesn’t seem like there are many things Phoebe Robinson can’t do.

The 32-year-old comedian and actress appears in Amazon’s original series I Love Dick, she hosts two hilarious podcasts “Sooo Many White Guys” and “2 Dope Queens” with her co-host and “work wife” Jessica Williams, and she just became a New York Times best-selling author with her debut You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have To Explain). She’s also been a writer for MTV’s Girl Code, a consultant on Broad City, and regularly performs stand-up comedy in New York City and Brooklyn.

In You Can’t Touch My Hair, Robinson penned thirteen essays about race, gender, and pop culture, showcasing her knack for being hilarious and insightful at the same time.

I chatted with Robinson about PC culture in comedy, dating white men, and her hair.

What question are you tired of getting asked?

“As a black women in entertainment…” I’m just like, we’re done with that. It’s my experience. That’s one question where I feel like I’m being forced to talk about diversity when you know the white people aren’t really forced to talk about those things. I’m a little over that stage. And, being a woman in comedy, the whole “women are funny” thing that came out in Vanity Fair with Christopher Hitchens, I don’t even answer those questions anymore. It’s silly.

When is the last time someone asked to touch your hair?

Now people just touch my hair, and I’m like, “ehhh.” I can’t remember the last time someone asked. Now they just do it.

Who are your hair icons right now?

Solange Knowles, obviously. There’s this woman, I follow her on Instagram. I heard about her because she’s a bassist, this woman named Nik West. She has really cool hair, it’s a lot of different colors and braids. She’s a super badass, so I really love her. I love Laverne Cox, she always looks great. I really like Lupita because she does fun stuff with natural hair. Those are my main four right now. Then I follow a lot of natural hair blogs to give me inspiration for the fall.

In your book, you make it a point to explain that black women who straighten their hair or wear weaves don’t hate themselves. I feel like so many women can relate to that.

For me, with this book, I wanted to shed light on that. The Good Hair documentary Chris Rock did was great, and I think that opened up the conversation a lot for non-black people to understand black hair more. But I wanted to come and explain my story because I think it represents a lot of black women’s stories. Because it’s not really ours, like, society makes so many judgements on our hair. I think a lot of the time people just think black women are being superficial caring about their hair, not really realizing the socio-political culture behind it. I just wanted to frame that so that people can really get why black hair is such a thing.

When did you first realize you were funny?

I was always making jokes in high school. I wasn’t a class clown, I wasn’t just trying to get attention all the time. But I did my little funny comments here and there. I did improv when I was on campus at Pratt. I had fun doing that, but even when I graduated I wasn’t thinking, oh, I’m going to pursue comedy and be a writer and a producer. Then, a friend of mine was taking a stand-up class and she wanted me to do it with her because she didn’t want to do it by herself. I thought it was kind of stupid, I never really watched a lot of stand-up. That was eight years ago. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Do you remember what your first joke was when you were like, “Okay, people were actually laughing at me?”

It was my graduation show and I was just raging about catcalling and it got a good laugh. The class was eight weeks and we all had to do five minutes, and we were all nervous because five minutes sounds so long when you first start doing stand-up. But now, I can do 30 minutes of stand-up no problem.

I was like, I’m sure we’re all pretty bad, but you know, a few of us, including myself, had decent stage presence. I just felt like, oh, this is something I can keep doing, we’ll see where it goes. But I did not imagine all of this happening. I just figured this is a cool thing that I want to do with my life and just say yes to wherever it takes me. I was hooked.

I know you said you weren’t that into comedy before you started. Did you have comedians that you liked at all?

I’d seen like two Chris Rock specials, a Wanda Sykes special. I like Dane Cook, Ellen DeGeneres. Outside of that I had never been to a comedy show. I really had to teach myself once I started watching stand-up DVDs, specials and stuff. I really was coming into a new me and I started kind of late for comedy at 24, which is not horrible but that is pretty late to start. I was really playing catch up the first couple of years, listening to Carlin and Pryor and Margaret Cho. But the whole world of stand-up I didn’t know—like, I didn’t know anything about the mics or bringer shows or anything about how that stuff works. Stand-up is one of those things where the only way you can get good is by doing it. Even if I watched every single stand-up special growing up as a kid, you all start at the same spot and you have to keep doing it in order to be good.

We’re at an interesting time right now in comedy with political correctness. What are your views on that?

There’s a lot of talk about that, and it is so funny because I feel as though comedians are so hypersensitive about it. The thing about stand-up is our job is choosing the right words to elicit a joyful response. So, this comedic flippant attitude like, oh, whatever it doesn’t matter, I feel like everyone is being sensitive, it does matter, because you chose that word or whatever word. It is for a particular reason, because you thought it was funny. To me, there is value in just thinking more and being smarter about what you talk about. There are really tough subjects that you can talk about. I know my good friend Lori Davis, whose brother is trans, she has a lot of amazing jokes about that subject and it’s really smart and profound and touching and hilarious and that’s great. But then you’ll see other comedians, like ohhh Caitlyn Jenner and it’s just really careless and they don’t think about it. If you want to talk about something that complicated and tough by all means go ahead and do it, but then be smart about it. You can say whatever you want, but people can also have a reaction to that.

It’s always this “but I was just telling a joke” response.

Whenever comedians are irritated about political correctness, I’m always thinking, well, it’s really only like, don’t be homophobic, don’t be racist, don’t be transphobic. It’s really all the things where you are, like yeah…don’t just be psycho crazy and make insane rape jokes.

I think comics can sometimes be hypersensitive to any sort of critique, and it’s just like, you’re not above critique, everyone gets critiqued. But I also think that sometimes audiences can be a little sensitive. Like, if I make race jokes sometimes people can be a little sensitive.

Even with the name of your podcast.

Yeah, so many people were upset about that. And I was just like you’re more upset about a title that’s poking fun at the system than the system that is racist and sexist and not inclusive? I just think at the end of the day that it doesn’t hurt for everyone to think more before they talk. I think we can all do that, comic or not comic. I don’t feel like comedy is being ruined by PC culture. I really don’t think the culture is that PC, from what I see online and what I have seen out in the world. People are going apeshit. People are saying reckless shit all the time. I don’t know what culture you’re living in, white dude, where you feel like you can’t say anything, but trust me, you can. You’re fine. I want everyone to relax and be more thoughtful.

How do you keep your own jokes fresh?

What’s great is doing—like when I did [Late Night with] Seth Meyers—TV taped stuff, and you can just retire those jokes so you never have to do them, which is really nice. I like to keep jokes fresh by trying to see if I can build off of stuff, rearranging the order of jokes, and a lot of times I’ll do pre-written jokes and say this is a thing that’s going on in my life right now, let me talk about this, and see if there’s anything funny. Doing “2 Dope Queens” with Jess is really great because her and I up top, we riff for about 30 minutes, so both of us are keeping each other on our toes the whole time. We’ll say here are three things we want to talk about and we’ll just go out and figure it out on stage. That’s how the show has always worked. I think sometimes I’ll just have to use old material, which I’m kind of like, oh, this sucks, but I’m at a place where I’m not famous.

But you do have a book, though.

I do have a book. But it’s not like if you go see Chris Rock today and you go see him six months from now and he’s doing the same jokes, that’s going to be a problem. I think he has more pressure to mix it up more whereas I don’t. So, I think right now taking the time to make sure I’m crafting my voice even better, crafting my jokes even better, if I have to run them a bunch of times to get them to a place where they feel really good, that’s what I do.

Do you have a routine that you do to prep before you go on stage?

You tend to when you first start because you’re very concerned about everything, but now I just show up and I always feel like I don’t have any jokes, I don’t know what I’m going to talk about. I almost always dread going on stage and then it ends up being fine. I’m always like, why did I do this, I was at home watching Mad Men and I could be doing that right now. Doing “2 Dope Queens” is always super fun, and there are other stand-up shows that are fun, but for the most part I’m just like well…we’ll see what this is going to be.

In the introduction, Jessica Williams talks about how you both date white men. And in your book you talk a lot about race and being a black woman. Has it ever been hard to talk about those topics with the men you’ve dated?

I think my most recent ex—he’s very woke and he’s a teacher and he grew up in New York—so he’s just very smart about that stuff. We would just have open conversations about it and it was never really anything tough. I think Jess and I both, we grew up in private schools that were both very white and then in college my major was pretty much all white, and then comedy is pretty much all white, so it’s been hard for me to not be surrounded by white dudes. Five years ago, I made it a point to not date any comics. I just don’t want to date someone who does the same thing as me, there can be competition. Since I’m taking comedians out of the picture, I really do have to be on things like Tinder in order to meet people who aren’t white in a dating situation. That’s the hope.

Well, I’m sending good vibes your way.

Yeah, Oscar Isaac, hit me up. Michael B. Jordan, call me.