HBO’s ‘2 Dope Queens’ Is All Charm and Cheer With a Touch of Social Commentary

The trials of the modern woman, those pesky questions about race in America and the hassles of moving are just some of the topics treated with rowdy charm in the HBO special, “2 Dope Queens.” It’s one of the first major transitions of a podcast to television and it works in a witty, breezy style where the humor isn’t very edgy and the jokes are just that, jokes. There is sly commentary thrown in, but in a conversational, fun tone. Unlike the recent Dave Chappelle special on Netflix, the two energetic hosts of “2 Dope Queens” aren’t trying to provoke or rattle the audience. They want to talk about everything, including important issues, with the ambiance of a get together.

A series of four specials, “2 Dope Queens” is hosted by Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, who originally made waves with their podcast and now hit the stage with invited guests to explore all the topics dominating our modern lives. The setting is Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, decorated to look like a homely roof with satellite dishes and barbecue grills. Immediately Williams and Robinson get things going with funny commentary on the country’s racial history (“Why should we as black women apologize when so many people should apologize to us?”). Jabs are thrown at those little awkward racial exchanges one finds here and there (“Like that one white guy at the bar who says ‘I love chocolate’”). Even historical reminders are thrown around when the duo agree that “one white person who should apologize is Thomas Jefferson. Sally Hemings was not a lover.” There is a welcoming casualness to the delivery, like when one discusses social topics among friends.

The rest of each episode’s structure is essentially a rotating set of special guests, ranging from TV notables like Jon Stewart and Sarah Jessica Parker, to comedy world luminaries like Michelle Buteau and Baron Vaughn. Stewart’s cameo is devoid of the kind of political commentary we would expect from the former Daily Show host. Here he goes for more general, comedic escape with his former co-worker Williams. He chats about the decline of New York as a city losing its grit, and participates in a pizza-tasting contest to identify which slice comes from which part of the city (Queens pizza is apparently not Stewart’s favorite). Buteau’s performance is a rousing take on the hardships of being a woman married to a European (“People in America are not used to white people with ethnic names”), to discovering during a check-up that her gynecologist is a Trump supporter. The best section in Buteau’s act is when she shreds that annoying cycle of being single and being asked when you’ll get married, then getting married and getting questions about when you’ll have kids. It’s a moment with great wit and humor that works because it’s brilliantly culled from real universal experience.

Baron Vaughn’s act is a blistering take on religion. “I was raised Southern Baptist, which is why I don’t believe in anything now,” he announces. Vaughn goes on to tackle a multitude of angles from Christian hypocrisy to the insistent depiction of Jesus as a ripped white guy. Vaughn settles on the possibility that Jesus probably had more in common with Mr. T, because “they both pitied the fools.” Vaughn is provocative, but never mean. He’s trying to make sense of these topics without actually getting offensive. The whole point is to have fun.

In the second episode, “Hair,” Williams and Robinson turn an opening discussion on hair dye and hair styles to a hilarious chat about multiracial dating. If you pay close attention to their act you realize the humor is actually a journey of life for a modern woman in New York, not American society as a whole. Uncomfortable topics are treated with a casualness that feels like the wisdom attained from dealing with so many hassles on a daily basis. When masturbation on the subway becomes a theme, Williams ponders “maybe he was a method actor? Like Daniel-Day Lewis?” Comedian Aparna Nancherla bluntly states during her act in the second episode when she shrugs and says “yeah, being a woman, with a body, not the best thing.” Sarah Jessica Parker’s cameo is a stylishly funny take on fine foods and how her hair seems to look glorious in every one of her roles.

“2 Dope Queens” is comedy as pure escape and smart, feminist commentary. Your funny bone will be tickled even as you ponder the wider themes. Long live the queens.

The four-part special of “2 Dope Queens” premieres Feb. 2 and airs Fridays at 11:30 p.m. ET on HBO.