Ranking among Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Funniest People in America, Wanda Sykes has established herself as both a successful comedian and actress. Her boisterous personality and witty humor has been featured in countless comedy specials and feature films.
Sykes was born in Portsmouth, Va. and was raised in Maryland. She attended Hampton University where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science. Before turning to comedy Sykes worked as a procurement officer for the National Security Agency. Her first performance as a stand-up comedian in front of a live audience took place at a Coors Light Super Talent Showcase in Washington, D.C.
Afterwards she spent five years as both a performer and writer for HBO’s critically acclaimed “Chris Rock Show.” Her superior talent was officially recognized when she was nominated for three Emmy Awards. In 1991, Sykes won the Emmy for Outstanding Writer for a Variety, Music or Comedy Special. At the American Comedy Awards in 2001, Sykes won the Outstanding Female Comic Award. She won three more Emmys in 2002, 2004 and 2005 for her work on “Inside the NFL” for Outstanding Studio Show – Weekly. In 2006 her HBO special, “Wanda Sykes: Sick & Tired” debuted and was nominated for a 2007 Emmy for “Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special.”
Sykes has made appearances in several feature films including “Evan Almighty,” “Monster-In-Law,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and was heard in the animated feature “Over The Hedge.” Her second HBO special “Wanda Sykes: I’ma Be Me” premiered in October 2009. Sykes performed as “Barb” on the CBS Comedy “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” which ran for five seasons, and finished the first season of her own late night talk show on Fox “The Wanda Sykes Show.”
VEGAS.com had a chance to talk to the busy comedian about her upcoming show in Las Vegas at 8 p.m. on Oct. 15 – 16 at Planet Hollywood.
Q: What are some of the things you’re going to be talking about at your upcoming show at Planet Hollywood?
A: “I’m working on a lot of new things, basically my stand up is a snapshot of what’s going on with me now and what’s going on in society so I’ll talk about a little bit of politics and personal stuff and what’s going on with the family and all and of course I’ll add a few things from my HBO special because I know people seem like they really want to know what’s going on with Esther.”
Is there anything different that you do with your routine when you perform in Vegas?
“When I’m in Vegas the only thing different is I have to try to sober up before the show. It’s such a late show.”
What do you like to do in Vegas when you aren’t performing?
“I love playing blackjack. I like to people watch. I like to sit out in front of the place in front of Paris Las Vegas… Just sit out and watch people. If I have time I’d love to see a show. I’ve been trying to sneak in Cher’s wardrobe room and at least try on a couple headpieces.”
So was being a comedian something you always thought about doing?
“No. I always loved comedy and we watched a lot of comedy growing up in our house. My father’s a retired army officer and my mother, she always had a regular job so it was the normal path of go to school, go to college, working for the government, so I was pretty much on a normal army brat or whatever kid’s life. I just hit a place where I was like ok, this is not for me. I’m bored. I really have to find something else. I just went with the thing that I enjoy doing, that’s making people laugh, and I love comedy. I just sat down and wrote a few jokes and luckily for me it all worked out.”
What was it like working for the NSA? What was the turning point that made you decide you had to do something else?
“Even when I was working for the NSA and I was having success there. I was winning some awards and you get bonuses and all and even that wasn’t fulfilling, even being successful at it so I started goofing off a lot at work. That’s when I said ok, I need to leave here and do something else. You know when you’re not putting your all into something I just felt like I wasn’t being fair to the job or to taxpayers.”
Did you have a favorite comedian or someone who inspired your stand-up career when you were starting out?
“I watched a lot of what was on TV growing up, but I know Moms Mabley really stood out for me. She was the first black woman that I saw on TV doing stand up. We watched the Smothers Brothers and Flip Wilson and all those variety shows. As I got older, definitely Richard Prior once I understood comedy.”
What was it like for you the first time you performed stand-up comedy?
“The first time I didn’t know any better. I had no idea what I was doing so I didn’t really have anything to be afraid of so maybe a little anxious, but I didn’t know that people could boo and all that stuff… The first time I did great and it wasn’t until later on and doing it more and hanging out at the comedy club that I said ‘oh wow this could go horribly wrong ok,’ and that’s when the fear sets in. You know it’s like anything else, the more you do it the better you become at it.”
What do you enjoy doing more – performing for television or doing stand-up comedy?
“Definitely stand-up. You get the immediate response from the audiences. It’s like working without a net. There’s no script, there’s no ‘ok cut let’s try it again.’ It’s in the moment. You feed off the audience. A lot of times I come up with stuff during the show from what the audience is giving me.”
When you’re trying to come up with new material where do you look for inspiration?
“Everywhere, my life, the news, just whatever’s around me I just take it all in. I believe comedians have a social responsibility, just try to point out hypocrisies I guess, but my message is let’s have a good time. I want to be funny, and I want people to laugh and have a good time. I love George Carlin. I love the messages that he had, and he did it in comedy and it was very funny. So yeah if you can say something also I guess that’s important.”
What do you look for when you’re deciding to take on new roles as an actor?
“I look at it as what I’ll get out of it like am I going to have a good time doing this? Will I learn something? It’s a challenge. That’s why I’m about to start production in the play “Annie” (in Media, Pa.). I’m going to play Miss Hannigan. I’ve never done theater, but I love theater. I always enjoy it when I go, and I have friends that do it… It’s the closest thing to stand up. It’s live and I’ll have a script that I have to stick to. Anything that I see challenging and that’s going to make me a better performer, if I’ll learn something from it that’s usually what appeals to me.”
Along with performing you’ve had a lot of success as a comedy writer. Is writing something you were doing even before you started performing stand-up?
“I’m sure I was doing that but not really understanding or recognizing what I was doing. I would write funny things in yearbooks and notes to classmates. I didn’t approach it as I’m going to sit down and write some jokes.”