Wanda Sykes is an award-winning comedian, writer, and actress with a brilliant style of stand-up comedy that she’s been doing since the late 1980s. She is the first African-American woman to star in her own prime-time sitcoms and the first to perform at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (and she was also the first out lesbian to do so). She is a strong, confident, hilarious, driven woman who has found her voice and uses it well.
Sykes was born in 1964 in Virginia to a middle-class conservative family – her mother a banker and her father a colonel in the Army who worked at the Pentagon. She was outspoken from the start, and if her parents were expecting guests they would send her to grandma’s house rather than deal with whatever “unsuitable” things she might say.
Interestingly, in 2012, the PBS show Finding Your Roots did an episode on Sykes. They followed her family tree back to 1683, the time of her paternal ninth great-grandmother Elizabeth Banks, a white indentured servant who had a child with a black slave. For her punishment, Elizabeth’s servitude was extended and she received 39 lashes. Indentured servants were considered free people, and Elizabeth’s daughter, Mary Banks, was born free because of her mother’s status. Most African-Americans are only able to trace their roots in this country back as far as the first quarter of the 19th century, because slaves were property and family records weren’t kept. Historian Ira Berlin has said “This is an extraordinary case and the only such case that I know of in which it is possible to trace a black family rooted in freedom from the late 17th century to the present.”
Sykes did two years at a community college then attended Hampton University, where she got a BS in Marketing. Following college she worked for the NSA as a contracting specialist who purchased equipment.
Knowing what we know now of Wanda it is no surprise that she hated that fucking job at the NSA, so in 1987 she started doing stand-up. Her first performance was a five-minute stand-up routine that she had written at her desk at work, performed in front of a live audience at a Coors Light Super Talent Showcase in Washington, DC.
I figured the worst that could happen would be that I was wrong. If I tried it and it didn’t work out, at least I walk away saying, ‘It was something I wanted to try and it didn’t work out, but at least I tried.'”
After the 5-year stint at the NSA and time spent honing her comedy routine, she quit her job and in 1992 she moved to New York. Her big break came when she opened for comedian Chris Rock at Caroline’s Comedy Club. In 1997, Rock hired her to write for The Chris Rock Show. The next year she made film debut in Tomorrow Night. She became a published author in 2004 with her book Yeah, I Said It.
Some of her TV work includes:
- The Chris Rock Show , 1997–2000 (appearances, writer)
- Curb Your Enthusiasm , 2000–2010;
- The Drew Carey Show , ABC, 2001;
- Crank Yankers , Comedy Central, 2002;
- Wanda at Large , FOX, 2003–04 (writer, producer)
- Wanda Sykes: Tongue Untied (special), Comedy Central, 2003;
- Wanda Does It , Comedy Central, 2004;
- The New Adventures of Old Christine, CBS, 2006-2010
- black-ish, 2015-2019 (actor, executive producer)
Some of her film appearances include:
- Tomorrow Night , 1998;
- Nutty Professor , 2000;
- Pootie Tang , 2001;
- Monster-In-Law , 2005;
- Clerks II , 2006;
- My Super Ex-Girlfriend , 2006;
- Over the Hedge , 2006;
- Barnyard , 2006;
- Evan Almighty , 2007;
- Bad Moms, 2016
Sykes is adding new projects to the list. This month Sykes talked with Ellen Degenerous about a new Apple TV+ show for which she is an executive producer. Visible investigates how the LGBTQ movement has shaped television. And, a BET project (currently titled W.H.I.P.s) will follow four former sitcom stars from the ’80s and ’90s who try to navigate the third acts of their lives together under one roof. It is supposed to be the “first-of-its-kind African-American female driven comedy that celebrates Women who are Hot, Intelligent, and in their Prime. Through their funny and poignant stories and relationships, the show will examine the notion of family and take on important issues of sisterhood, aging in a youth obsessed culture, finding love and intimacy in the digital age, having a career in the gig economy, and redefining yourself in a world that is rapidly changing.”
Sykes is an accomplished and awarded performer. She has been nominated for 11 Emmy‘s, winning one in 1999 for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Program for her work on the Chris Rock Show. In 2004, Entertainment Weekly named Sykes as one of the 25 funniest people in America. She was ranked #70 in Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time and is the only black woman to make the list. She also made Rolling Stone’s list of 50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.
Comedy is just one facet to this Boss Bitch.
From 1991-1997 Sykes was married to David Hall, a music producer who has worked with artists such as Mary J. Blige and Madonna. In November 2008, Sykes came out as gay at a rally in Las Vegas hosted by the LGBT Center of Southern Nevada. The rally was against California’s Proposition 8, a statewide ballot initiative that limited marriage to a union of a man and a woman and which overturned the California Supreme Court’s May 2008 ruling that marriage was a fundamental right, which could not be denied to lesbian and gay couples. Sykes not only came out at the rally – she also publicly announced for the first time that a month prior she had married a French woman, Alex Niedbalski.
Sykes and Niedbalksi met in 2006, when Sykes spotted her on a ferry ride to Fire Island. In 2009, Niedbalski gave birth to twins – Lucas Claude and Olivia Lou. Their kids are both white, and the family’s racial dynamic feature prominently in Sykes’ comedy, where she’s unafraid to address the tension of how the world perceives black moms versus white moms.
“I am proud to be a woman. I am proud to be a black woman. And, I am proud to be gay.”
On the October 23, 2009 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey told Sykes that since coming out she is “prettier and funnier…I think that’s what freedom does.” Sykes agreed with Winfrey, and repeated these familiar tropes of coming out in a series of interviews she gave after the passage of Prop 8. In an interview with TV Guide Magazine, for example, Sykes was asked how her career has changed since she announced her marriage. Sykes replied, “If anything, it has helped my career, because creatively I don’t have anything to dance around or be not so forthcoming with…It’s totally been liberating.”
In 2009, Sykes was the first African-American and first openly gay master of ceremonies at the White House Correspondents dinner. Her performance was called controversial by Republicans and we all saw Sykes’ liberal perspective. This was hi-lighted again in 2018 when Sykes ditched her job as head writer for the re-boot of Roseanne because of a Twitter rant by Roseanne Barr in which she compared the former-Obama adviser, Valerie Jarrett, to an ape. Sykes’ has increasingly been a vocal opponent to the conservative right. Her 2019 debut show in London was described as a poignant anti-Trump tirade.
I’m glad Sykes has reached her Boss Bitch stride. I’m sure we will see a lot more awesome coming from her for years to come.