I've always liked Wanda Sykes. I love her delivery system (to coin Marc Maron's term) and I like what she says. If you're keeping track at home, the only time I've written about her was to give her a bad review. That's the tricky part about reviews: they're for a particular show not a life's work. One other notorious bad review I gave was for Brad Garrett, who I always liked previous to that and might very well like again in the future. So a review is just a snapshot of a particular moment in time, it doesn't necessarily reflect my greater opinion of the artist in question.
Sykes is coming back to the River Rock Show Theatre in Richmond on May 6. I caught up with her today for a pleasant, if brief, 15-minute chat. We talked about Bill Cosby, Charlie Sheen, coming out of the closet, and nursing school, among other things:
Wanda Sykes – April 28, 2011
Guy MacPherson: You have a career that reaches both the mainstream and, from your stand-up, more fans of raw material. Are there ever any problems with expectations from audiences who might go see you thinking it’s going to be prime time Wanda Sykes?
Wanda Sykes: (laughs) Uh, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s happened, where some fans of New Adventures of Old Christine, you know, that’s their first encounter with me is through that show, and they come out to see the live show. It’s a bit different. But I’m not that dirty. I’m not that dirty for comics. I think they’ll still enjoy it.
GM: You’re not afraid of the f-bomb and certain sexual talk and it might be a bit of a surprise for them.
WS: Maybe a bit, but Old Christine was a bit, I wanna say raunchy. We got a little loose on Old Christine, too. I think if you’re a fan of that show you’re expecting a few f-bombs.
GM: But you never feel like you have to compromise your act in any way or just temper it a little bit?
WS: Oh, no, no, no, no. I’m still going to do the same performance. I have to make it fun for me. (laughs)
GM: Yeah, exactly. That’s why you do stand-up, right?
WS: Right. Exactly.
GM: Because there’s nobody else to answer to.
WS: (laughs) Nope. I’m the only editor and only boss. That’s why it’s so much freedom and still my favourite thing to do.
GM: People like you who have success in movies and TV, you don’t need to do it but you do it because it’s just part of your DNA, I guess, right?
WS: Yeah. It’s just that’s where it all started for me, is doing stand-up. I love doing stand-up. It’s nice to go back there because to me it’s the most rewarding and it’s where I feel the funniest.
GM: A lot of comics reach a certain level of success in movies and TV and then they stop doing stand-up. Bob Newhart says that if you have the ability to do it, you have a duty, an obligation to do it because not that many people can.
WS: Huh. I agree. Yeah. And also the freedom of knowing that, hey, if TV and movies and everything goes away, you still have the thing that you love to feed you, basically. To me, that’s like my safety net.
GM: I think a lot of people not in show business forget when they see someone as successful as you that you still can worry about things like that, right? Even though it’s unlikely but in the back of your mind you’re still going, “One day this all might go away.”
WS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, I think that’s part of being human. (laughs) Yeah, you go, oh, boy, what’s my back-up plan, you know? Should I go to nursing school now? At least I have something to fall on. You know, you think that.
GM: Ha! Nursing school. I’d like to see that.
WS: Yeah! Come on, they get to wear comfortable shoes. That’s very important.
GM: Who did you come up with in stand-up when you were starting out?
WS: I started in DC. It was a really hot place for comedy. Dave Chappelle was hitting the clubs the same time I was hitting the clubs in DC. Who else came out of that group? You know, Martin Lawrence was like just before us. Patton Oswalt, he was in DC and Baltimore. So it was a lot of people coming through there. A lot of good comics.
GM: And your first big break was with Chris Rock or was there something before that?
WS: I would say yes. I would say my first big break, as far as to get into TV and everything, that was definitely Chris Rock, opening for him in New York at Caroline’s. And shortly after that he got his show on HBO, The Chris Rock Show, and I got hired to write on his show. And that’s when everything kind of, you know, took off for me.
GM: And when did you first feel like you belonged, or fit in, in the show biz world?
WS: Um, I think after, like, a season or so on The Chris Rock Show. Because that was like one of the rare opportunities where we did everything. Not only did we get to write our pieces but we produced them and also did the editing, you know, went in with the editor to cut it. So it was just like a great... It was like going to college. It was wonderful. It was such a learning experience. And when I left there I just felt like I was equipped to do whatever I wanted to do in this business.
GM: I remember seeing you years ago on an awards show. It was very uncomfortable. It was with Bill Cosby. Do you have any kind of relationship with him?
WS: Um, no. No, I mean, no, no relationship with him. No.
GM: Was he an influence at all?
WS: Uh, oh yeah, definitely. I’m still a fan of, you know, of his work. And, you know, Cosby show was huge. Yeah, I think he’s very funny. Uh, so, yeah.
GM: I don’t remember the details of that night.
WS: Yeah, I mean, it was awkward and I was, you know, really on my way to talk to Larry David anyway and it just happened so quickly and, uh,... I don’t know.
GM: Charlie Sheen is playing in Vancouver on Monday. What do you think of that whole situation?
WS: It’s amazing to me. I mean, people want to see a train wreck. So, hey, that’s a great train wreck.
GM: Established comics like yourself, who put in the work and perform, now see this guy just selling out places. You’re right, people want to see a train wreck, but do you resent it a little bit?
WS: No. If people have the money to go see him, they’re curious. I think that’s great. I mean, I’m not saying that’s great but it’s good for the economy. If people have that kind of money that’s a sign that things are turning around if Charlie Sheen is selling out places without really an act. I wouldn’t put him as a comedian. I mean, to me, you can ask Lady Gaga the same question, is she upset about it?
GM: Since you came out of the closet, has there been any fallout like there was with Ellen? Or is America past that and she was the one who took the brunt of it?
WS: Has there been any fallout? No. Everything has been positive. I wasn’t really living my life closeted; I just didn’t feel like I needed to make a public announcement or tell people, total strangers, about my sexuality. But it’s all been great. It’s all been positive. I’m very happy I did it because it’s been a positive step for the LGBT community and also for the kids out there who are going through bullying and other situations and facing discrimination. So to have somebody with a face that they can go, “Oh, okay, she’s in the same boat” or “she’s supporting us”, it helps them and that makes it even better.
GM: Have there been a difference in crowds since you came out?
WS: I think the gay community, they just let me know that they’re there. You know, they might be a little more vocal and say, “Hey”, you know, “We love you. We’re here.” But that’s about it. My audiences are pretty diverse. Age, race, sexual orientation, they’re all over the place.
GM: And your material is for anybody, not specifically gay audiences.
WS: Oh, yeah, definitely. I think people in general relate on so many other levels other than, you know, who you sleep with. That’s like the least common area that we have.
GM: Kobe Bryant got in trouble the other day because of using a homophobic slur. Occasionally a comic will get in trouble for what they say. Do you think comics should get a pass because they deal in irony and language and things like this?
WS: I don’t think a comic could get a pass in that particular situation. Saying it in anger and also in a televised game or whatever... But comics can pretty much say what they want to say when they’re on stage and performing and doing their material. You can pretty much say just about anything. Because that’s the nature of what we do. But that’s where comedy can get in trouble. I mean, look at Michael Richards. Even though he was technically working, he’s on stage, he still couldn’t get away with that because it wasn’t part of his act; he just went off with the n-words. I think if a comic goes off and it’s not part of the act, then you’re still held to the same standard.
GM: When you got in trouble at the White House, that was part of a routine...
GM: And you chose those words for comedic effect.
GM: I know you gotta run, so last question. I know you’re a parent of twins.
WS: Yes, they just celebrated their second birthday yesterday. They just turned two.
GM: It’s lots of fun.
WS: Oh, yeah.
GM: Have they become fodder for the act?
WS: Oh, definitely. It’s not like I’m looking for them to do anything funny, it’s just how being a mom and having kids, especially at, you know, I’m 47... It’s just what my life is right now. So there’s a lot of humour there.
GM: I appreciate that you gave them normal names even though you’re a celebrity.
WS: (laughs) Oh, yeah. We were thinking of something like a Tree but it’s just not... yeah. We just go with normal names.
GM: Thanks so much for your time.
WS: Why, thank you.