Witnessing the chemistry between 2 Dope Queens hosts Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, it’s hard to imagine that this partnership kicked off just a few years ago, after they met during a taping of The Daily Show. Williams was a correspondent for the satirical news show, while Robinson, a stand-up comic and TV writer, was an extra in one of her sketches. Robinson later invited Williams to join her onstage during her routine—as a birthday gift, no less—and the rest is podcasting history. Well, first, Williams and Robinson developed a joint stand-up routine that then turned into the 2 Dope Queens podcast, which has been sitting pretty atop the iTunes charts since its inception in 2016.
Now there’s another iteration of Robinson and Williams’ lively talk show, with the first of four hour-long specials set to premiere February 2 on HBO. And in its latest move, 2 Dope Queens retains more than just its title. The show also maintains the same warmth, humor, and relevance, as Robinson and Williams keep on riffing, parsing, and sharing. There are obviously some noticeable changes in this new medium, like relocating to an actual (movie) palace and having Jon Stewart and Sarah Jessica Parker drop by as “stagehands.” But the experience remains as incisive and intimate as that of listening to Robinson and Williams crack jokes through your earbuds, thanks in part to Tig Notaro’s direction of all four episodes. This collection also marks a return for HBO, which has lately been outpaced by Netflix in the comedy special department, but should have its confidence restored by this outstanding addition.
Filmed at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, the first two 2 Dope Queens specials center on New York and hair, two subjects that are deceptively open-ended. New York City, the country’s most sprawling metropolis, can be filtered down to very specific experiences depending on the resident and borough, something that Stewart ably demonstrates through bites of different pizzas. Similarly, we all have good and bad hair days—though there’s little evidence of the latter in the amazing coifs that Williams and Robinson sport here—but only black women have had to find a way to deal with strangers asking to touch their tresses. But their city and follicles are ultimately jumping-off points for observations about adulthood, sex, love, race, politics, and more.
In their first duologue, the co-hosts take note of their predominantly white audience, and begin to rattle off microaggressions they’ve endured that deserve apologies. The laughter is immediate and not at all uncomfortable, which is a testament to just how skillfully Robinson and Williams deploy their social commentary. There’s no one rhythm or combination—the conversation can shift from jokes about each other’s bougie-ness to visual gags to praising Costco’s affordable prices while also acknowledging which tax brackets are represented in the audience. And when they’d rather take a beat and enjoy brunch with SJP, they bring on comics like Michelle Buteau (who appeared in their debut podcast episode), Rhea Butcher, and Aparna Nancherla to touch on hot-button issues while still keeping things light. Baron Vaughn, Mark Normand, and Sheng Wang also get a turn at the mic to wax on about new parenthood, catcalling, and cancer.
That smart selection of topics and stand-up comics, both established and up-and-coming, is also straight from the podcast, but actually seeing Robinson and Williams’ faces as they dine with Carrie Bradshaw herself or clocking unofficial “third queen” Buteau’s expression while she pauses for effect demonstrates the need for the on-camera treatment. And Notaro, who honed her directing chops on the now-defunct One Mississippi, knows just when to close in for the conspiratorial glances the co-hosts exchange when deciding on an entry point for a discussion on black hair. The fellow comedian also knows to follow Robinson and Williams as they glide across the stage, as each well-shod trek demonstrates just how much space the two “Cocoa Khaleesis” have carved out for themselves—and others—as producers and performers. That they’ve had to tweak so little along the way proves these 2 Dope Queens are here to stay.