Although Wanda Sykes began work on I’m an Entertainer, her latest Netflix stand-up special, in 2019, little of the material she had written prior to March 2020 made it onto the show. Instead, it was the radioactive events of the pandemic era — from COVID shots to the January 6 riot, the fight for trans rights to the murders of black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Elijah McClain – who attracted Sykes to.
These deaths and the racial discrimination that followed were not an obvious reason to make people laugh. “All that stuff just kept piling up,” says Sykes, her voice softer and more guarded than the harsh Southern twang she unfurls on stage. “I knew I wanted to talk about it, but I just didn’t know how to make fun of it. We were all so angry.”
More of diversity
So, the 59-year-old comedian started with herself, exploring deep in her personal life what’s funny about racial dynamics. She begins her marriage to Alex Sykes, a French woman whose clueless white privilege Sykes nurtures out of equal parts affection and desperation.
As Sykes recounts on the special, sometime in 2020, Alex snuck into a construction site next to her home outside of Philadelphia to check sightlines into the couple’s bedroom — a disturbing parallel to Arbery, who did a similar thing shortly before his death. When Sykes saw Alex wave at her from the house under construction — an objectively comical image — she realized she’d made it. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, here it is,'” says Sykes. “Things always came together that way.”
Not every hot topic made it into her material. Some are just too crude, like the repeal of Roe v. Calf. (“I just didn’t have any jokes about it,” she says with a resigned shrug. “I’m working on it.”) But speaking to Variety, Sykes openly discussed how her marriage influenced her comedy; whether she spoke to Dave Chappelle after his recent Netflix specials drew criticism for anti-trans material; and why she also doesn’t address her appearance as co-host at the 2022 Oscars with Amy Schumer and Regina Hall, aka the night Will Smith slapped Chris Rock.
The story goes on
Specifically, if you impersonate your wife with a fake French accent, you’re always holding a fake cigarette. Does she actually always smoke in real life?
No, that’s the thing. When I started playing them on stage, I ended up saying, “Oh, by the way, my wife doesn’t even smoke. That’s how I see her.” I didn’t do that in the special, so that’s how she is [in a French accent, pretending to hold a cigarette]”Everyone thinks I’m smoking now!” Everyone’s like, ‘Alex, when did you start smoking?'” When I talk like her, I just happen to be doing it.
Is it because she’s French?
Yes. They all smoke.
How aware is Alex of what you will say about her on stage?
She’s coming to a show while I’m working on it. And she will comment [cigarette in hand]”Ooo, I like that you talk about me.”
You’re really having a blast – I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily at her expense…
No, it is entirely at your expense. But hey, she’s allowed to take trips to France.
A good example of how you turn a topic that has become so intense in the stand-up space into deeply funny material is the jokes you make about the laws banning trans women from women’s restrooms. How did you get there?
I knew it was such a sensitive subject to talk about. I am not trans but they have my 100% support. I wanted to find something that I could use to shed some light on what they are going through to show how stupid and hateful it really is. I was in a woman’s bathroom once and thought, “Who would want to come in here?” It was like looking at the men’s room. Sometimes it’s even cleaner.” And that’s how it all started. I’ve always been disgusted with bathrooms.
Do you think that since it’s a Netflix special, the comedy on the subject might make up for what Dave Chappelle said about trans people in his specials?
Um, I don’t know how to balance that because I think what he said was so hurtful and damaging to the trans community. So yes, the scales are still tipped in their favor. But I know I wanted to say something because so much has been said on this platform. I definitely want to do something on the other side.
Do you know Dave?
Mmm-hmm. We started doing stand-up together in DC. Yes, go far back.
Have you spoken to him since then?
NO. [Long pause.] I mean it’s not on purpose – you know I still love the guy. But I didn’t have a chance to talk to him. If our paths crossed, I would definitely say something.
There has been a real backlash among some comedians to the so-called “wake comedy.” What was it like for you to observe this development?
It’s pretty funny. If you want to give me the label of a “woke comic,” that’s fine. That’s great. What makes me laugh is that they say that like it’s an insult: “Oh, they woke up.” Thank you very much! Yes, I read from time to time. Yes I know a few things. It’s not an insult at all. I mean, George Carlin, he was awake. Richard Pryor, woke up. Bill Hicks, wake up. It’s almost like they’re angry that we’re evolving. It’s really sad.
Were there times when comics were anti-gay or anti-trans before they came out when they were still on the rise?
Yes. People said all kinds of horrible things that we used to let people get away with. But, you know, in this country there were public lynchings and people would have picnics and eat potato salad while they watched. We keep developing. We’re getting better.
It also feels like the country has taken a step backwards in several areas – women’s rights, LGBTQ rights – in recent years. But it sounds like comedy makes you feel like there’s been progress?
I do. But it’s the regressions in news and comedy that get the most buzz, not the advances we’re making. I think they’re just louder, all the Trump supporters and stuff. But I like to focus on the wins. I mean, there aren’t many of them, but I like to celebrate them!
You become more personal than ever as you bring up the conversations about your race and your wife’s.
Especially during the pandemic, we had some difficult moments. She’s trying to understand what’s going on, but doesn’t know much about the history behind it in this country. It was just really frustrating for me to want to talk about it. And then it was hard for her, because she started to see it and she said, “Oh my god, I didn’t even know I was doing these things.” I can hear her talking to her friends — you know, her little ones French friends – talks about privileges. It’s just so funny because I hear her friends ask, “Of course Alex, what were you thinking?!”
Wanda Sykes and Alex Sykes at the 94th Annual Academy Awards on March 27, 2022.
When you start talking about the murder of Elijah McClain on the special…
That broke my heart. I lost my composure a few times doing that on stage.
How do you recover from this?
You just say, “Ah, shit!” And then move on.
So how do you manage to find the tone between this deep feeling and the desire to be an entertainer?
I guess just be respectful and honest. That’s why I train it in a comedy club. As soon as I find the funny thing, it goes to the theater.
Were there any jokes or executions that you tried that you found didn’t work or resonate with the audience?
In the transgender space, I’ve had to take back some things that could be misconstrued as fun instead of trying to help. Rather, it was about the laws that make it a crime for parents to help their children who have gender identity issues. I said to myself, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about – shut up and let’s just talk about the toilets.”
And the audience laughed. But then I thought, “Wait a minute. Why are you all laughing? What are you laughing at?” So yeah, I’m quick to throw up on something if it doesn’t feel right.
That’s interesting, because some comedians have made it clear that getting a laugh is their only north star.
Yes. When I was talking about menopause I actually made a joke about “Can you imagine a slave having a hot flash?” Very funny part. And one of my good friends, she’s not a comedian, but she says, ‘You know, at the end of the day we laugh about slavery. There are white people here who laugh at this black woman.” I said, “I get it.” Never did it again.
After you finish the special, are you already working on the next one?
I have not started yet. But I think I’ll manage with the strike.
How was the writers’ strike for you?
Difficult. I don’t do TV appearances to promote my shows. We really shouldn’t be in this position. Just play fair, man. light up. But what I really loved was seeing so many women and people of color on the site [picket] Line. I remember in 2007 there was me and a lot of straight white men out there. It’s just nice to see the progress we’ve made in our industry. But it’s just unnecessary that we have to do that.
Do you think Trump will be nominated again?
I don’t understand how. I mean, there are definitely some areas that he’s going to dominate, but I don’t see him getting the nomination across the country. To the right? are we that bad Is the country that terrible? Really?
He’s higher in the polls than any other GOP candidate.
Well, I mean, they’re all terrible.
Would he win again?
No. Biden will beat him again. Yes! I said Old Man Biden will beat him again!
After all, you don’t talk about “The Slap at the Oscars” at all in your special. Is there a specific reason for this?
I actually had no jokes for it. I think people were fed up with it. And I thought it was Chris’ face, so that’s his footage.
Do you have…