Popular Comic Wanda Sykes Performs at the South Beach Comedy Festival
Wanda Sykes is a one-woman dynamo, a stand-up comic, actress, talk show host and author who never shies away from speaking her mind. The last few years have been especially busy for the Virginia native who once worked at the National Security Agency. She came out very publicly two years ago at a rally supporting gay marriage, and had two shows on the air, “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and her own talk show when her wife gave birth to twins. South Florida will be able to enjoy Sykes this weekend, when she performs Friday, March 4, as one of the headliners of the South Beach Comedy Festival. Here, in this exclusive SFGN interview, Wanda Sykes talks about being a mom, making people laugh, and how coming out has changed her career.
SFGN: When did you first know you were funny and could make people laugh?
Wanda Sykes: Junior high is when I found my groove, making my classmates laugh, but it took me forever to realize that it could be a career. I didn’t know how to go about it. After college I was working and not happy because I knew I belonged somewhere else. A radio station was advertising a talent show where comedy was a category, and I was amazed at how easy it was for me to write a joke. It looks like a joke, it moves like a joke, and I went down and auditioned, and people laughed, so it must be a joke. And everything made sense.
What did it feel like to get up on a stage and make people laugh for the first time?
There was nothing like it. It was such a rush. Just the power to be able to make people laugh felt so good. But on the other hand, when people aren’t laughing, it feels like a death. You don’t feel good about it until you get back onstage and have a good show.
You’re an actress and a comedienne, so sometimes you’re entertaining as yourself and sometimes as a character. Which of those facets of your career is most challenging or more fulfilling?
It’s more challenging to entertain people as a character, but it’s more rewarding doing it as yourself because then it’s all about you—you’re funny. When you play a character, if the character doesn’t work, you can always blame the writers. I’m funny. I don’t know about this whole thing you wrote.
You recently made your musical theatre debut as Miss Hannigan in Annie. What was that like?
I loved it because I got to play a real character but still make it my own. I’m looking forward to doing more theatre. It’s the best of both worlds—a live audience, and getting to work with other actors.
I can see you in that role.
[Laughing] I was a good mean drunk.
Who is your comedy inspiration?
Jackie “Moms” Mabley [the popular lesbian stand-up comic who specialized in social satire and was a staple on the black vaudeville circuit and later television.]. I’m trying to get her story told. Growing up I saw her on so many variety shows, the Smother Brothers and Flip Wilson. I remember as a kid looking at her and thinking, look at this woman, look at this black woman, so funny and so irreverent. I would love to play her. There was no one else like her.
Your twins are almost two years old.
Oh, God yes.
Spoken like the mom of toddlers. Has it been difficult to balance work and family since they were born, especially since you go out on tour?
Yes, it has been. I was doing two shows—Christine and the FOX talk show at the same time. So I was never home, and when I was home, the last thing I wanted to do was change diapers. I just wanted to sleep and drink, basically. Then both shows got canceled, and I was home a lot, bonding with the babies. They’re really good babies. But now I’m like, get me out of here. I’m ready to get back on the road. Mommy needs a play date.
It’s also been more than two years since you came out. What changes have you experienced in the way the public treats you or perceives you?
It’s all been positive. People will stop me and thank me, if not for themselves, then for someone in their family who’s gay or lesbian. It’s been great.
Has it changed your material in your stand-up act?
Oh, yes. It’s very liberating. When I’m on stage with nothing to hide, just so open, and I can talk about anything, go anywhere with it. It’s really freed me up creatively.
It’s unusual for a black entertainer to come out. There haven’t been that many.
Yeah, I kind of feel like a unicorn. Huh. I know you’re out there. But you know, it’s really hard in the black community. Hopefully that will get better.
Do you have any topics you consider taboo?
Anything that’s mean-spirited or doesn’t make you feel good. Like rape. It’s hard to find the funny in that.
What can audiences expect from your performance at the South Beach Comedy Festival?
I try to give you a snapshot of what’s going on at the time, whatever the hot topics are at the time. I’m sure the economy will still be broke. Now the kids are toddlers so there are a lot of fun stories there. There will be a lot of new stuff, and maybe some topics that I’ve touched on in my specials, but it will be fresh.
Wanda Sykes will perform Friday, March 4, 8 p.m., at the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theatre, part of the South Beach Comedy Festival. For tickets and more information, visit SouthBeachComedyFestival.com.