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Wanda Sykes got a relatively late start in show business, beginning her stand-up career in earnest when she was nearly 30 years old. But it didn’t take her long to become a familiar face (and voice) in comedy. From starting as a writer and performer on The Chris Rock Show, Sykes has gone to become a reliable supporting player in sitcoms like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The New Adventures Of Old Christine, as well as a go-to voice actress in animated features like Over The Hedge and Barnyard. Lately, Sykes has become more involved in political causes, coming out publicly in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8 in California last year. In her new HBO special I’ma Be Me, Sykes speaks candidly (and amusingly) about her marriage to her wife Alex, who recently gave birth to twins. Currently, Sykes is working on The Wanda Sykes Show, a weekly talk/variety show that airing on Fox on Saturday nights, beginning tomorrow at 11 p.m. eastern. Sykes spoke with The A.V. Club about her hopes for the new project and how her life has changed in the past year.
The A.V. Club: What’s your vision for The Wanda Sykes Show?
Wanda Sykes: We’re not reinventing the late night talk show thing. We’re just going to be a little blend. We’re taping in front of a live audience. I will do a monologue, which will hopefully feel more like a live stand-up performance and not just a string of random jokes. I have a sidekick, Keith Robinson, who’s very funny. I’ve known Keith for over 20 years; he’s my best friend. And we’re going to have panel discussions. There’ll be a bar; we will have alcohol. We’ll play some inappropriate games, and I don’t know, hopefully there’ll be some type of live sacrifice. If it’s a good show, at the end I will be just worn out.
AVC: What are you going to talk about in the panel discussions?
WS: It could be anything. Pop culture, politics, anything… I was going to say relevant, but pop culture really isn’t. [Laughs.] So yeah, a little bit of everything. What’s buggin’ people, I guess. We’ll talk about that. First week guests will be Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Phil Keoghan from The Amazing Race. We’re still knocking around what we’re going to talk about. We’ll probably land on stuff Thursday or Friday.
AVC: There’s been a lot of talk in the wake of the whole David Letterman affair about the lack of female writers on late-night comedy shows. What’s your mix like?
WS: I have a well-balanced show. It’s 50/50 on men/women, and also African-American/white writers, it’s the same thing. I have four African-American writers, and four non-African-American writers.
AVC: Why do you think other shows have been so slow to mix up their staffs in that same way? You take someone like Jon Stewart, who seems so progressive, and yet the composition of his staff doesn’t reflect what his politics would seem to be.
WS: You know what, I think maybe it’s because men like to fart, and the host wants to be able to sit in his writers’ room and just pass gas freely. Me, I’m a lady. I’m dainty. I know to get up and leave the room and go to my office.
AVC: Have you gotten any advice from other talk show hosts about what to do going in?
WS: Well, I’m bringing some experience from when I worked as a writer on The Chris Rock Show. I learned so much over there, and I loved the way Chris ran that show and set the show up. It was a very writer-driven show. So that’s what I’m trying to create here on my show.
AVC: When you say writer-driven, is it just a question of giving the writers the space to be creative and inventive?
WS: Yeah, but also that they get to stay with the piece. They don’t just turn the script in and somebody else takes it over and goes out and produces it and edits it and all that stuff. We stay with the piece all the way through.
AVC: Has it been tricky balancing this new gig with being a new mom?
WS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. You know, because I do enjoy my kids occasionally. [Laughs.] I love seeing them, but now it’s like I get to see them when they’re waking up, at like 3, 4 o’clock in the morning, and I think I’m just a shadow to them. And then when I get home, they’re pretty much out, they’re asleep. But hopefully once we get the show up and running, things will slow down and I’ll be able to make it to their graduation. I hope.
AVC: Now, your wife is French. Does she get your comedy?
WS: She gets it, but she always has something to throw on it like, “Well, French humor is…” or whatever. And then she’ll say something that is not funny. [Laughs.] I give her a blank stare, and she always blames it on the translation. But she is very supportive, and she finds me funny.
AVC: In your recent HBO special you talk about your marriage and your kids, and it’s a little like what Harvey Milk once said about getting the public to accept gay people, that the more people “know us,” the easier it gets. Is that an intentional goal of yours, when you tell jokes about your life? To let people see that gay marriage and gays having children together is normal?
WS: Well, you know, it is normal. [Laughs.] But I think it’s more just my comfort level with my life and who I am. And since I’m in that place, I don’t know… it just seems… not intentional, and not, “Hey, I’m going to deliver a message,” because I never want to be preachy. I always want to be funny. So I think it’s just being comfortable with my life that gives me room to be funny about it, like, “Hey, this is what it is.” And hopefully people will go “Well, she’s going through the same crap we’re going through.” I guess they don’t have HBO up in Maine, though. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you find that you play to a different audience now than you did starting out?
WS: Well, it’s definitely bigger. Now I’m in the theatres. But when I’m working out on new material, I love playing in the clubs. That’s like home for a comic. I guess the audience… yeah, it seems like it’s grown. I have a very diverse crowd from old, young, black, white, straight, gay. It’s a little bit of everybody.
AVC: On the movies and sitcoms that you’ve done, you seem to be playing, essentially, a variation of yourself. Is that fairly accurate, or are you doing sort of a character that is “Wanda Sykes?”
WS: More of a variation, I would say. There’s times when I’m really shy, so these roles that I get to play, they’re how I would love to really be. And that’s why I love doing stand-up, because it gives me the freedom to say what I really want to say. I think that’s why it’s my favorite thing to do.
AVC: Going back to your HBO special, you do a recurring bit about how when you were growing up, your Mom would chastise you to straighten up because “there are white people watching.” Given that, what do you make of the recent public dispute between Spike Lee and Tyler Perry about the way African-Americans are portrayed in Perry’s projects? Do you have a side in that fight at all?
WS: Ooh, they’re startin’ that up again? [Laughs.] Aren’t they sick and tired of goin’ at it? You know, I think there’s room for everybody. There’s obviously a group who enjoys what Tyler Perry is putting out there. And why fault them? And there’s a group that loves the things that Spike does. So they should enjoy that too. Is it my taste? Maybe not, but I’m not going to fault anybody for doing what they’re doing as long as people are showing up. I think there’s enough of an audience out there for everybody.