Wanda Sykes has many talents, as actress, writer and standup comedian. She’s also not shy about speaking up and taking direct action on equity and racial issues. The Globe and Mail caught up with her in advance of her appearance at Toronto’s Just For Laughs festival on Sunday.
You made an abrupt exit as a writer and consulting producer for the Roseanne series in May, quitting right after Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet, but before the show was cancelled. Are you connected with the reboot?
I’m not involved. I was sorry that the show left the way it did, but I’m happy they’ve brought it back. I’m friends with [executive producer] Bruce Helford and I wish them all the best. But I really was squeezing Roseanne in – two or three days a week – so after this happened, I was like “Okay, I can do a lot of other stuff now.”
Where does standup comedy fit in with the writing, acting and other things you do?
Standup is at the top for me. My career started with standup, and that’s what I still love to do. It’s also the most challenging thing that I do. You’re working without a net, you don’t have somebody to play off and you know right away if the audience is enjoying what you’re saying or not. You also have to keep coming up with new material. We’re not like singers who can just keep doing the hits.
Do you have any writers feeding you material, as some other comics do?
No, I write all my own material.
How long does it take you write a whole show of standup?
Years! [laughs] It’s always a work in progress. Once I get up to a good 25 minutes, then I say, "Okay, I know what this show is going to be,” and I build around it. I’m still working on this one, always adding something different and moving things around. I try at least two or three things that I’ve never tried before.
Do you ever worry that what you’ve written isn’t going to connect with the audience in front of you on any particular night?
There’s always some level of anxiety, until the first laugh. But sometimes you’ve got to figure out what’s going on in the audience. What’s wrong? What am I missing? I know that I’m not doing anything different, is something happening in town? I probably would do that, just ask the audience. “What’s going on?” Another thing that’s hard is when you’re on a show with a bunch of other comics and you don’t know what the audience is there for.
What are you talking about this time?
I’ll talk about what’s going on politically here in the U.S., Trump, and a lot of social issues, problems with prisons, racial issues and gun issues. There’s a lot of fun stuff, too, about family and pop culture.
So many issues in the United States are so polarized these days. Is it getting harder to do comedy?
The audience always comes wanting to laugh, to hear what’s on the bright side. “Give me some hope, give me something.” They want to commiserate with somebody. That’s my audience, and it’s not hard to reach them.
You were involved in an equity dust-up at the start of the year, after Mo’Nique tweeted that Netflix wasn’t offering her anything close to what white male and female comics were getting for a comedy special. How far did you pursue that?
I was mainly supporting what Mo’Nique was saying, because the same thing had happened with me. I didn’t really have direct contact with Netflix about it. I was not in favour of [Mo’Nique’s idea of] boycotting Netflix. I think that just from talking about it, maybe somebody over there is looking at their equity practices and trying to find out a better way to do things.
[Note: Wanda Sykes signed a deal in early September, after this conversation, for her first comedy special on Netflix.]
What changes do you see in the comedy world as a result of the discussion about equity and the #MeToo movement?
Every women in comedy has been told, “I’ve already got one woman on the show, so I can’t book another one.” But you can have four guys on, in plaid shirts, on the same show. It was ridiculous. But I think there are more opportunities for women now. Just having the dialogue is good.
Also, people used to laugh at sexist jokes or racist jokes. Now it’s like, that’s just not funny anymore. It’s like there has been a shifting of the norm of what an audience is into.
Your wife is from France. How’s your French?
It’s coming along. It’s such a hard language. My wife, she’s tough, she doesn’t make it any easier for me. But I’m learning from my kids.
If your kids wanted to go into comedy, would you encourage them?
As long as they’re good. I wouldn’t be pleased if they were awful. I’d be like, “Oh God no, you’ve got to stop this now!” I will boo.
This interview has been edited and condensed.