Funny proud Wanda Sykes grows into role as comedy’s activist

Wanda Sykes

Let’s get a few of the basics about Wanda Sykes out of the way. Although you’ll probably recognize her from her days on “The Chris Rock Show” in the late ’90s and appearances in films such as “Monster-in-Law,” “Evan Almighty” and “License to Wed,” Sykes waited until a few years ago to grab her biggest headlines yet.

“There are not a lot of us, as far as openly gay African-American celebrities, so I’m almost a unicorn when you think about it,” Sykes said, laughing during a recent phone call with Charleston Scene. “I’ve always had a gay and lesbian following. Now there are just more of them, and they’re a little more vocal, as far as the ‘I love you, Wanda!’ shouting goes. It’s been great.”

For her stand-up routine, Sykes doesn’t shy away from her status. One joke harps on how much more difficult her sexual orientation is to handle than her race or gender, because “you don’t have to sit your parents down and tell them that you’re black.”

Sykes came out rather informally in 2008, during a same-sex marriage rally in Las Vegas. She married her wife, Alex, soon thereafter, and the couple now have two children together.

The life change followed a seven-year marriage to record producer Dave Hall, which ended in 1998.

“You know as a kid — at least I did — but then you go, ‘This is not cool. I can’t be like this. Something must be wrong with me,’ ” explains Sykes of her sexual orientation. “You end up in these relationships with the intent of being together forever and making it work, because this is how it’s supposed to be. And being gay is not what ended my marriage — it was a plethora of other issues. But it just gets to a point where you want to be happy — deeply happy. After the marriage ended, I even went to therapy and said, ‘Oh, I’m having these feelings. I don’t know what’s going on.’ And then I said, ‘That’s right.’ As a kid, I knew I was gay. So all of a sudden, I’m discovering who I am. It’s a process.”

Sykes’ early career rarely strayed from the “what you’re supposed to do” guidelines set by society.

The daughter of an Army colonel based at the Pentagon, Sykes attended Hampton University and worked at the National Security Agency before testing her comedic skills at a Washington talent showcase in 1987.

Five years later, she took a leap of faith, leaving the NSA to pursue comedy full time in New York.

“I knew that I was outspoken, but I had a lot of great setups and no punch lines,” Sykes said of her comedic talent as a child. “The setups just got me into trouble, and it wasn’t until junior high school that I was able to deliver a punch line. All of the sudden, to teachers and classmates, I was the funny one.

“Later on, it wasn’t until after five years with the NSA that I thought, ‘OK, I’m in the wrong place. I’ve always liked being funny and I want to work in comedy.’ ”

Sykes joined the “Chris Rock Show” writing team in 1997 after opening for the comedian at a club, ultimately winning an Emmy for her work on the show.

Over the past decade, she’s starred in her own sitcom (“Wanda at Large”) and hosted a talk show (“The Wanda Sykes Show”), as well as holding recurring roles in Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and with “Seinfeld” producer Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“I get to yell at a rich white guy. There’s nothing better than that,” Sykes said of her work on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” an HBO show where actors play themselves and improvise around a loose script. “It’s pretty close to how I would react in a particular situation, but the reason I love doing that show is because Larry creates these situations that would never happen.”

Although her live persona makes an impression, Sykes’ shrill and sometimes squeaky high-pitched voice has garnered her an entire second career as a voice actor in children’s movies (“Over the Hedge,” “Rio” and “Ice Age: Continental Drift”) and in more adult programs (Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers”).

Recently, however, Sykes is back to pushing herself as a traditional stand-up comedian.

Her 2009 HBO special, “I’ma Be Me,” followed an appearance as the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

In 2012, a PBS special revealed that Sykes’ ninth great-grandmother, Elizabeth Banks, was a free white woman who gave birth to a biracial child, fathered by a slave, in 1683.

Among known genealogical histories in the U.S., the Sykes family history marks the only known case of “a black family rooted in freedom from the late 17th century to the present,” according to historian Ira Berlin.

“To find out that my family came from free negroes all the way back is pretty mind-blowing,” Sykes said. “I guess that explains why I’m so uppity, and my love for white women.”

Since coming out, and amid an election year, Sykes has increased her community involvement as an activist and spokeswoman.

This fall, she hosts two election specials, “NewNowNext Vote,” on the Logo television network, aimed at “shining a spotlight on the state of national politics through an LGBT lens.”

She’s also an early stage breast cancer survivor, undergoing a bilateral mastectomy last year to prevent the disease from developing further.

On stage, however, Sykes won’t rely on sexuality or activism for the bulk of her jokes despite appearing in Charleston a few weeks before the national election.

“If a candidate said something really stupid that day, of course I’m going to talk about it. I do a few political jokes, but the show is mainly about personal things. I talk about my kids and some social issues, and then I just tell straight-up funny stories,” Sykes explains. “Don’t think that you’re going to come to my show and it’s going to be an Obama rally.”

Still, Sykes doesn’t hesitate to share her political leanings when asked.

Despite admitting that she’s in a tax bracket that benefits from Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, she said that she’s all for doing away with them to improve the overall national budget.

As a black gay woman, Sykes has joked that “the only way to make the GOP hate me more is if I sent them a video of me rolling around on a pile of welfare checks.”

After performing in Charleston and Greenville, Sykes’ schedule has her flying directly to San Francisco. Similarly, her first show following the general election is scheduled for Windsor, Ontario.

“Once I leave the South, I’m like, ‘Get me to the most liberal place ever, please!’ ” joked Sykes. “I’m not going to say something if I don’t think it’s funny — that’s the primary reason why I’m there — but I’m aware of the divide. I haven’t seen a drop in my street audience or felt any negative backlash since coming out, but I know that there might be people in the audience who know me solely from ‘Old Christine’ or ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and say, ‘OK, she’s in town. Let’s go see her.’ Hopefully I’ll win some fans over. I do shows where people will boo if I mention Obama, but then they’ll end up laughing because it’s funny.”

In 2013, Sykes says she wouldn’t mind getting back into television, perhaps with another sitcom. In the meantime, she’s happy to be back in her element, on stage, with the freedom to truly be herself.

“I’m freer on stage than ever before. I’m able to talk about anything, and there’s nothing hanging over my head. There’s nothing to try and cover up,” Sykes said. “Since coming out, I feel like I’m funnier.”