Wanda is a Funny Name (But Look Who’s Laughing Now!)
I spent the better part of a week learning all I could about Wanda Sykes and her life. While I was doing it I think most everyone here in The Rage Monthly’s office thought I had lost my mind because I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. And I don’t mean a little-girl kind of titter, I mean the full-on guffaw, a hearty belly laugh that makes your eyes water. You know how a song gets stuck in your head? Sykes’ routine about having "a detachable vagina" left me flabbergasted to no end. Seriously, If you haven’t heard her yet, you must watch this woman perform.
She knows what it’s like to take risks; after all, her comedy is fraught with taboo subjects in which she consistently lampoons everything and everyone worth jabbing. Politics and politicians are a favorite target, and lord only knows they are resplendent with endless horrifyingly-hysterical fodder. As she said, "You can always find something funny or something to poke fun at, the hypocrisy, the craziness, all of that. It’s just a perfect place for comedy."
She was also the perfect interview for our Marriage issue. She publicly came out as gay while at a same-sex marriage rally in Las Vegas regarding Proposition 8, which at that point forbade new marriages of same-sex couples in California. Of that moment she said, "with the legislation that they passed, I can’t sit by and just watch. I just can’t do it." One month earlier, Sykes had married her wife, Alex, whom she met in 2006 and they now have two children.
Let’s learn a little more about this wickedly funny lady:
I read that you grew up in D.C., with a mother who was a banker and a father who worked for the NSA - neither job’s exactly a hotbed for laughs - so where did you get your sense of humor?
I know, the crazy part is that my mother, father and brothers are all very funny. They just didn’t have the need to go out and do it in front of strangers! I don’t know, I guess I didn’t get enough hugs when I was young or something like that! (Laughs)
Where did you get your start your career in stand-up? I read early on that you also worked at the National Security Agency!
Yes, I had a regular job at the NSA and I know that’s not very funny either. Nothing funny about that at all! (Laughs)
I just knew there was something else that I was supposed to be doing with my life. I realized looking through my high school yearbook one day, that so many people had written things like, "You’re so funny," or "You should be on stage." It made me think, maybe they had seen something or known something in me that I hadn’t. One of the girls was actually our class valedictorian and I thought, "She’s no dummy, she knows what’s goin’ on so maybe I should listen to her!"
So, I wrote some jokes and entered a talent competition back in ’87 in which comedy was a category that a local radio station was sponsoring. I entered, got on stage and fell in love with it - just made sense for me.
Did you have any comedians who you admired and influenced you coming up?
We watched a lot of comedy in our home growing up, it was at a time when it was all about the variety show - people like Jackie "Moms" Mabley and others like her. Whoopi Goldberg was also a big influence on me. To see another black woman on stage made the possibility for me doing it all that much more real. It made me think, "okay, maybe I can really do this."
I loved Whoopi’s early routines, so funny and poignant at the same time. I remember in particular her routines with "Little Girl," the African-American child obsessed with having blond hair and the junkie who held a doctorate, I think it was in literature - funny, but both made you hurt just a little because of the dichotomy of their situations.
Yes, I loved her one-woman show, "Around The World in 80 Days," I think it was called. Man, that was so good.
Did you start out doing your stand-up in D.C. or was it New York?
I started in the D.C. area and moved to the New York. It was just time to move on, there wasn’t anything else for me to do in D.C. as far as comedy. If I wanted to pursue a career I had to leave. There was so much more of everything in New York; tons of comedy clubs everywhere and the opportunity to meet more people in the industry.
It’s how I ended up getting to work with Chris Rock. (It was on HBO’s critically acclaimed Chris Rock Show that Sykes spent five years as a performer and writer. As a part of the show she was nominated for three Primetime Emmys and in 1999 won the Emmy for "Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Special." Later in 2001, she also won the American Comedy Award for "Outstanding Female Stand Up Comic").
Did you have an "ah-ha" moment when you realized that you were going to be able to make comedy a career?
I think it was when I got the writing job on the "Chris Rock Show" and I didn’t get fired! (Laughs) That’s when I said, ’Oh wow, maybe I can actually hold down a job and pull this off! Look at me with benefits and all that, I’m in a union even! I guess I must be okay at this!"
So I’m curious about your days at the NSA and how much that fueled your humor around politics, is that where it began?
I talk about D.C. and politics in general in my routines because I am interested in both. I don’t know if I would say it’s because of growing up in that area necessarily. Politics and Washington are such a rich place for fodder.
Especially now, the political landscape is so crazy these days. It really is endless how completely silly it’s gotten. Do you have a favorite topic or person that you like to lampoon?
Oh my goodness, there is just so much, politics in general I guess. The poor Republicans, they need a big hug, they really do. It’s crazy how upside down and all over the place their party is. There is no cohesion at all. I mean dang... they’re so fragmented it’s crazy, they all keep trying to "out-Republican" each other. "I’m more conservative than you are..." (Laughs) I am enjoying the show!
If it weren’t so horrifying on some level it would be endlessly hysterical.
True, true. But that’s kind of where comedy comes from, difficult situations we can poke fun at and laugh about.
It’s something that has always fascinated me about comedy writers, how they pull together their material. Do you spend a lot of time researching for your stand-up routines? It all seems to be so spontaneous from the audience’s perspective.
A lot of my comedy is really just a snapshot of what’s going on in my life. As far as my shows, most of it is planned before I go on stage, but I also like to have the room to be in the moment. If something comes to me off the top of my head, then I’ll throw it in. I also depend a lot on the crowd. But, I usually have some kind of a plan when I go on.
I’m working on a new act right now, which I’m hoping to make into another special, so there are some bits that I’m still fleshing out. The material I’m doing now will hopefully end up there, it’s not in anyway ready for that, but hopefully by the end of this tour it will be at least partially ready.
Comedians like you make us think about topics that we are often uncomfortable with.
There are all kinds of comedy, but that’s the type that I enjoy. I mean, I can laugh at the physical silly sh*t as well, but I tend to write comedy that says something, but is funny. Even if it just reflects something personal about an opinion, I do at least like to give some information with the jokes.
Are you working on any new television projects?
I’m working on a show called "Alpha House"; it’s a project with Gary Trudeau, the guy who created "Doonesbury." He’s doing the series for Amazon and I have a recurring guest role on the show. I’ve shot one episode so far and it’s really funny. The story revolves around four conservative senators who share a house in D.C. I play a senator also, but my character is a Democrat living next door, who is a friend to one of them. It all revolves around the hypocrisy in congress and D.C. - right up my alley! (Laughs)
You should include our current situation here in San Diego with former Mayor Filner into your routine, it’s perfect.
You know, I had to think about that, I have been to San Diego several times. Did he feel me up, I wonder? I don’t remember him doing that, but I had to think about it. "Did he grope me one of the times I was there?" I’m just saying, it seems like he reached out and touched everybody! I wonder if on one of my trips there I was groped and just don’t remember it - just blocked it out. (Both of us are laughing now!)
They say it’s a common PTSD reaction to block unpleasant things out!
I do like that he didn’t discriminate. It seems like he touched everybody, it wasn’t just white girls or skinny girls, I mean that man believes in equality! You look at him and there is no type, you can’t get a handle on it, he doesn’t have an MO. If he were a serial killer, they would never find him. Because as far as his victims, there is absolutely no pattern (laughs)!
So it’s our gay marriage issue this month, how great is it that we have won the gay marriage fight in California?
I am married with two kids, so I talk about it a lot in my routine - thank you very much! I figure I have a platform to say something and it’s an issue that is important to me.
Well, on a personal level, I’d like to say thank you for all of your activism around gay marriage. I believe when people like you who have visibility and step forward to share their stories it really helps to change attitudes.
Why thank you - that’s very kind.
Wanda Sykes is performing on Saturday, September 14 in the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center’s Terrace Theatre at 300 East Ocean Boulevard. For tickets and more information go to ticketmaster.com.
To keep track of Sykes’ myriad of projects and upcoming concert dates go to wandasykes.com.