Wanda Sykes wants to make you laugh. “Without humor we are screwed,” says the call-it-like-it-is comedian/actress, whose massive career has included writing for Chris Rock (and winning an Emmy for it), stealing the show with myriad appearances in TV series and films, and dominating on stage as a stand-up comedian. After a difficult year in so many ways, Sykes hopes her new comedy series, The Upshaws (coming May 12 to Netflix), will provide some escape as well as laughter. In a recent chat with AARP, Sykes talks about the moment she unlocked the key to comedy and how she kept it real during quarantine.
Why The Upshaws is closer to stand-up than you'd think
I love working in this medium. TV is the closest thing to actually being on stage, doing live stand-up comedy. We were filming in front of a live studio audience before COVID hit and we had to shut down. There's nothing like those tape nights and just playing with the other cast and working with Mike [costar Mike Epps]. We get to bounce things off each other a little bit, a little improv with the scripts; we are just doing a great job coming to the stage with solid scripts. It just makes it more fun.
Keeping it funny, keeping it real
We do try to keep it grounded. [The Upshaws, which costars Kim Fields of Facts of Life "Tootie" fame, follows the struggles and triumphs of a Black working-class family in Indiana.] Every episode is not going to be a happy ending and tied up in a nice little bow because that's not how life works. If we think something comes from a real place, we're going to go for it.
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The making of a comic
When I was really little, I wanted to make people laugh the same way they [her parents] were doing it. My mom's a good mimic, she speaks truth; my dad is more the joker. I was more saying observations and I didn't have the punch line. I would say ‘This lady's wig is crooked,’ but there was no joke. That was just being mean and I would get in trouble.
It wasn't until later on when I was in the fifth or sixth grade when I learned to be able to put something together. We were having a block party in the neighborhood. All the adults had been drinking all day, and one of the older adults fell and hit his head on the curb and had a really nasty gash so we had to get him to the hospital. One of the other neighbors was sober so my mother was like ‘Wanda go with her,’ because we had to go onto a military base and she doesn't know her way around there. We get to the ER and the doctor is asking us questions about him, ‘Anything we should know?’ And I said: ‘I wouldn't put him near an open flame.’ Everyone was laughing — because he just reeks of alcohol — and the light went on. I was just like ‘Ah, that's how you do it. I got it now.’ I could have just said ‘He's drunk.’ I figured it out.