RIOT's Phoebe Robinson Talks Funny Ladies, Woke Baes & Jesse Williams's BET Speech

Photo: Courtesy of Phoebe Robinson.
As the host of RIOT's Woke Bae, Phoebe Robinson elevates a discussion of good-looking guys to a fun conversation about sex appeal and social activism. Robinson sits with a guest comedian each week to talk about celebrities who are not just plugged in to their careers, but also engaged in ongoing dialogues about intersectionality, environmental awareness, and feminism.

Woke Bae isn't Robinson's only project as a comedian. She's also a star on the critically acclaimed 2 Dope Queens and is set to release her first collection of essays this fall. We talked to the Woke Bae host about RIOT, Jesse Williams, and being a Black woman writer and comedian.

The first woke bae you chose in the series, Jesse Williams, gave a really moving speech on Black activism and centered Black women in social-justice rhetoric at the BET Awards over the weekend. What did you think of his speech?
"That’s part of the reason why he was the first one that we chose. Activism is really an important part of who he is. He’s an actor, but he’s shown that he’s still going to speak his mind. He’s not afraid of letting his ideas on race and justice affect his career.

"Jesse Williams really has a strong connection to Black community. Of course he would say that! He’s the perfect person. Ahhh! I feel like I made the right decision."

How did you get involved with RIOT and Woke Bae?
"I know Julie Miller, who spearheaded Riot for Refinery. She’s seen me do live shows. I was pitching a web series to Refinery, and then I came up with the idea for Woke Bae randomly with a friend named Safy Hallan. At first, I thought it should be a monthly column — I wanted to do something outside of stand-up and the book I have coming out.
"Julie said that I talk about hot guys and social activism a lot, and asked me if I wanted to interview people and do a monthly article. In my other writing for Vulture, I’ve found that it’s really hard to lock people down for interviews. So instead I thought, what if I sat down with a fellow female comedian and talked about why these guys are so cute and the great things they’re doing for these different communities. Refinery was onboard because it was a very easy and quick shoot."

Woke Bae gives you the opportunity to work with a bunch of different female comedians. What’s that process like?
"I write all the scripts, but there’s so much room for riffing. I really want it to feel like each guest is getting their comedic voice across. I also want to be very thoughtful about matching comedians to the woke baes. Jessica Williams is a huge fan of Jesse Williams and has been for so long, so it’s important to me to make those connections."

Mark Ruffalo retweeted his episode. Have you heard from any other woke bae subjects?
"That was super crazy! I was like, ‘What??’ Jesse Williams tweeted our video. He and I went back and forth for a few tweets.

"I think it’s been great because they know that they’re handsome, and they know that that handsomeness isn't actually particularly important. If I ever met them, it wouldn’t only be like, ‘So...what’s it like to be so handsome?' On the show, we take the attractiveness in a comedic way to recognize the great work they’re doing. I’m really appreciative of the support. I think it’s really nice and generous of them. These videos are doing what I envisioned them doing."

Can you talk to me about your book, You Can’t Touch My Hair?
"It comes out October 4. The book is an essay collection about race, gender, and pop culture. There’s a lot of stuff in there: advice to two-year-old interracial niece, stories of crazy casting calls, etc. I touch on a lot of things about race and gender. It’s a good mix of poignancy and humor.

"I don’t think you have to necessarily be a Black woman to grasp this book, but there should be more essay collections from women of color. I don’t think that publishers really think about essays for women of color, even though we’re huge readers. I can’t wait."

And you also have a new podcast in the works, Sooo Many White Guys?
"On so many shows or panels, I’m either the only woman or the only person of color. There are so many different female experiences.

"It’s totally different than 2 Dope Queens — this is an interview talk show, an opportunity for people to see a different side. Interviews can be hard to get a sense of the interviewee. The interview is not going to be like, ‘What’s it like to be a woman?’ When I sat down with Nia Long, it was so nice to see this other side of her; she was dropping so many nuggets of wisdom. I’m really excited about that."

Who’s the next woke bae on your dream list?
"Oh, an episode on Joe Biden! His vocal stance on stopping sexual assault is so amazing, and we need more male politicians speaking out. He’s at the top of my list. I would die if he saw it. That would make my day."

You’ve spoken about being in two different industries — book publishing and comedy — as a Black creative. Can you speak more about working in these homogeneous fields?
"Both comedy and publishing are very white and also male-dominated. You look around, and there’s not a lot of people like me around, but I’m hopeful that I can help change that in any way. In publishing, everyone has been really supportive — maybe I’m very lucky in that regard.

"With stand-up, you hear dumb things, but I think now’s a great time to get started. With technology, you can start your own blog or shoot your own videos. There’s a leveling of the playing field, in a way, and I think that’s why the landscape is starting to change so much. There are so many more Black comics, so many more openly gay comics. It’s an encouraging sign that more points of view are being acknowledged as relevant. I hope these changes keep happening in both publishing and comedy. There are so many perspectives different than mine that I would love to see more of."
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