Wanda Sykes has made her name in comedy by being known as a woman who's never afraid to speak her mind. It's done wonders for her as a stand-up, as well as a supporting player on sitcoms such as New Adventures of Old Christine or Curb Your Enthusiasm; not as well when she's tried being the star of her own series. With another opportunity quickly approaching — her new weekly Saturday-night talk-show debuts in less than a month — Sykes has a chance to reestablish herself with her new HBO special, I'ma Be Me. It debuts tonight. Before we can get into this, here's a quick overview:
Wanda Sykes returned to her roots by taping in D.C., and by doing so in late August, the quick turnaround means she can be as topical as she wanted to be. "You know the last time I was here, I caused a bit of trouble," Sykes said, joking about the Republicans at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in May. (Watch Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondents dinner here) "I'm going for one of those beer summits!"
Though Sykes proved this spring that she's not afraid to be edgy with her choices of material, she also shows in this special that her subsequent punchlines are a bit more on the safe and easy side. For example, now that there's a black president, Sykes doesn't have to worry about what white people think: She can dance in public, buy whole watermelons, go eat at Popeye's. She jokes about when the "real" Michelle Obama will emerge with the stereotypical black female personality. "We all don't do that." Not that Sykes thinks we need to worry about the Obamas relationship. And yes, there is an easy "stimulus package" joke. The first half-hour of her 85-minute set is fairly political, touching on Somalian pirates, the metric system and public education. On illegal immigrants: "If someone broke into my house, and vacuumed? You know, I might be a little confused. But I ain't calling the cops!" On Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: "The only time your race and gender is not questioned, is when you're a white man." As for health reform and the talk about "death panels"? Sykes is more worried about her kids pulling the plug on her than a doctor doing it.
Halfway in, she starts to talk more about herself and "a lot of personal changes going on in my life," noting that she "had to say something" about her sexuality when, on the same Election Day that gave America a black president, it also decided via California's Prop 8 that gay people were second-class citizens. When Sykes decides to talk further about being gay, however, she headed down a fairly traditional path for humor, with a routine about how she never had to come out publicly as black.
She also now has performed on a gay cruise. Roll the clip!
The rest of the routine looks at celebrities — among them, Michael Jackson's death ("He died of being Michael Jackson!), and actresses such as Sally Field and Jamie Lee Curtis doing TV ads for medical conditions. "I gotta tell you," Sykes says. "That yogurt works." Sykes also talks about being a new mom, getting older, naming her muffin top because it has a life of its own, and getting her first bikini wax. It's a raunchy closer, to be sure. But when there's a chance for Sykes to explore how our society treats women's health differently from the men, did we really need another joke about erections lasting longer than six hours?
Perhaps Sykes has figured from her past TV gigs that she has to tiptoe around the edges of social comedy with easier, safer punchlines before diving back into the material with real authority. Here's hoping her weekly chat show on FOX (which goes up against SNL) will give her that opportunity, and that she'll take advantage of it.