Wanda Sykes has every right to feel in conflict. She is frustrated with much of what she sees on the news and in her industry, but, at 58, she might argue that she has never been in great demand.
The standing veteran, who made a name for herself by writing The Chris Rock show in the late 1990s, it recently returned to the traveling circuit for the first time since the start of the pandemic. He just finished Hulu’s production World history part II, for which she was chosen by Mel Brooks as a writer and producer. On June 29 comes the second season of her Netflix sitcom, The Upshaws. And, in addition to an ever-steady drum beat of show-stealing guest actor work (see: The other two, A black woman sketch show And The good fight), he also found time to co-host the March Academy Awards telecast. (We’ll get there.)
It sounds like a lot to everyone except Sykes, who suggests she’s taken a healthier approach over time. “I used to try to do everything and I was killing myself while doing it,” says the comic, whose tile from Push It Productions is all about comedy. “I’m at a point where I only step in when I see something I can do better. It took me a while to get there. “
Speaking on the phone in early June from the Pennsylvania home he shares with his wife and two children, Sykes, who is momentarily sidelined by COVID-19, explained his evolution and showed that even a bad cough and l The daily onslaught of bad news can’t stop it from being funny.
What’s it like to be on the road again?
I make jokes about being in quarantine. It would be weird not to see it when I haven’t seen my audience for over two years. But there is so much madness going on now that a pandemic that has closed us is not the biggest story that is happening in this country. We are about to lose our democracy. It’s just nonsense after nonsense. But people want to laugh.
Yet, as a woman, woman of color, and queer person, there is a lot to get angry about right now. How do you handle the need to laugh with topics that interest you?
I’m still trying to find that line of how much they want to laugh at what’s going on or if they want to hear about more personal things and not try to think about this crazy time. My rule is, and always has been, “If I don’t have a funny joke, I’m not going to get it out.” I don’t want to waste time ranting … which would be easy to do because there is so much shit to rant about right now. I mean, right to abortion! The list is endless.
What is your starting point in writing jokes?
It’s always based on what’s happening in real life: a conversation with my wife, something I’ve read or observed. What I’ve always loved is to point out the hypocrisy.
So, you have no shortage of material.
That’s what I’m saying! It was a big deal. When someone caught you being a hypocrite, or even accused you of it, it would collapse a career, especially a political career. Nobody cares now! The standards have gotten so low.
There has been a lot of talk about stage safety since Dave Chappelle was screwed at the Hollywood Bowl. What is your opinion?
It’s scary. I have a security officer and he’s super dedicated. But I really love my fans and my audience. They are respectful. If someone bothers, which is rare, the audience usually takes care of it for me. I was at a show in Orlando and a guy wasn’t happy with my Republican jokes. It was like, “This shot! Let’s talk about something else!” I just said, “Hey, I’m sorry you’re a Republican. It sucks to be you. But the audience said,” Get the fuck out! “He laughs.)
Have you ever been afraid to go on stage?
Maybe during that first year of Trump, because we found out who was who. I didn’t realize how crazy he was going to get, how adamant these people were. Political comedy was no longer fun.
Putting the ceremony aside, how was your experience putting together the Oscars telecast?
I was working on it The Upshaws, so I didn’t have enough time to get stressed out. I succeed when I don’t have time to micromanage. Amy [Schumer] Loaded guns were coming, and Regina [Hall] he was ready for a lot of fun. Everything seemed to have fallen into place.
As for the slap, have you already worked out the ordeal?
I should probably talk to someone, to be honest. He was crazy. He ruined the night. I felt bad for my friend [Rock], for his family. This is so shit. And, for our sector, who are we? We all saw what happened and sat there. It’s the craziest thing ever. It reflects where we are in this country with regards to the level of civilization.
What types of projects are you attracted to as a producer?
We just did Stands out to Netflix, which showcases queer comics and honors those who led the way. It’s a stand-up special, but it will also be a documentary. I want projects like that. We’re also just going to do some funny bullshit. It doesn’t have to be queer. It could be voices that are not being heard. That doesn’t mean we don’t want fucking Halle Berry or Jennifer Aniston to walk in our door.
You have a lot of business with Netflix. What’s your take on the problems and cultural changes over there? What are the pros and cons for you right now?
I don’t want to make you talk crappy about people with purse strings.
Well, I’m not tied to the purse strings. I am happy to have a place to do shows that I want to do. And they have the right to do shows that other people want to do. I wish they didn’t do shows that harm a community? Absolutely. Would I like them to take responsibility and understand the connection between what is published and the effects on the community? Yes. But, I repeat, I can do what I want.
There is a lot of debate as to who gets and who doesn’t get the streaming promotion, particularly on Netflix. Did you feel that your show was well positioned to be successful?
Well, we’re on our way back, so something worked. (He laughs.) But I also realize we have me, Mike Epps and Kim Fields, names that can make some noise. I am booked for talk shows where I can promote my work. Is fantastic. New shows with emerging talent or new faces, it’s really hard for them to break through. There are so many shows out there that you have never heard of.
Why do you think it is?
It is the algorithm. Mike can mention The Upshaws at his cabaret show and the crowd went crazy. It’s a mostly African American crowd, and they love it. My shows are more of a mixed crowd, probably mostly white. If I mention The Upshaws, they look like “Huh?” In our first season, I’d go to my Netflix home page – or Regina Hicks, the co-showrunner, log in – and watch our show. Our white writers said they actually had to do a search to find it. So, their algorithm also says, “Oh no, you don’t want to look at these blacks. Here are some nice whites! Watch this.” (He laughs.) When I did my cabaret show in Los Angeles, some [Netflix] the executives were there. I said, “I hope you understand that, from my audience, I don’t fit the algorithm.”
It seems we are only going halfway with inclusivity if the work is put only in front of the group it represents.
Mm-hmm. Maybe they should tick a few boxes for people: “If you watch this show with Asians or the one with Hispanics, you get a little discount.”
Tell me about working with Mel Brooks.
This is your wish list right there. Mel is funny and he’s sharp. When he likes something, you know he likes it. And when he doesn’t like something, he says “OK … what else?” I’m just honored to have had the chance to do something with him and that he finds me funny.
Who do you think is funny now?
love you Tricks. And Elementary Abbot is my number one right now. Damn Janelle James. God, that’s so funny. When did she fall off the chair and then she asked someone for a new chair? (He laughs.) I go back and review those episodes. That show makes you feel good.
Pootie Tangthe movie from which it came out The Chris Rock show, has developed a cult following over the years. Did you notice a common trait among fans?
People love that movie, and yes, they still mention it to me. They are usually all weed, so this is your cult.
Interview modified for length and clarity. This story first appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood reporter magazine. Click here to register now.