“There is No Secret”

By Joy Shannon

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Posted May 30, 2013 in Feature Story

(WEB)coverHow Wanda Sykes found herself and became a better comedian

“I’m pretty optimistic,” began comedian Wanda Sykes in her interview in which she spoke about her activism in the gay community, her upcoming comedy tour, and her new film The Hot Flashes due out this July. Since her last stand-up tour, Sykes has welcomed twins to her family, which she says has created “an abundance of material” for comedy. With her career successes, fulfilling family life and the recent breakthroughs for marriage equality and gay rights in the US political sphere, Sykes has much to be optimistic about.

Though always insightful and challenging, Sykes’ comedy stand-up has seen a general trend toward more openness and hopefulness since she came out publicly in 2008. This trend is apparent when one compares the political anger and frustration of 2006’s Sick and Tired with the more light-hearted personal satire on being gay and aging seen in 2009’s I’ma Be Me.

While some of the shift in mood between these specials had to do with the current political climate and who resided in the White House at the time, Sykes admits to feeling a sense of liberation after publicly coming out. She says that coming out has ultimately made her a better comedian because now she is “not hiding anything, everything is totally open and there is no secret.”

Coming Out

It was Sykes’ political activism that ultimately led to her publicly coming out. She elaborated that “everyone who knew me knew that I was gay and knew my wife, (so) I didn’t feel like I had to make a big statement.” Yet, in 2008, when Proposition 8 passed in California banning gay marriage, Sykes was asked to make a speech at a rally in Las Vegas. The rally organizers thought she was there as a “straight ally” but she made her speech and declared her very personal reasons for supporting marriage equality. She said she didn’t think much of it until she “got back to the hotel and . . . saw it on the CNN.”

Sykes called Proposition 8 “the catalyst” for the “movement for marriage equality.” While the proposition passing was certainly a personal catalyst in her own life which triggered her to publicly come out, she observed that Proposition 8 “demonstrated how unfair and discriminatory it was” to ban gay marriage in California after first having allowed it.

Sykes, who “got married in California when it was legal” prior to the passage of Prop 8, feels “optimistic that eventually we will have marriage equality on the Federal level.” Sykes listed reasons for her optimism as “we’ve seen marriage equality pass in so many states . . . we have two of the best lawyers to take our case to the Supreme Court,” and, she cheerfully added, “you can’t get better than having the president coming out in support for marriage equality.”

Happy that she came out, Sykes described that she has had “so many people tell me how it helped them.” Sykes advised young people who might be struggling with self-confidence and coming out themselves to not “feel rushed or pressured. You have to feel comfortable with yourself and who you are . . . That’s the hardest part; to find yourself and your confidence.”

When asked about the recent monumental events in sports with Jason Collins coming out, Sykes joked “you know there’s plenty more, especially if you look at the way some of these guys are dressing.” Additionally, on a more serious note, Sykes commended his courage and stated she hopes “he continues to play” so that other “players see that you can be out and still be successful.”

Career Beginnings

Sykes has seemed to take her own advice, paving her own path in life and taking her own time to discover who she is. Though Sykes “always loved comedy,” she earned a degree in marketing and began her career working for the National Security Agency (NSA) in the Maryland/D.C. area. Although, she described becoming “bored” with the job and that somehow she “knew there was something else that I was supposed to be doing with my life.”

One day, while looking through old high school yearbooks, she saw that friends repeatedly said she was funny and she thought “I wonder if I should write jokes?” She ended up entering a stand-up contest hosted by a local radio show and “loved it and people laughed.” It was then she decided that comedy was what she wanted to do.

Sykes did comedy gigs on the weekends for about four years while she maintained her job at the NSA. Eventually, she “got to a place where I felt like I could make a living at it. Then I left NSA and that was it.” Her career began with an optimistic leap of faith. Sykes quipped “what’s the worst that could happen? I got to go back and get another job?”

Beginning her comedy career as a writer and guest star on The Chris Rock Show, Sykes went on to make hilarious guest appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm, create numerous scene-stealing supporting character roles in films like Monster-in-Law, and voice characters in animated features including Over the Hedge, Rio, and Ice Age: Continental Drift.

A truly prolific and driven comedian, over the last two decades, Sykes has released three stand-up specials, written, produced and starred in two television shows Wanda at Large and Wanda Does It, penned her own book Yeah, I Said It and hosted her own talk show The Wanda Sykes Show. Now, she’s commencing a new tour which will eventually result in a new comedy special.  

Activism

While her comedy has always consisted of politically-biting cultural observations, Sykes puts her money where her mouth is and regularly volunteers her time with the causes she cares about. She volunteers with the Gay and Lesbian Centers in LA and New York and the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, which is an outreach center for LGBT youth, because she says “we have to look out for our kids.” Additionally, Sykes has remained active within the traditionally conservative African American community to do her part in creating awareness that gay rights issues are “about equality (and) discrimination.”

Along with Obama’s public support of marriage equality, numerous other influential African American celebrities, including Jay-Z, Snoop Lion, and Frank Ocean, have expressed their support of gay rights. Sykes remarked “I think it’s great that you see so many African Americans in support of marriage equality and equality across the board.” To this, Sykes added, “I think the more we have people who are visible give support, the better.”

Sykes said the gay community has done a “great job reaching out to the African American community” by emphasizing that the issues at hand are about equality. She also applauded activists like Reverend Al Sharpton who has been a “vocal” supporter of gay rights and Julian Bond who held a panel at the NAACP on homophobia in the African American community, which Sykes was a part of. She commended the NAACP for “talking about it” because “once we get the conversation going, then we see that we all want the same thing.”

In 2009, Sykes made history as the first African-American master of ceremonies at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. She joked about this event in her last stand-up special I’ma Be Me “hours before my performance my publicist comes to me and said . . . they said please don’t use the f-word or the n-word . . . Hmmm I got a feeling they didn’t give this note out last year.”

 The Hot Flashes

Sykes’ activism is right in step with her newest film which, through comedy, raises awareness about breast cancer. The Hot Flashes stars Brook Shields, Daryl Hannah, Virginia Madsen, and Camryn Manheim as a group of 40-something year-old Texan women who decide to reunite their old championship basketball team in order to fundraise “to save their town’s mobile mammography unit.”

The subject matter of The Hot Flashes has a personal connection for Sykes who, in 2011, discovered she had early-stage breast cancer. Because of her family’s history of breast cancer, she elected to have a bilateral mastectomy. Sykes, one of the hardest working comedians and actresses around, returned to stand-up about a month after her surgery citing the support of her family and friends as what helped expedite her healing process.

Known for her scene-stealing supporting roles in such films as Monster-in-Law with Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, Evan Almighty with Steve Carrell, My Super Ex-Girlfriend with Uma Thurman and Luke Wilson and License to Wed with Robin Williams, when asked about her film career Sykes remarked “I’ve just been really lucky.”

Sykes elaborated, “I’ve been so lucky to work with such great people like Jane Fonda in Monster-in-Law and these girls I just worked with” in The Hot Flashes. This comedy with heart is due out in theaters this July.

 Comedy Tour

In the meantime, Sykes is continuing her comedy tour. No stranger to touring within the Inland Empire, last year Sykes performed at Pechanga Resort Casino and will perform at Treasure Island in Las Vegas this June 21. Through the rest of the year, she has a few West Coast tour dates planned, including performing in Long Beach in September and Rancho Mirage in November.

Interestingly, her Pechanga Resort show last year occurred shortly after Obama’s announcement about his support of gay marriage. Sykes bases much of her comedy on current events, and that news story was particularly poignant to her. It will be interesting to see how her show has evolved since then, after such an eventful year for marriage equality and gay rights.

So far, Sykes says she is “really having a great time” on the tour and she likes “the way the show is developing,” so she’ll be adding more dates as she goes. Sykes prepares her stand-up material based on her life: “it’s something that happened to me, based in my life or something that I saw on the news.” You can expect a film special of this stand-up tour; yet, Sykes says there is “at least another year before I am ready.”

Last year, Sykes performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in Australia which was such a “great time,” it inspired a new idea for her career. After this tour, Sykes plans to do “more international shows. I think that’s next.” Seems a fitting place for Sykes’ abundant drive and optimism to go next . . . the world.

Wanda Sykes at Treasure Island, 3300 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, (866) 712-9308; www.treasureisland.com, www.wandasykes.com. June 21. Tickets start at $59.95. And at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32-250 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage, (760) 321-2000; www.hotwatercasino.com. Nov. 1.


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