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In the post-quarantine comedy scene, it’s become customary for standups to share their experiences from the pandemic’s first two claustrophobic years. But few can say they were in Wanda Sykes’s position: watching the police killings of Black men and women on television as the only Black member of her family, while the necessary household conversations about race waited to be broached. (Sykes’s wife, Alex, is white, as are their fourteen-year-old twins.) With the cranky pragmatism that’s defined her public image for more than three decades, Sykes riffs on political topics and shares stories from her recent past, as well as from her younger, closeted self, in her latest Netflix special, “I’m an Entertainer.” (The title comes from a joke about Sykes’s sleeping with men before coming out: “It never really did anything for me, but they seemed to enjoy it. And I guess that was enough for me, ’cause, you know, I’m an entertainer.”)
Sykes continues to think of herself as a comic first, but as an actor, she’s lent her signature side eye—and scratchy, sardonic voice—to countless TV programs for a generation. At age fifty-nine, she’s still amassing credits at a rapid clip. She had a recurring role as an absurdly unflappable talent manager in Max’s “The Other Two,” which recently wrapped up its series run; co-starred as Representative Shirley Chisholm in the Hulu series “History of the World, Part II”; manned the desk at “The Daily Show” for a week in February; and co-hosted the Oscars with Amy Schumer and Regina Hall in 2021, the Year of The Slap. But the writers’ strike has forced her to pause on such projects as “The Upshaws,” the Norman Lear-inspired Netflix multicam comedy that returned for its fourth season on August 17th. The Black family sitcom, which she co-created with Regina Y. Hicks and stars in alongside Mike Epps and Kim Fields, received two Emmy nominations this year, as did “I’m an Entertainer.” Perhaps the clearest evidence of Sykes’s versatility and workaholism is that she received yet another Emmy nod for her role in a very different project—the adult puppet show “Crank Yankers.”
Sporting a baggy “Purple Rain” T-shirt, Sykes spoke to me in June over Zoom from Philadelphia, where she lives when she’s not in Los Angeles. In a wide-ranging discussion, she talked about the foundational skills that young TV writers today have fewer opportunities to learn, why politics are central to her standup, how she made her time at “The Daily Show” her own, and her struggle to get her teen-age children to church. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Are you having a lot of work affected by the writers’ strike?
Yeah, pretty much everything. The only exception is my production company, Push It. We started out in the non-scripted space, so we’re still looking for projects and putting things together. But we aren’t taking things out to pitch, not yet.
I read that you had stoppages on “The Upshaws.”
Yeah, we had two more episodes left. We shut down right before we had those two left. They weren’t written.
Are there any specific demands or concerns from the W.G.A. that really speak to you?
Pretty much everything; I’m concerned about everything. It’s not even about asking for more; it’s maintaining what we have. They’re actually trying to take some things away as far as, like, requiring that a writer be on set and the number of writers in a room. It’s about the survival of what we do.
TV writers today are increasingly not being sent to set, where much of the production knowledge that writers need to know are imparted. Can you talk about what an inexperienced writer might learn from going to set which you fear will get lost?
The main thing is maintaining the integrity of the script. If you have a script and you’re on set and they find that something doesn’t work, maybe the actors improv or whatever and come up with some other lines. And, if the writer is there and says that’s fine, then it’s still a collaborative process—the writer is still involved. But, if there’s no writer and everybody’s just doing what they want to do, the writer’s, like, Wait a minute, that’s not what I wrote; this is no longer my script.
What’s more concerning is the size of the rooms. These smaller rooms with high-level writers, you don’t have a new writer in there to learn. And that’s really where all the groundwork is done, in those rooms, learning from people who’ve been doing it quite a while. That’s how you move up in this business.
You got your writing Emmy in 1999 as a fairly new writer, right?
Yeah, I was on “The Chris Rock Show.” I was doing standup and then I got this job, and I was surrounded by other people who started in standup but became proven writers and producers. That’s how I learned the business, from being around them.
One of the most memorable segments in your new special is your description of watching the deaths of Black people on TV during the pandemic, being the only Black person in your family of otherwise white people, and feeling too exhausted to have the difficult conversations. Why did you want to talk about that experience?
I wanted to talk about it because it’s what I went through during the pandemic, and it’s what I was feeling during that isolation. And I wanted to talk about George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, to remind people of where we were, because I want people to continue to talk about it.
Do you feel like people are forgetting?
Not just forgetting—we still haven’t dealt with it. It’s just progressing instead of people saying, Hey, what are the next steps? So it was important for me to bring that up again.
Do you feel like there’s a need on your part to tackle heavier topics when we live in such politically charged times?
It’s just what I’m interested in, you know? I would love to go out and do an hour just being silly. But, if I could, that means things are great in this country. [Laughs.] I just don’t have the freedom to do it. Because, if I do, I’m, like, Why am I just up here having a good time and not really talking about what’s important? It would feel like I’m wasting my platform. And it would be at the expense of people who really need my voice.
In your special, you talk about going to an online church during the pandemic. How did you know that the church that you ended up with was the right one for you and your family?
You have to feel welcome. I was going to a church out in L.A. And then it just got to a place where I was, like, I don’t think this is working for me. It was about the L.G.B.T.Q. issue in the church and the way they approached it—it didn’t make me feel comfortable. So I found another church, and I love this church that I’ve been going to online.
I’ve also been going to a church that’s local. And, to me, it’s all about what the church does outside of the building, too. The churches that I attend or watch online have a huge outreach program. There’s food banks, scholarships, a prison outreach. They’re visiting hospitals. They’re doing the things that you’re supposed to do as Christian people.
Is it important to you that your kids also go to church? Do they go to church?
They do not. And that’s the one thing I feel that I am not doing a great job at. I have a cousin who’s a good pastor, so I was going to talk to him about how to go about this. I mean, we pray as a family and say grace and all that. Alex is Catholic, but she doesn’t, like, go, I guess. I thought that she was gonna take care of all that because she was, like, “They’ve got to get baptized!” when they were infants—so I thought, O.K., she’s got this. And then I realized, Oh, no, she doesn’t have this.
Can’t win them all.
I’ve not given up. It’s gonna happen.
What do you hope that they can get out of either going to church or having a more religious side?
It’s not even about church. Even if they don’t go to church, I need them to have faith. I want them to know that God loves them. I have this sense that no matter what happens to me, I’m going to be O.K. And I need them to have that.
Your special “I’m an Entertainer” is named after a joke in which you talk about having sex with men when you were still in the closet, and you compare women in the bedroom to entertainers. Can you talk about that comparison a little bit?
Wow, I didn’t think about it like that. I wasn’t looking at it as women in general; it was very specific to me. But I can see how you can make that analogy. I just thought of it as, I like to please people. That’s what entertainers do: I want to make sure you have a good time. If they enjoyed it, I was happy.
A lot of your scenes in the most recent season of “The Other Two” are about that difficult transition from underage fame to young-adult fame. Has becoming a mother of teen-agers changed your attitude toward fame and show business?
I think so. Being a mother has informed my standup now in some ways. But, like, “The Other Two”—I don’t want my kids to watch that.
It’s a little too advanced for them, sexually. They’re fourteen. I’d rather wait a couple of years for them to see it.
I feel like this generation, they’re kind of disrespectful to what we consider someone who’s famous or talented. Because all they [watch] is YouTube; they know all these YouTube stars. I’m not saying that YouTube stars aren’t talented or they don’t deserve to be famous. I mean, people want to watch it. That’s great. But it’s just different.
Do you worry that you and your kids live in such different media ecospheres? Do you try to watch YouTube with them?
I try. Actually, some of the stuff my daughter watches on YouTube, it’s pretty interesting. But the other stuff, I just can’t. I’m, like, there’s people out there who slaved over scripts and a whole production that made this show. I’d rather watch that instead of watching some guy playing a video game. That’s what my son watches: he watches people playing video games. I’m, like, I would rather buy you this video game and let you play it instead of watching this guy talk about playing this video game. I don’t get it. Are you too lazy to even play the game?
You guest-hosted “The Daily Show” earlier this year. I really liked your week behind the desk. What made you say yes to that show?
I liked the format. I missed having my show. I had a late-night talk show, but it was only once a week. So I wanted to see what it was like to do it every night, just to get that rush of having to turn a show around the next day. And I had some things I wanted to say.
One of the things that made your week really successful was that the jokes seemed tailored to your comedic voice. It wasn’t, like, here are the “Daily Show” jokes, there are the Wanda Sykes jokes. How did that seamlessness come about?
Oh, it was a long week. I tip my hat to the E.P. over here. The way they run that show, you get in in the morning, and then you meet with a small group of the producers. They go through stories, and you let them know which ones appeal to you. And then you go to a huge room with all the writers, and you run those four or five stories by them, and you see what the writers respond to. And then we go back to our little room and say, O.K., let’s go with these three stories. And then, when we write the show, I’m in the room with them, and the four of us are [typing], “Welcome. To. The. Daily. Show.” I’m, like, wait a minute, you guys don’t have a form [where] we just plug stuff? [Laughs.]
So that’s why it sounds like me, because they make sure you’re in there. But it’s also how much you want to be involved. If you’re, like, Hey, I think I’m gonna show up around noon, and we’ll just go over everything then . . . But I knew I had to be in from the jump. So, yeah, I enjoyed it. Now, every night? Oof! I don’t know.
So you wouldn’t be interested in taking over the show if you were asked?
I don’t know if that’s for me and my family right now.
Do you see yourself going out on the campaign trail and being one of the celebrities stumping for a candidate?
I mean, I’ve done it for local politicians. I don’t think it helps move the needle on the national level.
When you say local, do you mean in Philadelphia?
Yeah, and also my home state of Virginia, I’ve helped out. I mean, not actually on the trail, but I’ve [done] messages for some of the local candidates.
Hollywood is not exactly famous for its kindness to aging women.
Maybe it’s getting better. Look at Jane [Fonda] and Lily [Tomlin].
Are you surprised that you’re working so much this long into your career?
No, this feels right. This feels natural. It’s so funny: my wife says, “When you retire . . . ,” and I’m, like, “We don’t retire!” She’s, like, “What do you mean, you don’t retire? When you’re sixty-five?” If the phone is still ringing, I’m still working. Or they show you the door. We don’t make that choice.
Can you see yourself into your eighties, maybe even your nineties, still touring the country, like Joan Rivers?
If I’m still into it, then hell yeah. Marla Gibbs [age ninety-two] is still working. I worked with Marla on “History of the World, Part II.” She’s amazing.
In the more than thirty years that you’ve been doing standup, what is the biggest change you’ve seen?
I think the biggest change is probably how sensitive we are about our material getting out before it’s ready. That’s why, when you go to these shows, there’s Yondr—we’re locking up phones. That was our biggest challenge: people would come to your show and record your whole set and put it up on YouTube, and you’re, like, that’s my whole act. I wasn’t even ready for it to be seen.
Can you talk more about that? Is it that you’re still workshopping the material?
Yeah, it’s not ready. It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering a meal. The chef is preparing it, but you go back there and just start tasting stuff before it’s ready. That feels horrible. It’s about protecting the integrity of your material, but also the material itself. I mean, this is our livelihood. How am I going to sell tickets if my whole show is already available for people to see on YouTube or whatever? So locking up phones, it’s the only way we can get around that.
It sounds like this has happened to you.
Oh, yeah. My lawyer had to send letters to YouTube, and they will take it down. But you’ve gotta keep staying on top of it to get them to take it down, because it goes down one [place], and somebody already has it up again.
What was the driving desire for creating “The Upshaws”?
Mike Epps approached me and said he wanted to do, basically, a Black “Roseanne.” He wanted to do a show about a working-class Black family in the Midwest, because that’s where he’s from—he’s from Indianapolis. He was, like, You and I, we can have that Fred Sanford–Aunt Esther relationship. I thought about it and I was, like, there really isn’t a show like that on right now.
I mean, we had all those shows back in the day, and then in the eighties, you had middle-class families, “Family Matters” and all. But now it’s either crime families or they’re running big corporations. Rich or crime—we lost that in-between. So I was, like, this is a great idea. We both love Norman Lear, so it’d be great if we can do a Norman Lear-type show with this African American family. We took it to Netflix and, boom, they bought it.
It seems like they’re trying to capture as many different types of audiences as possible.
A little something for everybody. Especially when you look at what they did now with “The Ultimatum,” the queer edition.
Is there a type of feedback that really stands out to you from working on “The Upshaws,” in which you also star as Lucretia Turner, compared to other shows you’ve worked on, like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “The Other Two”?
I love when people can relate to the characters. They’re, like, Oh, my God, that’s my family. I was in the store and some little kids were, like, “Aunt Lucretia!” I love that they love these characters. People feel seen; they’re being represented.
One of the things I remember most about the show’s first season is that the Mike Epps character was revealed to his family as an adulterer. Do you remember where that plot came from?
Mike has a lot of kids from different relationships. I mean, he’s happily married now and all, but it’s just life, and it happens to a lot of people. It’s not all this cookie-cutter situation. So we wanted to show a family that was a bit messy, because that’s how families are right now.
And people respond to that messiness.
Yes, because we’re not saying, Hey, this is something wrong. It’s like, Hey, it is what it is. And you love your family, and you keep moving. ♦