(This story has been updated since its original publication in September 2016.)
“Saying those things no one else would dare to say” made her a star. But to find her voice, Sykes had to abandon everything else she once thought of as normal.
A funny thing happened to Wanda Sykes on the way to the life she was supposed to lead. The daughter of a mom in banking and a Washington D.C Army colonel, she graduated from Virginia’s Hampton University in 1986 and took a job at the National Security Agency (yes, that NSA). By 1991, she’d met and married her husband, Dave. To anyone on the outside looking in, it was a picture-perfect existence, except that Sykes couldn’t shake either of her passions –– for stand-up or women. So in carefully measured steps, she began to change. Everything. Now Sykes is perched among the top tier of American comics working today, but she’ll be quick to tell you: It’s been a trip.
Sykes and I catch up after her night on stage at a Connecticut resort called Foxwoods. Sykes fans appeared en masse to eat, gamble and spend 90 minutes with one of the sharpest minds in the business. But even when she’s not on the road performing, Sykes is a very busy woman. At home, she and Alex, her wife of ten years, are raising two tween twins. She moves quickly. She’s been on ABC’s Black-ish since 2015, and now has a new Netflix stand-up special called Not Normal.
In person, Sykes radiates the calm of a zen master; she projects peace and control like she invented them. But pacing back and forth across the Foxwoods stage, she confesses that in reality, that’s often anything but the case. There’s no private time with the wife now that they have kids, she grumbles. On top of that, Sykes recalls the recent moment when she glanced across the kitchen after making breakfast for her blue-eyed blond kids and French wife. “Damn,” Sykes says, shaking her head in disbelief. “I’m a black woman working for white people.” The audience roars.
When Sykes speaks about her work, it’s with complete conviction. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she tells me. “Stand-up is my day job and everything else — film, TV and voice over work — is just an extension of being the best live comedian I can be. If I’m not out touring, it’s because I’ve got a TV or film project going. But for me, being in front of an audience by yourself is the purest form of getting your ideas our there and having total freedom.”
Even when things were going well in her previous life, Sykes knew innately that something was missing. “I wanted to be a stand-up before I went to work at the NSA,” she recalls, “I just never pursued it until after my time there.” She’d simply done what was expected of her. “That was the move I was supposed to make, you know? You grow up in DC, you go to school there, and then the next thing, you’re a contractor or you work directly for the government. And after five or six years of doing that, I thought, ‘This is not what I’m here to do in life.’ So I started moonlighting, doing stand-up.” Once she’d built up enough comedy cred, she made a quick exit from the NSA.
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Climbing The Ladder
As far back as she can recall, Sykes remembers wanting to do what she saw performers on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In and The Flip Wilson Show do: be funny. But rather than comics like Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield, who told jokes in the old vaudeville vein, she gravitated toward counterculture comedians like Alan King and Richard Pryor. “We always watched a lot of comedy in my house,” Sykes recalls. “I remember that Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley made a big impression on me, but they all did: George Carlin and especially Richard Pryor. He talked about his life, and he was so much more personal.”
Sykes considers each of those icons inspirational. “I think we all start out doing our impression of what we believe a stand-up comic should be,” she says. “Once you get some experience and find your own voice, that’s when things start to take off.”
In 1997, Sykes went to work on the writing staff of The Chris Rock Show; two years later, she took home an Emmy for her efforts.
Still she was not quite yet herself, although she and Dave had divorced, and Sykes had scrambled out of the comedy trenches to headline status. Soon after, she agreed to take the stage at a rally promoting same-sex marriage and for the first time publicly declare herself as lesbian.
“Nobody advised me not to come out,” Sykes says. “The people I talked to would say, ‘When it’s time, you’ll know it; you dont’ have to make some big statement. I was at a rally against Prop 8, and I was asked to speak, and so I did.”
Her comedy act followed suit. “I’d be lying if i said I didn’t think about how much of my life to bring onto the stage,” Sykes confides. “I’m a black gay woman. So from my perspective, I’m very much aware of things that affect the black community, women and gay people. All of those things are part of me.”
That means when a candidate says something on the campaign trail that makes her crazy, she’ll talk about it, but she has a cardinal rule: “It’s my job to make people laugh,” she says. “So if I’m gonna address something, I want to make sure it’s funny. I’ve backed off from things that sounded preachy rather than funny, but that’s only because I didn’t think the joke was there yet.”
“I’m not someone like Ann Coulter who can just stand up, run my mouth and say crap,” she explains. “Black Lives Matter: I didn’t do a joke about that the other night. You can be angry and be funny, but having the joke is the important thing. If I can’t make a joke, I won’t do it. I don’t feel a joke in it yet, because the situation is just so ridiculous right now.”More Content from Metrosource
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A Working Mammo
While waiting for the right joke, Sykes devotes herself to family. It took her parents time to acclimate to having a gay daughter, but they’ve come to embrace their grandkids and that those kids have two moms.
“My parents accepting me has come over time,” she says. “Everything starts with the fact that they love me, and I love them. It took me over 40 years to accept myself. I didn’t expect that they were going to get there overnight.”
Being a mom who juggles a hectic touring and shooting schedule is challenging, Sykes admits, but worth the effort so far. “I do have to say to myself every once in a while: ‘Don’t beat yourself up. You’re allowed to have a career and go out and enjoy your work.’ If I was a surgeon, I’d still be away for a lot of the time. It’s what I’m supposed to do. At home, I do try to stay present and focused on my family. But even away, with Skype and things like that, I can watch my kids do their homework. It’s all a balance, and I try to maintain that the best I can.”
Slowly but surely, twins Olivia and Lucas have come to understand that “Mammo,” as they call her, is famous. “Oh, they know a little bit,” she laughs. “They are aware. It started when we’d be out and hear: ‘Hey Wanda! Love you Wanda!’ I remember walking my kids around Georgetown, and somebody slowed down their car and rolled down the window and said, ‘Wanda Sykes! What’s going on? How you doing, Wanda Skyes?!’ And for the rest of the day my son Lucas was saying, ‘Wanda Sykes!‘ They know that I do shows, and I think they’ve seen me on TV a couple of times. I took them to see the new Ice Age movie, and they think it’s cool.”
Here’s What Happened?
Sykes has another baby now: Not Normal on Netflix. It’s a follow-up to her Epix special, What Happened?. That show appeared a full seven years after her last major TV special — because the one before proved a tough act to follow. “I’ma Be Me was so tight and funny and honest and personal, I got nervous thinking about it,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to top that, equal it, or do a little bit better. But this is where I am now.”
She knows that because she’s an out black lesbian, eyes are always on her — including those of women’s advocates, gay rights groups and civil rights supporters — who can be quick to criticize whether she’s representing them in the myriad ways they’d prefer.
“I get that sometimes from the gay community,” Sykes confides. “When I first came out, I had a meet-and-greet backstage, and people would say, ‘I’m shocked you didn’t do more material on gay rights,’ when I just did 40 minutes of material on my wife and family. How much more gay do you want me to be?”
Sykes hopes what viewers will finally see is less about pandering to anyone and more about her evolution as a comic. “I want it to show that I love what I do; I work hard at what I do; and I try to say something, and hopefully make people think a little, too. It is our job as people to try to be authentic and be your true self and not be afraid to embrace being different.”
She pauses, adding, “Unless you’re a serial killer or something. Don’t be yourself then. How about you fixing that first?”
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Last modified: November 7, 2019