Though she has never quite achieved superstar status, Wanda Sykes has, over the last 25 years, steadfastly built one of comedy’s most impressive careers. It’s not just that her stand-up is funny, which it is — very — it’s the subtly transgressive way she is now able to mine her uncommon experience as, to put it bluntly, a married, middle-aged black lesbian mother of two white children to homespun comedic effect. Sykes, at 55, has pushed boundaries behind the scenes too, as a producer and writer, notably on the ill-fated “Roseanne” reboot and most recently on her new Netflix special, “Wanda Sykes: Not Normal.” “I was at a show,” she said, “and this comic was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m shooting my special next week.’ ‘It’s ready?’” Her reply? “Oh, man. I’m on fire.”
I’ve noticed that the relationship jokes you made earlier in your career were a little nastier and less playful than the ones you make now. Why do you think that is? It just speaks to being in a bad relationship with my husband.1 I was being honest. I wanted to get away. Like: “God, there’s his stupid face, and he’s chewing. Ugh, does he have to breathe? Make him stop breathing.” Now I’m in a great relationship, and I’m happy, so my wife’s2 chewing doesn’t annoy me.
So with relationship jokes and dating jokes — The comedy starter kit.
So with those, in terms of generating potential material, how different did you find the emotional dynamics of dating and relationships after you came out? It was funny, before I came out publicly,3 I said to a friend of mine: “Come on, we’re going to go to West Hollywood. I’m going to go to the bars.” He was like, “All right, cool.” So we walked in one bar, and it just, you know, all the women looked alike. They all had that Ellen DeGeneres haircut.
It wasn’t your vibe. Not my vibe. That was the lesbian look at that time. We go to another bar, it was the same vibe. We’re sitting at that bar, and I look at my friend, and I’m like, “You know, maybe I’m not gay.” I didn’t do that much dating. It’s bad out there.
In your last special, you had material about the little moments of weirdness4 that arise from your having white kids. As they get older, how are you thinking about their understanding of race? I think about that a lot. You want it to be a world where they can just live and be good people and not have to think about that, but you have to have the conversation. You do. When something comes up, I’ll address it. I do notice, like for their birthday parties, I look around and go, “Wait, you mean to tell me they’ve only got one little black friend?” But I can’t force it.
Do you teach them about privilege? I’m just raising them how I was raised. Hopefully they won’t get a taste of white privilege. I’m putting a stop to that. When we go in the store, I tell them, “Don’t ask me for [expletive].”
Your childhood was spent in Virginia. Were you surprised by the state Democratic Party’s blackface scandals earlier this year? That’s Virginia. I’m surprised it took this long to come out. But when he5 goes, “Oh, yeah, that’s me,” and then he goes: “Wait a minute. Maybe that one wasn’t me.” Come on, man! It is that prevalent where you don’t even remember when you did it? He’s like: “Get me my calendar. It was another party. Remember when I was doing my Al Green impression? Wasn’t that blackface, too?” I wouldn’t be surprised if the next guy’s like: “You know, I still have a slave. He’s been in our family for years. Sorry.”
How much does a joke being deemed socially unacceptable have to do with its not being funny enough? I’m thinking of a joke of yours where you said, “C’mon, retarded kids are funny.” Where is that?
It’s in your book.6 Oh, my God. That’s wrong.
You wouldn’t make that joke now? Absolutely not. I’m not going to do that thing — “Hey, I have that in my family.” Yeah, I was guilty. I’m good friends with a lot of teachers, and just about all of them work with special-needs kids. I was hanging out with them, and I said “retarded,” and they were like, “Wanda, don’t use that word.” I’ve never used it since. But I’m not going to argue and go, “I don’t know why I can’t use that word!” No. When you know better, you do better.
You started as a comedian relatively late, in your 30s. What made you believe you could be one? Well, I went to college because that’s what I was supposed to do. After graduation, I moved to the Maryland and D.C. area, and when you live there, you end up working for the government. After four or five years of that, I was like, “I need to do something else.” I just remembered everyone telling me I should do stand-up. I’m looking through my high school yearbook, looking through my college yearbook, and it’s all blackface — no, it was all people saying, “You should be onstage.” Even at work, at the N.S.A.,7 my co-workers were like: “You need to be onstage. You are so funny.” So I gave it a shot. I think my first joke was about the auto shade. You know those big sunglasses that you put in your car windows? I was like: “Do you know they actually have instructions on the side of them? And it tells you, ‘Do not attempt to drive with your auto shades still in place.’”
Can you walk me through what happened when things hit the fan with “Roseanne” last year?8 I’ll start with when we brought back another season of “Last Comic Standing.” The mandate our production company9 was given was: “You guys have to get great judges, and then we’ll bring the show back.” So we reached out to Roseanne. My producing partner, Page Hurwitz, and I had a lovely dinner with her in L.A. Roseanne was like: “Wanda, I’ve loved you for a long time. I want to help you. I’ll do the show.” Great. “I want to put young comics out there. I want to get women out there, people of color.” And we’re like: “Yes. That’s exactly what we’re doing.” “Last Comic Standing” happens, Roseanne’s great, and then one night I’m looking at her Twitter. I called Page. “We’ve got to get Roseanne off of Twitter. She’s going to kill us.”
This was before the Valerie Jarrett tweet?10 Yeah. I was like, “I don’t even understand half of what she’s tweeting, but it’s a lot about Israel, and she’s retweeting a lot of stuff that sounds nuts.” So we talked to Roseanne. She was like: “I don’t know. I’m just reading stuff. There’s a lot out there.” And, you know, she’s smoking weed. But whatever she’d been tweeting at that time didn’t get a lot of play.
There wasn’t blowback? Yeah. So then, in 2017, when I got the call from Bruce Helford11 about working on the new “Roseanne,” I went, I’m a big fan of the original show, they have the original cast, Roseanne was kind enough to help us out for “Last Comic” — I’ll be there. Cool. And then Roseanne was hitting all the marks as far as the direction of her show. She wanted to address issues, she wanted to show both sides, and I thought it was great, because at least “Roseanne” might be the thing that will start a dialogue between Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters. So, great first season. Then the morning we were ready to come back for the second season, I pick up my phone, and it’s blowing up. I’m like, “What is this?” I looked at the Valerie Jarrett tweet, and I was like, Aw, jeez, I can’t condone this.
Did you talk with other folks on the “Roseanne” staff before quitting? I emailed Bruce and Tom Werner,12 and I was like, “Guys, I can’t be a part of this.” I didn’t hear anything right away. They were probably busy trying to figure out what they were going to do. So then I said: “I’ve got to get ahead of this. I can’t just be silent.” That’s why I said I wouldn’t be going back.13
Do you think Roseanne is a racist? I think she has some issues. She’s said that she had some mental issues. But I don’t know. Here’s the thing. You could be a good person and a racist and not even know it. All racism doesn’t have to be nasty. For instance, I was getting on a plane, first class, of course.
Naturally. So I’m getting on a plane, and there was a white lady, right? And this black woman is sitting in the chair right by her. I’m coming in, and I’m looking for a place to put my bag, and the white lady looks at me, then looks at the black lady, and then goes, “Did you want to switch seats so you can sit next to your friend?” I looked at the black woman, and the black woman looked at me. Both of us were like, “Can you believe this is happening?” I just looked at the white lady and said, “I don’t know her.” She never would have said that if it would’ve been two white women. Never.
You spend a fair amount of time with your wife’s family in France. Do your in-laws ever want you to explain things about America? Yeah, my family, they don’t understand why Trump is still in office. They don’t understand about the gun situation. At least they stopped the chopping-the-head-off thing.
The guillotine? I looked it up. The last time was like in the 1970s or 1980s. I remember looking it up and laughing. “Y’all were chopping heads off in the 20th century!”
This was a long time ago, but what stands out from your interactions with the Obamas when you did the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner? I still kick myself about it. When I did the dinner,14 I was sitting pretty much right next to Michelle Obama. She kept trying to make conversation, but I was so focused on having to go up and perform that I was blowing her off. I think I even looked at her one time like: “Will you shut up? Don’t you see I’m sitting here going over my notes?” I saw her on her book tour, and we laughed about it. She was like, “I was just trying to make conversation, and you wanted nothing to do with me.”
You talk a lot about politics in your act, but is it a category error when people look to comedians for answers about the world? Or even for positions on a given issue? I can see from the audience perspective how it can be confusing, because comedians are not consistent. I’ll do 20 minutes on race or Trump and then do a silly joke about having a hot flash. But I do think it is the job of a comedian to talk about the world and its problems. It’s for us to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. You can’t go, “Why are you talking about menopause when you should be talking about gun control?” The answer is, “Because this is what I want to talk about right now!” I’m allowed to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.