February is Black History Month, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest that Wanda Sykes has put together one of the most sparkling résumés in African-American comedy history, if not all of comedy history. Sykes made her bones churning out critically lauded material for HBO’s The Chris Rock Show as part of a writing team that was nominated for four Emmys. She further displayed her comedic chops in a series of memorable cameos in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and then as a regular in The New Adventures of Old Christine alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She reached the pinnacle of stand-up prestige when she was named the featured entertainer at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — both the first black woman and the first openly LGBT person to achieve that role — a moment that Sykes considers the most remarkable highlight of her illustrious career.
Never one to shy away from taking sides on controversial sociopolitical topics, including same-sex marriage rights and dog-chaining legislation, Sykes is known for keeping it real even by the self-indulgent standards of stand-up comedy, as her book Yeah, I Said It and 2009 tour “I’ma Be Me” indicate without an ounce of ambiguity.
Sykes’ true gift may be in her ability to have strong opinions on hot-button topics while still remaining almost universally adored — something that fellow comedic firebrands such as Bill Maher and Janeane Garofalo couldn’t accomplish before settling for niche audiences and markets.
In anticipation of her first-ever appearance at The Florida Theatre on Feb. 26, Sykes recently humored Folio Weekly with a phone interview covering the quandary of being a black female comic, the recent bewilderment caused by the Duval County Clerk of Courts and the legitimacy of tilapia as a fish.
Folio Weekly: Jacksonville was one of three late Florida dates added to your current tour. Be honest — did you add these dates just to pick up some extra comedy material while in the always-hilarious Sunshine State?
Wanda Sykes: Yeah, the promoter offered me the dates and I said let’s do it. Don’t you guys disappoint me. [Laughs.] It all happens in Florida. I think you guys just do it on purpose now. I think you make a lot of bad decisions just for the press.
Speaking of bad decisions, when gay marriage was finally legal in Florida, our Duval County clerk of courts, Ronnie Fussell, decided to just do away with all courtroom ceremonies, gay and straight. You were vocally outraged back when California passed Prop 8 banning gay marriage. In light of this news, what would you say to our clerk of courts?
That’s ridiculous. Um, hmmm, that’s crazy. [Long pause.] I don’t know, I have to think about that one. There’s nothing I can really add to that. It’s just ridiculous. [Let it be noted that Fussell’s tunnel-visioned decision was so idiotic it actually muted Wanda Sykes’ comedic genius.]
Having covered the comedy scene for a while, I’ve noticed a genuine frustration among female comics being perceived with prejudice as not funny by a large contingent of the male audience. Is it even more difficult to be a black female comic?
I’ll put it this way, as far as harder, I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to be a white female comic, but I will say that I see more opportunities for white female comics. There’s just more roles. I’m fortunate that I do stand-up and I can create my own parts, create my own shows, so I’m not really dependent on someone else doing it for me.
When David Letterman announced his retirement, many people were calling for more diversity in the selection of the next CBS Late Night host. Personally, I was screaming for you to be the one who took over that role — it seemed almost too perfect. Was that something you would’ve considered had it been offered?
When you look at the late-night talk show world, it’s all white men. It must be somewhere in the Constitution that they don’t want you to know about. Somewhere buried in the Constitution. They made that law way back then, they knew. “Let’s just say late-night hosts have to be white. Just say that. What is this late-night thing? I don’t know, but let’s just put that in now.”
These days, you’re more family-oriented and the comedy has steered a little more toward your unique household situation. Is this less to do with a waning interest in current events and simply more to do with where you are in your life right now?
Right, that’s just my life right now. I never thought I’d be in the position where I would be taking care of white people [her two children with wife Alex Niedbalski are white]. I just don’t have time to keep up with the news. And when I do keep up with it, do I really want to be with all the bad stuff that’s out there? I’m trying to keep my kids from sticking a fork in the light socket.
Family nutrition has become important to you. Do you think we’re in an odd place as humans when we go to places like Whole Foods and are more shocked to see food in its natural state than when we see, for example, a Twinkie?
Yeah, and the food is so expensive when it’s organic and they’re doing less to it. So why’s it more expensive? Everybody is so caught up on current events but they don’t know what’s in their own food. Like, what is tilapia? That’s not a fish. No one ever goes fishing and says, “Boy, I caught some nice big tilapia today,” right?