Wanda Sykes, the comedian with the perpetually peeved voice,
returns this weekend to the Warner Theatre, site of one of her best-received specials, “I’ma Be Me,” for a new set of comedy. Sykes, 51, grew up in the area and honed her act in local comedy clubs while working at the National Security Administration. She’s since starred in her own sitcom and has been featured
in many more, from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to “The New Adventures
of Old Christine” and “Alpha House.”
She had one of the most outspoken sets at the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner and has lent her voice to an increasing number of animated shows and features, such as portraying Granny in the “Ice Age” movies.
We spoke recently to Sykes about her start here, the nurturing of comics on “Last Comic Standing” and a bit about this year’s political scene.
Is there something special about the Warner that has you keep returning there?
D.C. is where I started. That’s home for me. I always love coming back to the area. They treat me so well and people show up. They’re excited and claim me as their own. I love it. I did my specials there, so it’s going to be nice to come back with a whole new hour and see how they feel about it.
How did you launch a career here?
I was working at the NSA. I don’t know, I was just bored. I just knew that’s not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. In that area, everyone seems to either work for the government or work for a government contractor, and I just needed to do something else. I heard about a radio talent show, and comedy was a thing you could do. And for some reason I said I want to write jokes. And I did, and I fell in love with it and stayed with it.
There’s so many good comedians in D.C. I started hanging out with those guys. Dave Chappelle was there. Actually, Dave was too young to be in the clubs so when his mom couldn’t make it, he would ask me to pretend I was his aunt, so he could do open mike.
I have really good memories. I remember the Comedy Cafe, it was a comedy club on the top floor and a sports bar, and in the basement was a topless bar. The owner always would tease me and say, “Hey, if you bomb you can always come to the basement and make a few bucks.”
Which is awful, but it’s such a good memory of coming up. Also, that audience, the D.C audience, they were always smart and you could talk about anything. Also because it was such a racially diverse city, it was one of the better training grounds for comedians. Because if you’re funny there, you’re going to be funny in pretty much the rest of the country. So I love that I grew up and started my career in that area.
Plus we produce “Last Comic Standing,” our production company, and Ryan Conner, he did exceptionally well on “Last Comic Standing,” and that’s where he started. He was a D.C. guy. So yeah, D.C. puts out good product.
It must be interesting for you to produce “Last Comic Standing” and think about comics starting out.
Yeah. It’s good to see young comics build scenes, doing it right. Because we went through this thing, and I think we’re still going through it actually, where there’s a lot of comics out here who have this attitude that they’re too cool for the room. Like they don’t care. “I’ll say this, and if you don’t laugh I don’t care.” They’re not invested in it. To me, it’s like a cop-out. It’s like, if I really try to make you laugh and you don’t laugh, it’s going to hurt, so they act like: “I’m not trying to make you laugh, so what? I don’t care.” So there’s no vulnerability in it.
Doing “Last Comic,” I see comics really passionate about it, and they’re into it and writing great material. It inspired me. Also, the notes and the critiques they were getting from judges are things you kind of forget as a veteran. Sometimes you have to go back to the basics and hone your craft, so I think it’s really helped my stand-up, being back with the show.
I suppose you are always asked whether “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will ever be coming back, but seeing Larry David on “Saturday Night Live” recently made me think maybe he may actually be interested in doing something these days.
I know, right? That is the question I get asked the most. That’s the top one. I figure: Great, people really, really love that show and they really miss it and they’re hoping Larry will be bringing it back. And I love doing it. So we’ll see. No one has said that “Hey, it’s the end.” He just said he wasn’t doing it that season. So we’ll see. I don’t know. But right now there’s no rumors, nothing. I haven’t heard anything.
How much have you been following the presidential race this time around?
I watch the debates.
Lots of material.
Oh, yes. Oh definitely. I think my favorite one [from the Democratic debate] was the excuse, my dog ate my homework. Oh, man. That was the best. When Anderson [Cooper] asked [Lincoln Chafee] about a particular vote and he said he didn’t read the bill. “I was busy, the weather was bad.” And I’m like, wow. That’s pretty much: My dog ate my homework.
You hosted a short series the last presidential cycle, “New Now Next Vote With Wanda Sykes” for Logo. Are you going to be doing anything like that again?
I don’t think so. I don’t know if Logo is going to be doing that again. That was fun. It was closer to when they narrowed it down. I think it was even after the primaries. If you did it now, you would need two hours just to cover the Republican candidates.
You were one of the few women who ever got to do a late-night talk show for Fox in 2009 and 2010. What was that experience like?
I didn’t do it the right way. I was still doing “The New Adventures of Old Christine” at the time. So I had two full-time jobs. That was nuts. That was insane. I was surprised I didn’t lose my mind during that time. I did break my foot. But I was just trying to do too much.
But in this business, you get an opportunity and you pounce on it. But just doing a talk show alone, you can’t have another job. It was just ridiculous trying to do that, doing another show.
But I was proud of the show. I thought we did a good job. But if I ever did it again, that would not be the approach there. I’d probably have to put my kids for adoption. You can’t have any other responsibilities.
You’ve been cast as a recurring character on a couple of TV shows recently.
It’s nice to have opportunities like “House of Lies,” working with Don Cheadle and a great cast over there. And also “Black-ish,” a network show and a great cast. They’re both single camera, and I came from that multi-cam world. It’s nice to get a taste of it, to see if it’s something I enjoy doing. But still doing stand-up, because I consider that my day job.
Are you doing any movies as well?
Right now I’m just recording the animated “Ice Age 5,” but as far as on-camera movie stuff, no. Not right now.
Is “Ice Age” what your kids know of your career? How much do they know about what you do?
They know I do something that makes people come up to me and say hi. At first it was like: “How did she know your name?” Or, “Why do they want to take a picture?”
Whenever I’m out with my kids, and people ask to take pictures, I say no. I try to politely wave them off, because I don’t want them to go through that. I’m just a mom.
So the animated stuff, I let them see some of it. I did “Bubble Guppies,” where I played the voice of a witch. And they watched it and they’re looking at it and they’re looking at me. And my wife says, “That’s mommy!” And they just looked me and said, “Naah.” They just didn’t believe it.
So now I’m like, when I’m with my kids, “Do you know who I am?” Which is really pathetic. They kind of get it, but I don’t really want to say, yeah, this is what I do.
Maybe they just don’t want to think of you as a witch.
Right. Maybe that’s it.
They haven’t seen the “Ice Age” movies?
They saw “Ice Age 4,” when Granny first comes on the scene, but they were too young. They were only 3. They enjoyed the movie but they just didn’t put two and two together.
Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d still like to do?
You know what? I’ve been very fortunate. I did the White House correspondents’ dinner. I did a movie with Jane Fonda. I guess doing another big comedy movie with a bunch of comedians. Oh, you know what? A superhero movie. One of those Marvel movies. That would be fun.
Do you have a specific character in mind?
No, I just want her to wear comfortable shoes.
Wanda Sykes Nov. 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. 202-783-4000. www.warnertheatredc.com. $43-$73.