First published on 20 Jan 2012. Updated on 24 Feb 2014.
It’s taken a long time for Australia to cotton on to Wanda Sykes. 25 years in fact. Starting her stand-up career way back in 1987, Sykes has since gone on to become one of the biggest names in US comedy. She’s won four Emmys, starred in three of her own TV shows, written and starred in The Chris Rock Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm, appeared in films such as Evan Almighty and Over the Hedge, made three HBO stand-up specials (most recently 2009’s I’ma Be Me), was declared America’s Best Female Comic in 2001, and in 2009 she performed in front of President Obama at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Her CV is, you might say, comprehensive.
But stand-up has always been Sykes’ first love. Known these days for her sharp-tongued blend of personal observation and hard-edged social commentary, Sykes says back when she started she was more “doing an impression of what I thought stand-up was. Which at the time was a mix of Seinfeld and, I guess, Sinbad. Mostly for the brightly coloured baggy pants.”
But as the years have gone on, she’s found her stand-up becoming increasingly outspoken and political in nature. “It’s a confidence thing. You take more chances, expose more of yourself on stage”, she says, before adding with a laugh, “It’s an age thing too. I mean, I’m 47. I’ve got kids. I don’t give a fuck what the rest of you think!”
For many Australians, their introduction to Sykes was through her performance at the 2009 White House Correspondents' Dinner. It was a historic moment – Sykes was the first black female and first LGBT performer to perform at the event, which also happened to be the first Correspondents' Dinner presided over by a black President. “I couldn’t really believe they’d want to take a chance on me. I was like, are you sure you’re calling the right person? You have seen me perform, right?” Not that she pulled her punches for the occasion: the routine featured an extended riff on Rush Limbaugh where she jokingly described him as the 20th 9/11 hijacker.
Sykes is finally making her Australian debut at the 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. As to what audiences can expect from her: “I’m gonna mix it up. My comedy is where I am at the time, but I’ve also got to make sure I’m bringing people who might not know me so well on to the same page. So it’s a balancing act. You know, I can’t just jump in with jokes about my first wife and my white babies.”