You Get That Laugh ...
Wanda Sykes has conquered all of show biz, but stand-up, she just can't quit you
Is there anything Wanda Sykes hasn't done? Over the past decade, there's scarcely a corner of the entertainment business that hasn't rung with the sound of her inimitable voice – that proud, sharp, steam whistle of a voice that never met a power it couldn't blast some truth to. She's done it famously in the sitcoms Curb Your Enthusiasm, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and her own series Wanda at Large; in feature films such as Evan Almighty and My Super Ex-Girlfriend; in the animated films Over the Hedge, Barnyard, and Ice Age 4: Continental Drift; in her short-lived entry in late-night TV talk, The Wanda Sykes Show; at the 2009 White House Correspondents' Association dinner; and in her book, the title of which captures this outspoken comedian's spirit to a T: Yeah, I Said It. Considering that she's even taken a turn at musical theatre – as Miss Hannigan in Annie, no less! – it seems there's no limit to what this writer and comedian can do.
And yet, when she appears in Austin this week as the final headliner in the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, the multitalented Sykes will be doing just what she did at the start of her career more than 20 years ago: stand-up. "I love it," she says, and you can hear through the phone line a warmth and enthusiasm that stretches back years. "I love it. And it's so funny, traveling to the show or in the hotel and going, 'Oh boy, showtime,' and all of that. I go, 'Why in the hell am I still doing this? There are so many people who want me to come back to TV, I could easily just get cast in this part.' And I think about it and go: 'What am I doin'? What am I doin'?' And as soon as I get onstage, it all makes sense, like, 'Yeah-yeah-yeah, that's right. This is why I do this.' You get that laugh, and there's nothing like it. I've written for other people, and it's a good feeling hearing them deliver a joke that you wrote and hearing them get a laugh, but there's nothing like getting it yourself."
That rush from an audience's laughter was something Sykes discovered when she took a stab at stand-up when a post-college job at the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., proved unsatisfying. (She was a contracting specialist. Can you blame her?) Of course, the Wanda Sykes at the mic then wasn't the outspoken figure you've seen slaying audiences by the thousands in the HBO specials Sick and Tired and Im'a Be Me. Early on, Sykes says, she was doing more of an impersonation of what she thought a stand-up comic was, with observational humor that was safe and generic. A comic can't find her voice, she says, "until you figure out how you feel about something and get your point of view. And that takes confidence and maturity and just being comfortable onstage to get to that place. At first you're all about, 'Here's a funny joke,' and regardless of whether that joke means anything to you personally, you go, 'That's a funny joke,' and you do the joke. But it's not until [the jokes] get personal, I think, where people go, 'I want to hear what she has to say on this.'"
For Sykes, that shift occurred when she went through a divorce. "It was when I was getting out of a marriage," she says. "Because you're in this place that's somewhat liberating but also painful. It's raw. I think that's when I said 'what the hell' and opened up a little more."
As her onstage personality evolved, so did Sykes' attitude toward the audience. That young comic's need to get the audience on her side was replaced by a desire to give the audience their money's worth. "You know, when you first start out, if you're just a comic on a show, you can have that attitude of 'I have to win these people over,' but now, at the level where I am, it's 'I don't want to disappoint these people.' Because they're there to see you. You have them already. They like what you're doing. They're your audience. So I'm at the place where I just want to give them a good show. It's more like, 'Oh boy, they have these expectations now.' I can't – I don't want to say 'play around,' but you don't have as much wiggle room when they're there to see you."
Feeling that weight of responsibility toward the audience might push some comics to stick with their tried-and-true material, but not Sykes. "Pretty much every show, it's something new," she insists. "The show I'm doing now, I would say maybe 80 percent is new. Very little from Im'a Be Me, my last special. And if I do bring up something from that special, it's kinda refreshed. Like people love the bit where I talk about Esther, my fat roll. But there's a new story with Esther, what she's up to now, so even that's fresh. I like trying out new stuff. I can't keep doing the same thing over and over again. It would just drive me nuts. It really would. [laughs] So I have to keep it fresh."
In between stand-up gigs, Sykes will no doubt continue to be heard on television, film, and whatever other media she has a mind to. (Her latest forum of choice is Twitter, where she's lately served up some choice political jabs at Mitt Romney and those secret service agents in Colombia, among others.) Is there anything she hasn't done?
"The only thing I have left to do is porn, and I think I missed that window," she says. "Especially now, with the kids, I can't go do porn."
Never say never, Wanda.
Wanda Sykes appears Saturday, April 28, 10pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.