Wanda Sykes :: Free to be who she wants to be
That Wanda Sykes turned up on Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Funniest People in America in 2004 should surprise no one. The stand-up performer, writer, actress and LGBT activist has made her mark in American pop culture from acting in films like "Monster-In-Law;" performing character voice-over works in animated hits like "Rio" and "Ice Age: Continental Drift;" lending support to Julia Louis-Dreyfus on "The New Adventures of Old Christine;" hosting a late night talk show on Fox; writing best-selling books; appearing on HBO and Comedy Central specials; and continuing with stand-up in venues throughout the country. She comes to San Francisco on October 20 to perform at the Nob Hill Masonic Hall.
Sykes made headlines in November, 2008 when, while speaking at an anti-Prop 8 rally in Las Vegas, announced that she’s a lesbian. The month prior had married her wife, Alex, whom she met in 2006, in California, making the couple one of valid gay marriages not affected by the Prop 8 referendum. The couple has two children.
She also turned heads in May, 2009 when she headlined the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, becoming both the first African American woman and the first openly LGBT person to get the role. Her pointed jabs against Rush Limbaugh raised eyebrows; though being opinionated is nothing new for Sykes, who got her start in DC stand-up clubs in the early 1990s before being discovered by Chris Rock. Her work on Rock’s television show won her four Emmy Awards.
EDGE’s BeBe Sweetbriar chatted with Sykes about her career; the fallout from coming out in 2009; the difficulties of being female, black and gay in Hollywood; and where she would like to be next in her professional journey.
BeBe: As I was reviewing your career, I couldn’t help but recognize that you have been able to be successful in spite of the fact that you carry, what I call, the ’trifecta descriptive:’ that is that you are a woman, you are black, and you are openly gay. Separately each of these defining characteristics can be seen as obstacles in your career. So, I ask which of these have been the most difficult for you in Hollywood?
Wanda Sykes: Wow! Well, things are definitely better for women. There are a lot more shows driven by a female leads. That has picked up. But, you know the shows that get celebrated are the ones that men watch with male leads. That determines advertising dollars. But, things are getting better in Hollywood for women.
As for being black, now we have so many more options with so many different cable networks with programming. So, overall this benefits everyone. And as far as being gay, I think Ellen (DeGeneres) pretty much took the bullet for that one. Once she came out, she took all the heat. She went through all of it. And, if you look at where she is now... Now if you come out it’s not really, well it’s a big deal, but it’s better coming out now. It’s more celebrated now. I think, what, ’it’s me and Ru Paul’ (laughter following). I know we’re kind of like unicorns (being black and openly gay in Hollywood). But, I think coming out has helped me more creatively than anything else. Now, I’m just free to do whatever I want to do. I am not worried about hiding behind anything, or dancing around anything.
Just came out
BeBe: Yes, because you can’t hide the other two of this ’trifecta descriptive’ (woman and black). By looking at you, we know you’re a female and black. But, being gay is something that you could have continued to keep behind a certain wall. And saying that, you brought up that once you did come out, you were able to be more creative and be more free. Right now there are no limits to what you can do and being out hasn’t hurt your career. That said, did you regret not coming out earlier?
Wanda Sykes: No, because I wasn’t ready. I didn’t feel my family was okay with it, yet. Right now we’re in a good place, we really are, but it took us years to get to this place. It had to feel right. And at the time, I hadn’t planned on it (coming out). I was at a Prop 8 rally when they asked me to come up and speak, and they thought I was just there in support. So, I got up and said what I said.... oh, damn, I just...
BeBe: (Interrupting) I just came out! (both laugh).
Wanda Sykes: Yeah!
BeBe: Speaking with a friend of mine, an admirer of yours, we were discussing that your style of comedy is that you are able to speak on hot topics without being vulgar, without using profanity or being out of pocket on certain things. And you are still popular across the board. I sometimes get surprised about performers using profanity and what-not because I thought Bill Cosby had kind of resolved a lot of that with his ’you don’t have to use four-letter words to be funny’ stance. Do you think it is necessary to have that kind of shock value in comedy today?
Wanda Sykes: Now don’t get me wrong, I still drop the ’F’ bomb every now and then when I doing stand-up, but it’s not gratuitous. That’s not the joke. But, sometimes you have to get your point across. If the joke is funny, the joke is funny. And, you can be colorful, but it shouldn’t be like I’m on stage so I can curse. I can go on (Jay) Leno and different talk shows where you can’t curse and still be just as funny. It’s more about the comedy, your personality and style, more so than just being filthy. Though I do believe it is important that you be able to do that (freedom of speech).
A distinctive voice
BeBe: You have done a lot of voice-over work. Like Eddie Murphy, you have such a distinct voice that I can easily recognize you in an animated movie, just as I would Murphy...
Wanda Sykes: Are you saying when you hear Eddie Murphy’s voice, you know it’s Eddie? And pretty much you can say the same with me? I have a very distinctive voice. So, it is important to have your brand reach the widest audience. When you watch Wanda, you know that type of comedy you are going to get. It’s a kind of exorcism for me. It’s not like I’m sitting here trying to formulate some big plan in how to do that. It’s just kind of who I am.
BeBe: And maybe that’s the key to your appeal - you come across as being extremely genuine. What we see is what we get. There is no plan of action. It’s probably like you coming out, it just happens.
Wanda Sykes: Yes. It’s true.
BeBe: Up until the time that you landed your fantastic role (Barbara Baran) on the ’The New Adventures of Old Christine,’ you had experienced some projects on television that were somewhat short-lived, I guess that would be the best way of putting that. These projects happened at a point where your popularity was on the rise, but they didn’t quite work for you. Do you know why that was? And did you learn from these experiences?
Wanda Sykes: It’s hard to crack the TV nut because you are at the mercy of the network programmers. It goes back to what I was saying that things are (getting) better for women (in Hollywood), but a lot of networks get impatient. If it is a female-driven show, they better be ’hot’ right off the bat! They don’t let you hang around to build an audience. They just that they (audience) likes it or doesn’t like it, and base their decisions from that. Like with Comedy Central, that (my) show, they thought I should have been getting the same numbers (ratings) as Dave Chappelle. They’re like, ’hey he’s black and you’re black... come on...’ (a little chuckle under the statement).
Life reflecting art
BeBe: Yeah, that goes hand in hand. We’re all the same, right?
Wanda Sykes: I’m like twenty years older than Dave. Wait. I’m not that much older. Okay, ten years older than Dave and it’s just a different audience, a different show. My show wouldn’t have the same viewers. Like I say, it’s really hard. You have to find someone who believes and is willing to stick with it. Someone who will hang in there.
BeBe: You know, I found it interesting on ’The New Adventures of Old Christine’ how your character and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character got married. The reason- being that you needed to be able to stay in the country. The timing of such a storyline made one to wonder whether your coming out may have been the impetus of this storyline addition, or as it always in the plan to marry you two off to each other for some reason? Was this a way to intertwine your character and the audience knowing your sexuality?
Wanda Sykes: I have no idea! Of course everyone on the show knew that I was gay, and they had met Alex (Wanda’s wife) and all. I don’t know. Kari (Lizer, the show’s creator) just called me during the summer when season was on hiatus and said,... ’the (story) line that we’re going to do next season that you (the Barbara character) and Christine (Dreyfus’ character) are going to get married after we find out you’re not from here (country).’
I was like, ’that’s not...’ But she said that I go along with it because our characters aren’t the brightest (laughter follows). It was another Christine hair-brained scheme, and Barbara goes along with it. We actually never mentioned why, I think it was just Kari’s response to the Prop 8 thing. It was more about that, a bigger picture, instead of about me.
Finding her roots
BeBe: Earlier this year, your family genealogy was featured on the television program ’Finding Your Roots’ with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; and there were some interesting things about your family that came out in that episode. How much of stuff they told you did you not already know, and of what you discovered, what was the most shocking to find out about your lineage?
Wanda Sykes: To find out there were free Negroes in Virginia dating back to the 1600s was great. But I was just trying to figure out what the hell their lives were like. Although they were free, and there weren’t very many... like, who did they hang out with? (A roar of laughter from both of us is expressed). They must have been some lonely people. That just blew my mind. My paternal ninth great-grand mother (who was white) started all that. I told Professor Gates (the show’s curator) that’s why I’m so uppity (more laughter).
BeBe: (trying to gain some composure) Yeah, Wanda Sykes is uppity! I like that. And, in keeping with your family, I know that you are now married to your wife, Alex, and have a couple of kids. And before that, you were married in a heterosexual relationship which produced no children. Did you ever think you would become a mother?
Wanda Sykes: Oh, naw. Even when I was married before, I never wanted kids. Oh, no. No thanks. I had my nephews whom I adore, and I had great time helping bring them up. But, I never wanted kids. It wasn’t until I met Alex, and she wanted kids, and I said I really had to think about this. And, I did. Then I got to a point where I said why wouldn’t I want to have a family with this person? Why wouldn’t I do this? I think when the right person comes along, it all makes sense.
BeBe: Being a parent now, does that change your career direction as far as you not doing things in your career that you may have otherwise done?
Wanda Sykes: Well, porn is definitely out now. I don’t have that to fall back on.
BeBe: Not entirely. You can direct (porn) under another name and we would never know it was you. That could be fun.
Wanda Sykes: That was going to be my fall-back career. But now, I better stick to comedy.
BeBe: Well, you have done it all. You’ve done the movies thing, the stand-up thing, the sitcom and talk show thing. You are obviously living a dream. What’s left for you?
Wanda Sykes: I would like to do a scripted show. I’d like to have another sitcom, and give another stab at that. That’s what I’m kind of working on right now. Especially with the kids as they get older, we’re gonna need some regular working hours and stability around here. I love doing sitcoms, and hopefully we’ll find the right formula and get something back on the air. I’ve also started a production company with a friend of mine who is an executive producer. And, we’ll have some projects I’m involved in behind the scenes.
Wanda Sykes brings her stand up comedy to San Francisco on October 20, 2012 for one night at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium. On October 26, 2012, Sykes will be at the Hard Rock Live in Orlando, FL; On October 28, 2012, she’ll be at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in New Orleans, LA. For upcoming dates in November and December, visit Wanda Sykes website.