By Kathleen McGee
VANCOUVER — There’s something exciting about getting to have a conversation with a comedian who has inspired you. My favourite comics, comics I look up to, favour honesty and telling it like it is over gimmicks and characters. I respect comics who are just themselves and 100 per cent authentic, revealing to the world how they see it. Wanda Sykes is one of those comics. She’s been called “one of the funniest stand up comics” by her peers and ranks among Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Funniest People in America. There is nothing fake about her. You get that when you watch her stand up because it’s open, honest, and fresh. I interviewed her in the middle of a nine-hour drive back to Vancouver from a weekend of small town stand-up gigs I was performing in Northern BC. The comic I was driving with and I pulled over about 30 minutes out of 100 Mile House so I could make sure I had service and take her phone call. At 10 a.m. exactly my phone rang with a Beverly Hills phone number, very far from where I was sitting.
The first thing I managed to say was that I was nervous, I wasn’t a journalist, that I was also a comedian, and I hoped my questions wouldn’t be typical and boring. She was warm and sweet and informed me that she was sure they’d be great. I wanted to know if she could remember her first time on stage. Ask any comedian this and they will most likely have a very vivid memory of this time. Wanda Sykes was no exception. “It was great because I didn’t know any better,” she says. “I had never been to a comedy club, I didn’t know any stand up comics, I just blindly walked into it, so I didn’t really have any expectations.” After that first set Sykes was hooked. We both agreed that the rush of laughter and acceptance is an addiction; once you get those first laughs you want more. “People laughed and from that point on that’s what I wanted to do.” When she first took the stage she was working for the National Security Agency in Washington DC, looking for something that would be more than just a desk job. It’s my personal opinion that a desk job is every comedian’s personal hell, which is why we put up with so much to escape the possibility of that being our daily lives.
Sykes remembers touring on the weekend and working her day job during the week. “Once I quit my job the tours got longer,” she muses. It wasn’t long before Sykes was then doing colleges and clubs all over America. She credits Andy Evans, a comic from DC, as one of her early mentors and comedy friends who helped guide her through the business. She also remembers being influenced by Moms Mabley.
“As kid, when I watched her I was definitely influenced by her, and of course Joan Rivers sitting in for Carson and then eventually getting her own show. Whoopi Goldberg. I did look up to a lot of women. Lucille Ball was also great,” Sykes says.
Her career has spanned over many years. She spent five years on as part of HBO’s critically acclaimed Chris Rock Show as a performer and a writer, earning her an Emmy for writing. She starred alongside Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Steve Carell in Evan Almighty and Jane Fonda in Monster-in-Law. In 2012 Wanda joined forces with veteran producer Page Hurwitz to form Push It Productions, a company dedicated to creating quality, comedy-based programming for network and cable television outlets. Her drive and determination sets an example for many young comics looking to diversify their comedy careers. When asked how it felt to be a role model she says, “That’s nice, but it’s also weird to think about. Now I just try and keep it together for my kids.”
In November 2008 she publicly came out as gay while at a same sex marriage rally for Proposition Eight in Las Vegas. One month prior to the rally she had married her partner and in April 2009 they welcomed fraternal twins into their lives. I got the sense that her kids are the thing that she is most proud of and that she loves being a mom. Have kids changed her comedy? “I’ve become more sensitive as far as what I find funny and not funny. Jokes about kids I don’t find funny and it rubs me the wrong way because I’m too close to it now. That has affected me.” Like all parents, she wants her kids to be proud of what she does. “I don’t want to get older and be ashamed of something I did, I mean I don’t know how I’m going to explain Pootie Tang to them!” she says with a laugh, reminiscing on her involvement in the Louis CK written and directed blacksploitation parody based off a comedy sketch that first appeared on the Chris Rock Show.
As far as where her current material is headed and the subjects she will be finding humour in while she’s in Vancouver, it’s “basically just where I am right now. With my life, my family, what’s going on in the world.” In 2009 she spoke at the White House Correspondents Dinner where she mentioned that she was tired of the press publishing pictures of the president without his shirt on. “I don’t need to see your nipples!” Is probably one of the funniest things ever said to a President. We talked about the current political landscape in America. I mentioned that we just elected a new Prime Minister in Canada and that most people feel a new sense of hope and energy in the country. When you look at what’s going on in America one can get a little nervous, even scared, and Sykes feels the same way. It seems a lot of decisions are being made “based in fear and frustration. People feel they should have more and should be doing better. So instead of going after the super wealthy and politicians they go after people that look different. It’s scary.” She had told me she’s mindful that she will be in Canada so not all the jokes will be about America but I let her know that the whole world is watching America right now and we’re all scared with her. Would Wanda ever consider going after a political career? Her answer was simple: no. “Politicians have really good intentions, they’re going to do something, make changes. Once they get in there they realize, ‘Oh shoot I gotta play this game now. I don’t want to play the game, no thank you.’” During the interview she said that she was “leaning towards Hillary” but things change so fast in politics you never know. We both agree that it would be amazing to see what a female President might and could do.
Want to see what Sykes has to say about the election, being a mom, and the general disarray that is our current society? Make sure you get tickets to see her on Wednesday February 24 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of the Just For Laughs Northwest Comedy Festival. I had a blast and I want to reiterate to Sykes, never apologize for Pootie Tang. It’s legendary, just like you.
Wanda Sykes Performs on February 24 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.BC, British Columbia, Just For Laughs, Northwest Comedy Festival, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, stand-up comedy, Wanda Sykes