Q&A: Wanda Sykes
Not long ago Wanda Sykes was simply a successful stand-up comedian with a fledgling entertainment company, Push It Productions. In a short amount of time, Push It revamped Last Comic Standing, bringing in Anthony Jeselnik as host and Roseanne Barr, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Norm McDonald as judges. It became a surprise hit and a broadcast showcase for new talent, but Sykes has no plans to quit her day job and is spending most weekends this fall performing her own headlining shows. She spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen recently ahead of her Sept. 25 Treasure Island show.
When we spoke two years ago for Las Vegas Magazine you were in a good place in your career but there was no sign of the rocket ride you’ve been on ever since. Are you getting stopped a lot more in airports nowadays?
You know what? That’s funny, Matt, because that’s kind of how you get an indication of “Hmm, I’m getting out there a little more.” Because it definitely is that, getting stopped in airports and hotel lobbies and all. So yeah, that is happening. Makes it hard when you have a connection and you’re trying to hit the restroom on the way (laughs) but it’s all good, though.
I feel like I wasn’t paying attention and you became a media mogul all of a sudden.
(Laughs) I’m not a “media mogul” but I’m doing a few things.
Between Last Comic Standing and Herlarious (Sykes all-female comedian specials for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network), you must currently be very popular among other comedians.
With Last Comic Standing, we were just so happy that NBC decided to bring us back. It’s just a great platform for comics to get them national exposure, so yeah, I guess comics … we get good, positive feedback from them and, what’s more important, we get comics that want to do the show. So I guess we’re doing something right.
You’ve been widely credited with turning around Last Comic Standing, a show that had been canceled three years earlier. How did you get involved?
Through my production company I have with Page Hurwitz. We had a first look deal with NBC Studios for nonscripted programming. We had a relationship already with NBC, and then they said “Hey, you know what? We should bring back Last Comic Standing. Will you guys run this for us?” And we were pretty much like, “Only if we could make it a better show. I want it to be like with the voices for the singing competition. Last Comic Standing should be credible, top-caliber judges, and also we want to pick the comics. They shouldn’t just be anybody walking off the street, come in and get on the show. We need to go out and, you know …
Yeah, yeah. And go out and actually have some showcases and look at people and find good comics. They agreed to that, and also I didn’t want America to vote, because I didn’t want it to be a popularity contest. I wanted real comics to pick the winner, so that’s what the show is.
You also avoid any possibilities of controversies arising over the process or technical issues.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. And, also, the first season NBC wanted to keep the challenges and we did that. You had to do a tram ride to Universal City and all that stuff. This season, they let us get rid of that, because we just wanted to keep it strictly stand-up competition.
Did you use to watch the old show and think it was missing the mark?
Yeah, I did. I thought it was a good platform. At the time, I was in that group where I could have been on the show. As far as that stage in my career, I could see myself on that show and think, “That might not be a bad idea,” but it got to be more about popularity, and they were living in a house, having the challenges. It was just things that I didn’t want to do.
Was it comfortable slipping into the role of executive producer?
Yeah, because I know comedy, so it’s not like it’s one of those home-remodeling shows. For comedy, I felt good about it.
One of your earliest work experiences with The Chris Rock Show kind of allowed you to see how things are done behind the scenes, didn’t it?
Exactly, exactly. Chris Rock Show was my training ground. I learned everything, from editing to producing, casting, all that stuff. I felt like I knew enough, knew what I was doing.
Norm McDonald (on Jimmy Fallon) said season eight was funniest season. I wasn’t even aware the show was on again until I interviewed Roseanne Barr in February. I don’t think Norm is going to fake it.
No, not at all. Norm is pretty much a straight shooter, and we’ve been getting on NBC a lot, begging them for promotion—promos and marketing, a billboard, something—but for some reason we’re having a hard time getting the word out. Yet, we’re still doing quite well in the numbers.
There was a lot of time between Season 8 and 9 though, and one episode was ranked No. 2 this summer. Was it certain it would be renewed after your first season as producer?
We did get picked up (for season nine) before the whole season had aired, so yeah. We did get a pick up while we were still airing, because right after we wrapped season eight, we started casting season nine. We went out holding showcases around the country, looking for talent for the next season.
That must have been a fun part of the job.
Yeah, it was. It made me feel good about comedy and what’s out there, and people that’s coming up. I was really impressed, so, yeah, it’s been inspiring for me, too.
In interviews, Jerry Seinfeld has talked about the time comedians spend waiting to go on, like it could be hours with nothing to do except talk with other comedians. I figured that’s how comedians become such good friends. Did going out meeting young comedians for the showcases take you back to when you were first starting out and having those conversations?
When I’m doing the show, I don’t give myself a lot of time to hang around before the show, because it is that anticipation and anxiety of waiting around, so I show up late, like 10 or 15 minutes before I’m supposed to go on. With Last Comic Standing, I left the comics alone before, on a show day. I don’t want to be in their heads.
You could say one little thing and throw them off their game, I guess.
Yeah, exactly! Or I might be thinking of something else, and the look I give might make them think, “Oh, shit! She don’t like what I’m wearing,” or something. So yeah, I stay out of their face during show days. First time I really capture them is during mentoring sessions.
The mentoring segments are pretty interesting. That seems like something you might get a particular sense of accomplishment out of, some personal gratification. How often do you get to do that with another comedian?
Exactly, you don’t. And we only end up using a total of two minutes out of what for me was a 10-hour day. I did 20 comics each day, and I really spent time with them. I like collaborating, so if a comic was open … that’s the thing, too. I’m not going to mess with anybody if they’re like, “Hey, this is exactly what I’m doing.” Then I don’t mess with them, but if they ask for my help or ask me what I was thinking, then we have a good time working together. A lot of those comics, they did make it to the next stage.
Did you choose Anthony Jeselnik as host? I couldn’t have imagined him in that role, but somehow it works.
I know, right? Page and I sat down and had a meeting with Anthony, and he pretty much laid out what he wanted to do as host. Like you said, he doesn’t seem like the guy who can do that role, because he comes across as too cool for the room. But in the meeting, we both felt confident that he could pull it off, and I’ve been really impressed. He’s doing a great job. He’s got a lot of funny stuff also that we didn’t get to use, because it’s about the comics.
News recently broke about you moving forward on a sitcom with season eight winner Rod Man. What’s the latest development for that project?
We have a script deal with the studio, so we’re working on that now, getting the script in, and hopefully they’ll pick it up and we’ll get to shoot a pilot.
You’re kicking off a pretty busy schedule of stand-up with your Las Vegas show. Is it getting harder to fit in stand-up, or taking more effort to compartmentalize and focus on it?
It is, it is, but I love it. It’s when I feel the funniest, so if I get away from it for too long I get worried: “Wait a minute, am I losing it? What’s going on?” It’s my security, where I go “OK, this is what I do, and it doesn’t matter what else—TV, film, whatever – that’s my day job. So when I’m not doing it I feel … I won’t say out of work, but I don’t take too much time off. It is getting harder to do it, especially with now with the kids. I have family, so during the week, they’re in school; I’m working on other projects. Then when they’re here on weekends, that’s when I go out and I do stand-up. I’m trying to balance it to where I’m not gone too much.
Are you worried about your kids becoming funnier than you?
You know what? My son is getting there already. His timing is pretty good. I hope so. I hope they will be happy and funny people.
I have this mental image of your family eating dinner and them saying something funny, and you going, “Hey, wait a minute now.”
(Laughs) I always come back and top them, though.
Thanks so much for your time, Wanda. Oh, what happens to your Granny character in the next Ice Age movie?
You know what? We’re recording that now. I can tell you she’s still alive.