Fast forwarding with Wanda Sykes
This summer I was able to catch-up with an old friend -- one especially that I often have a very hard time matching speed with. When you're one of the most celebrated comedians of our generation, and one of the most out-spoken females in entertainment, time doesn't stand still: for Wanda Sykes everyday is on fast forward.
I was able to spend a little bit of quality time with Wanda and her wife Alex at their Fire Island vacation home -- it's where Wanda likes to spend some during the height of the season, especially when she is preparing for the new projects. She met her wife while on a visit to the gay resort island -- Alex caught Wanda's eye on the ferry ride over. She hasn't let her out of her sight since. It's become something of a tradition between them to return here annually and wind down -- or at least as far as their talented twins will let them.
I've resigned to accept that I'll only get to see Wanda fleetingly especially with our busy schedules. On her most recent appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno she lovingly joked about her wife Alex and their twins -- especially how all (or the combination of the two) are really keeping her on her toes. So I know that Wanda has been looking forward to this short getaway to Fire Island. She's practically become a fixture to the island locals. Watching that episode of the Tonight Show allowed me to flashback nearly a decade ago to when I tagged along on one of her many visits to the late night mainstay. Even then at the perpetual dawn of her popularity she was saucy and brash; a personality with the potential to leave an indelible mark on the cultural radar. Back then we just didn't realize the impact she would ultimately have... especially on the gay community.
About the talk show
Wanda’s latest HBO Comedy Special I’ma Be Me garnered her two Emmy nominations -- Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special and Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Special -- even in the light of the recent cancellations of her two other highly-rated television projects. Her FOX late-night talk show, which went up against SNL, The Wanda Sykes Show and the CBS series she co-starred in with Seinfeld alumni Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the hilarious The New Adventures of Old Christine.
The downfall of the talk show was not a surprise to me -- I never understood how FOX which has collaborated with Wanda on two other sitcom projects, both ending similarly, was going to attempt to bridle one of the most provocatively outspoken personalities in entertainment today -- I mean even President Obama couldn’t keep Wanda in check when she hosted the Presidential Correspondents Dinner, how could a television network?
When I arrive at the modest holiday abode I can hear the signature sound of none other than Ms. Sykes -- certainly the most distinct and familiar voice emanating from the home -- at least until the baby sounds take over. I’m greeted by a gorgeously sly looking little fellow who runs around and (right past me) out onto the foyer. "Boy... you’d make a terrible babysitter," is the hello I get from Wanda, raised eyebrow and all, scolding me on arrival. "You just let the kid walk right past you!" It’s not like he’s heading for traffic or anything, but it’s a sweet reminder of her dimensional shift into motherhood.
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Watch this clip of Wanda Sykes talking about gay marriage:
Marriage life suits her
The inside of the house is wonderfully comfortable with the view of the bay you would expect a celebrity to indulge themselves in. Except for the obvious attempts at babyproofing every corner of furniture, this is every bit the paradise you could imagine. I happily greet Wanda’s beautiful wife Alex, with the customary two-sided kiss on the cheek -- Alex is after all Parisian and doles about with her daughter, who is obviously skilled already at the art of playing coy.
Hungry for lunch Wanda, Alex and I head to the Island Breeze for some nosh, but not without Wanda being recognized: "Hey Wanda! Hi Wanda!" is coming at us from all directions -- I’ve certainly grown accustomed to Wanda’s celebrity -- having been around to watch it evolve over the years, but it’s only been recently that its familiarity has grown by leaps and bounds -- whether good or bad, I make a mental note to remind myself to bring it up once we sit down at a table to chat. I’m greatly appreciative that Alex has decided to join us for the beginning of lunch, I don’t get to see them as often as I would like and with the historical significance of recent events, it made me wonder about their life in the public eye.
Wanda and Alex were married in California. Their small, private nuptials took place shortly after the law that extended the rights to gays and lesbians went into affect... and was almost as quickly rebutted once Proposition 8 was voted into action preventing any such marriage licenses to be issued thereafter. Recently a new ruling overturned Proposition 8 declaring it unconstitutional (though that is under appeal).
Asked about their marriage, which was one that was grandfathered in and is not subject to Proposition 8: "I was extremely emotional. I’m tearing up now," Wanda admits. "I think we should get divorced and then get remarried," Alex adds with a grin, "just to prove a point and have another party!"
"It’s overwhelming," Wanda interjects about the recent court ruling. "But I knew it was going to happen. I had no doubt. Sure, they’re going to try to appeal it, but it will have to go to the Supreme Court and I’d love to see that show!"
Married life has suited Wanda. "Y’know there’s somedays that I just say: well we weren’t really married anyway," she’s quick to joke with a wink and a grin (and a sip of her cocktail) "but being married to Alex is the best thing ever, now especially so." Alex did express her concern for that short time that their marriage was in question: "It was hard to think that we [possibly] weren’t married -- what it could have meant to our friends and family who had been a part of it...and we were pregnant...about to become a family -- to suddenly feel like it was all a joke." Wanda agreed, "You don’t do that to people -- it’s dehumanizing! But we got our marriage license!"
When the topic turned to the national political scene, Wanda commented: "It’s a very exciting and optimistic time in our history,"
Although she always pushed the envelope with her highly controversial act with comedy that has always been socially infused and politically charged, Sykes wasn’t always at the center of a political firestorm. At one time early on Wanda had even questioned whether it was important for her to come out as a gay comic. I had suggested to her then that it wasn’t particularly important for her to have to justify her sexuality. I feared that she would have to carry the label as a then still emerging talent, the moniker of "that gay comic". I always knew that the time would come eventually and naturally, which she did nearly two years ago.
Arguably one of her best stand-up concerts to date, Wanda’s last special for HBO I’ma Be Me portrayed how far she had come in comfortably embracing her role as an out performer. The show prominently put her family life -- her wife and kids -- center stage and got her some of her biggest laughs. "I didn’t think I had a whole show... and I wanted it to be solid. I always want it to be solid," she recalls.
Wanda felt that perhaps the material was still missing a little something. "When I decided to include aspects of my life, that’s when I realized... I’m free! It’s so liberating not having to dance around anything, so I decided to talk about my wife, my marriage, my kids -- I’m going to be me!"
I asked if she felt that the direction she’s taken with her comedy perhaps alienates some of her fan base. "I’m sure there may be people who expect me to just be foul-mouthed and bitchy -- the ornery Wanda, but there are fans who have been with me from the beginning and they know that my comedy is political and current -- I don’t feel that I have to pander to the gay community. Now that I’m out, I’m free to talk about it. It’s nice to remind people who like my comedy, that I’m also a lesbian -- it gets people to talk." And it’s an edge that has certainly paved to enhance her profile.
Wanda has wholeheartedly embraced her position as a role model in the gay community. She and Alex understand the importance of being a visibly gay couple. "The more people see us," Wanda says, "and appreciate my comedy, the more they can put a face to someone who is gay. I look at Constance McMillen," the Mississippi teen who garnered attention when she was banned from her high school prom because she wanted to be accompanied by her girlfriend, "she’s a strong girl. They didn’t sic the dogs on Constance, but she had some nasty things said about her. And it makes you think about those young kids sitting at the lunch counter back during the civil rights movement." The historical parallels are an uncanny reminder. To Wanda, it’s an opportunity. "It’s my obligation," she feels to be an out spoken entertainer.
We now turned our attention to the then cancelled talk show. "I don’t learn my lesson," Wanda jokingly deadpans about the now third partnership with FOX, whose sister channel FOX News is undoubtedly the most ultra-conservative network on television.
"It felt like I took on a little too much," she says her cancelled show, "and the show didn’t meet up to my standards, especially within the box we had to operate... but I was proud of it."
She was happy to walk away from the late night talker, and it afforded her one of the proudest moments in her career: after weeks of jockeying Wanda was able to coax pop-songstress Sade to appear and perform on her show. And Wanda admits to being a little star-struck -- she is after all a huge Sade fan! "She was absolutely incredible! I knew she had to be off the set by a certain time, but she asked for another hour. I couldn’t believe she wanted to spend more time with me!" Wanda shamelessly and gleefully exudes!
Deciding that we’d like to splurge ourselves before the end of my visit with a frosty concoction, we head over to one of the Grove’s more popular spots Cherry’s On The Bay where it really doesn’t take long for the crowd to notice that Wanda Sykes has arrived. "It’s great -- but it’s weird," she admits. "This is the first time that I’m out here that I’m really getting recognized."
And it can become intrusive. In one particular instant, a tourist has pulled out a long-lens camera and snapped a picture of us. "The locals are used to having me out here -- they’re great! But I’m on vacation with my wife and kids and I have those days that you just don’t want to be bothered."
Understanding it’s all part and parcel of the career that she’s worked so hard for, she still embraces the celebrity... all the while enjoying the beauty of the summer weather day and our frozen cocktail. Which is how Wanda likes to spend her time off -- with her friends and family. She’s proof that we can to have it all: a career of our own design, a loving partner and a family. Sykes is that rare commodity: an outspoken out personality who provide us with non-stop laughs. It makes me realize how much laughter will be a part of the lives of Wanda and Alex’s twins. It’s how Wanda Sykes likes it -- it keeps things real.
Watch this extended clip of Wanda Sykes doing stand-up:
Watch this extended clip of Wanda Sykes doing stand-up: