What does Phoebe Robinson want to see when she arrives at the Edinburgh fringe? “Just tons of dudes smuggling their bangers and mash in their kilts.” Observational comic, astute social critic, signee of a deal with ABC studios, bestselling author (You Can’t Touch My Hair & Other Things I Still Have to Explain) and one half of 2 Dope Queens (the podcast duo turned HBO stars), Robinson has a philosophy: that comedy – thirsty, uninhibited, occasionally gross, with riffs on Googling David Bowie’s penis size after learning he has died – can be a force for good.
At Edinburgh, Robinson will tour her show, called Sorry, Harriet Tubman, which covers “gender stuff and race stuff but also talking about mishaps in the bedroom during sex, just like lower-brow things. So I think that it’ll be sort of a culmination of where I’m at in my life right now.” It argues, like most of her work, that if we can be honest about our profoundly flawed selves and our profoundly flawed society, maybe we can make our world a little less screwed up. Or at least tell a couple of decent fart jokes along the way.
The title, she says, comes from a running joke she and her fellow dope queen – The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams – used to make on the podcast, about how disappointed Tubman would be, “because, you know, she basically led slaves to freedom on the underground railroad and I’m like I just wanna smash Michael B Jordan,” Robinson says.
I ask her how she has disappointed Tubman this week. It’s only Tuesday, she objects. But then she remembers how, that day or the day before, she and her boyfriend had been working out at the gym in her building, and that while practising a curtsy lunge, an extremely elegant move, she “just let out like the loudest, wettest fart”. Her boyfriend has his earphones in, but he still heard it. “So I thought that was a definite let-down for Harriet,” she says.
Robinson likes to imagine Tubman, her noble face flecked with a single, perfect Demi-Moore-in-Ghost tear, hearing that fart too, and wondering if learning to navigate by the North Star had really been worth it.
The comic, who describes herself as an off-brand Oprah, grew up in America’s midwest, watching the sitcoms Moesha and Martin, and the sketch show In Living Color. She was a sarcastic kid, but not one who could necessarily crack a joke. Comedy was never her endgame. But in college, she joined an improv troupe, and after college, while working as an executive assistant, a friend convinced her to take a standup class and she fell in love, performing wherever she could, from pubs to biker bars. She was often paid in nachos. Or chicken wings.
Some comedians will invent a persona, but Robinson’s persona is herself, with all the Instagram filters turned off. Her approach, she says, “is to be as authentic as possible” and her brand, she says, “is just like sort of not taking myself too seriously”.
She had arrived for lunch, at a sleepy Brooklyn restaurant, in sleek sunglasses, ratty jeans, and a pink T-shirt reading “Bonjour y’all”. Her boyfriend – whom she calls British Baekoff (he is British, he is her bae, he enjoys baking) – had begged her not wear it on the Paris Métro and of course she had worn it on the Paris Métro. So the not taking herself too seriously thing checks out.
When 2 Dope Queens moved to HBO, Robinson would often record promos without makeup or while pretending that her wig was doing the talking. “Half the time I’m doing something really dumb and I could just like hide it, but I’m like, that’s who I am,” she says.
She doesn’t know how, or if, her oversharing style will translate to the UK, but her boyfriend has warned her that British audiences can be more subdued. “They might not be hooting and hollering, but that doesn’t mean they’re not having a good time,” she reassures herself. The prospect doesn’t make her remotely as nervous as the time she and Williams interviewed one of her heroes, Michelle Obama (other heroes: Oprah, Bono, her parents, her big brother). When she stood up after the interview, her shoes were full of sweat. “I was very nervous about slipping and falling,” she says. “That’s how much sweat was in my shoes!”
Comedy, which is still very white and still very male, hasn’t always been welcoming to such women as her, and she doesn’t love questions about how to improve things. “It needs to be a team effort and until straight dudes are expected to roll up their sleeves and get to work,” she says, “I’m over being asked about what men need to do.” What does she need to do? Speak as openly and honestly as she can – about hookups and periods and sexism and racism and the missteps of white-lady feminism and shapewear – knowing that “the funny will always find its way there”.