Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Funny girl

Wanda Sykes folds family, celebrity and Rob Ford into her JFL24 show

Tales of her wife pepper Wanda Sykes’s comedy, with her usual blend of honesty and sass. “Taking her on the red carpet was the worst thing I ever did because now she loves it,” Sykes says. Credit: Roger Erickson

When I posted on Facebook that I was interviewing Wanda Sykes, I conducted an informal poll: who on my friends list is a fan? The comments and likes reached into the triple digits, which should give you some idea how much people love this woman.

Fans of the tart-tongued comedian are getting ready for her headlining appearance at JFL42 in September, and tickets are going fast for what is sure to be a crazy-funny night. It’s a reunion of sorts, as this is not Sykes’s first time playing either Toronto or Just for Laughs. “Canadians are super nice! I always have a good time when I’m there. I’ve done Just for Laughs before, where I was on the all-female tour and we played all over Canada. It was in and out, in and out, and we really didn’t get to spend much time sightseeing, but it’s beautiful.”

Part of Sykes’s mass appeal is her cutting but refreshingly personal way of doing ripped-from-the-headlines material. Although, she admits, “I hate to say it, but I’m not as informed as I used to be because I don’t have time to do the research or as much reading!” Fans shouldn’t take this as an admission of laziness, however. “I can’t jump on current events — it’s hard to have the news on the TV with the kids around. You don’t want them watching mass murders and shootings and bombings before bedtime.”

One topic she won’t shy away from is our chief magistrate. “There’s nice people in Toronto . . . but Rob Ford has me a little nervous.”

From mayors to presidents, from dick jokes to everyday observations, Sykes’s humour is always honest, always a bit outrageous and always slyly delivered. Her punchlines land like explosives, and audiences get a workout from laughing and cheering her on. There’s not much that she avoids onstage . . . even her own family is up for discussion. How does her wife feel about being held up to public scrutiny? “It’s so funny, because now she enjoys it. It’s like, ‘At first it bugged me, but now you’re talking about me, so now I like it.’ Now, if I don’t talk about her, it opens the door: ‘Are they happily married, or what?’”

Sykes was married to a man for seven years before coming out publicly after marrying her wife in 2008. But she has no regrets. Well, maybe one: “Taking her on the red carpet was the worst thing I ever did because now she loves it. We’ll be at an event just off the red carpet and she’s already on Google, looking for pictures. I always end up saying, ‘Can we at least finish the event first?’”

A story Sykes tells about when she first met her wife has her trademark blend of sass and honesty: “We were at a pizza place. She didn’t even know what I did or who I was, but we were out and people kept coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, Wanda, I love what you do,’ ‘Hey, Wanda, can I get a picture?’ and she didn’t get it. ‘What is going on? Why are these people coming up to you?’ I said, ‘Oh, you didn’t know? I’m a pornstar.’ She was drinking a soda and spit it out. It was so funny, but then I got offended! What, I couldn’t be a pornstar?”

Although her family life and daily routine now form much of her material, Sykes’s craft remains the same. “If I’m writing a script or sketch, then I’m at the desk, and that’s how I work it. As far as my standup? It can happen anywhere. I could be sitting at the beach and think of something, then have to jot it down on my phone so I don’t forget it. It’s a different process, writing standup. I notice when I sit down and try to write standup comedy, it comes off stiff, but when I come up with an idea and just jot it down, when I’m doing the bit later it’s in my own words. It’s looser and funnier and feels better.”

Sykes works hard to avoid being labelled as a black comic or a lesbian comic and rejects the idea that performers should box themselves into identities. “I just try to be the funny comic. That’s what I try to do, especially because being out and black and a woman is sometimes like being a unicorn. Some audiences really want you to talk about that.”

Does she consciously write that kind of material into her shows? “My act is about being married, my kid . . . so I talk about it without saying, ‘Hey, look at this, I’m a gay woman!’ But it’s funny: some audiences walk away and go, ‘You know, I thought she was gonna talk more about gay rights or being gay.’ C’mon, man! I just did a whole hour about being married to a woman and my kid . . . I don’t think I could get any gayer than that.”

Even though she’s a veteran of TV (with such shows as The New Adventures of Old Christine and Curb Your Enthusiasm under her belt) and film (Monster-in-Law, Evan Almighty and Rio, in which she played a Canada goose), she’s adamant that she is first and foremost a standup comedian. “Standup is still the most fun to me. It’s where I started and still the most challenging thing that I do. I love doing movies and TV shows because I get to work with actors, and that’s always fun. Standup is still my bread and butter.”

Our interview took place before Robin Williams’s suicide, but we did discuss navigating a profession where so often laughter and a backbreaking work ethic come from a painful or unhealthy place. Sykes says she keeps an even keel by paying as much attention to her loved ones as her jokes. “It’s about the balance right now. It wouldn’t be fair to my family if I was just a crazy woman working all the time or if I put raising the kid on my wife. Besides, I kinda like ’em! They’re not so bad to have around, so I gotta have that balance.”

So other than Rob Ford jokes, what can we look forward to at her JFL42 show? “I turned 50 this year, and there’s a whoooole lot going on with that. I had no idea the things the body goes through at a certain stage. It’ll be a lot about me and what’s going on.”

When I remind her that Canada is a bilingual country, she’s off and running: “French people are very critical as far as their language goes. If you were saying ‘vous’ as in ‘you,’ but you meant to say ‘veux’ like you want something, they look at you like you were speaking in gibberish. In English? We work with you! You can mess up, your grammar’s not great, but we get the gist of what you’re trying to say. In French? Come on, get over yourself!”