‘Hillbillies,’ ‘Goofballs’ and ‘Criminals’: Talking Politics, Football and Family With the Serious(ly Funny) Wanda Sykes


Wanda Sykes is a very funny woman. The comedienne, best known for her roles on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Inside the NFL” as well as roles on “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and her own short-lived sitcom “Wanda at Large,” will be bringing “a big bucket of chuckles” – her words – to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Oct. 12. But the Washington D.C. native and former National Security Agency (NSA) employee isn’t all jokes all the time.

She’s got serious opinions on topics like NSA information leaker Edward Snowden, the ongoing government shutdown, the state of national security and whether or not the name of the Washington football team ought to be changed. That’s not to say her opinions aren’t also funny, but she has clearly done her homework.

In anticipation of her comedy tour rolling through the Atlanta metro area, the 49-year-old happily married black lesbian mother of two spoke to the Atlanta Daily World’s Dion Rabouin about who she is and what fans can expect from Wanda Sykes onstage and off of it.

ADW: You’ve got a show in Atlanta coming up soon. Tell me about your memories and experiences in Atlanta?

Wanda Sykes: I’ve always had great shows in Atlanta. People really come out and support me. They are always fired up. I love the city. Last time I was there I got to go to the aquarium and…I don’t know if she’s in town or if she’s gonna be in town, but my friend Jane Fonda is an Atlanta girl. So yeah, lot of good memories, lot of good food. I call my little tummy, my little fat roll, Esther, and she’s always happy when I say we’re going to Atlanta. It’s always good eating in Atlanta.

ADW: You’re from the D.C. area and there’s some controversy about the team’s name, some journalists have said that they won’t even print it. How do you feel about that?

WS: I grew up a Redskin fan, but am no longer a Redskin fan. I was a fan in [former Redskins owner] Jack Kent Cooke days. I can’t deal with the Redskins right now. Dan Snyder is just ugh. I do think they should change the name. I do. I mean, it’s offensive and you’re offending a group of people that are Native American. The Native Americans, they’ve been protesting this for decades, but the problem is they stand in front of the stadium and they’re wearing all their traditional gear, so people just mistake them for fans. So it kind of hurts the protest.

ADW: You said you’re no longer a Redskins fan, so who are you cheering for these days?

WS: Don’t be upset, but I’m a Saints fan.

ADW: Ooh. That might get some people to not come to your show from around here. How did you become a Saints fan?

WS: [Laughs] Aw, it’s all good. I became a Saints fan because I was doing work for “Inside the NFL” on HBO…I got to go to New Orleans to cover the Super Bowl with St. Louis and the Patriots and that was my first time visiting and I just fell in love with the city. After Katrina we did a thing with the Saints where we were trying to find them a new stadium and we went to Jimmy Carter’s organization, Habitat for Humanity, and asked them to build [the Saints] a stadium. But we were working with the Saints and I just fell in love with that organization and the people too. I was in Houston, Texas, doing something, and they were housing [Katrina survivors] in the convention center and I went back to visit and they were almost more concerned about me, like, “Hey, how you doing, Wanda? Are you OK?” I’m like, “You’re living in the convention center and you’re asking me how I’m doing?” I just fell in love with that city and then when they reopened the Super Dome for Monday night and U2 did the opening and I just said, “You know what, this is my team. I’m a Saints fan now.” And that was that.

ADW: A lot of people know you from your television work, but now you’re married, you’ve got kids, what is Wanda Sykes like today, onstage and offstage?

WS: Onstage, they can expect [to see] all those things – I’m a mother, I’m a wife, so all those problems that other parents and married people have, I have the same problems. I’ll talk about being a woman, being a black woman, being a gay black woman. It’s all authentic. It’s all coming from my real life. So they can expect all those things. But the main thing they can expect is to laugh because above all things, I’m a comic. That’s what I do, that’s what I love to do. I love to make people laugh. That’s my main focus and that’s what I’ll be bringing to Atlanta is a big bucket of chuckles.

ADW: I know that you worked at the NSA years ago and you left to pursue comedy. Can you tell me a little about your time transitioning to comedy because that’s not how I imagine most comedians’ stories usually go?

WS: Well, I was doing standup while I was working at NSA and it took me about three years to build up enough material where I felt like I could leave NSA and go make a living – a meek living, but a living at least – doing standup. But I had a great time working there, great group of people. I don’t know if it was because they thought I was going to destroy the country, but they encouraged me to leave.

ADW: Edward Snowden, the NSA information leaker, is back in the news. I’m curious to know what you think about the situation with him because you have more insight into what goes on at NSA than the average person. What were your thoughts about that?

WS: When you work with the NSA, when you get a security clearance, you sign papers and you say that you’re not going to divulge any of the government’s secrets, you will protect classified information and he basically broke that promise, so he’s a criminal. In this day and age, it’s kind of naïve to think that the government isn’t looking out for information that could harm the nation. It’s like, how do you think we stay safe? And I think what he did really set us back and it really hurt the intelligence community and it has jeopardized our safety. People are like, “Oh, they’re reading my email.” Well, Google reads your email too. That’s how they decide what ads to send you. I’d rather for my country to read my emails to keep me safe and not try to sell me some stuff.

ADW: Staying with the topic of current events, the government shutdown is happening. Even the sequester was breaking things down to bear bones, and not just government employees, but people who own souvenir shops near the national monuments…

WS: Right, yeah. I mean all the way down to cab drivers who drive tourists. It hurts everyone. It’s crazy, it really is. And I blame these hillbillies who got elected to congress and they don’t even know procedure. It’s like, they shut the government down for something that they can’t do. You don’t go back and negotiate [a law]. It’s a law, get over it. It’s done. And they’re like, “Oh, [President Obama] won’t negotiate.” Well, he’s not supposed to, jackass. It’s over. It’s like, go look up “School House Rock,” “I’m Just a Bill” and figure out how it works. He’s a bill, Congress passes it, the president signs it, it’s a law. That’s the way it works.

ADW: I take from your answer that you hold the Republicans more to blame for the government shutdown that’s happening.

WS: More to blame? Not more to blame, all to blame. All the blame goes to a faction of the Republican party. If [Speaker of the House John] Boehner would allow it to go to a vote right now to just pass a clean CR [Congressional Resolution], it would happen, it would pass, but he won’t even let it go to a vote because he’s listening to Ted Cruz and all those goofballs.

ADW: I’ve found that lately people are a lot more
into politics than they were even a couple years ago…

WS: I think they have to because they realize how it’s affecting their lives. They’re feeling it more. Before you could just go about your business like, Oh, that’s gonna happen now? OK’ and you didn’t feel it, but now because of all the cuts and everything that’s going on people are more aware, like, Wait a minute, what are they doing? What’s going on?’ So that’s why I think it gets more attention because they’re screwing up.

ADW: In your career, you’ve done a lot of things – TV, movies, standup. I hear from comedians all the time that standup is their favorite, that’s why they do it, so I want to ask you is standup the thing that you like doing most and if so why? If not, what do you like doing most?

WS: It’s definitely standup. When I first started I said, I want to be a funny standup comic. That was my goal, that’s always been my goal, still is my goal and I love it because it’s the most direct thing that I do to get the results I want and that’s to make people laugh. That’s what I love doing. It’s just me out there, something comes out of my mouth, people laugh, it feels great and there’s no editing, there’s no any let’s do it again, you’re just out there. So it’s still the most challenging and the most rewarding and I get the most fun out of doing it.


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