When Phoebe Robinson worked as a staff writer on Fred Armisen’s “Portlandia,” she didn’t keep a penny, she said.
“I put all of it towards my student loans,” recalled Robinson, 37, who paid them off just four years ago. “I was broke for almost 10 years pursuing comedy, and that’s just what it was. I carried a lot of shame for part of that time because of that. Now that I look back on it, it’s like, ‘Girl, you were trying to make your dreams come true. Why are you feeling bad about that?’”
After launching her standup career in 2008, the Cleveland, Ohio, native gradually ascended to stardom. Now, Robinson is on the cusp of achieving a dream that has been over seven years in the making. The multitalented entertainer started her own publishing imprint in 2020 called Tiny Reparations, starred in the HBO series “2 Dope Queens” — adapted from her podcast of the same name with Jessica Williams — and, most recently, she added the title of executive producer to her extensive resume.
Named after her 2018 essay collection “Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay,” Robinson’s series “Everything’s Trash” premieres on Freeform on Wednesday. In the sitcom, Robinson plays the messy but well-meaning Phoebe Hill, a 30-something perky podcaster navigating career, life and love in Brooklyn.
The key to her success, Robinson said, has been learning into her own identity.
“I think everything really changed for myself when I really doubled down on my voice and who I am,” said Robinson. “I did that with ‘2 Dope Queens,’ and that has led to all the success with the production company and the book imprint. Everything that sort of has worked out has just been me, leaning into myself to the fullest, which is something that the industry doesn’t want you to do.”
The book was described as a “candid perspective for a generation that has had the rug pulled out from under them.” An antidote to despair in a post-Trump world, Robinson’s collection of essays touched on topics such as gender, race, dating and society from a Black woman’s perspective. Four years have passed since then — and the world has arguably gotten worse — but Robinson hopes “Everything’s Trash” will allow viewers to shut the noise out for 30 minutes and feel warmly embraced by a “very sexy, hip, cool gravity blanket.”
“With this show, I want to be like, ‘Yes, life is hard. Life is tricky. There are things that we can’t control, but I still want us to feel good and laugh and enjoy our lives a little bit,’” she said. “The COVID of it all has made us be more introspective, which I think is fantastic, but I don’t want us to lose the joy.”
The journey to “Everything’s Trash” began in 2015, when Robinson first attempted to develop a show for herself, but was struggling to find the right home for it. In 2019, she met showrunner Jonathan Groff. Together, the two have inadvertently expanded Freeform’s offerings, from being a network that focuses largely on adolescent narratives to providing a glimpse into millennial life after 30.
“Maybe I should have been like, ‘Everything’s Trash, and It’s Not Okay’?” she said, laughing. “I really wanted this show to include the voices of the writers, include the voice of the my showrunner Jonathan Groff, and be a salve for these times — whether it’s talking about money issues, dating or any sort of things that make you feel like you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Even when you’re in your early 30s, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m an adult now.’ But you’re still like, ‘Oh, my God, am I screwing this up? Am I making the wrong choice?’”
In the first episode, Phoebe is tasked with helping her picture-perfect older brother Jayden (Jordan Carlos) launch his political career. Of course, in true Phoebe fashion, it goes left when she hooks up with a supposed stranger — or, in her words, catches an unsuspecting “fish, got all up in dem guts, and threw him back out to sea” after a night out. Propelling the limited canon of shows that have flawed, complex Black female leads, “Everything’s Trash” is an homage to imperfection and subverting the tropes about Black women.
“I don’t think there’s much beauty in perfection. Perfection is boring in a lot of ways, and I think it makes people feel as though they should be doing XYZ. Once you fall into the minefield of the ‘shoulds,’ that’s when you’re really in trouble,” said Robinson. “I really hope that people can be like, ‘Yeah, I’m a work in progress.’ I’m glad to be, and I don’t want to be finished. Because, then what’s the point of living if you’re done?”
The relationship between Phoebe and Jayden parallels that of Robinson and her dorky, kind older brother, whom she describes as “beacon of responsibility.”
“For Black women, I know the media really limits the way that we can be viewed. They want us to fall into respectability politics or to always make it feel like everything is a struggle ... They really do want Black women to be perfect — and I’m saying, how about we strive for humanity instead of striving for perfection?”
Her brother met his wife during their first week of undergrad at George Washington University; now, he’s the father of two kids and lives in Ohio, 20 minutes away from their parents. Meanwhile, Robinson is living a very different life, childfree and unmarried, in New York.
“Both of those adult experiences are valid and worthy of celebration. For Black women, I know the media really limits the way that we can be viewed. They want us to fall into respectability politics or to always make it feel like everything is a struggle,” said Robinson. “We’re out here having fun: hanging with friends, dating, going to concerts, traveling, all these things that are not really celebrated. I’m not trying to represent the entire Black female experience. I’m just showing that this is a funny way that you can live. They really do want Black women to be perfect — and I’m saying, how about we strive for humanity instead of striving for perfection?”
However, amidst the hijinks, hilarity and chaos, Phoebe Hill, much like Robinson, is secure in herself. She makes no concessions to mirror the path of her older brother, but rather, adds flair in ways only she knows how. Hill is secure in her insecurity, although she occasionally indulges in “wardrobing,” e.g., when you purchase an item, wear it once, then return it for a refund.
“You can aspire to certain things, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t like where you are. Society has a complicated understanding of women who are joyful and like their own lives, if it’s not tied to their identity being someone’s partner or being someone’s mother. I think a really radical thing is liking yourself,” Robinson said. “To me, I feel like ‘Everything’s Trash’ is an act of defiance to show this woman who’s not being like, ‘Oh, God, I’m not married yet. I don’t have a quarter-million dollars in the bank. I’m not living in the perfect neighborhood,’ and she’s at peace with who she is.”
Akin to some of Robinson’s favorite shows, such as “Happy Endings,” “Harlem” and “Sex and the City,” the forthcoming Freeform series makes friendship is a focal point. Day-to-day, her character is supported by her best friend and producer Malika Jones (Toccarra Cash) and an unbearably out-of-pocket housemate Michael Baker (Moses Storm). From helping to retrieve Phoebe’s “heaux bag” after one-night stands to gleefully joining in on any scheme, the trio is a testament to the people who shape you, said Robinson.
“With this show, we get to have great different pairings, triangulations and people going off with each other. The group hangout scenes are some of my favorites, and we shot our last hangout scene for the season yesterday,” she said.
“I really wanted to capture that in the show, because I think when you are an adult, your friends are so foundational to who you’re going to become in your next level of life,” she said.
Robinson said that while “TV Phoebe is going to be in a constant state of two steps forward, one step back,” she hopes viewers will be able to follow her maturation over the course of many seasons — while getting a laugh in or two.
“What’s great about her is that she’s not afraid of making a mistake. We’re gonna see her make some not-great choices, but also really show up for people in a way that she probably wouldn’t have at the beginning of the season,” said Robinson. “I really just want these 10 episodes to be this basket of joy that people get to dip in and experience and make them want to talk about some things they haven’t talked about before. I want people to feel good, and I want people to laugh a lot. That is the goal.”