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FEATURES
| summer 2004




Funny Starts Right Here

photographed by
Jim Wright

News flash: Wanda Sykes is one funny woman. Spend five minutes watching her, never mind five minutes in her presence, and much becomes apparent. She is crazy — who else would be raising a border terrier puppy? — controlled, smart, brave and devoted to the proposition that whatever happens in this world, we gotta laugh at absurdity.

“I hate what’s going on in this country,” she says. “But it’s good for comedy.”

Sykes was born in Virginia and raised in Maryland. She graduated with a marketing degree from Hampton University. And then — talk about absurd — she took a job in the Washington, D.C., area at the National Security Agency, purchasing equipment, including spying devices. It was a government job with good benefits, a real attempt at a normal life.

“There were days I ‘called in happy.’ I felt too good to go to work there,” she says.

Her stand-up career began at a talent showcase where she performed for the first time in front of a live audience. She was immediately hooked, got rave reviews and soon spent five years as a writer and performer on HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show.” After several nominations, she won an Emmy in 1999 for Outstanding Writing for Variety, Music or Comedy Program. In 2001 she won the American Comedy Award for Outstanding Female Stand-Up Comic. Sykes’ other writing credits include the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, the 74th Annual Academy Awards, “The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show” and “Wanda at Large.”

Unlike many female comics, Sykes never wanted to do just characters. Although influenced by people such as Whoopi Goldberg, Sykes always wanted to be flat-out funny, stand-up funny.

“I looked at Redd Foxx as an influence, Moms Mabley, Bernie Mac. Joan Rivers was important. She was one of the few women just being funny, mixing it up with the guys,” Sykes says.

Working as a comedy writer, Sykes saw that women’s voices were often not heard in the writing rooms.

“A woman would pitch a joke. Nothing. Then a guy would pitch it and everybody would laugh. Hey, she just said that! It’s like men at work don’t hear women’s voices. I say men got their ‘woman listening ears’ on only at home. I’ll listen to her ’cause she’s gonna have sex with me!”

These days are good, she says. This funny woman will be featured in a movie, “Monster-in-Law,” a comedy starring Jennifer Lopez as a woman who is set to marry the perfect guy — until she meets his mother, the world’s worst mother-in-law, played by Jane Fonda. Sykes will appear as Ruby, the mother-in-law’s straight-talking assistant. She’s also got a new series set to premiere in the fall on Comedy Central and a book, Yeah, I Said It, is scheduled to be published in September by Simon & Schuster.

“Just don’t call me ‘sassy,’” she says. “That bothers me when they call me that. It’s like there is no substance or nothing to say. I am out there saying something, you know what I mean?”

Elaine Lafferty is the editor of Ms.



Related
You can also catch Wanda Sykes on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where she makes an uncomfortable Larry David even more uncomfortable by calling him on his ignorance of race and gender issues.