The Washington Post
‘Everything’s Trash,’ but to Phoebe Robinson, that’s okay
Actress, comedian, publisher and author Phoebe Robinson says she is a reformed workaholic. Yeah, we don’t really believe her, either.
How could anyone, when in the last year alone Robinson has launched a stand- up special (“Sorry, Harriet Tubman”), released her third book (“Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes”), celebrated the best- selling success of one of her imprint’s authors and last week debuted her starring role in “Everything’s Trash,” her first half- hour comedy? That’s a lot of work, and Robinson, who has been at it since hitting the New York comedy scene more than a decade ago, is far from finished.
But in “Everything’s Trash,” which premiered its first two episodes on Freeform last week, the silly outweighs the struggle. So it’s work but fun, which is in Robinson’s wheelhouse. “TV Phoebe,” as the multi- hyphenate calls her small- screen character, is an up- and- coming podcaster figuring out the whole adulting thing in Brooklyn. Adding to the cast of characters is TV Phoebe’s blerdy older brother, her perfectly put- together producer and her quirky but lovable roommate. It’s a hangout show with heart, delivered at a time when it feels as though everything truly is trash.
“I hope people can feel uplifted and joyful when they’re watching the show and then maybe open their hearts up a little bit more,” Robinson said. That’s a tall order, but when she has worked this hard to make it happen, audiences might oblige. Here we chat with Robinson about the show, why New York is everyone’s favorite place and what Real Phoebe has learned.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: We have to start with the title of the show, “Everything’s Trash.” It comes from your 2018 essay collection of the same name, but in the years since, things have gotten, shall we say, much worse. Explain what it means for literally everything to be trash.
A: We’re all trash. But by acknowledging that, we can then sort of work through those issues, those flaws, those insecurities and try to be our best selves, because I think there is a lot of toxic positivity. We’re like, “Yasss, queen, slay, you’re iconic.” Okay, most of us aren’t iconic. We’re sort of fumbling our way through adulthood, and that’s okay. We don’t have to have everything figured out. We don’t have to have all the right answers. But as long as we’re trying, that’s the best we can hope for.
Q: Heartwarming shows seem to be having a moment: “Abbott Elementary,” “Ted Lasso.” Is it the times? Do we need a mental break?
A: Right now, with the way that the world is and living through a pandemic, I think we want shows that are a little less cynical or a little less depressing. But what’s fantastic is that there’s room for all of those. So while you have my show, “Abbott Elementary” and “South Side,” you also have heavier shows, such as “Succession” and “Better Call Saul” and “Yellowjackets.” It’s a really rich time for TV. You can watch my show and feel good. If you want to feel a little bit stressed, you can watch a “Yellowjackets” and go, “Oh, I don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”
Q: Let’s talk representation. Obviously, you’re a Black woman in Brooklyn, but the plot of “Everything’s Trash” doesn’t feel driven by that fact. The same goes for a lot of other new shows created and starring majority people-of-color casts. It feels like progress, that one experience doesn’t have to stand in for every experience.
A: When I sat down with my showrunner, Jonathan Groff, who came from “Black-ish” and “Happy Endings,” a lot of sort of heartwarming friend shows, we wanted to make sure that we were reflecting different kinds of Blackness. My brother on the show, Jayden, and also my brother in real life‚ PJ, they are dyed-in-the-wool nerds. It’s great to show like a blerdy Black man, because people like to act as if all Black men are king alphas. No, there are some betas here. Our sister-in-law character, Jessie, comes from money. Then you have Malika, my producer, who is where Phoebe could be in five years if she got her life together. There’s room for all of those different kinds of Black experiences, because that’s just being human. Respectability politics has no place in this show, because to me that’s centering White patriarchal standards. These characters are human: flawed people who are going to make mistakes that are sometimes funny, sometimes not.
Q: Running with that operating principle in the writers’ room sounds freeing.
A: There’s always a lot of pressure on people of color, women of color, particular people from the queer community to represent an entire demographic. And I don’t want to do that. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Quinta [Brunson, creator and star of “Abbott Elementary”] is doing. It’s just taking the burden off. You can actually write really three-dimensional characters if you’re not trying to adhere to some sort of standard.
Q: The show’s star is named Phoebe, and your name is Phoebe. “Insecure” creator Issa Rae has said her only regret was naming her character on the show Issa. Did you grapple with the decision?
A: Honestly, I was just lazy. I was, like, there are so many things I have to do. I’m headwriting the show, I’m executiveproducing, I’m starring in it and I created it. This is just one decision I don’t have to think about. Her name is Phoebe, and let’s move on. If people conflate the two, that’s understandable. I’m certainly in a different place than this character is now, so it’s nice to go back to that time in my life, where I was riding around New York City eating dollar pizza and doing stand-up shows at night and podcasts for free. But talk to me in Season 3.
Q: Speaking of trying to succeed as a young creative in New York City, in the second episode, you dig into TV Phoebe’s struggles. Why does the city have such a hold on folks who feel as if they have to make it there or else?
A: Growing up in Ohio, I watched “Felicity” and was like:
“That’s going to be me when I come to New York. I’m going to be in love triangles wearing chunky sweaters.” And I struggled for a long time. I’ve been in this career for 14 years, and things didn’t really take off until about nine years in. There was a lot of eating sad salads, or I’m going to pay my electric bill this month and not pay these other bills. New York is such a romantic place in the sense that anything can happen at any moment. But there’s also a specialness about New York. New York is like: “Bitch, I don’t need you. If you don’t like it here, you can leave. I’ ll be fine. There’s another busload of people coming in.”
That kind of toughness that New York has, people who live here have that toughness, too. Where it’s, like, I’m going to make it no matter what. I know to the outside it looks as if I’m struggling or that this is a fool’s errand, but to me, I know this is all going to happen. It’s this unbreakable spirit that New York has. We’re all in this struggle together, and one day, I’m going to have an apartment with a washer-dryer in the apartment. That was my dream for so long, and I made it happen. I was like, I’ve made it!
Q: In the pilot episode’s first scene, Phoebe is buying Plan B. Given where the country stands on female reproductive rights, that moment was funny-serious. What’s it liking watching now, as opposed to when you wrote it back in 2019?
A: A lot of women have had that experience of: “The condom broke, and I got to go get emergency contraception.” Given all that’s going on now, I just want people to watch this scene and either they identify with it, or they go, “That hasn’t been my experience, but I’m going to go on this journey.” This is a young woman trying to move through her life in the way that she thinks is the best. I hope people have open minds and open hearts and laugh at it. There’s so much to TV Phoebe outside of that one moment. A lot of times, this country likes to reduce people to one moment, then pass judgment. And I really want people to watch the show judgment-free.
Q: TV Phoebe is on a journey of maturity that Real Phoebe’s already gone through. What have you learned about yourself on the other side?
A: I’m confident, a bit of the ambivert (I have extrovert qualities and introvert qualities), silly. I try to not take myself too seriously, because, you know, life is hard enough. I’m a reformed workaholic, I’m very proud to say. I think I’m a person who’s becoming okay with not having everything figured out. I was Miss OneYear, Three-year, Five-year Plan. After coming out of doing this show and how intense the process was from developing it to writing it to shooting it to editing it, I’m in a place where it’s okay to not have a death grip on things. I think I’m hopeful. No matter how many times I’m told no, I am hopeful that the universe will lay a path out in front of me, and I just have to walk the path. Most things I’ve wanted out of life have not happened on my timeline. So I’m just always like: “Okay, I know you’re going to be late, Universe. I know you’ve got other things to do, so I’m just going to wait it out.”