I recently sat down to two episodes of the new HBO show 2 Dope Queens. Hosted by The Daily Show alum Jessica Williams and comedian Phoebe Robinson, the show is a live stage adaptation of the popular podcast of the same name, on which the two black Millennial girlfriends riff off of each other about any and everything. The podcast was clearly popular enough to secure the ladies that HBO bag.
From what I can surmise, the live show format has the women riffing off each other onstage, followed by a handful of guest stand-up comedians and a special guest interview; the first two episodes had Williams’ former boss Jon Stewart and Sarah Jessica Parker, respectively.
Between those two episodes, I may have registered half a chuckle. Despite what the audience – which is whiter than an Midwestern outdoor patio in March – would have you believe, very little that the women have to say is actually that funny. Most of the guest comedians I saw are also questionable at best.
In my book, 2 Dope Queens is the second swing-and-a-miss from Williams, whom I developed a solid crush on during her Daily Show stint and from whom I still expect big career moves. I only made it through about three-quarters of her Netflix film The Incredible Jessica James before bowing out. I tried to wrap my head around what didn’t work for me in that film, and 2 Dope Queens solidified it: Their brand of comedy might be by us, but it’s not for us. And what I mean by “us” is black folks who skew toward what I call “cultural blackness.”
I’m certain I’m not the first person to come up with “cultural blackness,” but I use the phrase to describe a set of behavior, presence of mind or state of being that is unique to the black American experience, and which stands in contrast to every other ethnic group – especially white Americans.
Put more crudely, it’s how black-ass folks who came up around other black-ass folks in black-ass spaces function around each other, regardless of our education levels. It’s an intrinsic understanding about how to comport yourself in these spaces and areas. Cultural blackness is the ability to fully embrace Tiffany Haddish and the FX show Atlanta without the need for crib notes.
Cultural blackness is on a spectrum – on one end are black folks whose only sustained exposure to other black people is one or both of their parents; they sound like Don Lemon and are far more at home in white spaces than those whose exposure to white people was a novelty or a rarity, as was my experience as a native Detroiter. On the other end are black folks who are only comfortable in black enclaves and are likely not as trusting of white folks in general. My guess is that Robinson and Williams are closer to the middle of that spectrum.
Robinson grew up in white suburbs of Cleveland and Williams in Los Angeles. They both rep Brooklyn, which is a bastion of Millennial liberalism. Their comedy seems centered on the fact that they’re both dark-skinned black women, but in a way that seems designed for and palatable to white audiences: their jokes and declarations seem very Fisher Price My First Negro-esque, designed to “teach” the audience about their blackness. They also both have “white baes,” whom they talk about often; The Incredible Jessica James is basically a love story in which Williams moves on from her black boyfriend with a white dude.
(If two black men had an analogous show with them fawning over white women, they would get dragged from here to the ashiest of Hells by Black Twitter. But that’s neither here nor there.)
Of course, “blackness” is far from monolithic, and it’s long been a cornerstone of white supremacy for black people to attack other black people for their relation to “cultural blackness.” The criticism that I’ve read about 2 Dope Queens from other black people is largely focused on the fact that they don’t seem to focus on “black people shit.” I don’t think that’s fair – that they have a seemingly esoteric brand of comedy that doesn’t fit into the shit we used to watch on Comic View in the 1990s is fine, and I don’t think they’re “sellouts” by not promoting a sense of “blackness” that others think they should.
But it’s also worth noting that Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock are mainstream, revered comic legends whose comedy focuses/focused largely on cultural blackness, and the front rows at all their shows are/were filled with white people who paid top-dollar. They’re bigger than life because everyone loves them.
So maybe the 2 Dope Queens just aren’t funny enough to connect with wider audiences. And that’s okay too….as long as they’re securing the bag, I wish them the best.