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Wanda Sykes Biography - Funny Girl, Became Writer and Comedian, Turned to Movies, Selected works

comedy central october hbo

1964—

Comedian, actor

Sykes, Wanda, photograph. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

Wanda Sykes has been doing standup comedy since the late 1980s. Known for her sharp, edgy wit, she has become a regular on Comedy Central and HBO as both a writer and a performer. In 2003 she starred in Fox Television's short-lived Wanda at Large, and in 2004 she debuted in Wanda Does It on Comedy Central. A book, a standup tour, and various appearances in film and on television also keep Sykes busy as one of the more popular female comics on the comedy circuit.

Funny Girl

Sykes was born on March 7, 1964, in Portsmouth, Virginia. She grew up in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, in the Washington, D.C. area, with her parents and an older brother. Her father was a colonel in the U.S. Army, and her mother was a journalist. Sykes was opinionated and unrestrained even as a child. "I remember in the first grade telling some woman her wig was crooked," she told Newsweek. "I thought I was doing her a favor." She joked her way through school, and as a result her high school yearbook is filled with personal notes from classmates who comment on how comical she was.

After graduating from Arundel High School in 1982, Sykes enrolled at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in marketing in 1986. Fresh out of college she took a job with the National Security Agency, the government's high-tech communications and intelligence-gathering arm, where she eventually served as a contract specialist dealing with the procurement of spy equipment. Initially she dove into the government bureaucracy with her trademark enthusiasm and energy, but her excitement soon gave way to boredom. In 1987 a local radio station staged a talent show, with comedy as one of the categories, and Sykes decided to enter. Armed with a few jokes she had written while sitting at her desk, she walked onto the stage for the first time.

Although she did not win the talent contest, she received plenty of positive feedback and was exhilarated by the experience of performing. "It was great. It was a rush," she told Complex Magazine. "I didn't think about the downside—the rejection. I just got onstage, did it, and fell in love with it. When I finally got into the comedy clubs and found out all the things that could go wrong, that was when the fear hit. I was like, Oh my God. What have I subjected myself to?" Fear of rejection was not enough to dissuade Sykes from pursuing her newfound passion, however. After five years at the National Security Agency, she quit her day job. She moved to New Jersey so she could travel the comedy club circuits around the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas.

Became Writer and Comedian

In 1995 Sykes opened for Chris Rock, who was duly impressed with her sharp and edgy style. As a result, when Rock began production of his own critically acclaimed HBO series, The Chris Rock Show, in 1997, he invited Sykes to join the show as a writer and performer. As a member of the cast and writing team, Sykes received three Primetime Emmy nominations and in 1999 won for "Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Special." Sykes honed her skills on The Chris Rock Show for five years, until that show was cancelled in 2002.

During that time she continued to pursue other outlets for her comedy. She was first invited to perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2001, and in that year her no-holds-barred standup act earned her the American Comedy Award for "Outstanding Female Stand Up Comic." She also appeared in several television series, including The Drew Carey Show, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, and MADtv. Sykes also had a regular role on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, produced by HBO. She played the part of the sarcastic, sometimes caustic, friend and neighbor of Larry David's television wife. In 2001 Sykes appeared on The Downer Channel, a short-lived sitcom on NBC that was quickly panned by the critics and ignored by viewers, and in 2002 she hosted a 12-episode season of Comedy Central's standup series Premium Blend and starred in a half-hour special "Comedy Central Presents Wanda Sykes." She also has a reoccurring role on Comedy Central's Crank Yankers, in which she provides voice-over crank phone calls for the puppet-based show.

Sykes landed an ongoing gig as a correspondent for HBO's Inside the NFL after an HBO executive witnessed her comical evaluation, or heckling, of sports-caster Bob Costas during an after-production party. "He couldn't avoid hearing me," she told The Washington Post, "I was pretty loud. I'm a Bob Costas fan, but after a half-hour conversation with Bob, you find out Bob knows everything. Every now and then, he should just shrug, mix it up. That would amaze people." As a correspondent, Sykes contributes comedy bits and banter as well as light-hearted, comical player interviews.

Turned to Movies

In 1998 Sykes had a small part in the independent film Tomorrow Night. Her first role in a film by a major studio was Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, released in 2000 and starring Eddie Murphy, and in 2001 she appeared in Down to Earth, starring Chris Rock. In that same year, Sykes also appeared in the comedy Pootie Tang as Pootie's (played by Lance Crouthers) girlfriend Biggie Shorty. Although the film, which was based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, was panned by critics, it did find something of a niche following that earned Sykes expanded recognition.

Eventually Fox Television offered Sykes her own sitcom. Wanda at Large, which first aired on March 26, 2003, as a midseason replacement show, cast Sykes as a Washington, D.C.-based comedian who becomes a correspondent and host of a Sunday morning political talk show and subsequently butts heads with her conservative co-host, played by Phil Morris. Sykes served as the show's star, writer, and executive producer. "She has her feet firmly planted in her own ego," Nancy Franklin wrote in The New Yorker, "and you couldn't knock her down, though you might want to.… [She] has an oversized and combative personality: she's not just in the house; she's in your room and she's in your face." Most critics gave a nod to Sykes's comedic strength, and the first episodes showed strong ratings. However, after the summer hiatus, the show returned to the air in the new season with poor ratings, and in early November of 2003, with just 3.8 million viewers, it was cancelled.

At a Glance …

Born on March 7, 1964, in Portsmouth, VA; married 1992 (divorced 1998). Education: Hampton University, BS, marketing, 1986.

Career: National Security Agency, contract specialist, 1986-91; standup comedian, 1987–; television writer and actress, 1997–.

Awards: Emmy Award, Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Special, 1999; American Comedy Award, Outstanding Female Stand Up Comic, 2001; Comedy Central's Commie Award, Funniest TV Actress, 2004.

Despite the failure of the show, Sykes's career has continued to progress. In 2003 Comedy Central aired a one-hour comedy special "Wanda Sykes: Tongue Untied." She also signed a deal with Atria to publish a book. Yeah, I Said It, released in October of 2004, is a collection of humorous commentaries and witticisms on a wide variety of issues, including relationships, transsexuals, vanity license plates, and the death penalty. "Writing a book is one of the great American dreams," Sykes told Essence. "It's right up there with finding your soul mate, or buying a home, or raising nonsociopathic kids." In October 2004, Sykes began her traveling to promote her book with her "Cotton T-Shirt Tour."

Early in 2004 Sykes signed a six-show deal with Comedy Central for the series Wanda Does It, a half-hour show in which Sykes takes on the duties of various service providers. For example, in the pilot, she decides to learn how to fly after suffering through a turbulent flight. In other episodes she becomes a professional repossessor, a prostitute, and a casino employee. Her efforts in front of the small screen earned her Comedy Central's 2004 Commie Award for "Funniest TV Actress."

Sykes, who was divorced in 1998 after a six-year marriage to a pharmaceutical salesman, maintains households on both coasts and continues to juggle a very busy calendar. Along with her standup and book promotion tours, she also has several upcoming movie roles, including Monster-in-Law, starring Jennifer Lopez, and The Barnyard, an animated comedy in which Sykes lends her voice to the character Bessy the Cow. Both films are schedule for release in 2005. "I work all the time, I really do," she told Jet. "But I don't mind, it's fulfilling. I love what I'm doing and I don't think I'd be happy doing it any other way."

Selected works

Films

Tomorrow Night (independent film), 1998.

Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Universal Studios, 2000.

Down to Earth, Paramount Home Entertainment, 2001.

Pootie Tang, Paramount Home Entertainment, 2001.

Monster-in-Law, New Line Cinema, 2005.

The Barnyard, Paramount Pictures, 2005.

Television

The Chris Rock Show, HBO, 1997-2002.

Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO, 1999.

The Downer Channel, NBC, 2001.

Crank Yankers, Comedy Central, 2002.

Premium Blend, Comedy Central, 2002.

Wanda at Large, Fox, 2003.

Wanda Does It, Comedy Central 2004.

Books

Yeah, I Said It, Atria, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Black Issue Book Review, May-June 2003, p. 8.

Daily Variety, August 21, 2002, p. 3; September 22, 2003, p. 1; April 26, 2004, p. 6.

Ebony, October 2003, p. 118.

Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 2003, p. 23; December 19, 2003, p. 62.

Essence, December 2000, p. 60; December 2003, p. 228; October 2004, p. 146.

Jet, October 13, 2003, p. 58-62.

Newsweek, April 7, 2003, p. 62.

New Yorker, May 5, 2003, p. 102.

People Weekly, March 31, 2003, p. 25; April 7, 2003, p. 197.

Publisher's Weekly, August 16, 2004, p. 56.

Washington Post, February 16, 2001, p. 5; August 12, 2003, p. B06; March 26, 2003, p. B05; December 10, 2003, p. B06; February 9, 2004, p. B06.

On-line

"Wanda Does It," Comedy Central, www.comedycentral.com/tv_shows/wandadoesit (October 20, 2004).

"Wanda Sykes," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 20, 2004).

Wanda Sykes, www.wandasykes.com (October 20, 2004).

—Kari Bethel

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