Anyone who thinks Wanda Sykes didn’t tear the roof off the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on May 9 can suck it.
You know you are on fire — and doing your job as a comedian — when you get invited to do your thing at the most exclusive political event of the year, only to find out someone behind the scenes regretted the invitation afterward.
The comedian and TV star — who recently welcomed twins with her wife Alex — spoke truth to power and had President Obama cracking smiles (and some of the more tight-assed members of the audience groaning) as she aimed a sanitized version of her sassy, razor-sharp wit at Rush Limbaugh, whom she skewered for saying he hopes the Obama administration fails.
“He’s not saying anything differently than what Osama bin Laden is saying,” she said, addressing the president. “You know, you might want to look into this, sir, because I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker. But he was just so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight.”
She didn’t stop there.
“Rush Limbaugh, ‘I hope the country fails’ — I hope his kidneys fail, how about that? He needs a good waterboarding, that’s what he needs.”
She also joked about everyone else, from the Obamas to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Depending on what news Web site you peruse, her performance was either a triumph or inappropriate, but by May 11, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was in a huff and criticizing her choice of topics.
This leads us to believe Sykes more-than lived up to her reputation that night as one of the smartest and funniest comedians in the land.
In the weeks leading up to the dinner, Sykes — who probably isn’t used to biting her tongue — was still contemplating how far she could push the envelope with such a prestige audience when she spoke to PGN. At the time, she wasn’t nervous about how she would go over.
“It’s more of just finding that line of being funny but not disrespectful,” she said. “You do have to respect the office. It’s more, ‘Where is the line and how close can I get to it without crossing it?’”
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner found Sykes coming full circle, as she got her start in the then-fertile comedy scene of Washington, D.C., a city known for spawning comedic talents like Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. and Martin Lawrence.
“D.C. was a great place to start,” she said. “We were in the middle of it: Politics and government was basically your audience. Everyone who worked in D.C. or lived in that area either worked for the government or they worked for a private company that had a contract with the government. We had a more-informed audience if you wanted to do political material. Also, you had a mayor that smoked crack. You had a full range of whatever you wanted to do. You had it there in D.C. That era was a great time to be doing comedy. We had a good group of guys back then who would help us younger comics out. Back then it was a great place to start.”
It wasn’t long before Sykes had graduated to performing in the comedy-club mecca that is New York City. There, she had the opportunity to open for Chris Rock, who quickly drafted her as a writer and performer on “The Chris Rock Show,” which was nominated for four Emmys.
Rock’s, and later Sykes’, ascension in the ranks of comedy from mid-level player to superstar signaled a sea change in the direction of urban comedy. It became increasingly hip to be more politically aware.
“Chris was definitely at the forefront, especially for black comics, because ‘Def Jam’ was in its heyday back then,” Sykes said. “It did bring it back to, ‘OK look, there’s more things to talk about and be socially responsible.’ ‘Bring the Pain’ saved comedy for me. So I definitely put Chris out there. But there has always been comics out there who have been doing it. [George] Carlin always had something to say.”
Soon Sykes had all the perks of being a high-profile comedic talent: the CDs, the book deal, sold-out performances and high-profile roles on television shows and movies. She even landed her own sitcom, Fox’s “Wanda At Large,” in 2003.
That show was cancelled in its second season — something that still gnaws at Sykes because Fox pretty much doomed the show by moving it to Friday nights, a death knell for most TV programming.
“All that work you put into doing a show and making it great, you realize you have no control after that,” she said. “The only thing you can do is make the product. How someone else sells the product, markets it or what shelf they decide to put it on is totally out of your hands. So you feel like, why bother? It was so much work we put into that show. I’m still happy with the show but the way it was scheduled, it was just too much work to do.”
Even after the sting of “Wanda At Large,” Sykes still threw her hat into the ring for sitcom roles on shows like the highly acclaimed “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and her current gig on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” where she plays the best friend, Barb, to the title character.
The show has staked out some offbeat territory. Since debuting on the show, Barb has slept with Christine’s brother Matthew, with whom Christine has an almost-icky codependent relationship. On another episode, Barb and Christine entered a same-sex marriage of convenience so Barb wouldn’t get deported. Sykes said she is often surprised by what the writers draft.
“The stuff that they come up with, I’m like, ‘We need to go sit on a couch somewhere and talk to somebody,’” she said. “The stuff that they come up with is great. All I have to do is show up and get the script. I’m loving it over there.”
Hopefully “Old Christine” will be back next season. The cast is still waiting to hear if CBS will renew the show, and ABC has expressed interest in picking it up if CBS drops it.
In the meantime, Sykes will be busy with her own Saturday-night talk show, which is expected to premier on Fox this fall — and which means she has gotten over her differences with the network.
“It took a lot of talking and both of us getting on the same page as far as ideas. Also, there was a regime change over there too. I’m going to give them another shot. We’ll see. What was attractive to me about it is it’s a Saturday night so I’m not in that same world with Jay [Leno] and Dave [Letterman] and all those guys. I definitely would not go after that. It’s one night a week. That’s the vibe I wanted to have: a Saturday-night party. We’re going to have everything. We’re going to have a round table. It’s going to be a little of ‘Politically Incorrect’ meets ‘The View’ meets ‘The Chris Rock Show’ meets ‘The Midnight Special.’ It will be irreverent and funny. I’m excited about it. I’m not worried about ‘Saturday Night Live.’ It’s an institution. They have their audience. I’m going after that Arsenio [Hall] audience — that audience that isn’t watching anything on Saturday nights.”
What has set Sykes apart from her urban-comedy peers is her willingness to address gay issues in her act, and in a positive and intelligent fashion.
Sykes was not out through much of her career and said there was — and still is — significant homophobia in urban comedy.
“It’s always the stereotype of the gay black guy and it’s usually in a negative way,” she said. “I think we need to be a little more aware and not be doing the gay-bashing in comedy and address it and talk about where the homophobia is coming from.”
While still in the closet, Sykes’ LGBT street cred got a boost last year when she participated in the 2008 “True Colors Tour,” the traveling LGBT-friendly music event, which found Sykes joking with the crowd between sets by Cyndi Lauper, The B-52s and many others.
“They approached me and asked me if I would do a few cities,” she said about how she ended up on the tour. “Those were the cities that were all outdoor events in Texas and Phoenix, where it was 130 degrees. It was all really hot cities. I think they asked me to do all the ones that Rosie O’Donnell didn’t want to do. I did five or six shows on the tour. I love Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett. I thought it would be fun. Who doesn’t want to travel around with The B-52s? It was fun. I look forward to doing more of them.”
Sykes didn’t address her own sexuality publicly until late last year, when she came out in response to the passing of Proposition 8, California’s statewide ban on gay marriage.
Sykes said that coming out has only slightly changed her audience as a comic.
“I’m sure I’m getting more gay and lesbian people coming out to my shows, which is great,” she said. “But they’ve always been there. I’ve always had a nice, diverse audience, but maybe they’re a little more vocal when they come to the show, which is great. That’s the only thing that I’ve noticed so far.”
Sykes’ audience isn’t expected to dwindle any time soon. And, no matter how successful the other parts of her career, she said she will always be ready to bring her considerable skills to the stage.
“Standup is where it all started for me and that has always been my goal. When I got into the business, I said, ‘OK, I want to be good at standup. I want to be a very funny comic.’ That’s what I’m always working on. Everything else has been branches that have grown from having my one focus of being a standup. So when I get a sitcom or another show, that’s great and I enjoy it. But when it goes, I’m still passionate about what I’m doing. It’s not like, ‘Oh God, now I have to go back and do standup.” It’s, ‘Oooh, great, now I can go back and do standup!’ It’s always been my first love and my passion. I didn’t get into standup to get a sitcom or a movie. I just got these offers from doing standup. To me, it’s the most rewarding.”
Wanda Sykes performs 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. May 30 at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa Music Box, 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City, N.J. For more information, visit www.wandasykes.com or call (609) 317-1000.
Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected]