Wanda Sykes on Standup, Parenthood, and This Nightmare Election
In her dazzling new one-hour comedy special, What Happened…Ms. Sykes? airing tomorrow night on EPIX, comedian Wanda Sykes is quirky as ever. Though familiar in style, her new material on motherhood, aging, and breast cancer reflects how much life has changed since the days of The Chris Rock Show and Pootie Tang. Since quitting her job at the NSA in her thirties, she’s won Emmy awards, written a book, started a family, hosted the White House Correspondents dinner, advocated for the LGBT community, starred in her own late night talk show, and lifted millions of people up with her comedy. What a life! Ms. Sykes took some time to talk to me about her insights on work, love, politics, and parenthood.
Your new standup special is hysterically funny and personal. How do you write your jokes? What does your workday look like when you are coming up with material?
I don’t sit down and say these are the hours I’m going to write jokes. It’s more like something will happen and I’ll think oh, that was funny, and I’ll either write it in my phone or on a piece of paper and then I get up on stage and work it out. I don’t really have hours.
The inspiration strikes and you take note. In your special you talk a lot about your wife. Is she funny? How did you meet?
She’s funny…she is funny. Sometimes not intentionally. We met in New York on Fire Island. We’ve been together ten years. Make sure you like the person you marry.
Very good advice. You are also a parent now.
Yes, to 7-year-old twins.
That’s amazing. Sounds like a lot of work! Do you have any advice for new parents?
Well, don’t be alarmed, but sleep is the most important thing ever. Yeah, no one sleeps for at least the first year with a newborn. And it does get better. They eventually do fall asleep. But to me that was the biggest shock and also the hardest thing to get through was just how tired I was, just the lack of sleep. I guess when you have one kid, between the two of you you can kind of handle it, but with twins it pretty much had both of us up all the time. I don’t know how single parents do it, I really don’t.
Yeah, my goodness. Was parenthood much different than you expected?
Yeah, it really was. I was like oh my god what did we do? At one time I was contemplating taking one back. I was like, can we return one? I mean really, oh my gosh. I was thinking we can’t do this, we’re going to have to take one back.
You’re very open about your experience with breast cancer in your standup. Was there anything unexpected about that time in your life that you think other women should know?
It’s scary. I mean I just know so many people who have been through it and who weren’t as fortunate. So, I was just so happy that I was diagnosed at such an early stage that I felt like I was going to be okay. But you know, it’s scary. You need to be on top of your appointments and all. I kinda did find a way to find some humor in it, but like I said, I was one of the lucky ones.
How has your audience responded to that material?
They appreciate me talking about it. I’ve had people come up to me and say either they’ve been through it or they know someone who’s going through it. It does help to talk about it. They felt like they were able to laugh so, that’s a good thing.
Do you ever find yourself seeking out experiences to bolster your material, or do you let life happen naturally and pull from there?
Yeah, I think I let it happen naturally. There are some times when I think, oh I should really pay attention because this could be something funny. But it usually works when I just let it happen. But yeah, I’m not going to go do something crazy like skydiving just so I can get a skydiving bit.
You have some great bits about the debates and the Republican party in your special. What were your impressions of the debate last night?
It wasn’t as bad as the one before, or “the cage match,” as I like to call it. I think it was Donald Trump’s best performance, but it was still crazy and I still don’t get how the hell he got this far. It’s all bizarre. But Hillary was great.
How do you feel about the political climate in this country right now?
It’s scary, but I keep saying, we’re the country who elected President Obama for two terms overwhelmingly, so I’m not buying into that people have gone that far away from that. I think it’s just what we’re being shown. The media is showing us all these crazy people at Trump’s rallies, but I don’t think that’s the majority of Americans, so I think we’re okay.
That’s a really positive way to look at it. I was looking back at some of your standup from 1999. You were so funny and your life experience has changed so much. What have you learned about comedy and yourself over the years?
I guess it’s just the natural progression. You get older, you get more confident, a little wiser. You know, the longer you do it, the easier — well it’s more about confidence I guess. I’ve always talked about what was going on in my life, and this is what’s going on now. I would say from over years of doing it, I feel like I know what I’m doing up there now.
Catch the premiere of What Happened…Ms. Sykes? on EPIX network on Friday, October 21 at 10PM ET/PT, 9C. If you don’t have a subscription to EPIX, you can sign up for a free trial to watch the special here.