Personally Speaking, Sykes Finds High Humor

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

Last fall, comedian and actress Wanda Sykes got married to a woman and got outraged enough at the state of California's same-sex marriage debate to publicly come out as a lesbian. Then Barack Obama won the election. (And gay marriages were henceforth banned in California by the passage of Proposition 8.) In that combination of Obama fever and gay-rights letdown, Sykes snapped.

All the edgy rancor and sass that Sykes has always put forth now seems to have more direction, urgency. Perhaps this made her the perfect choice to be on the dais in the Washington Hilton ballroom last spring, alongside the new president, as the featured comic at this year's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner -- an unenviable job for everyone who's ever done it. An hour before that show, the association had Sykes's publicist remind her to watch her mouth. No f-word, please, and no n-word either.

"What did they think I would do?" she recalls in "I'ma Be Me," her wickedly funny (if slightly long) HBO stand-up special airing Saturday night. "I was going to get up there are say, '[N]! You [f]-in' president!?"

This flurry of activity and change in the world of Wanda forms the core of "I'ma Be Me," in which politics and daily life have merged for her into a river of both jubilation and frustration -- "I'm going for one of those beer summits," she announces straight away.

The show, which was taped at Washington's Warner Theatre this summer, opens with her hilarious definition of waiting to exhale in the first-black-president era: "I can buy a whole watermelon now," she declares, in defiance of a long-standing stereotype. "I no longer have to grow them in my closet under my weed lamp."

Sykes is at her best when describing the elusive search for "dignity," instilled by her watchful mother, brought on by the recurring notion that "white people are watching you." Which meant no dancing to radio songs in the back seat of the family car. ("You know what dignified black people hate? Tap dancing.")

In the Obama age, Sykes longs to walk through the store "with a watermelon on my shoulder. . . . If he gets a second term, then I'm going to Popeye's. I'll be sitting in the drive-thru, dancing and eatin' watermelon."

Like all stand-up comedy, it plays a lot better in the moment than on the page. Sykes, like Chris Rock before her, perfects a certain steam-valve solution to what Condoleezza Rice once described as America's "birth defect" of racism. "You keep seeing these stories, 'Who is the real Michelle Obama?' " Sykes kvetches. "You know what they're saying: When are we gonna see this?" she asks, becomes a frantic series of swerves, snaps and talk-to-the-hand movements, as if compressing an entire season of "Real Housewives of Atlanta" into one humorous meta-gesture.

This is Wanda's moment. Born in Portsmouth, Va., in 1964, raised in Maryland (dad was an Army colonel; mom a banker; Wanda went to Arundel High School and graduated from Hampton University), she broke into stand-up at a Coors comedy festival in Washington, while she was biding her time in a cubicle day job at the NSA. She's comfortable mouthing off anywhere, but especially in D.C., and this time it really shows.

With plenty of acting and writing accolades behind her (she's still on "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and will debut a weekly Saturday-night talk and comedy show on Fox next month), she has tap-danced right through the door Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris left open for her, where it matters not one whit that she's gay. (In fact, does it even make her more interesting?)

"I'ma Be Me" is in every way an HBO comedy special, featuring sharply current, wildly inappropriate and ribald subject matter, which is then leavened by the likability and audacity of the featured comedian. The faint of heart should probably not have this much cable television anyhow. Sykes works a perfect combination of disdain and cuteness, and she's most watchable when she's making herself laugh. Against a Potomac River stage scrim, she hits all the hot-button subjects:

On immigration: "I'll take two Guatemalans, a Mexican and a boatload of Haitians for Octomom any day."

On Sonia Sotomayor and her critics: " 'Reverse racism?' What [white men] are afraid of is called karma."

On living wills, health care, dying wishes: "Spread my ashes over Halle Berry. She don't even have to come to the funeral. She can be on the red carpet and someone will ask 'Who are you wearing,' and one of my friends can run up and [toss the ashes on her and scream] 'Wanda Sykes!' "

The political and pop-cultural riffage is consistent, but Sykes's personal material works better, as it always has throughout her stand-up career. Just as the show starts to drag, Sykes brings out her best bit of material, about her battle against a spreading midsection. She has nicknamed her abdomen "Esther" ("as in Esther Roll"), a cranky, cheesecake-craving persona held in check by a Spanx undergarment.

As a relative newcomer (and latecomer, at age 45) to the "openly gay celebrity" realm, intensified by marriage to her French girlfriend and the birth of their twins last spring, Sykes seems more uncertain where the funny stops and the indignity begins. "I was up here [as a black American]," she observes, about the nation's intricate social strata. "Now, I'm down further as a gay woman. It's harder . . . being gay than being black. I didn't have to come out [as] black."

Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me (90 minutes) airs Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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