Published on October 9th, 2012 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Getting Psyched for Wanda Sykes
Comedian Wanda Sykes isn’t afraid to take artistic detours from time to time. Over the last 15 years, the veteran stand-up comic has acted on television shows and films, published essays and books, and performed dozens of voice-overs for animated movies and programs. She even hosted her own late-night talk show on FOX.
She spent five years as a writer and performer on HBO’s Chris Rock Show in the late ’90s and early 2000s and was nominated for three Primetime Emmys. In 2001, Sykes won the American Comedy Award for Outstanding Female Stand-Up Comic. She took homes three more Emmys after that for her work on Inside the NFL. Sykes first HBO comedy special, 2006’s Wanda Sykes: Sick and Tired, was nominated for a 2007 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special. Her most recent HBO special, 2009’s I’ma Be Me, is currently available on DVD.
Though she’s a versatile performer with many talents, Sykes always returns to stand-up. Metronome caught up with the comedian by phone this week as she was preparing to travel to town for a show at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
Metronome: You’ve embarked on so many different projects over the last few years, film, TV, voiceovers, talk shows — does it feel like you come back home to your main thing when you do stand-up, or is stand-up simply one of the many roles on the list?
Wanda Sykes: Well, stand-up is where it all started for me. That’s where I got going. I was young, and I wanted to be the best stand-up comedian I could, and I wanted to tour around the country and make a good living. That was my focus from day one, Movies and TV and endorsements and voice-over work — all that was like gravy. Stand-up was always the thing that I loved the most.
Metronome: Some people naturally feel drawn to stand-up comedy, despite the challenges of working solo on stage.
Wanda Sykes: The hardest thing is getting to your voice — becoming who you are on stage. When you first start out, it’s all about the material. You’re pretty much doing an impersonation of what you think a stand-up comic should do. It’s not until you step outside of the jokes and really get to what you want to talk about. It’s not until you find a voice that things start clicking — at least for me. I’m not so much of an observational comic. I’m more personal.
Metronome: Getting away from your initial influences — how do you connect to them today?
Wanda Sykes: I grew up watching all the great variety shows on TV, and I watched a lot of comedy. One comic that I still listen to today is Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who was the first black woman I saw on TV doing stand-up. Bill Cosby was a great storyteller, as were Richard Pryor and George Carlin. I loved the Smothers Brothers Show, too. And Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son. That’s kind of where it started for me, watching those shows.
Metronome: What about any actors or performers or cultural icons outside of the comedy world?
Wanda Sykes: Oprah Winfrey. I grew up in the Maryland area, and I remember watching her do her show in Baltimore [the late ’70s-era talk show People Are Talking]. Just to watch that woman go from having a little sidekick part on a local channel to where she is now is inspiring. It makes it tangible, like, ‘Oh, okay, this can really happen.’ A black woman did that, and she did it all while keeping her clothes on.
Metronome: You taped the HBO special I’ma Be Me just as at the Bush years were ending and Obama’s first term was starting. You touched on social, cultural, and political issues on I’ma Be Me. How does the accelerated pace of the final leg of the election year effect your material?
Wanda Sykes: It does, but my thing is to make people laugh, first and foremost. It’s not an Obama rally. It’s a not a Romney bashing. But there is a feeling of frustration that I have, though. There are a lot of other firsts that come long with being the first black president, obviously. This is the first president where they’re still questioning whether or not he’s an American. You know, that’s just craziness. The debt ceiling being increased is something where everyone has done it several times, but it becomes big issue when it’s first back president — to the point where they make it look like the country has bad credit under a black president. That doesn’t look good. It’s like they’ll anything to make him look bad, they’re willing to do.
Metronome: So it seems to you like opponents of the president are simply out to smear him, no matter what?
Wanda Sykes: This is the first time we’re at the point where there’s a group of people who are willing to throw the country under the bus just to make one guy look bad. Also, I think it’s a shame that we’re in an era of fact-checkers. Like, we do we need fact-checkers? If you’re running for office and talking to the American people, everything that comes out of your mouth better be damn fact. It better be true. So now I got to hire the guy from Cheaters to find out who’s telling the ruth and who’s not?
Metronome: Outside of election year politics, what on your mind these days? What will you touch on this time around?
Wanda Sykes: My comedy is a snapshot of my life right now, and I’m a mother of three-year-old twins, and they’re pretty much dominating my life. I talk about being a mother and being married and a lot of personal issues. It’s about being truthful and being personal.
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