Wanda Sykes, who performs Friday at the Akron Civic, has long been not only a comedian but a free-wheeling social commentator. She can take you down unexpected paths, whether she is drawing on her own experiences or turning them into something weirder — and funnier.
“There are things I had to do as gay that I didn’t have to do as black,” she said in an HBO special. Then came the turn: “I didn’t have to come out black, I didn’t have to sit my parents down and tell them about my blackness.”
She then offered how her mother might have reacted: “Anything but black, Lord! … You know what, you been hanging ’round black people … and they got you thinking you black. They twisted your mind. … I knew I shouldn’t let you watch Soul Train. … You weren’t born black, the Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Mary J. Blige!”
Sykes, who came out publicly — as gay — in 2008, is always ready with the sharp social-political barb. She hosted a special on the presidential campaign for the Logo network on Sept. 10, and will be doing a second in November. In the first she said that, as a black gay woman, the only way she could anger the GOP more would be “if I sent them a video of me rolling around on a pile of welfare checks.”
And she is not shy about which candidate she favors. During a recent telephone interview, when asked about her presidential preference, Sykes said, “Hmm, let me see. Let me weigh my options. One side favors marriage equality and one doesn’t. One says things like ‘legitimate rape.’ … Hmmm.”
Social issues, especially marriage equality, pop up in her act. So do matters of money and of age — Sykes is well aware that her 50th birthday is just two years away. She also talks about her early diagnosis with cancer a year ago, which led to her having a bilateral mastectomy.
Asked if there was anything she didn’t believe was suitable for a monologue, she said, “I don’t think rape is ever funny.”
But she is finding plenty of standup inspiration in her off-camera role as a mom. Sykes and her wife, Alex, have twin 3-year-olds, a boy and a girl.
“It’s crazy,” said Sykes, 48. “I’m always tired. And once you get into your 40s, you don’t have much patience. You don’t have the time or energy for [B.S.]”
Sykes said she is definitely the no-B.S. parent in her home. If Alex asks the children to get dressed, they may want Alex to chase them. If Sykes makes the call, it’s time to get dressed.
Then there is the spur-of- the-moment humor, the joke that occurs to her while performing. To keep track of those, Sykes always records her shows, so she can review them not only for what works, but also for the offhand joke that then slips her mind. And she writes down jokes on the fly. “I’m always writing,” she said. “But instead of sitting down at a keyboard, I just make notes … and put them in my phone.” Through it all, she said, she keeps in mind that her fans “don’t want cheap laughs. They want smart comedy.”
Out of all that effort comes about a 75-minute show delivered with that edgy Sykes voice. During our interview, the tones were different, a bit softer; even if she draws on life for her comedy, the comedy is a performance, a show delivered with what she calls “Wanda style.”
Not that Sykes has ever limited herself to standup. She has often worked as an actress, including on the series The New Adventures of Old Christine and in her own Fox sitcom, Wanda at Large.
“I would love to get back into TV,” she said. She’s an avid viewer of Modern Family, Nurse Jackie, True Blood and Breaking Bad — and it’s fun to imagine what each show would do with some Wanda style.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and for Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 and firstname.lastname@example.org.