Comedy-wise, we are in the Age of the Podcast, of the hangout — group activities that go where they may. The digital era has let a thousand Algonquin Round Tables bloom and invited the wide world to eavesdrop. Quite often these sessions are recorded in front of a live audience, amplifying the feeling of community, of a movement, of belonging.
Such is the case with “2 Dope Queens,” the 2-year-old WNYC-sponsored popular podcast of writer-comedian-actors Jessica Williams (late of “The Daily Show”) and Phoebe Robinson (“Broad City,” “Search Party”), which has been transferred to television by HBO for a four-episode run. Network money gives them a fancy set — a rooftop overlooking the New York skyline — a wig and wardrobe budget and a big, elegant space in which to play, the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, with no loss of the original’s scrappy delightfulness.
Like the podcast, and many other podcasts, “2 Dope Queens” mixes tussling banter — there are few jokes but much funniness — with stand-up spots and interviews. The guest comedians may be better or lesser known (Baron Vaughn and Rhea Butcher are among the former group here); the interview subjects are often better known, lending shine to the show. The joke that brings out the guest in the two HBO episodes I’ve seen is the request for a stagehand: Jon Stewart arrived to dust the set, Sarah Jessica Parker to help with a “shoe situation.” And the crowd goes wild.
The beauty of these shows is their informality or, in any case, the impression of informality they give. Good comedy always seems to come from the moment, when you can’t tell the old material from the improvised.
“Shall we get this show started?” Robinson asks 11 minutes into an episode. While there are few cutaways to the crowd — which is young and comes in many colors — there are lovely reverse shots, shooting past the performers into the theater, knitting watcher and watched.
The rest of the time, the enthusiasm is audible. Director Tig Notaro — whose own comedy evenings at L.A.’s Largo have something of this flavor — catches all the liveliness.
The premiere episode, which begins with a cold open in which Williams and Robinson, unrecognized, buy the last two tickets to their own debut — “the state of black-on-black aggression right now is insane,” says Williams to the black ticket taker — takes New York as its subject. The second episode is about hair, followed by ones about naked men and “blerds,” black nerds, which the hosts have elsewhere accounted themselves. There are multiple references to “Game of Thrones.”
Parker, in the hair episode, is introduced as a hair icon. (“Some people look really perplexed by that,” she says, looking into the room.) She had done her own hair and makeup because “I didn’t really understand the magnitude of the situation.” (Most of the episode is about the hosts’ hair, not hers.) Robinson and Williams are fans of “Sex and the City,” and so there was brunch, eventually shared with the audience — pizza is eaten in the “New York” episode — and excited unexpected bonding over Costco, because Parker recognizes something on the brunch cart as being available there.
The listener does not need to share demographic history with the comedian (writes the white guy); comedy brings the news from a foreign land. It’s educational. The hosts are smart, sweet and centered enough that they can handle the lowest topics in a way that feels innocent and refreshing, even demonstrating sexual positions or chugging wine (Williams) or describing men on the subway who seem to be asleep but also seem to be masturbating (Robinson).
Asked for “some of your craziest New York moments,” Stewart begins, “Well, I was pretending I was asleep on a subway once.”
“Do you find that now you go to parties a lot, like of roof parties and stuff?” Williams asks her semi-retired former boss, noting their stage set.
“Jess, let me ask you a question — when did you stop knowing me? … There’s not a lot that can get me out of the house.”
“For these cocoa Khaleesi,” Williams says, “yass.”
“I don’t know what that meant,” says Stewart, “but yes.”