This past summer, Wanda Sykes paid tribute to the LGBT pioneers who paved the way for her success a half-century later.
“I didn’t even know about that group of activists who actually started the whole movement,” Sykes says. She’s referring to the 40 gays and lesbians, led by D.C.’s Frank Kameny and Philadelphia’s Barbara Gittings, who picketed for gay rights at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on the Fourth of July in 1965. Sykes emceed the National LGBT 50th Anniversary Ceremony of the event, held in Philadelphia as part of a weekend that also drew Jim Obergefell, Edie Windsor, Judy Shepard and Bishop Gene Robinson. “It was very touching,” Sykes says. “I was so happy that I was able to be a part of it.”
The momentous occasion came just a week after another celebration for LGBT Americans: The Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage. “My wife and I went to West Hollywood and had dinner with a couple of other married friends,” Sykes says. “West Hollywood was all buzzing with everybody out celebrating.”
It’s hard to believe almost seven years earlier California voters had passed Proposition 8, excluding gays from obtaining marriage licenses in the state. It was the approval of that measure by her neighbors that ultimately propelled Sykes to publicly come out, starting her journey as one of the LGBT movement’s biggest celebrities and greatest comedians. By then, she was already well-known for her work in television as both a stand-up comic and an actor, with taped comedy specials on HBO and Comedy Central and recurring roles on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and CBS’s New Adventures of Old Christine. A year later, she would become the first openly LGBT performer to headline the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where she took provocative jabs at anti-gay radio host Rush Limbaugh.
These days, Sykes — who brings her latest stand-up show to the Warner Theatre next month — is more likely to take aim at Donald Trump, the current front-runner in the 2016 Republican presidential race. Another likely target is Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling and issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Obviously, Sykes stays on top of politics and current events, something she describes as “painful,” at least in context of keeping up with the antics of conservative Republicans. As a native of the metro D.C. area, a fascination in all things political was all but assured.
Sykes also devotes time to riff on something even closer to home — her domestic life in Los Angeles with wife Alex Niedbalksi. Together they’re raising six-year-old fraternal twins, Lucas and Olivia.
Sykes anticipates more work in the years ahead, from more seasons as executive producer of NBC’s Last Comic Standing to a recurring role on ABC’s Blackish to voice work with Ice Age 5. Yet next month’s run of shows at the Warner Theatre, where she filmed HBO’s I’ma Be Me special in 2009, should hardly be her last in the venue. “I don’t ever stop doing stand-up,” she says. “I’m always out.”
METRO WEEKLY: Because so much of your stand-up is political in nature, let’s dive right in and talk about Donald Trump. WANDA SYKES: It’s hard to do a Donald Trump joke because it’s like doing a joke on a joke. You could just repeat what he says. And, of course, if Ben Carson says something else stupid, that goes in.
It’s funny, the difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats are like, “Man, I really like Bernie Sanders. He’s saying a lot of good stuff. But he’ll never win.” And then on the Republican side, you’ve got a guy like Donald Trump, who’s a clown, and he is their front-runner. “Yeah, I’m gonna vote for that guy. He could win!” It’s just really bizarre to me.
MW: Your HBO special I’ma Be Me was taped at D.C.’s Warner Theatre and it reflected the hopeful mood of the country after President Obama’s election. How do you feel the president is doing?
SYKES: President Obama has been doing a great job. He’s done so much. For people to say otherwise, they’re just lying. It kills me how they can think stuff and say, “Oh, he’s terrible,” when you look at the facts: Nine million people got health care who wouldn’t have health care otherwise, gay marriage, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You can just look at so many accomplishments that he’s made. I don’t know where people get the sense he’s not doing a good job. I mean, he saved the economy. We were on our way out — the banks were crashing. We could have been Greece. I just don’t get it.
Wanda Sykes – Photo: Roger Erickson
MW: At last month’s debate, GOP candidates were pinning many world problems on Obama and his handling of foreign policy.
SYKES: Yeah, but that all started from President Bush going to Iraq. Obama had to clean up his mess.
MW: After the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, we’ve seen pushback across the country, most notably Kim Davis. Do you expect we’ll see more of that, or will conservatives shift their focus?
SYKES: There will be more Kim Davises, the same as there has been with African Americans. We’re still dealing with the effects of the Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow. There are always cases like that. You have those people, they just can’t let it go. It’s the same thing with the Confederate Flag. The thing is, when they try to get in the way of our rights and everything, then, you know, put them in jail.
MW: Getting back to your comedy, how long have you been involved with Last Comic Standing?
SYKES: The last two seasons. Our production company brought it back. We — and when I say we, I’m talking about Push It Productions that I run with a producing partner Page Hurwitz, who is also a lesbian — have a First Look deal with NBC Studios, and they wanted to bring Last Comic Standing back. I said, “The only way I’ll do it is if we step it up — I want great judges and hosts, I want to be able to pick the comedians that are on the show, and also that the judges are the only ones who get to pick the winner.” I was not trusting America. [Laughs.]
MW: This season I was rooting for Dominique, and not just because she’s from D.C., though that helped.
SYKES: Ah, yeah! Right, right. I love Dominique. She just spent too much time on her eyelash joke in her last set.
MW: Has producing the show been rewarding in the sense that you’re helping groom a new generation of comedians. For example, Amy Schumer, who took fourth place in 2007?
SYKES: Yeah, to know that you’re actually helping these comics’ careers. They’ve been letting us know, “Hey, we’ve been selling more tickets on the road.” They’re getting more booked shows. But it’s also helped me. In talking about comedy with the comics and going over their material, it actually is a good exercise for me, too. The advice that I’ve given them is the same advice that I can apply to my act.
MW: How do you view the present and future state of comedy?
SYKES: I’m excited about it. For one, we have so many different outlets now for comedy, with Netflix and everything and stuff online. I like having all the options, although I will say it does allow for comedy that’s maybe not right to get out there, too. Overall, I’m very happy about it. There’s just more room out there for women. Although, when you look at the late night ground, it’s all white guys. I’d love to see a little shakeup there.
I think it’s going to come down to more of what Amy’s doing — creating our own movies, and trying to get a studio to get behind it. But I also love what Melissa McCarthy is doing — she’s part of the all-female team redoing Ghostbusters. I’d like to see more of that, and more women of color, too — someone like Whoopi Goldberg, who has been the star of big movies that did well. I’d like to do a big all-out comedy movie.
Wanda Sykes – Photo: Roger Erickson
MW: How often do you get back to D.C., where you grew up and got your start in comedy?
SYKES: Maybe like once or twice a year. My parents are down in Virginia. I have a brother in Northern Virginia. I grew up out in Anne Arundel County, so some of my friends are still out there. I think we plan on taking the kids in November, now that they’re old enough to at least appreciate the museums and buildings and all.
MW: Your kids are six, so obviously they’re way too young to go to the show. They’re still basically babies.
SYKES: Don’t tell them that. They’ll say, “I am not a baby!” I do use that to get them to do stuff. “Boy, you are really acting like a baby right now.” And they get mad.
MW: How familiar are they with your work? Do they know that you talk about them in your stand-up?
SYKES: Every now and then, if I mention them, then they kind of get it. And my wife, she loves it when I talk about her: “Did you talk about me today?” [Laughs.]
They get to see the animated films — the voice-over stuff — and the Ellen appearances. I try not to make a big deal, or show them, “This is what I do,” because I just like to be a normal mom, I guess. You know, try not to make it all about me so much. [Laughs.] I know, I know — it’s just like my job is all about me, but with them, I try not to. Whenever I’m out and I’m with my kids and people approach me, I just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t — I’m not working now, I’m just with my kids and I don’t want them to feel overshadowed.”
MW: And your wife is still supportive of your comedy and your career?
SYKES: Oh, yeah. I get to do this because she understands. This is what I was doing when I met her, and what I love doing. She’s very patient, and she gets it. So we make it work when, if I’m traveling, she’s around with the kids. And when she has to go, then I try to make sure I’m around.
MW: Do you think you’ll have more kids?
SYKES: Oh, hell no! [Laughs.] I mean, it would have to be dropped off at my doorstep or something.
MW: I know that when you came out publicly your parents were still struggling with your sexual orientation. Has that changed?
SYKES: Oh my goodness, they’re so much better now. We’re in a great place. When both of us are traveling — my wife travels for her job too — or when we need help, my mom comes up and helps out. So it’s been great.
MW: In addition to more LGBT people coming out, the LGBT movement has made great progress in recent years in both film and TV. I can’t help but think of Fox’s hit series Empire.
SYKES: I love Empire. I love that they have the gay character, and he’s black and he’s strong. And easy on the eyes. That’s very important. And I love that they played it so that the father has an issue with his son being gay, because that’s real, especially in our community. So I’m very happy about that. The more we put these characters out there, it sparks conversation. It’s really important for the kids living out in the middle of the Bible Belt, who feel alone, it’s good that they have these characters that they can relate to.
MW: You were in a production of Annie at the Media Theatre in Pennsylvania. I had no idea you ever did theater.
SYKES: [Laughs.] Yeah, I have so many friends who are in theater. But an opportunity came along to do a production of Annie, and I played Miss Hannigan. I think it was a six-week run. It was a nice intro into doing a play. How that works and if I would be able to do it. I thought, “Man, I don’t see how people can do it night after night, sometimes two shows a day. And you have to say the same exact thing.” But I was able to get a little taste of it, and I did have fun with it. And it does change up each show.
Wanda Sykes – Photo: Roger Erickson
MW: I didn’t realize you were a singer.
SYKES: I’m not, that’s the funny part. I’m still not a singer. But Miss Hannigan, it was all a character — it’s one of those talk-sing things.
MW: So we shouldn’t anticipate seeing you in a big Broadway musical or anything?
SYKES: Don’t look for me in The Wiz, no.
MW: What do you have planned after your current tour?
MW: This touring is the big thing — that’s what I have to really focus on and it takes me through the end of this year. I want to get this show nailed down, because I want to be able to shoot a special. So hopefully I get this really, really tight to where I’m happy about it. And then maybe at the top of the year I’ll be ready to shoot the special.
Also I’ll be doing work as a guest star on House of Lies and Blackish — I’m doing a couple episodes. I’m very excited about those two projects. I always like to work with Don Cheadle. We’re also recording Ice Age 5 right now, so Granny is back. And then the production company, we have several projects that are in the pilot stage right now. We’ll see what happens with that.
MW: Do you see any early signs that either of your kids might become a performer and follow in your footsteps?
SYKES: My son is pretty funny. His timing is great. It’s physical comedy. But the thing is, a lot of time I can’t let him know that he’s funny because then he just won’t stop.
MW: Is that the way you were when you were a kid?
No, I was more yappy. Just running my mouth all the time when I was a kid. Looking back at it, I go, “I think that was kind of funny what I said.” Because I would just say inappropriate things. I would see someone’s wig was crooked, I just pointed it out. And I would get smacked — so that wasn’t really encouraged. [Laughs.]
MW: Presumably you’re sleeping better now than you were a few years ago, when your kids were infants.
SYKES: [Laughs.] Yeah, but I’m a night person, so the trick is, I have to start making myself go to bed earlier than I would normally do. I could easily stay up until two, but now, when 12 o’clock rolls around, I try to get in bed because I know that somebody is going to be up at six. And it’s usually my daughter.
She’s a typical girl. She thinks that, “Oh, if I get up, I can start talking now.” There’s just not enough hours in a day for her to get out everything that she wants to say. So she literally walks into the bedroom in the middle of a conversation. “So I was thinking today, we should…” And I’m like, “Oh my God really? Just be quiet for five minutes, please. Five minutes!”
MW: So it sounds like she’s taking after you then.
SYKES: It reminds me of me a little bit, yeah. My mom said I talked a lot. But I don’t remember walking into my parents’ bedroom, just waking them up. I know that did not happen. At all.
MW: Returning to politics, the past two years you appeared in Amazon’s Alpha House, portraying the fictitious U.S. Sen. Rosalyn DuPeche. Would you ever want to do that in real life, run for office?
SYKES: [Laughs.] I want to say no, I don’t think so.
MW: But maybe if something happens along the way….
SYKES: Well, then I would become Donald Trump.
MW: What do you mean?
SYKES: It would be like a joke.
Wanda Sykes performs Saturday, Nov. 7, and Sunday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m., at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. Tickets are $73. Call 202-783-4000 or visit warnertheatredc.com.
Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.
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