Comedian Phoebe Robinson is a self-proclaimed workaholic. Her quarantine resume makes it hard to argue with her.
For the last five months, the multi-hyphenate (she writes, acts and co-created the popular podcast “2 Dope Queens”) has been holed up in her Brooklyn apartment with her boyfriend, who she refers to as #BritishBaekoff for a measure of privacy. In that time, she announced a new publishing imprint, Tiny Reparations Books, committed to amplifying diverse voices. She started writing her third collection of essays — and first release under her own imprint — “Six Feet Apart,” a mix of humorous insights about quarantining with a partner and more serious offerings on performative allyship in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Most recently, she launched a new comedy/therapy podcast, “Black Frasier,” named for the ’90s NBC sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer as a Seattle psychiatrist that she has never actually seen. (More on that later.)
Certainly, Robinson is busy, but she has found time to rethink work and her relationship to it. “I’m grateful that I have a job, but I’m just making sure I’m enjoying the other parts of my life, too,” she says over the phone, like spending “more time talking to my family or hanging out with bae or just making sure my life is more than my work.”
The 35-year-old has grown up feeling the pressure to be productive. But the combination of pandemic panic and civil unrest has made her more interested in pursuing activities purely for the sake of enjoyment. For instance, watching the new Netflix reality series “Indian Matchmaking” or teaching herself piano with the help of an $80 keyboard.
“I think American culture and identity are so consumed with ‘do this so you can be the best at it,’” she says, rather than wondering if we even like what we’re doing. “Like, shouldn’t that be the question we’re all asking right now: ‘Do you like what the hell you’re doing?’”
When it comes to her new podcast, her third in five years, the answer is a resounding “yes.” With “Black Frasier,” Robinson wears many hats: host, booker and co-producer alongside her boyfriend, who is also her editor and on-air sidekick, helping her kick off each episode. She paid for the podcast, which she records at her home, out of pocket, forgoing sponsors to promote Black-owned businesses she loves instead.
The first episode of “Black Frasier” was released this week. In each episode, Robinson dives deep into a single topic such as money, motherhood or activism with guests like “Broad City” co-creator and star Abbi Jacobson, comedian Whitney Cummings or actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who stops by the premiere to talk about Black hair. Robinson’s hope is that these conversations will help listeners feel a little better about what’s going on in the world. “I want people to go, ‘Oh okay, I can take this on,’” she says.
The Lily spoke with Robinson about her new podcast, book imprint and the one thing she wants to ask the man who played Frasier.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: What came first, the idea for “Black Frasier” or the title?
Phoebe Robinson: I always liked giving advice, whether it was solicited or unsolicited, and I think it might have been [my boyfriend] Baekoff who said something to the effect, ‘Oh, you’re like a Black Frasier.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god! That’s the perfect title!’ That sort of kicked everything off.
TL: Despite having never seen “Frasier,” how would you describe it?
PR: I would say “Frasier” is about an affluent white man who likes to wear a lot of tan suits. I know everyone was like, “Remember when Obama wore a tan suit?” Like, Kelsey [Grammer] was doing this in the ’90s. Iconic. He lives in Seattle and he has his brother Niles, his dad and that dog. That dog! He gives advice on his radio show. There are a lot of witty comments and a dose of white nonsense that is enjoyable. Also, Kelsey Grammer sang the theme song and I’m into people singing the theme song to their own show like when Brandy did it for “Moesha” and when Oprah did it for her talk show.
TL: Would you be open to having Kelsey Grammer, the original Frasier, on your show?
PR: Yes! I think that would be so fun, but I would only want to talk to him about “Girlfriends,” because he executive produced that show, which I think is so dope and fascinating. I’m like, “Yes, yes, ‘Frasier’s cool, but can we talk about the fact that you are out here producing ‘Girlfriends,’ a show that didn’t get enough love?”
TL: You’ve said that people often come to you for advice. Have you pinpointed what makes you such a trusted confidant?
PR: I think people can tell when you are actually listening to them and when you’re just waiting for them to stop talking about themselves so you can talk about yourself. [Comedian] Hasan Minhaj is always teasing, “Like every time we talk, you always want to get deep. You are always in it to talk about the feelings, like big life things.” I’m always thinking, “Well, yeah, what else would I be talking about?”
TL: Right now, there is a lot of talk about having difficult conversations about race, often with those we love. As someone who is unafraid to have those kinds of conversations on your podcasts, how do you approach those talks?
PR: Before you start you have to accept that it is going to be uncomfortable and stressful. That is just the name of the game. When Abbi [Jacobson] and I did our IG Live about cultural appropriation in comedy, it wasn’t the easiest conversation, but because we are such strong friends we could talk about it in a real, honest way. I think you can talk about something with your friends and it doesn’t have to be the end of the world or mean you no longer like each other. It’s just that you want to learn, grow and get to a higher plane together as friends.
TL: What are your tips for initiating difficult conversations?
PR: My biggest tip is that it’s going to be scary and not everyone is ready for that. When I was younger I would be like, “Oh, why doesn’t this person want to talk about this thing?” I would try and force the issue and it would just escalate. Some people are not going to want to go there with you, so you have to meet people where they are. If you want to have these conversations, you have to identify whether you are coming from a place of “I want this to be resolved” or “I want to be right.” Then you have to be willing to accept that the person may not want to have the conversation with you, and that’s also valid. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from it and allow the person you’re talking with to do the same. You have to talk to them in a compassionate way that still gets your point across.
PR: The actual change is thinking about who makes up the marketing department, who makes up the art department, who are the editors? From the moment we sign the contract, I want to be mindful that we have people who are going to best serve these books. For instance, my two publicists, Sam [Srinivasan], who is Indian, and Brittany [Peterson], who is Black, are spearheading all of the publicity for my imprint. That, to me, is key because so many times non-White outlets don’t get advanced copies of books. They don’t get access to authors for interviews, which is a huge part of selling books. If people of color are writing books and we’re only promoting it to the White communities and hoping that White people will find a way to connect with the material, that’s just not the best way to do things.
Twenty years from now, I really want this to be one of a gazillion imprints out there that are doing that work. I don’t want it to be like, “Well, I have an imprint so everything’s done, everything’s changed.” I want the momentum to continue.
TL: There has been a trend of publications putting out lists of books by Black authors that are supposed to help White people understand race. Your books have been on some of those lists. How do you feel about that?
PR: Well, I think that’s nice. I’m happy that my books and other Black authors’ books are being represented, but I’m always like, “Well, you know Black people are more than their trauma and talking about race.” One of the reasons I talk about Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” all the time is because we need to support Black authors who want to write fiction. We need to do more than only support Black authors that write about how difficult it is to be Black in America. That’s important, but sometimes you just want to read about Black people being happy because guess what, we are happy! We have a lot of great experiences in our lives and so I want the industry to push that more. I want the industry to do better than posting a lot about Black books during Black History Month and then ignoring us the other 11 months. It just needs to be a part of the publishing industry and a part of people’s consumption of books to incorporate Black people, Asian people, queer people into what they’re already reading.
TL: The title of your 2018 book “Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay” has become a mantra for people who don’t like what they see in the world, but are still hoping for the best. Right now, it’s not as easy to believe it’s going to be okay. Do you still feel like it will be?
PR: Girl, I hope it’s going to be okay. I’m like yikes. In all seriousness, I will say that I do feel inspired by what I’m seeing, how people are speaking up and not accepting what’s been going on. I think we’re all really pushing ourselves to demand better of society. I hope that people feel empowered to keep stepping up and speaking out. I hope that things will be more than okay. I hope they will be better.