Phoebe Robinson Wants to Normalize the Mess of Life in Your 30s

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TIME

Phoebe Robinson is a hot mess on Everything’s Trash, her new sitcom on Freeform. Her character on the show—who also happens to be a podcaster named Phoebe—hides stacks of unpaid bills, exposes her nipple on Instagram Live and seems to shatter glass wherever she goes.

In real life, Robinson is a lot more composed and a “little bit more boring” than her fictional counterpart, she says, laughing, in a phone interview. Robinson is a New York Times bestselling author and an executive producer on Everything’s Trash who also founded a publishing imprint on Penguin Random House. (Robinson rose to fame largely through the podcast and HBO series 2 Dope Queens, which she hosted alongside Jessica Williams.) Her all-encompassing, multimedia success led Trevor Noah to compare her to Shonda Rhimes or Oprah in her “mogul-ling” approach.
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But for Robinson, highlighting the messiness of personal growth—especially in one’s 30s, when people are supposed to have their lives figured out—is just as important as highlighting excellence or achievement. “I hope people can be on the ride with this character without judgment,” she says.

Robinson caught up on a phone call three days after wrapping the first season of Everything’s Trash. She talked about finding the comedy in local politics, sex positivity post-Roe and her love for U2. Excerpts from the conversation are below.

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Given that the show is called Everything’s Trash, what level of trash do you feel like things are now compared to all the other times when things were trash?

It’s so much trash: It’s really non-biodegradable trash right now. It’s hard to compartmentalize, which I think we’re all forced to do: go about your day and maintain your life while the world is on fire.

With this show, I wanted for you to be able to turn your brain off and laugh for 30 minutes. I think about shows like Happy Endings or Martin or Friends: You go into this world to hang out with these people. And even though each of these characters on my show is messy in their own way, I hope they remind us we can overcome it and turn things around.

But right now, it’s like a 12 out of 10 in terms of trash.

Compared to your favorite sitcoms of growing up, like Martin or Seinfeld, what kind of show did you want to create?

A lot of people think that when you get to your 30s, your life is all figured out; that you can just be on autopilot, because things are sort of done. I really just wanted to show that that’s not true, and that everyone’s version of adulting is different.

For instance, my brother met his wife in freshman year of college and now has two kids and the house. And I’m in NY, in an apartment, am not married, I don’t have kids. And both ways of living are valid and special. So many times we get caught in what our lives are supposed to look like.

I always think “should” can lead you to a world of trouble. So I really wanted to show a celebration of making choices that allow you to live your most authentic life you can live.

What do you think most people misconstrue about life in one’s early 30s?

The mess looks a little different. It’s less, like, “I’m eating dollar pizza and I can’t pay my rent.” It’s more, “I think maybe I want to have kids, I’m not sure. So maybe I’ll date someone who also maybe wants kids?” I think the stakes are raised a little bit in terms of the mess.

The show begins with your character asking the man she just slept with to buy her Plan B. Have you thought about how the scene might play differently in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned?

The inspiration for that scene is just myself and many other women who have used Plan B, if the condom has broken or whatever: you gotta go take care of this. This is just one part of a female experience. We have to talk about it and acknowledge that it exists and happens. When I wrote the scene, I could have never imagined it would be airing during the time we’re living in now.

I hope that it resonates with people. I hope that people can see themselves in that moment; that they can be on the ride with this character without judgment. I think that’s the biggest thing we’re contending with right now: There’s a lot of personal judgment and looking down on people instituted as law.

Just like your character on the show, you also have a brother who ran for local office. [Phoebe’s brother Phil Robinson is now a state representative in Ohio.] What did you learn about the local political process from him?

This character of Jayden is a little more neurotic than my brother is. But I think the do-gooder energy, the doting father, the kind heart and extreme intelligence is him.

He was not a consultant on the show—he was too busy! But I canvassed in 2006, after I graduated from Pratt and needed a job while I was applying for different jobs at film companies. I ended up working for Tom Suozzi when he was running against Eliot Spitzer. The whole canvassing thing—you’re knocking on doors and people don’t have time for you—we definitely mined for comedy in the show.

I think I was good at phone banking, which is not a surprise considering I then became a podcaster. But after that I was like, “Oh, politics is not for me.” It’s so hard to get people to care. Especially on the local level, because rightfully so, a lot of people feel their voices aren’t heard. I think it takes a really special kind of person to really want to roll up their sleeves and try to turn their communities around.

You’re one of several Black women leading TV shows right now, including Quinta Brunson (Abbott Elementary), Katori Hall (P-Valley), Sam Jay (Pause with Sam Jay), and Tracy Oliver (First Wives Club). Do you feel like this is a moment, a movement or something else?

I’m hesitant to label it a moment or movement or anything because the tides can always change very quickly. For me, I just want to be like, “OK, I have my show. Hopefully a couple people from the writers room will create their own shows and become showrunners and EPs.”

I am encouraged in seeing how many shows are Black-female-led, or POC-led in general. But I’ve been around long enough to see this has happened before and it sort of dried up. I don’t want to take a victory lap. We have to keep our feet on the gas.

Read more: How Insecure Opened Doors for Black Creatives in Hollywood

There was a lot of demand for change in media during the summer of 2020. Have you seen that momentum carry through this point?

The momentum has carried, but there’s still a lot of more of the same. It’s not just having people of color in front of the camera. It’s also, who’s on the publicity side and marketing? Who are the executives greenlighting stuff? Are all kinds of reviewers getting access to stuff? To me, it feels like that part is still lagging.

I think that representation is great, but I don’t think it’s the only piece of the puzzle. I’m hoping that things will continue to change behind the scenes, too.

If you look in publishing, the overwhelming majority of editorial assistants are still white and financially well off. That hasn’t changed that much since the summer of 2020. For me, I want those sorts of things to happen. Because we need to start ushering in a new generation to keep this momentum going.

How do you hope to use the writers’ room for Everything’s Trash to incubate talent?

Jonathan [Groff, the showrunner—not to be confused with the Hamilton star of the same name] and I wanted to have a mix of experienced people and those on the greener side. Because what’s the point of doing this if you’re not going to help bring in new voices?

Of course, it will help with the writing process to have people who have been executive producers before. But then it’s also good to give people their first staff writing job. They can bring a lot to a room because they don’t know any differently: they’re just going on instinct and the ideas in their head.

Ushering in new voices and new ideas has been one of the things that I’ve tried to advocate for across the board with my career. The majority of the books on my imprint are by debut authors. People are ready. They just need to be acknowledged and given the opportunity to show off the skills that they have.

How soon can we expect you to return to podcasting?

Oh my gosh, I’m so tired. How dare you. I just finished on Friday.

All jokes aside, I do love podcasting. But I think there’s an overpopulation of podcasts right now. So I want to podcast again when I have something to say.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask a U2 question, given that you’re a noted superfan. How did you feel about their album Songs of Innocence, which appeared on everyone’s iPhone in 2014 and because of that, is one of the most hated records in recent memory?

Oh my gosh, one of the most hated? Is that true? I love all of their albums. I really enjoy that album and listen to it from time to time. I’m a fan through and through.

I know people were not thrilled about it being on their phones or whatever. But they gambled and took a chance, and I like when artists try things. Even if it doesn’t work, they learned something from it.

July 13, 2022 at 08:55PM Andrew R. Chow

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