Wanda Sykes Brings the Funny When We Need It Most
The award-winning comic talks about her Netflix series and why stand-up never fails to freak her out
En español | 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.
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.
Her childhood hero
I think (comedic actress and stand-up comic) Moms Mabley definitely planted the seed for me to be here today. I was a kid the first time I saw her. [In 2020, Sykes played Mabley on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and earned an Emmy nomination for her role.]
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On being a comic's children
My son [Lucas] is funny — but he tries to be funny. My daughter [Olivia], she's witty. Now that they're older [the twin siblings are 12], they have asked: ‘Can you please not talk about us as much because our friends will get to see it now, we get teased?’ So I have to be a little cautious about what I say about them. I'm not going to embarrass them. But then again, those jokes pay for those little trips to France [where they go to visit Sykes's wife's extended family].
Hometown: Portsmouth, Va.
Family: Married to Alex [Niedbalski] Sykes since 2008; mom of 12-year-old twins Olivia Lou and Lucas Claude.
Current Project: Series: The Upshaws [Netflix]
Greatest Hits: TV: The Chris Rock Show, Black-ish, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Vampirina, The Bug Diaries, The New Adventures of Old Christine. Movies: A Bad Moms Christmas; Ice Age: Collision Course; Ice Age: Continental Drift; Rio; Evan Almighty; Monster-in-Law; Nutty Professor II: The Klumps; Down to Earth.
College Dayz: Bachelor of Science degree from Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia.
The challenges of stand-up comedy
Stand-up is definitely the most challenging thing that I do. It is exhausting. The day of a show I'm not doing a bunch of activities. I'm pretty much laying low, preparing for the show. Those few minutes before you're announced to go on stage, there's just so much anxiety, just like, ‘Oh my god how is this going to go? What is the audience like?’ But as soon as you get that first laugh it's just like someone opened a portal and you can just escape for a little while. I'm wiped out after the show. I'm still excited and riding that energy. Somewhere along the way in the night, you just crash.
Stand-up comedy in challenging times
It does make it hard; it makes it very hard. You want to laugh and you want to make people feel better. You want to try to make it make sense for them because you're trying to do it for yourself. There's just so much pain there. I think the audience appreciates what you're doing. They get it.
Wanda's List #1: Essential TV sitcoms
All the Norman Lear shows [All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, etc.]; The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda; I Love Lucy and Here's Lucy; The Beverly Hillbillies.
Wanda's List #2: Essential big-screen comedies
Pretty much Richard Pryor anything, although maybe not The Toy; Richard Pryor: Live in Concert always gets me; I love Mel Brooks stuff; Uptown Saturday Night; Bridesmaids; Dr. Strangelove.
Wanda's List #3: Best cities for stand-up comics
D.C., Denver, Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore. Anywhere in Maryland.
The call of the road
Hopefully in the fall I can be out touring. I miss it but I'm also terrified to go back because it's been so long.
The Upshaws premieres on Netflix on May 12. Keep up with Sykes's return to stand-up touring at wandasykes.com.
Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.