‘Only God can say – That’s enough’: Wanda Sykes, the uncancellable standup superstar
She ditched life as a government agent to become a comedian, one so fearless she even has a ‘tampon lasso’. The comic legend discusses cancelled men, coming out – and calling out Roseanne
About halfway through her new Netflix special, Wanda Sykes squats down and mimes pulling a tampon out from between her legs. To the noisy delight of her sold-out live audience, she swings the imaginary sanitary product round her head like a lasso. It’s not just an anarchic attempt to sum up the kind of bad behaviour that goes on in public toilets – it’s also a takedown of transphobic moral panic. After all, these spaces that people are freaking out about admitting trans women to – they’re not exactly the most pleasant places in the world. “I welcome my trans sisters into the ladies’ room,” she shrugs to the crowd. “Maybe you’ll make us do better, y’know?”
At 59, and with 30 years’ standup experience behind her, Wanda Sykes can segue from the personal to the political, and back again, in a hot flash. Her latest special, I’m an Entertainer, has material on her family life, how medical sexism has let down menopausal women and why Black people can’t be “weird” for fear of being murdered in the street – (“We have to fit the stereotype … [but] white people do weird shit all the time. Renaissance fairs – what the fuck is that?”) – which she switches between with the effortless groove of a Soul Train line dancer. Is she ever not enjoying herself? “In the early stages, when I’m trying new stuff, I’m anxious to see what it’s gonna do,” she muses from her Pennsylvania home. “But once it’s all there … Man. That’s when it’s fun.”
“Tampon lasso”, as it shall henceforth be known, is also the moment when the truth of Sykes’s recent statement “Only God can cancel me” becomes most evident. This was her magnificent retort during an appearance on Kevin Hart’s podcast, when the host attempted to draw her on the vexed issue of “cancel culture”. Hart, who lost out on the Oscars hosting gig in 2019 after a series of his old homophobic tweets resurfaced, expressed anxiety about comedy’s overly “political” climate, but Sykes was having none of it. And she still isn’t: “To me, the whole complaint about cancel culture is a lot of men – especially straight men – who are just pissed that they can’t say things any more, y’know?” she says, adopting her usual onstage tone – calm, commonsensical and mildly sarcastic. “And it’s not like you can’t say these things. You can say them, but now there’s just consequences. So that’s why I say I can’t get cancelled. Only God can say: ‘All right, Wanda, that’s enough.’”
So far, God shows no sign She’s tiring of Wanda. Since getting her big break in 1997 as a writer-performer on The Chris Rock Show (alongside a pre-#MeToo Louis CK), Sykes has gigged regularly, produced multiple standup specials and had scene-stealing roles in hit movies and cult sitcoms. Recently, she played an eccentric law professor in The Good Fight and reprised her role as slick publicist Shuli Kucerac in The Other Two. Next up, she’s seeking projects that show off her skills as a serious dramatic actor. “I’m working on that now! I can’t say much about it, but it’s a film and it’s already been written, so we’ll see.”
If Sykes is uncancellable, then, it’s not because she’s any more risk-averse than her peers. Indeed, her whole career has been one giant leap into the unknown – certainly from the perspective of her banker mum and US Army colonel dad. She describes them as “typically African American parents – y’know; it was church and it was strict”, and says they were terrified when she decided to leave her “good government job” at the National Security Agency (NSA). She had top-level security clearance, but insists it was dull office-based work. (“Anything I knew then that was top secret is probably on Wikipedia by now,” she has said.) Still, her parents were alarmed by her career about-turn. “They thought I’d lost it. They just prayed a lot.” Even in childhood, Sykes remembers her family being distinctly unimpressed by the budding comic in their midst. “I did a lot of observational material, but I didn’t have the punchlines yet. Like, if my mother’s friend had a wig that was crooked, I would point that out, but I didn’t have a joke for it … That got me in a lot of trouble.”
From humble beginnings, Sykes developed a full comedic skillset and aside from being a prolific actor and writer in other people’s shows, she now runs her own. The Upshaws is a working-class Black family sitcom set in Indianapolis, which will soon launch its fourth season on Netflix. “I do enjoy working with a group,” she says of her role as co-creator, co-star and executive producer. “It’s fun when it’s a family … Standup is my first love and it’s what pretty much got me everything else, but it’s also a little lonely at times.”
Such statements suggest that Sykes may be that rarest of showbiz phenomena: an emotionally healthy and well-adjusted comedian. This derives in part, she says, from the huge creative liberation of coming out as a lesbian in 2008, aged 44: “You don’t want to be on stage trying to be funny and having that other little piece of your brain being occupied by: ‘Are they gonna find out? What if I slip up?’ Now I’m just 100% there.” She stopped chemically relaxing her hair around the same time. “I got tired of getting my hair done. As a kid I always wanted an afro like the Jackson 5. So it got to a point where I was like y’know what? Fuck this … let’s go natural and see what happens!” What happened was the emergence of her signature look, iconic enough that a 30ft hair silhouette is the stage backdrop in the new special.
Other aspects of her mid-life reinvention were trickier. Because Sykes was already famous when she came out, it was a two-step process – first personal, then public. Telling her parents was by far the scariest part: “It took them a while to accept, and for us to rebuild our relationship.” Fifteen years on, she’s still happily married to her wife – an interior designer from France – and they’re raising 14-year-old twins Olivia and Lucas in a level of comfort and privilege that sharply contrasts with Sykes’s own upbringing. “It’s the thing of, do you push them to get into honours classes? Or do you just let them do their thing, because – I’m gonna sound like an asshole for saying this – getting into a great college, for them, does not mean success or failure. They’re set up pretty nicely now, right?”
Being married to a French woman also helps to maintain that work-life balance: “They love vacation. I mean, they live for it. It’s like a right for them.” But while Sykes appreciates the continental influence on her lifestyle, as an ex-NSA operative and the daughter of a US Army colonel, she will for ever be a US patriot. She’s so patriotic she even wears a red, white and blue jacket on stage for the special. “I feel like with as much blood of my ancestors that has been shed to build this country, this is my country. I feel like I have more of a right here than anyone else.”
It’s a kind of patriotism too that compels Sykes to speak out on issues others consider “too political” for comedy. There’s an element of self-parody in her turns on Curb Your Enthusiasm – she typically pops up out of nowhere to side-eye Larry’s casual or accidental racism – but Sykes really is the person who’ll call out her comedy peers when necessary. She proved that in 2018, when Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet about a senior member of the Obama administration, and Sykes was the first to publicly disassociate herself from the then-hit Roseanne reboot. “Honestly, I never, like, fell out with her. I just made a statement that I could no longer be on that show, because of the comment.”
She is similarly straightforward – never scolding – in her approach to gender identity. This isn’t new ground for Netflix specials, but while the likes of Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais generated controversy by ridiculing trans people, Sykes’s I’m an Entertainer takes a markedly different tack. “I want the community to know that I’m with them. I think it’s important to let people know where you stand, especially with all the comments everyone else has been making.”
So while other comedians tie themselves up in anguished knots over what you can and can’t say these days, the uncancellable Wanda Sykes just gets on with being funny. After all, she faces racism, sexism and homophobia on a daily basis – all of which are far scarier than falling foul of social media moralists. “I don’t have that fear – I think it’s just knowing who you are and what you will say and won’t say.” Wanda Sykes knows who she is. It is, after all, the title of her new show.