An Interview with Wanda Sykes
Wanda Sykes strides onstage at Seattle’s Moore Theatre as Earth, Wind, & Fire’s “Shining Star” blares from the house speakers. The sold-out crowd is on its feet in a rafters-testing ovation. For the next ninety minutes, the three-time Emmy winner, resplendent in taupe calfskin blazer, jeans, and crystal drop earrings, slays with such laconic verities as
“I love getting older, because the older I get, the less I care. The words ‘I don’t give a fuck’ just fly out of my mouth. And if I’m not saying it, I’m thinking it.”
Sykes is in town to film an upcoming television special and DVD, the latest in a string of projects that have lent the forty-two-year-old Portsmouth, Virginia, native and onetime National Security Agency employee an air of pop-culture ubiquity. The past few years have seen her provide gridiron commentary (Inside the NFL), explore the inner workings of a whorehouse (Wanda Does It), foil Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), voice a bold cartoon skunk (Over the Hedge), and act alongside the likes of Jane Fonda, Uma Thurman, and Steve Carell. After writing her own book (Yeah, I Said It), Sykes also penned Esquire’s now-infamous “clit article” (“the quickest way to a woman’s heart is through her clit”), in which it was impossible not to hear her deliciously staccato voice.
This conversation was conducted by phone from her home in Sherman Oaks, California.
I.“THE UNWANTED CHILDREN GROW UP TO BE ASSHOLES.”
THE BELIEVER: At what age did you become aware that you were observing things that other people weren’t—that you had a certain radar?
WANDA SYKES: It had to be early on, like kindergarten. It wasn’t really that I was funny, but I was saying things that no one else was saying. And because I’m getting punished for it, I guess you’re not supposed to say these things. I was very outspoken. My parents looked at me like a little time bomb. Whenever they had guests come over, they would ship me off to my grandparents because they had no idea what I was going to say. They were always on edge when I was around if there was an outsider in the house. But I would even do it with family. If I heard my parents talking about how one of the relatives borrowed money, and if they came over and they were wearing new clothes, I’d say, “Hey! That’s new! Don’t you owe my dad fifty dollars?” And I knew my parents were thinking it. Someone would come back with pictures of a vacation they’d been on and I’d be like, “Hey! Vacation? Don’t you owe my parents money?”
BLVR: You said recently that one of the reasons you like Seattle is that you’re a huge admirer of the work of the writer Octavia Butler, who spent her last years there. What is it in her work that you responded to? Who are some of your other favorite authors?
WS: I love that she wrote really strong women. The main characters are women who do incredible things, amazing things. But they’re not, like, superheroes. They still have all the problems, the challenges—
BLVR: The vulnerability—
WS: Yeah, exactly, of being female, but they overcome it and do all these incredible things. And I love the diversity in her books, on so many levels. I know they’re considered science fiction and they might be set in another time or place, but they’re real stories. They’re human stories to me.
BLVR: The setting becomes incidental. It’s not a genretype story. Who are some of your other favorite authors?
WS: I’m looking at my bookshelf right now and I’ve collected a lot of Octavia Butler’s stuff. And I love Zadie Smith. I just read On Beauty.
BLVR: One of the things I love about your book is that you make it clear that you don’t want kids. You’re so unapologetic about it. It’s 2006 and we’ve got over 6.5 billion people. If we really don’t want kids, aren’t we the ones who shouldn’t be having them? Why do you think there’s still that pressure?
WS: I guess because we’re built for it, you know?
BLVR: [Laughs] We have the parts.
WS: “What are you going to do with those parts if you’re not going to have kids?” I think there’s that pressure, not because that’s what we’re meant to do, but because we’re built for it. I don’t know.
BLVR: I laughed when I read that you sometimes say you’ll adopt, just as a preemptive measure, just to get people off your back.
WS: Exactly. And all they want is hope. Just give ’em a little hope. I think we should tag some people: “You know what? You shouldn’t have kids. We’re letting you know right now. Don’t have them.” We really should. Because the unwanted children grow up to be assholes.
II. “SOME CRITIC IS GOING TO GO, ‘THE BLACK WOMAN IS PLAYING THE SKUNK.’”
BLVR: You said recently that the role you played in Monster-in-Law, of Jane Fonda’s assistant, was written for an actress of unspecified race. And I’m sure you know this, but a lot of critics took issue with you playing the assistant role.
BLVR: Chris Rock has said that Jim Carrey just gets to be Jim Carrey, he’s not responsible to represent white America. Do you take a role simply because that’s the part you want to play? On the other hand, as a person of color and as a woman, you’re going to have to answer questions that a white male isn’t going to have to answer. At what point do you make your peace with that? At what point does it factor into what roles you choose?
WS: It’s weird. It’s exactly like Chris said. It seems the more exposure that I get, the more that question comes up. You know, “How does it feel being a black woman? Are there more roles for black women now? Is it harder for black women?” I’m like, I only know my story. Everybody has their own identity. So it’s that weird position, where I don’t want to say, “Hey, I don’t represent black people,” because I don’t want to disconnect. But it’s kind of hard to go, “OK, what are black people going to say about this?” I just did this movie where I was the voice of a skunk—
BLVR: You said that recently, that you were going to hear from the NAACP—
WS: [Laughs] —and I know that. I know some critic is going to go, “The black woman is playing the skunk, blah, blah, blah.” Oh, God. I mean, come on, guys. It’s a skunk. There’s no race.
BLVR: When I read the reviews for Monster-in-Law, I thought about how, by and large, most film critics would identify themselves as liberals. And it would be even more frustrating to have liberals telling you what you should and shouldn’t play.
BLVR: It seems like it would come full circle, “Why can’t I play what I want to play?”
WS: Exactly. And it is frustrating when you’re reading parts and you even have to bring that into play. I would love to just read a script and not think about the race issue and how is this going to look. I mean, that does factor in, but the bottom line is, I always choose whether I like the part or not. Or whether it speaks to me. And then I go, “I know I’ll have to deal with that, but I’ll deal with that when it comes up.” I’m going to do the things that I want to do.
BLVR: For Over the Hedge, Steven Spielberg had all of you flown on his private jet for the publicity tour. Was there a moment when you thought, “Holy fuck!”? It seems like it would be surreal.
WS: I said that on the way, in the car, pulling up to the private airport. “Look at this shit! This is how these people roll!” They don’t go through the regular airport. They go through the private airport. And not just to the airport, but to the fucking jet. I got out of the car and I was on some carpet. Five steps on this carpet and I’m on this fucking plane. And I’m like, look at this. This is crazy. And I kind of wish I had brought a gun. Because that would have cool to fly with it.
BLVR: Just to say that you did it.
WS: I was like, I wish I had a gun and a kilo of coke right now. Just because I can. Spielberg has a DVD collection on the jet. And when they gave me the library list, I was like, wouldn’t it be funny if I open this and it’s all E.T. and one copy of The Color Purple?
III. “DOING STAND-UP, THAT LOOKED LIKE FREEDOM”
BLVR: If you’d stayed with your government job with the National Security Agency, what do you think your life would be like today? Can you conceive of how different it would be?
WS: I’d probably be about thirty pounds heavier and an alcoholic.
BLVR: How long did you work with the NSA?
WS: Five years.
BLVR: So you really had a taste of what it could have been like, then.
WS: Yeah. I think I would still probably be single. I don’t know. I’m just thinking about most of the people who worked there. Yeah, I’d still be divorced. And I’d have a house and be hating life.
BLVR: At what point did you decide to make the leap?
WS: Well, I was doing stand-up while I worked at the NSA. It got to the point where the couple of nights I would go onstage just felt better. So I had something to compare it to. Whereas going to work got extremely hard for me. As soon as I built up enough leave, I would leave. Everyone was saving up their annual leave. If I had a half day, if I had four hours, I was gone. It just got harder and harder to go to work and I said, “This cannot be my life.” To me, I was more afraid of that becoming my life. That was the fear to me. Going out and doing stand-up, that looked like freedom. I was more afraid of getting stuck in that job. And I felt like, if I do stand-up and it doesn’t work, I can always get another one of these. I can always get another job somewhere. I’m employable. We’re not taught that. We’re raised that you go to school, get a job, and stay in that job. You don’t see your parents hopping around from job to job, changing careers. You’re not going to do it. It’s all about security. That’s how we’re taught. Find something safe and stick with it. We’re always asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We put the pressure on them early. When I was in high school, I knew I had to go to college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be. And that’s when you start feeling like a loser or you feel the pressure. It’s like, “Shit, they’ve been asking me this since I was a little kid. Am I an idiot because I don’t know?” But I think we should get rid of that pressure. I don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. Let them try a bunch of different things and see what they like.
BLVR: When students would ask Uta Hagen, the legendary theater actress and teacher, if they should quit acting,she’d tell them, “If you can quit,you should.” And I think that’s true with whatever someone is doing in life. If you can walk away from it, you should.
WS: Exactly. We comics, when we have an awful night and we bomb and nobody’s laughing, if that makes us not want to get back onstage, then we shouldn’t. If you love it, that’s what makes you keep going. I mean, yeah, after you bomb, you can’t sleep at night. I’m serious. I can’t sleep, even if I’m trying out new material and I knew some of it was shaky. But if it doesn’t work, you’re still like, “Oh God.”
BLVR: Do you play it over in your head?
WS: Yes. And you wish evil things on some of the audience. “That asshole. I hope he finds a lump in his balls.”
BLVR: Do you get a lot of hecklers? At the show I saw, there were a couple of drunk women who were trying to participate in the show ,but they weren’t heckling you.
WS: That’s usually what I get. And they’re the hardest. The hardest ones are people who are drunk or the ones who really love you and they’re yelling out shit and it’s not anything like a heckle. They’re saying all this great stuff, so it’s hard—
BLVR: To tell them to shut up and let you do your show?
WS: They’re like, “I love you!” And you’re like, “You need to shut the fuck up!” [Laughs] And you can’t go after them because then you’re the asshole. That’s when you hope someone in the club or the security guys will go over and say, “Hey, look. You’ve got to keep it down. You’re disrupting the show.” Or there have been a couple times where I’ve had to say something like, “Thanks! I appreciate it, but you’ve got to be quiet now. It’s not Oprah.”
IV. “THE MAKE-UP AND THE RED-CARPET THING, I REALLY DON’T WANT TO DO THAT”
BLVR: You’ve been really forthright regarding your
views of this administration. You said that you tend to play better in the blue states. But in the red states, have you encountered any negative feedback, or are the audiences who come to see you already predisposed to agree with you?
WS: I did a couple shows in Texas and I got some people who were the Curb Your Enthusiasm crowd, or they knew me through those shows or the movies and they weren’t really familiar with my stand-up. So I got a couple of quiet moments from some parts of the crowd, but they stuck with it. And sometimes, they have to laugh. They might not agree, but they’ll laugh and roll with it.
BLVR: At the Seattle show, you drew such a mixed crowd. In terms of age and gender and race, you couldn’t typify anyone. That’s got to be a great feeling that your work is getting out there to a wide range of individuals.
WS: Oh, totally. I love that. I really do. It’s funny, when I first started playing theaters, I realized the promoters were having me do all the urban spaces. And I’m like, “Hey, guys. My audience is a little broader than that. What are you doing?” When they cast a bigger net in terms of promotion, they saw sales go up. But at first, it was just all urban all the time.
V. “WHICH ONE OF US WOULD BE STEVE MARTIN?”
BLVR: Are there topics that you consider off-limits when you’re performing?
WS: No. If it’s funny, then I can find the joke.
BLVR:I thought the abortion jokes in your act were hilarious. That’s a fine line to walk, but you pulled it off.
WS: If you approach something and you’re uncomfortable with it, then you won’t be able to pull it off. If I did a joke with hesitation, or like, “Ooh, I don’t know if I should be saying this,” then the audience isn’t going to laugh. They’re not going to laugh if you’re uncomfortable with it. That’s how I judge it. If I do a joke and it makes me feel weird, then I know I’m not ready to do it.
BLVR: Regarding the “clit article” in Esquire…
BLVR: In your book, you said your publicist didn’t want you to do it, but everyone I know who read it, loved it. Overall, has the feedback been good?
WS: Oh, yeah. It’s all been good. She was just trying to protect me. Like, “Can’t you use just one or two of them?” I said, “Nah, because then it would be dirty.”
BLVR: Guys talk about dicks all the time. If it had been a male comedian or writer using “dick” instead of “clit,” I don’t think anyone would have noticed.
WS: Oh, yeah.
BLVR: You said recently on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that the two of you were considering doing a film together. Has anything come of that?
WS: Not yet, but we’re definitely thinking about it. We’re trying to come up with the right story. Is it a buddy thing? Are we adversaries? Are we strangers that are thrown together, sort of like a Planes, Trains and Automobiles–type thing? Which one of us would be Steve Martin? I don’t know.
BLVR: Anything you’d like to address that no one has asked you about recently?
WS: I know that the whole “sassy” thing still bugs me.
BLVR: It’s such an easy tag.
WS: Not only that, but I don’t like to be called anything gender-specific.You don’t call a man that.You know? If I did Shakespeare one day, I’d still get “sassy.” “Sassy Ophelia!”