Wanda Sykes :: Back to Her Stand-up Roots
EDGE caught up with Wanda Sykes last week when the comedy superstar was on Fire Island with her family for a little R&R before she headed off to New England for a trio of dates: Hyannis, Boston and Hampton Beach over this week.
In Boston, she will be at the Wilbur Theatre on Thursday, August 16. For more information, visit the Wilbur Theatre website.
It was, she said, a beautiful morning, and she was relaxing, not having seen the morning talk shows or read any newspapers. Still, she couldn’t escape the Chic-fil-A controversy, which had dominated the news cycle the previous days. This prompted a question if she had planned to go to the restaurant for lunch that day.
"You bet," she responded with her signature laugh. "There are 8 of them here on the island." She paused briefly. "No, I stopped going to Chick-fil-A over a year ago. They make some good chicken, but you know what? I can get good chicken someplace else. I’m not going to eat in a place that’s going to make me uncomfortable. And it’s not good business - if I had a restaurant, I would welcome the Klan. ’Come on in, fellas,’ I’d say. Everyone likes good chicken."
From procurement to stand-up
And virtually everyone loves Wanda Sykes. Ellen DeGeneres called her the funniest person ever. Entertainment Weekly named her one of the 25 Funniest People in America. In 2001, she won the American Comedy Award for "Outstanding Female Stand Up Comic" and has won four Emmy Awards, one for writing ("The Chris Rock Show") and three for her work on "Inside the NFL" for "Outstanding Studio Show - Weekly- Inside The NFL."
She’s been in movies, most recently as the voice of Granny in the hit animated feature "Ice Age: Continental Drift;" and on television, as a regular on the sitcoms "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and memorably lent her voice to Comedy Central’s irreverent "Crank Yankers." In 2009, she hosted a late Saturday night talk show on Fox, and has hosted a number of HBO comedy specials.
It’s a career she never thought she’d pursue when in the early 1980s she worked as a procurement officer with the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington DC. (She had grown-up in a military family in a DC suburb and attended college in Virginia.)
Did she do stand-up in her cubicle at the NSA?
"I was funny," she said laughing, "but I had a lot of work to do, so I don’t think I got a chance to make people laugh much of time. Maybe during breaks and all. It must be how why my brain is wired that I come up with some stuff that would make people laugh. It was more in high school and college that people told me to go onto stage and do comedy."
It was in 1987 that she took the leap into performing at the Coors Light Super Talent Showcase in Washington, DC. "I was listening to a radio and this station was having a talent show and comedy was a category. I decided to write some jokes and see how it goes. Then when I went on stage and people laughed, it all made sense to me right then. This is what I was suppose to be doing."
From there she moved to New York and worked the comedy club circuit, ending up at Caroline’s Comedy Club where she got a break. "Chris was headlining there. They put me up to warm up the show. Later when he got his show, he called me and asked if I wanted to write for the show - and that’s how it started."
With her successful movie and television career, why does she return to stand-up as often as she does?
"It’s where I started. Actually, everything else I’ve done - movies, television - comes from trying to be a good stand-up comic. When I’m not doing a movie or TV, it’s like I’m going back to my day job. I really love going right to work - it’s not about hair and make-up and all that crap. I do fix myself up a bit, but it’s not like doing a movie. And there’s nothing like being in front of an audience - getting that immediate response. And whatever I want to say, I say it. I just love all of it."
She also came out in a very public way: in November, 2008, she was at a Las Vegas rally against California Prop 8 and she was asked to speak. "It didn’t seem like a big leap at the time," she explained. "It was in the moment. I was at a Prop 8 protest and I didn’t plan on speaking, but they asked me to speak. It was like, guess what? I’m going to put it in your face. It didn’t hit me until I got back to the hotel room and saw on the CNN scroll that I had just come out. And I thought, ’Is this a big deal? All right.’"
Nor has it been much a big deal. "It hasn’t affected my career at all. It was actually liberating," reflecting comments she made on CNN Piers Morgan earlier this year. "I’ve got nothing to hide. I am what I am, and this is it. You thought I had a big mouth before. Now it’s just crazy. I’m just over the top. There’s nothing I can’t say."
Her Limbaugh joke
Sometimes, though, things she says have brought controversy, such as when she hosted the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the first African-American woman and first openly LGBT person to get the role. While she got high marks from most everyone in the media, many on the right wing were not amused by her pointed commentary on such personalities as Sean Hannity, and former VP candidate Sarah Palin. ("Gov. Palin, she’s not here tonight, she pulled out at the last minute. Somebody should tell her, that’s not really how you practice abstinence.")
But it was take on Rush Limbaugh that created the biggest stir, joking that the conservative talk show host "was the 20th hijacker (on 9/11) but he was just so strung out on Oxycontin he missed his flight." The next day she was accused of making a joke at the expense of the national tragedy, which she dismisses as right-wing rhetoric.
"I don’t think I got in trouble, and it wasn’t a 9/11 joke. It was a Rush Limbaugh joke. Some things are off-limits. The Rush Limbaugh joke was fine, but it was the next line that I said that came out in a way that was a bit off-limits." What she said was in reference to Limbaugh’s comment that he hoped the Obama administration would fail. "Limbaugh," she said. "I hope the country fails. I hope his kidneys fail, how about that?"
"That’s off-limits, because it shouldn’t be that personal. But I’m not mean-spirited. I try not to be."
This being an election year, it might be surprising to know that politics will not be the main focus of her material, which she acknowledges is largely autobiographical. "I have to come from a place of reality. It has to be about me, I guess. You have comics that talk about everything but themselves; but that’s not me."
Still, expect Sykes’ take on Romney and the Republicans. "He’s like a chameleon. Wherever you put him, he’ll resemble that thing. Whoever he’s talking to, he’s like ’I’m for you.’ He changes his mind a lot. Whenever anyone points out what he did as governor, he’s like, ’no, that wasn’t me.’ It’s just bizarre. The things that he says. Like I say, he’s like that little chameleon - always changing his colors. He just cracks me up. Just they way he lies."
Conservatives, in general, make her both laugh shudder. "They’re pretty ridiculous. Sometimes they’re scary and sometimes they’re comical. What they say doesn’t make any sense and I think it’s just big, old crazy. But it’s scary that they actually believe what they’re saying. That’s the scary part."
This may be why when she asked on CNN if it was harder to be a black or gay in today’s society, she answered that it was gay. "Well, I don’t know about organizations and groups like Focus on the Family and anti-gay organizations that are putting up so much money, millions and millions of dollars to stop me from being black or telling me I can’t exercise my blackness, so there’s no equality - there’s no equality for the LGBT community."
Optimistic about the future
But Sykes is optimistic about the future of the LGBT equality movement and the boost it got from President Obama when he voiced his support for gay marriage. "Of course. I like the way things are going. I was happy to see the President come out in support of marriage equality. I like the direction the country is moving and I hope we can achieve that nationally."
A month before Sykes came out publicly, she married her girlfriend Alex, whom she had met in 2006. (She and her wife are among the 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who married during the four months same-sex marriage was legal in California.) In 2009, Alex gave birth to twins: Olivia Lou and Lucas Claude . Today they’re three (and could be heard talking in the background.)
Does she find it hard balancing her career and family?
"Yes. It is. You got to make time for the family, but work is work. Sometimes I say ’no’ to things. I am starting to do that. Maybe I’ll be back on television or a job with hours that are more structured that I would be able to make time for the family. We’ll see."
As for the twins, "I try to keep them away from them, but they saw ’Ice Age’ and they asked, ’is that your voice?’ But I try to keep in the background. When I’m out with them, I don’t take pictures with people or give autographs. I think when they’re older, there going to put it all together."
Hot in New Orleans
While she was reluctant to address future projects for fear of jinxing them, expect to see Sykes in the intriguingly named comedy "The Hot Flashes," which she finished shooting in New Orleans earlier this year. "I’m too young to be a movie called ’Hot Flashes,’" she joked to Ellen DeGeneres earlier this year. The sports comedy, which features Brooke Shields, Darryl Hannah and Virginia Madsen, follows the exploits of a group of middle-aged women - former basketball champions in high school - who challenge an arrogant, champion high school team to raise money for breast cancer research.
While Sykes enjoyed making the movie, she wasn’t terribly happy when they had to shoot on location because of the heat and humidity.
"The mosquitos were no jokes. I pretty sure one knifed me."
Wanda Sykes appears on August 15, 2012 at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, Hyannis, MA; August 16, 2012 at the Wilbur Theatre, Boston, MA; and August 17, 2012 at the Hampton Beach Casino, Hampton Beach, NH. For more details about Wanda Sykes and future appearances, visit her website.