Still Standing: Wanda Sykes

Wanda Sykes is a stand-up comedian, actress, writer and television producer. It’s been quite a journey for someone who once worked for a top-secret government agency.

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click to enlarge Wanda Sykes
Wanda Sykes

Wanda Sykes is a stand-up comedian, actress, writer and television producer. She’s probably most recognized for her role as Barb Baran on the CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine. More recently, she and her business partner Page Hurwitz

have taken over the production duties of Last Comic Standing. It’s been quite a journey for someone who once worked for a top-secret government agency.

CityBeat: You used to work for the National Security Agency (NSA). Do you think they’re listening to this conversation?

Wanda Sykes: (Laughs) They better not be. They’ve got bigger fish to fry than us.

CB: How did you wind up working for them?

WS: It was just proximity. I was living in the Maryland/D.C. area and my dad was in the army. There is just so much government work in that area you kind of just end up in it. I thought it was pretty cool. Back then we couldn’t say it was the NSA and we

couldn’t say we worked there. Now there’s a big sign on the highway.

CB: Did co-workers encourage you to try comedy?

WS: They said, “You know what? You need to get out of this business and go be funny.” I always loved comedy, especially as a kid — we had comedy playing in the house all the time. We watched the variety shows, like Laugh-In and Smothers Brothers and Flip Wilson .  

CB: So did you pursue the usual path and go to an open-mic night?

WS: Actually, it wasn’t even an open mic. I’d never been to a comedy club. I heard about it on the radio. They were sponsoring a talent show and one of the categories was stand-up comedy, so I just wrote some jokes and went down there and auditioned and they put me on the show.

CB: How long was it before you quit the NSA?

WS: It probably took like five years. I left the NSA and moved closer to New York. I couldn’t afford to live in New York, so I lived in Jersey and was going into the city and doing clubs. I got an agent who started booking me for colleges, because that’s pretty much how you pay the bills. You go around and play the college gigs and then you’re in the city the rest of the time.

CB: How long was it before you found your voice?

WS: It definitely took some time. I think the first seven years I was doing my impression of a stand-up comic. I didn’t develop my voice until … it was probably right before working on The Chris Rock Show.

CB: How did you wind up getting to know Chris?

WS: In the clubs. He was headlining Caroline’s and they booked me to open for him. But I’d bumped into him earlier at the Comic Strip. I played the Comic Strip a lot. But when I got to open for him at Caroline’s for the weekend, that’s when we developed a bit of a friendship.

CB: Was writing for his talk show a challenge?

WS: It definitely was an adjustment. That was my first writing gig. Before then I was just writing for myself. I didn’t know the process, so I just had to learn what the job was. I wrote with writers who were already friends from doing stand-up. Louis C.K. was there and he helped me out a lot, showing me the ropes and what was expected. It was great.

CB: Did you ever want to keep some of the jokes for yourself?

WS: The thing was, Chris and I have similar sensibilities, but you want to get your stuff on the air, that’s the real reward. I would just try to write my best stuff, but things he didn’t use of mine I got to take. And I would go onstage and do those bits and be like, “I knew that would kill.” That was the best part — when you’d write jokes and they didn’t use them and you’d go to the club. Especially if Chris was in the room and you did the joke he didn’t use and it killed. That was pretty funny.


WANDA SYKES performs Friday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets/more info: cincinnatiarts.org.


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