Wanda Sykes likes to say of her stand-up shows that audiences know what they’re going to get. “I’m gonna talk about stuff,” she says. “I have to talk about things.”
At this point in her illustrious career as a comic, actress, writer, and producer, fans do indeed expect the Emmy-winning Sykes, named one of the funniest people in America by Entertainment Weekly, to deliver her free-wheeling, unapologetic views on everything from current events to her life with wife Alex Niedbalski and their two children.
But knowing what you’re going to get from Wanda Sykes doesn’t mean that she is in any way predictable. For one thing, she might turn up just about anywhere in the entertainment cosmos to contribute her brand of wit and truth, whether it’s as Miss Hannigan in a stage production of Annie, co-starring with drag comic Bianca Del Rio in Hurricane Bianca: From Russia with Hate, or on ABC’s Black-ish in her twice Emmy-nominated role as brassy ad exec Daphne Lido.
And it’s likely that not many of Sykes’ fans expected to see her joining last season’s Roseanne reboot as a writer and consulting producer, especially given the outspoken pro-Trump politics of the show’s embattled star. In fact, some might not have been aware of Sykes’ role until Roseanne Barr’s controversial Valerie Jarrett tweet led Sykes to publicly cut ties with the show — almost as quickly as the network cut Barr loose.
While Sykes won’t be returning to the fold for this season’s post-Roseanne spinoff The Conners, the Virginia native is returning to her former stomping grounds in the area with her latest stand-up tour, performing a fresh set at the Strathmore. She’s also touting a new Epix network stand-up comedy series called Unprotected Sets, a showcase for upstart comics that she will executive produce through her production company Push It.
That’s just one of the TV series she currently has a hand in developing, and it’s in addition to her steady film and TV career in front of the camera. A wife, mother, mentor, performer, and activist, Wanda Sykes stays busy in L.A. and on the road. So, when she made time to chat with Metro Weekly ahead of her Strathmore date, we gladly peppered her with questions on nearly every hot topic under the sun, including Roseanne’s tweets, former The Chris Rock Show colleague Louis C.K., and Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing crusade to raise awareness of racial injustice. As expected, Sykes didn’t hold back in sharing any of her opinions.
METRO WEEKLY: How is touring across America right now? Do audiences feel starved for laughter?
SYKES: I think so — people wanna laugh. But the country’s so polarized right now — you can see people in their seat like, “Oooh, let’s not talk about that yet.” They get a little squeamish, which makes me laugh because if you come to a Wanda Sykes show you pretty much know what you’re gonna get. I talk about social issues, and you’re gonna get it. Politics, but you’re also gonna get my family because they chew up a huge amount of my time. So I talk about a lot of things that I know, and that’s the people I spend time with. So know that I’m gonna talk about everything.
MW: Actually, talking about everything, you just appeared with Bianca Del Rio in Hurricane Bianca 2. Bianca, who is a great insult comic, garnered backlash for joking that one of the queens on Rupaul’s Drag Race used her story about having been raped as a means of saving herself from elimination. Is any kind of rape joke stepping over the line? Or is the line different for comics like Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, or Del Rio?
SYKES: I am not aware of this as far as what Bianca said and the Drag Race thing, so I’m not gonna answer that as far as concerning what Bianca said. For me, I don’t do rape jokes. Making a joke about somebody being raped is not funny to me. And I think the audience will let you know if it’s funny or not. I think we’re seeing the audience evolving, as far as what’s funny and not funny. And now, more women and men are speaking up about their experiences. If you’re a comic and you’re on stage and you’re doing a rape joke, you don’t know who’s out there, who has been a victim. If you want to see that goal and you think it’s funny, then that’s on you. But whoever’s in that audience, and if they don’t like it they also have a right to let you know. That’s how I see it.
MW: Recently an audience at a club was taken by surprise when Louis C.K. came out to perform an unannounced set. Some left. Some stayed, but felt uncomfortable. How soon is too soon for the return of a Louis C.K., or any #MeToo person?
SYKES: Oh, good Lord, I don’t know. I don’t know. Like I said, again, I think it’s the audience. If Louis puts out there he’s touring, and people go buy tickets, well, I guess, you know, it’s about time. I’m against censorship, so I’m not saying he doesn’t have a right to go and tour. But like I said, if people buy tickets, that answers your question.
MW: How did you learn of Roseanne’s unfortunate Valerie Jarrett tweet. What was your reaction when you saw that?
SYKES: Actually, I was about to email Bruce Helford, the [Roseanne] showrunner. It was the day the writers were supposed to report, and I was going to let him know I’m gonna miss the first week because I was working on a show at Comedy Central. And then, you know, [I’m seeing] messages, like, “What? You see this shit?” I’m like, “What the…?” When I saw it, I was like, “Oh, Lord. Oh, God.” I was hurt and disappointed, and like, “What…?” It didn’t take me long to make a decision to say, “Okay, I can’t be a part of this.” So that’s how that happened.
MW: While you were on the staff, what did you hope that the show would accomplish?
SYKES: I think it accomplished what we were hoping for, because we tackled real issues. I think we showed both sides, and it was a good representation of how families are dealing with how people are [politically] divided.
MW: Have you experienced any of that kind of political division close to home?
SYKES: I’ve had some friends that I’m like, “Wait a minute. You did what?” That was very disappointing, but they voted with their wallets. And now it’s like, okay, I can’t. Honestly, it’s just not the same ’cause I can’t fuck with you like that. Because now it’s beyond taxes and shit. And I’m talking gay people — I know some gays and lesbians who voted for this president.
MW: Brett Kavanaugh has been sworn in as the next Justice of the Supreme Court. Does the composition of this court alarm you at all?
SYKES: Oh, absolutely. We are talking about Handmaid’s Tale shit right now. This is scary, for real.
MW: I guess it’s an obvious question, but do you worry that rights and advances that you’ve helped to advocate for are in danger of being eroded?
SYKES: Yeah, absolutely. And the things that we’re trying to advance, it’s gonna come to a halt. It’s hard. You can still be fired in the majority of the states for being LGBT, so yeah, we’re in trouble.
MW: After a year of #MeToo, and a few years of #OscarsSoWhite, does anything seem solved, or even improved?
SYKES: I think women are doing more as far as when we’re in the position to make decisions, and the hiring, and also developing shows. I think we’re doing a better job looking out for women, and bringing in more women as far as, like, not just in front, but also behind the camera. So yeah, I think we’re doing a better job.
MW: How do you approach it when you’re the executive in the meeting?
SYKES: Well, like the show we’re doing now for Epix, Unprotected Sets. My production company, Push It, we’re putting out up-and-coming comics, and we have a very diverse group of comics that we’re about to showcase. And it’s a merit-based thing. We were looking for comics who we thought were really funny, and had something to say. And it just shows you that all you have to do is look for diversity. It’s not hard to do, you know? So when we are in those positions, we always try being inclusive. You look, that’s all. And we found some really funny comics.
MW: You do so much now as a producer, a writer, a performer, in addition to being a wife, a mother, your own person. What’s your biggest role?
SYKES: I don’t know. I guess being a mother is my most important gig right now. Yeah. I mean, that’s someone I could go to jail for, you know, if I fuck that up.
MW: What ages are your kids?
SYKES: They’re nine. I have twins.
MW: I have friends with a pair of 10-year-old twins. They apparently fight like mad. How do you deal with warring twins?
SYKES: You know, at first it was trying to mediate, and I was quick to step in, “What happened? What happened?” Now, I just tell them, “Know what? You gotta work it out. You guys work it out.” Unless it’s egregious, something where I’m like, “Okay, wait a minute.” But now I just let them work it out because that’s what they’re gonna have to learn how to do.
MW: Outside of raising your family, you’re out on the road a lot and have been doing that for a while. What do you love about it?
SYKES: I love doing the shows. It’s not necessarily being on the road. At times I go, “Man, you know that Vegas gig is kind of sweet.” You get a residency in Vegas, where you just go and do your show, then you go home, you’re there. But there’s something cool about going around the county and seeing different audiences. I love that. I love the show part. But the getting there, that’s the worst part of it. Being on the road I do not like, but I love doing the shows.
MW: I wanted to ask you about the Aretha Franklin funeral. For me, it was the most unapologetically black eight hours of television since Roots. It was really like being in a black church, which you don’t see so much on American TV.
SYKES: Right. I saw clips here and there, but I didn’t see it. I think I was at the US Open that day, so I didn’t see a lot of it. So [during] the blackest thing, I was at the whitest event. I was there to see the Williams sisters. Sloane played that day. The Williams sisters played.
MW: Did you also see Serena and Naomi Osaka? Was there any part of that blow-up situation with Serena and the chair umpire that resonated with you as a woman, as a sports fan, or as a black woman?
SYKES: Oh, all of that. I was feeling all that. Because at first we’re like, “Wait a minute. What is going on? What’s happening?” Then the way Serena was going, I’m like, “Ah, shit.” I was like, “Yep, she’s right.” She was right. I mean, it was so disrespectful, and just wasn’t fair the way she was being treated. What kills me is when the guys are going off on the chair, a lot of times they don’t point those directional mikes right at them. So we don’t hear all this shit that they’re saying. But Serena, it’s like they went out there and actually put a mike on her. It was crazy how they like zoomed right in like, “Here you go.” And we couldn’t hear what the chair was saying. We couldn’t hear that guy. Yeah, I felt bad for Naomi, but Serena was absolutely right.
MW: Are there other sports that you’re a fan of?
SYKES: I used to be a big NFL fan, but I stopped watching after the whole Colin Kaepernick thing. I canceled my Sunday Ticket, and I have not watched anything this season.
MW: I take it that you would stand with Kaepernick? Or, rather, kneel with him?
SYKES: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, yeah. I’m with Colin, and when I see how a league can just try to silence somebody who is trying to speak out against police brutality and what’s happening, and the murder of these unarmed black and brown people, or just anybody, what the cops are doing. And they just silence this brother, and take away his job and all, then I can’t support that league.
And then when you have Trump, whatever, in office and he’s calling them sons-of-bitches. And you’re still out there playing after somebody called your mom a bitch, I can’t support you. I can’t watch this.
MW: I want to ask you about Black-ish and Daphne Lido. Will we see you this season?
SYKES: Yeah, we’re trying to work out some dates. They asked me to come back, but the date didn’t work. I just saw them at the Emmys and we’re trying to figure it out. But, yeah, I love that show, and I love being a part of that team. So hopefully they’ll get me back in soon.
MW: Daphne is weirdly antagonistic towards the lead character, Dre.
SYKES: Daphne loves to antagonize Dre, but when it comes to social issues, she’s always on the right side. But other than that, it’s always just some craziness, which I love.
MW: Are dates and availability how the writers decide which characters are in those conference sessions? Because they’re key comedy every week.
SYKES: Yeah. I think when they’re breaking a script they’re like, “Oh, yeah, we would love to have Daphne in this scene.” And then they try, they say, “Is Wanda available that week?” If I am, then great, they’ll put me in. If not, then they’re like, “All right, well hold it for another episode.” Or sometimes they’ll switch up the episodes and try to make it work.
MW: My editor and I are both fans of The New Adventures of Old Christine with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. When it was on, I didn’t watch it — I discovered it in syndication and enjoyed it. Are you experiencing that, people finding your older shows in syndication?
SYKES: I know people who watch it in syndication. I don’t know how many of them are new viewers, but yeah, the fans, they miss this show. They really do, and they always tell me how much. Especially late at night, that’s how they like to end their evening. They watch some reruns of that. Actually, I watch also, because a lot of them I hadn’t seen. Especially the ones that I wasn’t in. So, yeah, I enjoy watching that show, too. It was a good show. It was a shame that it didn’t [continue]. I guess it’s not a shame because I love Veep, so I’m glad Julia went on to do that.
MW: On Will and Grace you played Cricket, the makeup counter lady who acted as a surrogate mother for Karen Walker. How does it feel coming in for those one-off guest appearances with a cast that are like this well-oiled machine?
SYKES: Oh, that’s the best. That’s the best because there’s no pressure on me. It’s their show, they have it, they’re always gonna be funny. I just pop in, boom, do my thing, and that’s it.
MW: What’s your pleasure when kicking back at the end of the day?
SYKES: I like Unsung on TV1. It’s like Behind the Music, but with black artists. I watched one the other day on the Bar-Kays. It was great.
MW: All I remember about the Bar-Kays are the naked ladies on the back of their album cover.
SYKES: [Laughing] Yeah, they partied, man. They were hardcore. They partied. I like Unsung, and I can watch reruns of Sanford and Son all day.
MW: That’s a good one. I guess there’s not been anybody like a Redd Foxx. Do you see anybody carrying that torch?
SYKES: Like Redd Foxx? I think Mike Epps would be a good Redd Foxx.
MW: That’s an unexpected answer. I don’t want to scoop anything that you’re talking about at The Strathmore, but can you give us an idea of what we’re going to hear from you on the current tour?
SYKES: You know me. I’m gonna talk about everything. Everything. Politics, social issues, and a whole lot of Wanda.
Wanda Sykes performs Saturday, November 3, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda. Tickets are $35 to $115. Call 301-581-5100, or visit strathmore.org.