Here is Wanda Sykes, in 2006, eight years divorced from her husband: “I’ll never get married again. I’m for gay marriage. But why would anyone choose to be with another woman? All that (expletive) talking. Who wants to hear that?”
Fast forward to 2011: Wanda Sykes is married to a woman, Alex, and they have two children. In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Sykes laughs a little sheepishly and then says defiantly, “And you know what? I wasn’t wrong! There is a lot of talking going on. Talk, talk, talk.”
Sykes will bring her stand-up comedy to the State Theater in New Brunswick on Friday, October 14.
The 47-year-old actress, writer, and comedian has been busy both personally and professionally in recent years. In 2010 she finished a five year stint co-starring with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, doing a Lucy and Ethel act in “New Adventures of Old Christine” on CBS. She appeared in numerous episodes of the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Somewhat less successfully, she had her own sitcom on Fox, her own twisted reality show/sitcom on Comedy Central, and hosted her own talk show. She has also appeared in several films, including the oft-mocked “Pootie Tang,” and her distinctive voice has been utilized in many animated films and TV shows.
But it is her stand-up act that has made her one of the most popular comics in America, enough so that in 2004, Entertainment Weekly named her one of the 25 funniest people in America. Her 2006 HBO special, “Wanda Sykes: Sick and Tired,” was an Emmy nominee, and her 2004 book, “Yeah, I Said It,” consisting of a number of her comic routines in essay form, sold well.
Sykes is not easy to pigeonhole as a stand-up performer. To label her a political satirist is misleading; perhaps a social commentator is more accurate. She prowls the stage mercilessly and profanely dissecting anything that disturbs, amuses, or outrages her: war, peace, life, death, politicians, sex, football, sex, men, women, and sex. Her audience is as adoring as that of any major comic working today. They sense her honesty and fearlessness, as she lets loose with lines like, “You can tell men wrote the Bible because it reads like an action movie: snakes, floods, murder, an ocean voyage, a whore, and a hero.” And, “I went shopping for a gun. The one I wanted was $500. If I spend $500 for a gun, I’m shooting somebody.”
Her act wasn’t always as focused as it is, though. As is common with many performers who adopt a raucous stage persona, Sykes is far more soft-spoken in real life. “I think it’s rare that a comedian finds their voice when they first start out,” says Sykes. “Everyone is kind of doing their impersonation of what a comedian is like: ‘Okay, I’ve seen guys on TV do this, and this is the style.’ So you kind of do the rhythms of what a comedian is supposed to do. It’s not until you develop your own style and become more of yourself that you get your own persona. And it takes years.”
Sykes took an unusual road to a career in comedy. The daughter of a U.S. Army colonel and a banker, she has a degree in marketing, and her first job was with the National Security Agency, where she worked for five years. But she was the funny one in the office (although that may not have been that hard at the NSA) — and the comedy clubs began calling. After all, this was a woman who had spent a great deal of her childhood in front of the TV.
“As a kid, I watched a lot of comedy,” she says. “We watched a lot of variety shows, and the one that really stood out for me is ‘Moms Mabley.’ I remember seeing her on Ed Sullivan and the Smothers Brothers and Flip Wilson — if there wasn’t Flip Wilson there wouldn’t be Tyler Perry. Moms really stood out for me. And then later on, of course, Richard Pryor. It was a big deal when Joan Rivers was hosting the Tonight Show; I watched her. And also Whoopi Goldberg. I guess when you see someone who looks like you who’s actually doing it, it becomes real and tangible, although I wasn’t doing characters like her.”
So it may have been inevitable that she and the NSA would part ways. “At first, I was really a dedicated worker and got a lot done and was good at my job. And then I started having fun in the office. And I started doing stand-up, and I really wasn’t into the job as much. And I thought, you know, this is some important stuff I’m doing here, and I need to let someone else come in before I bring down the entire country. I think it’s time for me to get out of here.”
Within five years, she had moved to New York City, got to open for Chris Rock, and, in 1997, joined the writing staff of his TV show. In 1999, the writing team won an Emmy for its work. And Sykes was on her way.
Now, when she enters the room, the audience screams in anticipatory delight. They know what to expect, and Sykes seldom disappoints. It’s a far cry from having to win over a comic club crowd that has no idea who you are.
“Does it change my approach? You know what, it does. Before, I had more time to work out things. Now there’s that expectation, but at the same time, it gives me some leeway. The first 10 minutes or so, they’re gonna go, ‘Okay we know you’re funny, so we’re going to go with it.’ Then if I don’t deliver, it’s like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you’re kind of bullshitting around up here.’ So there is some good and some bad with it — you get liberties up front, but in the middle, now you have to deliver.
“When you first start out, after ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ they expect a joke. They get a little impatient with people they don’t know. And when you start out, you’re lucky if you get eight minutes. Now my shows are about an hour and 10 minutes. It is a long time, but it’s so funny, I’m back on the road now, and I say, ‘Hi,’ and I’m doing my act, and the next thing I know I look over and my tour manager’s giving me the light, and I’m like ‘Oh, wait, I have a lot more things to say.’ It does fly by — if the show’s good. If it’s not good, it takes forever.”
Sykes doesn’t just talk about life, though. She is well known as an activist and advocate for causes in which she believes. She says, “Right now, I’m kind of focused on the LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual) youth, especially with the bullying that’s going on. I’ve been reaching out to the gay and lesbian centers who have programs with youth, and also there’s a few who provide services and housing for LGBT youth that have been kicked out of their homes. There’s one in Detroit, the Ruth Ellis Center, and the Gay/Lesbian Center here in LA — they do a lot of great work with the youth.”
Many comedians take some of their material from their own lives, and Sykes is no exception. But real life can throw some devastating curves. Just as she was giving this interview, the Ellen DeGeneres talk show was airing a segment during which Sykes revealed that she gone through a double mastectomy earlier this year.
“I had breast cancer,” she told DeGeneres. “DCIS in my left breast. I was very, very lucky because DCIS is basically stage zero cancer. I have a lot of history of breast cancer on my mother’s side of the family. I had both breasts removed and now I have zero chance of having breast cancer. It sounds scary up front, but what do you want? Do you want to wait and not be as fortunate when it comes back and it’s too late?”
There’s a strong possibility that her health scare will find its way into her act, but will she start waving the flag for breast cancer research as well? Time will tell. As she told DeGeneres with a laugh, “How many things could I have? I’m black, then lesbian. I can’t be the poster child for everything.”
Wanda Sykes, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Friday, October 14, 8 p.m. Comedian and actress has been seen on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “The Chris Rock Show,” and several comedy specials. $35 to $95. For mature audiences. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.