Wanda Sykes is everywhere lately. Simon & Schuster just released her collection of short comic essays Yeah, I Said It. Comedy Central recently premièred Wanda Does It, a half-hour show combining scripted comedy, improv, and reality TV. And Sykes is currently taking her stand-up around the country on the "Cotton T-Shirt Tour." But, her current ubiquity aside, she began by working in the margins.
Sykes was a government employee by day and a comedian by night until she caught the attention of Chris Rock; she went on to open for him on tour and to write and perform for HBO's The Chris Rock Show. From there, one project followed another. Larry David put her deadly stare and take-no-prisoners voice to good use on Curb Your Enthusiasm. She had memorable supporting turns in Down To Earth and the Chris Rock Show spin-off Pootie Tang (which starred Sykes' friend and production-company partner Lance Crouther), and her enthusiasm for football earned her a slot on the HBO series Inside The NFL. Her first starring vehicle came in 2003 with Wanda At Large, a well-liked but low-rated sitcom that attempted to combine her comedic gifts and political interests. Even its cancellation only seems to have raised Sykes' profile. In a recent conversation with The Onion A.V. Club, Sykes discussed her stand-up, her evolution as a performer, and when it's best to leave her alone.
The Onion: When you're doing stand-up, how can you tell if a show is going well?
Wanda Sykes: Usually, there's nothing being thrown toward the stage or at me. Then I feel pretty good about it. Within the first five minutes, you can gauge where it's going to go. I noticed recently, in the last few shows I did, that I'm starting to get people—not a large group, but quite a few people—who come to see me because they love Curb Your Enthusiasm. But they don't know what my stand-up is about, so I guess they just expect me to stand there and yell at an imaginary Larry David. They go, "I'm Larry David, yell at Larry," and I'm like, "What the fuck?" They want me to stand onstage and yell at them.
O: You could hire someone to play Larry David.
WS: I should. You know what, I should do that. Or just get a cutout. 'Cause then I won't have to worry about traveling. I'll just fold his ass up and stick him onstage and yell at him.
O: You've been doing stand-up since 1987. What's the biggest difference between your shows back then and your shows now?
WS: I'm really funny now. In '87, I used to do this awful, awful James Brown impression. Oh my God. That should have made me quit right then. I'm more political now, I guess. Back then, I was doing more of my impression of what a comic is supposed to do. But it wasn't anything like me. Now, you really get to see me.
O: It seems like a lot of comedians start out imitating who they like best. Was that true of you back then?
WS: It wasn't even who I liked best. I love Richard Pryor. But it was more like what I thought a comic was supposed to do. I was like a conglomerate of a lot of people, from Whoopi Goldberg to anybody. A little bit of everything.
O: How would you say the stand-up scene has changed since then?
WS: I think we're starting to weed out the bad ones. It seems like when I first started, people got into comedy because they wanted to be good comedians. Then when you had shows like Seinfeld, and that Tim Allen show [Home Improvement], and Brett Butler [Grace Under Fire], you saw comics getting these big TV deals. You hear them say, "So-and-so went to this festival, and they walked away with a big deal." Then you had people who wanted to get into comedy just to get a TV deal. We went through a lot of bad comedy. Also, Def Jam came along, and everybody was doing it without really practicing or trying to be better comics, just trying to get on TV. Now, with reality shows, and with networks and everybody not giving out those deals to comics… They're getting bigger names, or up-and-coming people. Now, I think the people who are still doing stand-up are doing it because they love stand-up. Overall, it's better.
O: What's your most prominent memory of working at the National Security Agency?
WS: Some government workers are dedicated and work hard, but most of them are just waiting to retire. There were a couple of guys who, all they did was come there and read the paper and check their stocks. It's a cushy job. But, like I said, there were a lot of dedicated people.
O: Were you privy to the deep secrets?
WS: Yeah, I had top-secret clearance and everything. I was working on a couple of projects that would keep me involved in Desert Storm. I was in the mix, which is scary.
O: You preface your book by saying that you want to be critical without being anti-American. What would have to happen for you to not have to make those disclaimers anymore?
WS: Bush and Cheney have this whole thing where if you talk about America, if you talk about them, then you're anti-American. They brought that. They're saying, "We know we suck, but if you say we suck, then you're anti-American." If we get them out of office, then I think… Well, it's an election year now, so anybody can say whatever they want to say.
O: Was it difficult doing a sitcom with a liberal bent on Fox?
WS: Not really. We didn't catch anything from the Fox News division. They're so damn conservative. It was more about appealing to the audience. A lot of times, they didn't think the audience was… Well, I don't want to say not smart enough, but yeah. It was that. You know, "Could we not be that political? Can we talk about something else?" But it wasn't coming from Fox News. They were just more concerned that our demographic didn't read the paper, I guess.
O: How would you characterize your experience there? Would you do it differently if you had to do a sitcom again?
WS: Yeah, I would. That's what I'm doing. I'm not doing it that way again with Comedy Central. I can't go through that whole studio/network process again. It's just the worst. I don't understand how anything could come out funny with that process. The studio gives you a set of notes, and then the network gives you a set of notes. I don't see how anyone does it.
O: Does Pootie Tang's second life as a cult film surprise you?
WS: It did. It surprised me because I didn't think it would even make it to DVD. I didn't even know if they would show it again on cable. I thought they were going to bury it. But I'm glad it came out. I'm always hanging with Lance, and it's so crazy how many people are aware of it and yelling "Pootie Tang" at him all the time.
O: You're doing a lot of different things now. Do you want to focus on one thing in particular, or is this something you want to do?
WS: This is kind of what I want to do. I like doing a bunch of different things, being all over the place. I always want to go back and do stand-up; I like the freedom. I don't think I'm going to pin myself down and say, "I'm only gonna do TV now."
O: What Wanda Does It job would you least like to do again?
WS: I was a Chinese chef at one of those fast-food places. That sucked. That was hard.
O: Your book tour means lots of shaking hands with your fans. Is that something you enjoy?
WS: I guess because of my act, people think that I say things they want to say, and that they can just come up and say anything to me. That bugs me. But I'd rather have people come up and want to meet me than have them ignore me. It's just timing. Don't bother me while I'm eating, or when I'm coming out of the crackhouse or something. Just let me get going.