Intro: Hello, you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.
Marina Fang: Hi, I’m marina Fang, a senior cultural reporter at HuffPost, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America East and host of this episode of On Writing. I am really excited to speak with Phoebe Robinson, the creator, writer, and star of Everything’s Trash, which is currently airing on Freeform and streaming on Hulu. Welcome Phoebe.
Phoebe Robinson: Thanks so much for having me, so excited to chat.
Marina Fang: Yeah, I really love the show. There’s just so much, it’s so much fun. It’s also very real. I was really curious, just to start out, I know the broad outlines of this show are semi-autobiographical. Obviously the character you play is also named Phoebe and in real life, you’ve developed several podcasts, very successful podcasts. I know your brother, Phil is actually a state rep. So I guess, how did you go about figuring out where these similarities to your life would end in the show?
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, I mean, I think anytime you’re writing something, that’s from your life, people don’t really care if every single step happened. I’m a person who loves story. I mean, I love jokes, but I really love story. So, I feel like if the spirit of what’s in the book is in the show and foundationally laid out, everything that we need to do with this show, if we’re going to have a writer’s room and have people from all different backgrounds, some are married, some aren’t, some have kids, some don’t, people grew up in Texas, East Coast, West Coast. So, you want to take advantage of that and really have everyone’s lives inform the characters in ways that are really exciting and surprising and interesting.
And so for me, I’m just always like, whatever’s going to tell the best story, that’s what wins. Whatever’s the funniest joke, that is what wins. The thing is, a book is a solo experience. I mean, yes, you have your editor, but you’re the one doing a writing and then a TV show is collaborative. So, you got to incorporate other people’s ideas and stories and what they’ve been through into the show. Otherwise, why have them in the room?
Marina Fang: Right, you mentioned the book and I know the show of is inspired by it, but how did you take the essays, which like you said, you wrote and are from your perspective, and then develop that into a show with characters, and with plot, and all the things that you expect from a show versus a book and a collection of essays.
Phoebe Robinson: When I started work with my show runner, Jonathan Groff, who is brilliant, show ran Black-ish, Happy Endings, head writer on Conan, I’m obsessed with him, will be obsessed with him until the end of time, we started working on this project in 2019 when my production company launched. And we really just sat down, talked about essays that really resonated with us and he really liked the women’s march essay, he really liked … Obviously we couldn’t do that because of COVID. So, we didn’t even try and touch anything that involved crowds, but he really responded to the money essay too and me talking about my financial history. I think that, for us, felt like a good essay to not have it be from book to screen, but really what is the spirit of the essay. The student loan debt, the credit card debt, the definite buying an outfit, because you have an event, charging your credit card so you can return it.
I was a wear and return queen for years, you know what I mean? Because I couldn’t afford anything. And so I think, for example, with that, it’s something that we just share in the room and we talk about and what my experience was and what I went through and what was funny about it. And then, we just were yes and-ing. And that’s how we ended up with an owl, which is so fun and terrifying, because I was like, “Oh shoot, I have to actually act with an owl,” but that’s an example of how we would take something from the book and be like, how can we make this as funny, as possible, as visually engaging as possible, while still honoring the book and also honoring the show? I will say working with Groff, he’s really good about just … In the beginning, I was just out pages of, “This is I think what the world is and I want to have my brother, and sister-in-law, I want to have my podcast producer friend. I want to have my best friend.” And I would write things out and then show it to him and he would ask really good questions and have me dig deeper.
And then we started figuring out of a pilot episode, we did two pilots. We did the OG pilot is what we call it, which we shot 2021 in LA. I really wanted to shoot in New York, but it was just so crazy expensive to shoot in New York. So, the network was like, “Well, just do it in LA on sound stages in Burbank.” And obviously it just didn’t translate and so we shot it … we did a of it. But when I sat down with him and we really developed a pilot story and then we pitched it to the studio, ABC’s Signature, my home studio, and then we pitched it to Freeform and you get the notes back and you try to fight for things.
I really fought for the Plan B stuff. I really had to fight for it and I think it was worth fighting for. Then once we got green lit for series, it was really just like, “All right, let’s just find the funniest people. We’re going to do this on Zoom.” Writer’s room on Zoom, never done that before. So, now we can just have the people we want, they could live wherever, they don’t have to uproot their families. I think we got a really great quirky, just awesome mix of people together because of that. They all brought their own ideas to it.
I think when people watched the show, they could sense that it’s filled with love because I think there was just a lot of love in the writer’s room. That was a 27 minute long answer, felt like a white guy with that one.
Marina Fang: That was great though, there were so many things I wanted to follow up on. One, you mentioned, I can’t believe that you shot a version of this in Burbank, because it’s such not just New York show, but very Brooklyn. I live in Brooklyn too, so I really love that it’s a very Brooklyn show and I think that adds a lot of specificity, but yeah, can you talk a little bit, I mean you’ve obviously lived in Brooklyn a long time. You’ve come up through the New York comedy scene. What did you want to capture about Brooklyn and how did you fight to make sure that you shot in New York?
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, I mean, I was very adamant about it. I was like, it’s based off my book. It’s based off my life. I’ve only ever lived in Brooklyn as an adult, so let’s do it there, Freeform totally got it. And I think for me, I love watching New York shows, Living Single, Friends, obviously Sex and the City is cannon for someone like me. I just love those shows and Freeform is great in that they’re really trying to expand their audience and show before college age, early 20s and now we have someone in their 30s and then Single Drunk Female I think is late 20s as well. So, trying to show just different of life experiences and different stages of your life. I love a lot of New York shows, but I think so many of them, while we wanted to be aspirational, and Freeform is very much an aspirational vibe, which I totally get, I also wanted to be realistic.
I’m like, “I don’t know anyone who lives in a loft.” You know what I mean? Carrie Bradshaw wrote one article a week and had this fantastic life where she was just buying clothes all the time and going out to dinner every single night and that’s just not realistic. So, I wanted to have fun with showing this struggle of New York, but you still love your life, especially when you live here in your 20s and you’re just, the struggle is part of the joy of living New York. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to have dollar pizza tonight.” Or, “Yeah, I’m going to drink shitty beer and that’s going to be part of the story.” I really wanted to capture that and I think a lot of shows, if they show New York, it’s just, “So, Tribeca, the gentrified parts of Williamsburg.” I was like, I’ve lived all over. I’ve lived in Crown Heights before it was gentrified. I went to Pride Institute. I’ve lived in Kensington. I’ve lived, Sunset … My office is based in Sunset Park, I’ve lived near Bay Ridge. I’ve lived in Boerum Hill, Park Slope. I lived all over with all these amazing communities that are full of people of color and queer people. And I really wanted to show a different Brooklyn that’s not just a bunch of white peeps who are drinking green smoothies.
Marina Fang: Yeah, and going to overpriced brunch on Sunday.
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marina Fang: Which, no shade, is a nice indulgence, but I feel like that’s very overrepresented on New York shows or just shows about people in their 20s or 30s.
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, absolutely.
Marina Fang: Yeah. I’ll say something about Carrie Bradshaw that I will never stop thinking about, is that there’s an episode where … The Vogue episode where she’s getting paid $4 a word for an article. I’m like, “Who makes that much? No one does.”
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, that’s not true. It’s more like a dollar 50. You know what I mean?
Marina Fang: Right and that’s good. Anyway, but yeah, I really like that idea of just taking the things that are great about New York, but also showing it’s a struggle to live here. A lot of shows do not show that struggle at all. You mentioned the writer’s room and doing it over Zoom, which I imagine, like you said, I imagine must have been really great for casting a wide net and gathering the best people. How did you go about assembling the room? What kinds of strengths did each of the writers bring? And also you mentioned incorporating everyone has a different background. How did you incorporate that into the storylines?
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, I mean, Groff and I … because this was his first time show running a room on Zoom as well. So, it was cool, even though he has all this TV experience in the half hour space and I don’t, I feel like that leveled things out a hair. I think what we did is we just relied on people that he has worked with for a while. One of our producers and writers is Laura Gutin Peterson, who’s also from Black-ish, she’s fantastic. She’s been in this business for a while. She actually started out as his assistant and she’s just really funny, she’s just a joke killer. And so I think we going to have people like that, but then Calise Hawkins is a standup comedian, I’ve known her forever. Jordan Carlos, I’ve actually known … I’ve been doing comedy for 14 years, I’ve met him 13 years ago and we’ve always just had of a brother, sister kind of energy, so I think it was very easy for us to just play that.
And so having that in the room, I think really was helpful building out the relationship between those two characters. So, we have a good mix of standup comics. Some people who have been in the industry for a while and then some people who are like, this is their first major writing job on a TV show. And so, we wanted to have a good mix of people because we just feel like you just get different stuff from different people. And sometimes maybe someone who’s green, they don’t quite know what they don’t know, but they really come up with exciting, excuse me, amazing ideas that you might not have gotten otherwise. And we really just try to make it as balanced as possible.
I think while at first on Zoom, we were like, “Oh, this feels a little weird. I wish we were all in the same room.” We quickly were able to just bond and talk about our lives in a really fun way. I think about the money episode when TV Phoebe, that’s what we call her, she gets in the cab and she’s like, “Oh, if you take me $5 up Atlantic Avenue, that was taken from Calise’s life. She’s like, “I’ve done that before.” So I think, it’s escape room stuff. One of our writers, Lauren Bans, who’s also a writer producer on Single Drunk Female, who’s a big escape room person and I’ve always wanted to do it, but none of my friends ever want to do it. So I’m like, “We’re going to do it on the show.” And then Devin Walker is another writer. He came up with, “Why isn’t it just a [inaudible 00:14:05] escape room?” Because that’s just so funny and ridiculous.
And so it’s really cool how we’re able to work together and build these things out that have everyone’s little bit of their stamp on it, but still pass through my voice. So, I got to say, after doing a season via Zoom, I think I would want to do … If we got a second season, knock on wood, yeah, I would want to do it on Zoom because I think we have these short orders. You can’t really be like, “Hey, I know you have kids, but can you move to New York for three months to write on this show?” And so, I think it frees people up to be with their loved ones and still show up fully and contribute to the show.
Marina Fang: Yeah, totally. You mentioned the episode that just aired as we’re taping this, which is the escape room one. I mean, in general on the show, I love the real specificity and the density of the jokes in this most recent episode, and the NASA diaper lady hell, which really took me back because I was like, “Oh right. I remember that story very well.” Another one I liked is of course the Rich Whites Show, which I imagine is inspired by a certain show we all know and love.
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah.
Marina Fang: But yeah, with the jokes and the topical references, are you all just pitching those in the writer’s room and then riffing on each other and then being like, “Oh, maybe we’ll put that into this episode?” Or how does that work of figuring out the jokes and then where to put them?
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, I mean for each episode we would do an outline, beat out each episode as a room and then whoever was assigned to the episode, they would then do an outline, a fully fleshed out outline with all the beats. And then sometimes some of this stuff, The Rich Whites, I think that was Jordan Carlos’ episode. I think we came up with rich whites in the room, but then I think he fleshed things out and I think it’s a good process because everyone can chip in. But then when you go off on the outline phase, you might discover some things that just weren’t thought of in the room. You know what I mean? And that can enhance it that way, but it really is, there are a lot of super funny people. I love pop culture stuff, Ray Sani is a big Real Housewives fan. She’s on Twitter, she’s up to speed, so we would have … I feel like everyone’s just obsessed with … Succession was often talked about in the room just because that was … Season three was happening while we were writing. And so I think there was a lot of, we wanted to make each other laugh and even things we were just around on breaks because sometimes end up in episodes.
And so, I think we really just were like, this is a show that while it has a lot of heart, we want it to be extremely funny. I love a good pop culture reference, so I want that to be present in the show. And there’s just a lot of yes and-ing and one up being each other and really fun ways. And, so that’s how we would just come up with jokes and I think it worked out pretty well. I would say it did.
Marina Fang: Yeah. When you’re shooting, do you stick pretty strictly to the script or were there alts, or improvising, anything like that?
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah, I mean usually when we write the scripts, whoever’s assigned to a episode would write the script and I’d do the Phoebe pass and then we would go back, and bring the script back into the room to do a final pass. And then a lot of times it would just be like, “Okay, let’s try and beat jokes.” That would just be what would we do. We would just go through script and try and beat jokes. And then if we’re like, “Okay, we like this,” but then we would have an alt file. So, then we would just put jokes that we for certain scenes into the alt file and that would be printed out with sides and Groff would hold onto that. And just on the day when we’re shooting, it would be stuff was scripted, stuff in the alt file, improvised stuff. So, it was a good mix, which I think is what you want for a comedy show.
For instance, when the fight between Jayden and TV Phoebe and the pilot on the street about Gal Gadot, we were just going back and forth and just on one … I think it was the second to last take and I just did that walk back, I just improvised it. And then, that ended up in the episode because it was just so fun and really you’re like, “Okay, I definitely know who this character is.” So, we leave a lot of room as long as we can get the story out. We do leave room for improvising, especially Moses Storm. It’s just like, he’s so hilarious. So, he would definitely riff stuff, that was just golden.
Marina Fang: You mentioned Jonathan Groff a couple times. I’m wondering how did you meet and then figure out your working relationship of him as the showrunner, you as creator, writer, star?
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah. So, once I got my production company started, Tiny Reparations, in 2019, the studio and my agents were just having me go on meetings because I wanted to develop my own half hour comedy. I’d been trying to do that for years and it would almost happen here, almost happen here, didn’t happen. And so I was like, “Okay, yeah cool.” I really wanted to have black woman as a showrunner and both the studio and my agent Tim Phillips was like, “Hey, we really love Jonathan Groff.” And I was like, “Yeah, he’s a white dude. I don’t know.” And they were like, “Just meet with him. You might hit it off and if you don’t like, it’s fine, he’s busy, you’re busy, no hard feelings.” I was like, “Okay.” So we met on, I think it was on FaceTime and we just sparked right away. We just had the same sort of nerdy sense of humor.
I think obviously I’m a little bit dirtier than he is, but we were not afraid to just have a vulnerable moment and not undercut it with comedy. We were off to the races. He really liked the book that I wrote, Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay. And he was like, “This could definitely be a TV show.” And so, once we got into the room, first of all, I would say, I think the heartbeat of the show is him and I. we just really mesh in a way comedically, that is really exciting. He’s the best creative partner I’ve ever had and probably will ever have. And we really just were like … I don’t know, it’s hard to explain unless you’re in the room, but it just really felt like this delicate dance where we’re intuitively almost always on the same pages.
There are certainly moments where we disagreed about certain things. But for the most part, I think we both really saw clearly what we want this show to be and what we feel like it has that happy ending sort of feeling, but also still TV Phoebe’s the true lead in that way. So, I think when we went into the room, we just really A, wanted to foster an environment that was going to make people want to be excited, show up every day, and share, and contribute, and tell jokes, also really hold ourselves accountable and make sure we’re not just doing jokes that are very first thought. You know what I mean? Because it’s easy to be like, “Oh, I came up with this, boom.” And then I think we really just wanted to … I really learn a lot from him and I think he’s really an open communicator and is so nurturing and encouraging, that I really learned a lot about being a leader from him.
And so, I think he just brought so much to the room that I … This whole podcast could just be how much I love this man, but I really think he brought so much intelligence and grace and just so funny, so much heart to the show. I think I bring a lot of heart and funny to the show and I think we just were like, “We want to make something joyful.” That was the thing that we want. We don’t want to do a half hour comedy where no one’s laughing because I know that’s very in and we just really wanted something where it’s like, “No, we want you to be able to turn your brain off and feel good at the end of this episode because it just made you laugh.”
Marina Fang: Yeah, totally. You mentioned the development process. I’m curious, was there at any point where it was like, “Okay, maybe this person just doesn’t get it.” I guess, how do you balance notes that are actually helpful and useful that you’re going to incorporate and notes that are just like, “Okay, this person just does not get my vision. I need to fight to make the show that I want to make.”
Phoebe Robinson: I think it’s hard. I think you definitely have to figure out which hills you want to die on. Like I said before, the Plan B thing was something that I was willing to die on and I was like, “This is staying in the script.” But I think it’s also, what I will say to Freeform’s credit is that a lot of their notes are really good. You know what I mean? I think sometimes it’s just about being able to figure out, okay, what’s a great note that we could apply to the show and what is a note that’s more like a lateral move where it’s like, yeah, we could do that, but we also already have this. So, if it’s not going to make it better, then I don’t know if we necessarily need to take the note, but we do appreciate the note.
I think it’s just as writers, I know for myself, I had to get better during the notes process. In the beginning, I was very much just like, “I don’t want to hear this note,” and blah, blah, blah. And then I got to a place where I was just, anytime I would give a note, I would go, “This is Phoebe and the note has been received.” Just to give myself that moment to not be like, “You’re wrong. You don’t know what’s funny, you … blah, blah, blah.” It’s just like, just take that moment to process it. I think we really did luck out and they really got when I said I didn’t want this to be a show about respectability politics and we want these characters to be messy. We want to show different sides of Blackness. We want to just have all of that in there and they got it.
Every once in a while you get a note and you’re just like, you go, “Oh, how could they write this now?” But then you just go, “Okay, I understand where they’re coming from.” And so you try to see their perspective. And a lot of times you can see the note behind the note and you can go, “Okay, I get that. I know what you want and that makes sense.” So, I think sometimes it’s having to do an ego check, A. B, sometimes realize they’re just going to be some jokes that they don’t necessarily get, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not funny. And that’s okay. So, you’re just like, “Yeah, they don’t get that joke, but that’s okay.” And then there are the other notes where you’re like, “All right, we’re going to have to have a little bit of a battle, but I think it’s exciting creatively.” I feel like if you’re in a project and there isn’t one note that makes you have a back and forth, then it’s like, I don’t even know if anyone really cares about this project that much that no one’s willing to fight over something.
Marina Fang: I feel like this ties in well with podcasting too because I imagine a lot of your work coming up as a podcaster probably was a lot of how do I stay true to my voice as a podcaster, but also dealing with a lot of different people telling me what I have to do? And you incorporate that into the show. So, I guess I have multiple questions about podcasting, but the first one is how did you incorporate your experience into the show, into TV Phoebe’s podcast career, and what did you want to say about podcasting, I guess? If there was something you wanted to say.
Phoebe Robinson: Yeah. I mean, when 2 Dope Queens came out in 2016, it was number one, the iTunes charts and everyone’s like, “Oh my God, this is so amazing. Your life is going to change.” And it’s like, yes. I mean, it did change in certain ways, but it was like, I was still broke. It didn’t lead to all these jobs right away. You know what I mean? So, I really wanted to show that you can have this of outwardly successful career, have people really enjoy your work, but financially the money hasn’t caught up to that yet, so I wanted to show that. I think the Malika character certainly was inspired by Joanna Solotaroff, who was my producer on Sooo Many White Guys, Joanie Mitch as I called her on the show, and also was my producer on 2 Dope Queens. And just, I wanted to have that heart and that funny and that ride or die person by your side.
And then, also just making fun of the different podcasts, like the Murder Gals and Brooklyn Dads, and just that space of, we all know those podcasters where you just roll your eyes and you’re like, “All right, I’m just trying to avoid these people as much as possible.” Because I wanted to have a playful energy when it came to talking about podcasting, because I think it’s now … It’s so oversaturated in a way, but I think what’s great about it is that podcasts really do summarize someone’s personality. Every podcast helps you go like, “Oh, I know exactly who you are, based on what you’re talking about and how you’re talking about it.” I know that was really, really fun.
Marina Fang: Yeah. You bring in the fact that a lot of people can’t really make a living off of podcasting, which I feel like people from the outside, who don’t work in media don’t fully grasp. It’s not a huge profit-making thing. So, I love in the show, TV Phoebe is like, she’s doing okay, but it’s not like she’s just raking in money from the podcast. So yeah, I guess, wondering how do you feel like podcasting has changed over the years and also what do you think needs to change, especially to make it more equitable, especially for creators?