Wanda is a Funny Name (But Look Who’s Laughing Now!)
I spent the better part of a week learning all I could about Wanda Sykes and her life. While I was doing it I think most everyone here in The Rage Monthly’s office thought I had lost my mind because I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. And I don’t mean a little-girl kind of titter, I mean the full-on guffaw, a hearty belly laugh that makes your eyes water. You know how a song gets stuck in your head? Sykes’ routine about having "a detachable vagina" left me flabbergasted to no end. Seriously, If you haven’t heard her yet, you must watch this woman perform.
She knows what it’s like to take risks; after all, her comedy is fraught with taboo subjects in which she consistently lampoons everything and everyone worth jabbing. Politics and politicians are a favorite target, and lord only knows they are resplendent with endless horrifyingly-hysterical fodder. As she said, "You can always find something funny or something to poke fun at, the hypocrisy, the craziness, all of that. It’s just a perfect place for comedy."
She was also the perfect interview for our Marriage issue. She publicly came out as gay while at a same-sex marriage rally in Las Vegas regarding Proposition 8, which at that point forbade new marriages of same-sex couples in California. Of that moment she said, "with the legislation that they passed, I can’t sit by and just watch. I just can’t do it." One month earlier, Sykes had married her wife, Alex, whom she met in 2006 and they now have two children.
Let’s learn a little more about this wickedly funny lady:
I read that you grew up in D.C., with a mother who was a banker and a father who worked for the NSA - neither job’s exactly a hotbed for laughs - so where did you get your sense of humor?
I know, the crazy part is that my mother, father and brothers are all very funny. They just didn’t have the need to go out and do it in front of strangers! I don’t know, I guess I didn’t get enough hugs when I was young or something like that! (Laughs)
Where did you get your start your career in stand-up? I read early on that you also worked at the National Security Agency!
Yes, I had a regular job at the NSA and I know that’s not very funny either. Nothing funny about that at all! (Laughs)
I just knew there was something else that I was supposed to be doing with my life. I realized looking through my high school yearbook one day, that so many people had written things like, "You’re so funny," or "You should be on stage." It made me think, maybe they had seen something or known something in me that I hadn’t. One of the girls was actually our class valedictorian and I thought, "She’s no dummy, she knows what’s goin’ on so maybe I should listen to her!"
So, I wrote some jokes and entered a talent competition back in ’87 in which comedy was a category that a local radio station was sponsoring. I entered, got on stage and fell in love with it - just made sense for me.
Did you have any comedians who you admired and influenced you coming up?
We watched a lot of comedy in our home growing up, it was at a time when it was all about the variety show - people like Jackie "Moms" Mabley and others like her. Whoopi Goldberg was also a big influence on me. To see another black woman on stage made the possibility for me doing it all that much more real. It made me think, "okay, maybe I can really do this."
I loved Whoopi’s early routines, so funny and poignant at the same time. I remember in particular her routines with "Little Girl," the African-American child obsessed with having blond hair and the junkie who held a doctorate, I think it was in literature - funny, but both made you hurt just a little because of the dichotomy of their situations.
Yes, I loved her one-woman show, "Around The World in 80 Days," I think it was called. Man, that was so good.
Did you start out doing your stand-up in D.C. or was it New York?
I started in the D.C. area and moved to the New York. It was just time to move on, there wasn’t anything else for me to do in D.C. as far as comedy. If I wanted to pursue a career I had to leave. There was so much more of everything in New York; tons of comedy clubs everywhere and the opportunity to meet more people in the industry.
It’s how I ended up getting to work with Chris Rock. (It was on HBO’s critically acclaimed Chris Rock Show that Sykes spent five years as a performer and writer. As a part of the show she was nominated for three Primetime Emmys and in 1999 won the Emmy for "Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Special." Later in 2001, she also won the American Comedy Award for "Outstanding Female Stand Up Comic").
Did you have an "ah-ha" moment when you realized that you were going to be able to make comedy a career?
I think it was when I got the writing job on the "Chris Rock Show" and I didn’t get fired! (Laughs) That’s when I said, ’Oh wow, maybe I can actually hold down a job and pull this off! Look at me with benefits and all that, I’m in a union even! I guess I must be okay at this!"
So I’m curious about your days at the NSA and how much that fueled your humor around politics, is that where it began?