(The following story is an excerpt from our archives, first published in August 2014.)
From mayors to presidents, from dick jokes to everyday observations, Wanda 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 in 2008, after marrying her wife. 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.”