She came out. She beat cancer. She married. She became a mother. Is one of comedy’s most razor-sharp comics softening her edge?
by Steven Foster
Lead photo and Wanda Sykes photo on home page by Craig Blankenhorn/ HBO
It’s not as famous as Lana Turner at the soda fountain but it’s pretty close.
After a friend invited her to an HBO Sports bash, football fan and vodka enthusiast Wanda Sykes spied NPR-esque Ken Doll commentator Bob Costas in the crowd. Overriding the one mandate her friend gave her—that whole “keep your mouth shut” thing—Sykes sidled up to the open bar and, fueled by the endless libations and armed with her considerable sports savvy, she railed on Costas, lambasting his lack of acumen, his weak insight, his yard-line credibility, even his basic being, all with booze-laced bravery and well-placed wit. Instead of having the loudmouth thrown out, Costas faced her, asking if she was able to deliver those same blood-drawing barbs toward sports in general, and for a larger crowd than just those within earshot attending an industry cocktail party. Soon Sykes was skewering players for a hefty paycheck on cable’s toniest network, a long way from her former day job as a government drone for the NSA. Sykes has been mouthing off ever since, all the way to becoming one of Entertainment Weekly’s Top Twenty-five Comics in America, and into the Piaget-filled pages of Vanity Fair for an Annie Leibovitz portrait which firmly established her place in the comedy canon.
But, to paraphrase Chrissie Hynde, “That was a long, long time ago, when she was passing through.” On her way to the top, Sykes hasn’t just dished out the punch lines, she has, occasionally, ended up as the punching bag. Despite winning appearances on The Old Adventures of New Christine and Curb Your Enthusiasm, comedy vehicles built strictly for her have been proven to be painful clunkers. The poorly conceived and shabbily executed skit shows Wanda Does It and Wanda Works bored critics and audiences. Doubtless, it hurt, but it was the failure of the third one, The Wanda Sykes Show, that really smarted. The show was Chelsea Lately 2.0 with a few wise tweaks. Where Handler filled her table with comedic half-wits suckling on her Belvedere-filled teat, Sykes aligned herself with power comics and actual celebs who were both funny and intelligent—articulate guests who could play Berle while understanding Bernanke. Sykes’s sidekick wasn’t a midget in a motorized shopping cart, but a hip and cool black McMahon and a plus-sized Texas drag queen named Portia who tended the nearby bar. And yes, the bar was real. No Cheers-like colored water passing for cocktails, this was real hooch. The show was smart, hilarious and, while no Bill Maher, it fit the bill one Friday night a week on Fox. It failed miserably.
Despite her one-time marriage to record producer David Hall, rumors about Sykes’s sexuality hung around like wannabe comics at the stage door. The whispers were persistent, though never rising to Queen Latifah levels. But it wasn’t until the Prop 8 debacle that Sykes finally outed herself—in Vegas no less—with a smart, succinct, and searing diatribe. Since coming out, she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and, in her typical style, aggressively chose a double mastectomy. She married her girlfriend, Alex, and the two now have twins. But she still has the capacity to rile ’em up, as evidenced in her hosting of the White House Correspondents Dinner where she hoped aloud that, if Rush Limbaugh was wishing Obama failed, she would like to see Limbaugh’s kidneys fail. The right sharpened their knives and, naturally, Sykes came off without a scratch. She’s never been one to really care who she’s pissing off or what the repercussions were. Hell, this is a woman who survived J-Lo, for Christ’s sake.
It’ll be interesting to see which Wanda Sykes arrives in Houston on May 12. Will it be the irascible firebrand who sips cocktails while raging against the idiocies of contemporary society and the ridiculousness of American politics? Or will it be a kinder, gentler, more Cosby-esque comic who spins stories of diaper changes, spit-up, and sleep deprivation? If OutSmart’s conversation with Sykes is any indication, it will be a little bit of both. Like a baby bottle filled with milk punch.
Steven Foster: Is it happy hour yet?
Wanda Sykes: Well, I don’t have a clock nearby me, but I can tell my day is about to wind down.
I know you’ve been doing press all day. I’ll try to make this painless and quick.
Oh, thank you!
So you’ve got a new tour coming up. Excited?
Very! Very. You know, it all started with standup for me, so that’s my first love and I still get a kick out of it. Just being there live, with the audience. It’s still the hardest thing, but it gives me the most joy.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. But let’s cut through the crap. Did you miss it that much or did any part of you think, Shit, I’ve got two college tuitions to pay for soon?
Exactly. You’re right. That’s it. You know, I don’t know if you can tell by baby teeth, but they look a little jacked up to me, so there might be a big dentist bill ahead of me, too. [Both laugh]
How old are they now?
They’re almost three.
That’s such a fun age.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And Lucas [twin brother of Olivia] doesn’t have a lot of hair yet, so I’m thinking we’re gonna need implants too. But I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re gonna do.
Your wife is a knockout. I never heard how you two met. If it’s not too personal, can you tell me?
Ah…we met on Fire Island.
Yeah, yeah. We were on a ferry, we were on our way to the Grove, and I believe she was just sent to me. I believe somebody up there…an angel looking out for me…they got tired of looking at my dumb ass running around doin’ stupid shit and just said, “Hey, you! You. Here ya go. Enough of your tomfoolery.”
From everything I’ve heard about her, she’s great.
She is. She’s a sweetheart, she really is. I mean, she gets sweet once you get past the French part. But once you get past that, she’s great.
How has your interior life changed now that you’re a parent? Or has it?
Um, I’m sure I’m prayin’ a lot more now. You know, basically, Just guide us. Just help me keep ’em alive. Just help me keep ’em alive. That’s pretty much my prayer. But yeah, it just totally grounds you. And it also just gives you a sense of what’s important. And once you have kids, you realize that you just really don’t matter. You come in last, really. [Laughs] You’ve just dropped down the totem pole, basically.
No matter where I see you, you’re always so upbeat. But I have to say I was really struck when I was watching you on Larry King after that rash of gay suicides. You looked just shell-shocked.
Heartsick. You looked like your heart was just breaking. I had never seen you like that and it was shocking, almost. Do you think the country has learned its lesson from that awful time, or do you think that someone like Rick Santorum is an example that we haven’t?
Rick Santorum is definitely an example that there is definitely more work to be done. I mean, he’s going backwards. Everything that we’ve accomplished in the country, he’s trying to move us back. That dude is scary, man. And that Larry King show? I was [heartsick]. I didn’t have the answers, and my heart was just breaking for these people. You just wished it wasn’t… [pause] Why’d it have to be like that, you know? I couldn’t even find the words to express what I was feeling and what I was hoping for. I was just trying to get the message to the kids out there, like the PSA, “It does get better,” there are people out there who can help, and we love you. Because when you think about how to change people from doing this and hurting others, that’s a bigger task. But [I was] just trying to get the message to the victims to hang in there, man. I don’t know, it still troubles me. It really does. Because it’s still goin’ on.
If someone would have told you last year that the country would be having a national debate on contraception for women would you have believed them?
Not at all! Not at all.
Are you just shocked at what’s going on here?
Well, it showed me that the GOP really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It’s just downright criminal what they’re doing, that they’re playing to the fear. They know who their base is and they don’t have enough of a leg to stand on, so they’re going straight for the social issues. Religion and gay rights and gay marriage—they’re going straight there because they’ve got nothing else. And for Santorum to say the other day about “Obama wants you to go to college, he’s a snob. I want you to have a job.” Wha… What?! What the hell is that? Now you’re telling poor people that you don’t need college, you don’t need an education. Yeah, okay, you don’t need a college education, but your dumb ass will be working for the kid who went to college. [Both laugh] It’s just so stupid. It just baffles me how they’re getting away with that.
You’ve never shied away from your political opinion. I mean, you started a firestorm when you hosted the White House Correspondents dinner. How much of your standup act is going to be politics?
You know, I would say that it’s more family and personal life than it is politics. Because I can talk about what’s real, and what I’m dealing with right now is family and kids and all, and it totally overrides politics. Because really, I don’t have a lot of time to read a lot of papers and watch the news like I used to. Now I know more about what’s going on on Sesame Street than I do on Wall Street. That’s just my life. Of course I’ll pick on a few things, but generally it’s from the ridiculousness of it. And then I’ll move on to all about me.
When the kids showed up, were you surprised at how much work it was, or did it track pretty much how you thought it would be?
Oh no, I was surprised. When we got them home, we looked at each other that first night like, What the hell did we do? Like, Wow. Wow. Wow. What the hell? I mean, it gets better, but still, it’s really hard.
They’re not on the road with you, are they?
Oh God, no. I call it running away from home when I go do shows.
Is Hot Flashes still filming?
How did that come about? Was it the usual script-send or was there something else?
Yeah, they sent me the script and I was like, Yeah, I like this. This is a cool project. And it was weird because it was when I was going through my own little skirmish with breast cancer, and the movie is about a group of women who get their high school basketball team back together to challenge the current girls basketball team to raise money to try to save their friend’s mobile breast cancer screening unit. It just spoke to me. And I thought, you know, this is gonna be fun to play. And man, they’re kicking my butt out there, training me to play basketball. I don’t know, maybe they just thought that the black girl would know how to play basketball.
And it’s Darryl [Hannah], Melanie [Griffith], Brooke [Shields], and Camryn [Mannheim], right? Are they all on the same team with you?
Yes, we’re all on the same team.
So can I be a total dick and ask who’s the worst player?
Oh…wow! You know, we all play different positions, so…
You’re so nice.
Let’s just say we’re all getting better each day. I’ll say that I’m the best player. [Both laugh]
So when does filming wrap? March 17 or something like that?
How do you like hanging out in New Orleans?
Oh, I love it. I’m lovin’ it. It’s a fun city.
Listen, I know you’re really busy, so lemme let you go. Can’t wait to see your show when you come to Houston. And thanks for giving me so much joy all these years. Truly, I’ve loved watching you all these years. Truly.
You’re sweet, Steve. Thank you. Appreciate you. Come backstage and say Hi.
Wanda Sykes appears in concert on Saturday, May 12, at Bayou Music Center, 520 Texas Avenue. Buy tickets at livenation.com, the Bayou Music Center box office, or charge by phone at 800-745-3000.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.