Arts, Features

REVIEW: Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams successfully adapt ‘2 Dope Queens’

Jessica Williams, of the HBO show “Two Dope Queens.” PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The beauty of a podcast is that it envelopes the listener in a conversation. No one understands this as well as Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the hosts of WNYC’s “2 Dope Queens.” Their podcast works because it welcomes listeners into a best friendship where nothing is off-limits and the dialogue is genuine, hilarious and completely real.

From the moment Jessica Williams says, “You should thank your lucky stars that you’re able to see us be vuln in front of you guys,” it’s clear as day that “2 Dope Queens,” the four-part HBO special, is going to be exactly as open and wonderful.

An HBO comedy special is a completely different format than a podcast. Usually, just one comic is onstage, addressing an audience, not a partner. Far more emphasis is placed on visuals. It’s an inherently less intimate but more dynamic medium.

Yet Williams and Robinson make the most of the visual format. They chose to give each episode of their special a theme –– for the first episode, the theme was New York. While the city is already frequently referenced in the special, it’s made omnipresent by the set. It’s a mock rooftop, with the vibrant New York skyline in the background. It feels a little dingy –– the two even bring out Jon Stewart by asking for a stagehand to clean the set. It features random assorted plants and chairs. Bright Broadway lights spell out “2 Dope Queens” behind them.

Williams and Robinson’s outfits are colorful and beautiful, effectively conveying their own vibrant personalities. All of this attention to detail really does make viewers feel like they’re just at a party with two really funny women. Instead of detracting from their comedy, they use the visual element to create a vibrant atmosphere rife with humor.

The pair’s discussions of race, instead of coming across as a diatribe, are authentic, hilarious and casual. When they list white people who should apologize to them, ranging from a clerk at Southwest Airlines to Thomas Jefferson, it’s not awkward or mean-spirited, it’s just really funny.

When Williams says to Robinson, “How dare yo ass drag me in front of a majority white situation,” she acknowledges the truth of the moment and the racial dynamics at play without making it uncomfortable for anyone.

They’re never exclusionary in their feminism. They’re just giving their own genuine perspective, and it’s very funny.

When Jon Stewart shows up, the audience loses its collective mind, and the enthusiasm is entirely warranted. Their discussion with him builds from the strong relationship that Williams, a former “Daily Show” correspondent, has with him.

That said, their exchange feels nothing like an episode of the “Daily Show.” Stewart comes across less like a political comedian, and more like just a retired dad. He talks about his kids and his time as a struggling comedian in old-school New York City.

“It was a pathetic experience,” he says, recounting his early days in New York, “and I remember thinking, I have never been happier in my life.”

It’s a bit of a cheesy sentiment, but if anyone’s earned it, it’s probably Jon Stewart. And it’s just as authentic as the rest of the special, which makes it all the better.

The special really only stumbles when Williams and Robinson are removed from the stage. As is customary in the podcast, the special features three stand-up comedians: Michelle Buteau, Mark Normand, and Baron Vaughn.

None of them do a particularly poor job, though Buteau comes across as over-the-top, and some of Normand’s jokes are unoriginal and vaguely misogynist. Their bits just feel like they would be so much stronger if Robinson and Williams were on the stage with them, riffing and chatting.

“2 Dope Queens” shines when it feels like an authentic conversation, not a regular stand-up special. While the stand-up segments would be stronger if the comedians themselves were, they fail to acknowledge that the success of “2 Dope Queens” rests on Robinson and Williams.

The success of “2 Dope Queens” as a comedy special by no means marginalizes the podcast. Podcasts are inherently a little more intimate and casual, immersing you in a conversation in a manner that any HBO special cannot quite do. However, the success of this special shows that Williams and Robinson are truly gifted comics, capable of transforming any medium into the best version of itself.

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