Out of the closet now, Wanda Sykes is still cracking jokes and enjoying life
Wanda Sykes is one of those comedians who can slay you with hilarity and make you laugh until you cry. But you wouldn’t want to be on her hit list. As featured entertainer at the 2009 White House Correspondents Association Dinner, Sykes looked directly at President Barack Obama and said, “The first black president! I’m proud to be able to say that!”
Then she added, “That’s unless you screw up. Then it’s going to be, ‘What’s up with the half-white guy, huh?’ ”
The famously outspoken Sykes, who will perform Sept. 21 at the Akron Civic Theatre, was employed as a procurement officer by the National Security Agency when she first tried stand-up comedy in 1987. She has gone on to star in HBO stand-up specials, have recurring roles in TV sitcoms (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine”), act in films (“Evan Almighty,” “Monster-in-Law,” “Pootie Tang”), and do voice work for animated films (“Over the Hedge,” “Rio,” “Ice Age: Continental Drift”).
Sykes has hosted a self-titled late-night talk show on Fox, written a book of observational humor titled “Yeah, I Said It,” and did sports commentary on HBO’s “Inside the NFL.” In November 2008, she publicly came out as a lesbian at a same-sex marriage rally in Las Vegas. A month earlier, she had married her wife, Alex. They have two children.
Friendly and fun, Sykes phoned one afternoon last week from New York City. Here’s how it went.
Q. You’re a married gay black mother. Why aren’t you down at the Republican convention?
A. “I know. Those are my people. I would’ve been there but the storm scared me.” (Laughs)
Q. Do you find much humor in the presidential campaign — or is it too negative?
A. “I do find humor, but it’s stressing me out a little bit. I can’t believe how much money is being raised by the super PACs. It’s just crazy. They’re preaching about how the economy is bad, we’re broke, we don’t have any money, yet here’s $60 million a month for (crap). Instead of creating jobs, they’re creating (crap).”
Q. Do your current stand-up shows have a lot of political content?
A. “I wouldn’t say a lot, because I know in an election year, people come to the show because they want to laugh, and they want a break from everything that’s going on. They want to not think about it for a little bit. Mainly it’s all about what’s going on with me as far as my kids because they have really taken over.”
Q. How has motherhood changed you?
A. “It’s not like I’ve changed. There’s just no free time. If I’m not working, then I’m somewhere with the kids.”
Page 2 of 3 - Q. How old are they?
A. “They’re 3. They’re twins. A boy and a girl.”
Q. Has coming out really freed up your stand-up act?
A. “Oh totally. It was so liberating. I’m able to really just do and say whatever I want on-stage. I talk about myself openly and honestly. It’s a good place to be.”
Q. Has your audience changed as a result?
A. “I think so. I’ve always had a gay following, but now they’re a little more vocal. They’re there, and I can see them now.”
Q. Were there people advising you not to come out?
A. “I didn’t really seek any advice. I just did it. There were times earlier when I thought about doing it, and my publicists and my agents were all really supportive. They didn’t discourage it. They said, ‘Just do it when it feels right. You don’t have to make some grand stop-the-presses announcement. It’ll be organic.’”
Q. Was there any negative fallout?
A. “Just from my family. They knew, but when I came out publicly, they were like, ‘My God, now everybody knows.’ It’s taken them awhile but we’re in a good place with it now.”
Q. Do you enjoy the mix of acting projects and stand-up that you do?
A. “I do. I never leave stand-up because that’s where I started. Stand-up is what has gotten me everything else. I do love doing the voice-overs for animation, and I love TV and film. It’s fun getting to play with other people. With stand-up, you’re out there by yourself.”
Q. Does stand-up keep your skills sharp?
A. “It does. That’s where you really feel funny.”
Q. Your performance at the correspondents’ dinner was very funny and borderline shocking. Did you wonder how far you could take things?
A. “I’m pretty sure I knew my limits.”
Q. Did you meet the Obamas before or after your act?
A. “I got to meet them before I performed, and I’m glad because they really put me at ease. They are just so genuine. It was a room full of huge people like Tom Cruise and Gen. Colin Powell, but the way that the Obamas are, when they’re talking to you, they’re not looking around seeing who’s next. The First Lady was making jokes about me to my wife, which was really cool.”
Q. It’s wild that you worked for the National Security Agency. Do you miss any aspect of that?
Page 3 of 3 - A. (Laughs) “No, but I don’t regret being there. I met some really nice people, and it was where I was supposed to be at the time. But it got to the point where I was just goofing off, and it wasn’t right. I wrote some jokes and got on-stage. How cool that it worked out, right?”
Q. I tend to think of you as your persona on TV and in movies — very no-nonsense. How close is that woman to you in real life?
A. “It’s pretty close.”
Q. So your wife has seen that woman?
A. “Oh yes, she’s definitely seen that woman. She doesn’t care for her much, to be honest with you.” (Laughs)
Q. It probably keeps people from messing with you.
A. “Yeah, I don’t get a lot of hecklers. My friends will tell you I’m not a mean person at all. You do right by me, and I’m definitely doing right by you. I don’t think my comedy comes across as mean-spirited. It’s like you said, no-nonsense. I don’t tolerate (excrement).”
Q. You’ve done lots of voice work for animated films. What’s that like?
A. “I love it. You just walk in and get to work. You’re not sitting around in your trailer waiting all day. It’s like the best.”
Q. Which comedians really make you laugh?
A. “When I make lists, I always end up leaving somebody out, so I stick to the old ones. I grew up watching Moms Mabley. She was on the Smothers Brothers a lot. I still listen to her. Richard Pryor, of course, George Carlin, Bill Cosby. Who else? Chris Rock. I’ll stop there.”
Q. You seem to fly under the show-biz radar.
A. “I do, and I enjoy that. I don’t have to worry about paparazzi. I get to have a life. I have regular friends. It’s not like all celebrities and stuff. People treat me great. I’m enjoying my life.”
WHO: Wanda Sykes.
WHEN: Sept. 21, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Akron Civic Theatre, 185 S. Main St., Akron.
TICKETS: $45 and $55. Order from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays at 330-253-2488.