Irreverent comic Wanda Sykes is a headliner this weekend at the re-opening of the historic Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. Sykes was working a day job as a government worker in the city almost 20 years ago when she began her stand-up career.
She recently spoke to The Root with her usual brand of levity about being a woman in comedy, learning about her white ancestor on Finding Your Roots with The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and how motherhood has changed her stand-up.
The Root: You're the opening act at the re-opening of the historic Howard Theatre this weekend. Will this be a kind of homecoming for you?
Wanda Sykes: Definitely. D.C. is where I started doing my stand-up. It's always been very special to me. I went to Hampton, and Howard is like our rival, but I still have love for D.C.
TR: You left your job as a government worker — working for the National Security Agency — to pursue comedy? Where did you find the audacity to do that?
WS: Just felt that I didn't belong, like I should be doing something else. Wouldn't say that I was a bad government employee, but whenever I built up eight hours of leave, I took the day off. I was never like everyone else, who tried to save up their leave; I was trying to get out of there.
TR: Your comedy acts tend to be rather political. Is it risky for an entertainer to be political?
WS: Whatever I talk about is what I'm interested in at the time. Politics are big with me. But right now being a mom is taking up most of my time. I like to joke that I know more about what's happening on Sesame Street than Wall Street … Right now my act is more family-oriented than it is about politics.
TR: What aspect of your family life have you included in your act?
WS: Little bit of everything — motherhood, being a parent. Just trying to do the right thing and realizing that there really isn't a handbook. People have their opinions on how to do it, but really, each child is an individual, so it's on-the-job training.
WS: I just got back from Australia. I was over there for two weeks. All of my shows were sold out, you know, so I can't really bitch much about, "Oh it's so hard for women," because there is an audience. I think funny always wins.
TR: Recently you learned about your white ancestor Elizabeth Banks, your paternal ninth great-grandmother, on the PBS show Finding Your Roots. What was the experience like?
WS: That was mind-blowing to sit there with Dr. Gates … Then when he got to Elizabeth Banks [who was white] and I read her crime … and it blew my mind. She's free, but she's still an indentured servant; then to have sex with a slave and have a baby. It was just crazy. I'm like, man, what kind of life did she have?
Then it continued. That wasn't the only [baby] she had; there were other ones. I was just … wow. I thought, at least now I found out where my love for white women comes from.
TR: Speaking of which, do you think you've lost some of your black following since coming out as a lesbian?
WS: I don't think so. I haven't noticed anything. If anything, I've gained some because there's a large African-American LGBT community. If I did lose some, they left quietly and respectfully.
TR: Recently you spoke out against comic Tracy Morgan for making homophobic and hateful jokes in one of his acts. Do you believe that as a community we'll ever get over our homophobia?
WS: I think we're making some advances. At least people are talking about it. The NAACP at the national convention created a panel with Julian Bond and I, and we discussed homophobia in the black community, which was great. This was the first time they've done that, especially at the national convention. I think we have a ways to go, but at least [there's been] some progress.
TR: You've done so much in your career over the last 20 years. Do you have a bucket list?
WS: It's funny; I always had one goal, and that was to be a real funny stand-up comic, and that's pretty much what I'm doing. And everything else is kind of like gravy — TV, movies. I've even tried musical theater. I played in Annie in a local production, which was a lot of fun. I'm blessed and very happy doing what I'm doing.
Abdul Ali writes about culture for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.