Though Wanda Sykes began working on “I’m an Entertainer,” her latest Netflix stand-up special, in 2019, hardly any of the material she wrote prior to March 2020 made it into the show. Instead, it was the radioactive events of the pandemic era — from COVID vaccinations to the Jan. 6 insurrection, the battle over trans rights to the murders of Black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Elijah McClain — that Sykes was drawn to.
Those deaths and the racial reckoning that followed were not obvious fodder for making people laugh. “All that stuff just kept piling on,” Sykes says, her voice softer and more tentative than the tart Southern twang she deploys on stage. “I knew I wanted to talk about it, but I just didn’t know how to make it funny. We were all just so angry.”
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So the 59-year-old comedian began with herself, digging deep into her personal life for what’s funny about racial dynamics. She starts with her marriage to Alex Sykes, a Frenchwoman whose clueless white privilege Sykes tweaks with equal parts affection and exasperation.
As Sykes relays in the special, at one point in 2020, Alex sneaked into a construction site next door to their home outside Philadelphia to check out the sightlines into the couple’s bedroom, an unsettling parallel to Arbery doing something similar right before he was killed. When Sykes saw Alex waving at her from the house under construction — an objectively funny image — she realized she had her way in. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, here it is,’” Sykes says. “Things just kept falling into place that way.”
Not every hot button topic made it into her material. Some are just too raw, like the repeal of Roe v. Wade. (“I just didn’t have any jokes about it,” she says with a resigned shrug. “Working on it.”) But in conversation with Variety, Sykes gamely discussed how her marriage informed her comedy; whether she’s talked with Dave Chappelle after his recent Netflix specials drew criticism for anti-trans material; and why she also doesn’t address her gig co-hosting the 2022 Oscars with Amy Schumer and Regina Hall, a.k.a. the night Will Smith slapped Chris Rock.
In the special, when you imitate your wife in a faux French accent, you always have a pretend cigarette in your hand. In real life, is she actually always smoking?
No, that’s the thing. When I first started doing her on stage, I would say at the end, “Oh, by the way, my wife doesn’t even smoke. This is just how I see her.” I didn’t do it this in the special, so she’s like [in a French accent, pretending to hold a cigarette], “Everybody thinks I smoke now! Everybody’s asking me, ‘Alex, when did you start smoking?’” When I talk like her, I just happen to do it.
Is it that she’s French?
Yeah. They all smoke.
How aware is Alex of what you’ll be saying about her onstage?
She’ll come out to a show as I’m working on it. And she’ll comment [cigarette in hand], “Ooo, I like that you talk about me.”
You do have a fair amount of fun — I wouldn’t say necessarily at her expense…
No, it’s totally at her expense. But hey, she gets to take trips to France.
A good example of you turning a topic that’s become so fraught in stand-up into deeply funny material is the run of jokes you make about the laws banning trans women from women’s bathrooms. How did you get there?
I knew that it’s such a delicate issue to talk about. I’m not trans, but they have my support, 100%. I wanted to find something where I can shine some light on what they’re going through, to show how just stupid and hateful really it is. I was in a woman’s bathroom one time, and I was like, “Who would want to come in here anyway? It was like, I kind of want to go check out the men’s room. Sometimes, it’s even cleaner.” And that’s how that whole bit started. I’ve always just been grossed out by bathrooms.
Do you feel that, because this is a Netflix special, that comedy about this topic perhaps balances out what Dave Chappelle has been saying about trans people in his specials?
Um, I don’t know about balancing it out, because I think what he said was so hurtful and damaging to the trans community. So yeah, the scale is still tipped, I will say, in their favor. But I know I wanted to say something, because so much has been said on that platform. I definitely want to something on the other side of it.
Do you know Dave?
Mmm-hmm. We started doing stand-up together in DC. Yeah, go way back.
Have you talked to him since all of that?
No. [Long pause.] I mean, it’s not intentional — you know, I still love the guy. But I haven’t had a chance to talk to him. If our paths did cross, I totally would say something.
There has been a real backlash among some comedians about so-called woke comedy. How has it been for you to watch that unfold?
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’re woke.” Thank you! Yeah, I read some stuff from time to time. Yeah, I know a few things. It’s not an insult at all. I mean, George Carlin, he was woke. Richard Pryor, woke. Bill Hicks, woke. It’s almost like they’re angry that we’re evolving. It’s sad, really.
Were there times comics were anti-gay or anti-trans before you came out, when you were still coming up?
Yeah. People would say all kinds of horrible things that we used to let people get away with. But you know, in this country, they would hold public lynchings and people would have picnics and eat potato salad while watching. We’re evolving. We’re getting better.
It also feels like in several areas — women’s rights, LGBTQ rights — the country has been backsliding over the last few years. But it sounds like in comedy, you feel there’s been some progress?
I do. But the steps back in both the news and comedy, that’s what makes the most noise, instead of the progress we’re making. I think they’re just louder, all the Trump supporters and all that. But I like to focus on the wins. I mean, there are not a lot of them, but I like to like to celebrate them!
You get more personal than you have before when you talk about you and your wife’s conversations about race.
Especially during the pandemic, we had some rough moments. She’s trying to understand what’s going on, but she doesn’t know a lot of the history behind it in this country. It was just very frustrating for me, trying to talk about it. And then it was hard for her, because she did start to see it and she was like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t even realize that I do these things.” I can hear her talking to her friends — you know, her little Frenchy friends — about privilege. It’s just so funny, because I hear her friends, like, “Of course, Alex, what did you think?!”
When you begin talking in the special about the murder of Elijah McClain…
That broke my heart. I lost it a couple times doing that onstage.
How do you recover from that?
You just go, “Ah, shit!” And then keep going.
So how are you managing the tone between that deep feeling and wanting to be an entertainer?
I guess just being respectful and being honest. That’s why I work it out in a comedy club. Once I find the funny, it gets to the theater.
Were there any jokes or runs you tried out that you realized weren’t going to work out or connect with the audience?
In the trans area, I had to step some things back that might be misconstrued as me making fun, instead of trying to help. It was more about the laws making it a crime for parents to help their children who were having gender identity issues. I said to myself, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about — shut up and let’s just talk about the bathrooms.”
And the audience, they did laugh. But then I was like, “Wait a minute. Why are y’all laughing? What are you laughing about?” So yeah, I’m quick to get rid of something if it doesn’t feel right.
That’s interesting, because some comedians have been clear that getting a laugh is their only North Star.
Yeah. Actually, when I was talking about menopause, I used to do a joke about “Can you imagine a slave having a hot flash?” Very funny bit. And one of my good friends, she’s not a comedian, but she’s like, “You know, at the end of the day we’re laughing at slavery. You’ve got white people in here laughing at this Black woman.” I said, “I got it.” Never did it again.
Now that you’re done with the special, are you already working on the next one?
I haven’t started yet. But with the strike, I guess I will.
How’s the writers strike been for you?
Difficult. I’m not doing any TV appearances to promote my shows. We really shouldn’t be in this position. Just play fair, man. Come on. But one thing I thought was really beautiful was to see so many women and people of color on the [picket] line. I remember back in ’07, it was me and a lot of straight white men out there. So it’s nice just to see the progress that we’ve made in our industry. But it’s just unnecessary that we have to do this.
Do you think Trump will be nominated again?
I don’t see how. I mean, there are definitely pockets that he’s going to dominate, but I don’t see across the country how he’ll get the nomination. Right? Are we that bad? Is the country that horrible? Really?
He is polling higher than any other GOP candidate.
Well, I mean, they’re all awful.
Would he win again?
No. Biden will beat him again. Yep! I said: Old Man Biden will beat him again!
Finally, you don’t talk about The Slap at the Oscars at all in your special. Is there a particular reason why?
Didn’t really have any jokes for it. I think people were tired of it. And I figured it was Chris’ face, so that’s his material.
Have you thought at all about how Will Smith has addressed the incident over the last year?
Not really. I mean, I wish the guy the best. I really hope he can come back. I really do.
Did he reach out to you at all?
Yes, he did. When he called, I had the worst throat cold. It wasn’t COVID, but I was just really sick. And I was like, “Hey, I appreciate you reaching out. When I feel better, I’ll get in touch.” But by then, I was like, he called. I know what the call was for. I’m good.
Would you ever host the Oscars again?
No. [Laughs] I don’t think so. I mean, it was fun doing it with Amy and Regina. But solo? No, thank you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Styling: Sammy K/The Only Agency; Hair: Lisa Deveaux; Makeup: Tammy Yi/Exclusive Artists; Look 1 (white suit): Tom Ford; Top: Ralph Lauren; Shoes: Roger Vivier; Jewelry: Le Vian; Look 2 (black suit); Suit: Sergio Hudson; Top: Ralph Lauren; Jewelry: Le Vian
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