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Comedian Wanda Sykes speaks into a mic against a colorful backdrop

Wanda Sykes Loves Stand-Up: 'That's Where I Can Be Free,' She Says

Before Wanda Sykes became a comic, she worked as a procurement officer for the National Security Agency and had top security clearance. But she always loved telling jokes, and when a local radio station sponsored a talent show that included a comedy category, she decided to audition.



Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic actor and writer Wanda Sykes. Her Netflix comedy special, "Not Normal," is nominated for two Emmys. "Not Normal" is the expression she uses to describe the Trump presidency, which she devotes a lot of time to in the special.

During the Obama presidency, Sykes became the first African American woman to perform at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. She came out right after Obama was elected, which was the same time Proposition 8 made gay marriage illegal in California. She's now married. She talks about race and her family in the special.


WANDA SYKES: Race means a lot. It does. I think about it a lot just because of the makeup of my family. Look, I'm married to a white French woman, and we have two white kids. Yeah.


SYKES: And now white supremacy is on the rise.


SYKES: And I'm living with a houseful of white people.


GROSS: In her special, Sykes also talks about being diagnosed with breast cancer and having a double mastectomy. And now she's going through menopause, dealing with hot flashes, belly fat, and she's afraid she's starting to grow a beard.


SYKES: But, you know, there's kind of - you know, there's a solution that, a lot of women, they just take the estrogen. Just take the hormone. Well, see, I can't take the estrogen, I can't take the hormone, because of the type of breast cancer I had. Yeah. But the irony of it all is, like, when - you know, 'cause I curse and stuff, and when people say to me, hey, Wanda, you know, would it kill you to be a little more ladylike? I go, yes.


SYKES: It would.


GROSS: We'll hear more of Wanda Sykes' comedy later. Sykes has a recurring role on "Black-ish," does a lot of voice work for animated films and has her own production company. Wanda Sykes, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your Emmy nominations.

SYKES: Thank you.

GROSS: You've been a comic during the Clinton administration and his impeachment. You were a comic during two terms of America's first African American president. And now you're a comic during the presidency of Donald Trump, who some people describe as racially divisive and others describe as just plain racist. Is being a comic now different than being a comic during the Clinton years or the Obama years?

SYKES: It's totally different. It's much harder, actually. And you would think, oh, boy, there's so much to make fun of. But really, I can't write anything funnier or more ridiculous than what Trump actually says. What he says, it sounds like a joke. So it's basically (laughter), you're just repeating what he says. It's like doing a parody of a parody.

GROSS: You were booed by an audience in Boston telling jokes...

SYKES: Thanks, Terry. Yeah, thanks.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: Jesus.

GROSS: Telling jokes about Trump.

SYKES: Congratulations on your Emmys. And remember you were booed, Wanda?

GROSS: (Laughter). And you had called him racist, sexist and homophobic. Were you surprised to get booed? I mean, these were people who were coming, who were paying money to come hear you. I would imagine most people who come hear you aren't surprised to hear what you think of President Trump.

SYKES: Well, you know what? That was my fault. That was my fault because it wasn't my show, you know? And when I say fault, I don't mean that, you know, that I take responsibility for being booed. I take responsibility as being a comic and not reading the room, you know?

It's like, I'm in Boston. And it was a benefit for the Cam Neely Foundation. And, you know, my friend Denis Leary asked me to do it. And I've performed there before, and it's a great charity and it's usually a fun night at the garden. But this was right after the election. So Denis goes up and he does some Trump jokes, and people are laughing. And then another comic goes up and he does a couple jokes, whatever, you know, some Trump stuff, and people laugh. Another white guy.

And so then I go up, and I do it. You know, the first joke is - you know, I get some laughs. There's a Trump joke. And then the second joke was the, hey, you know, this isn't the first time we've had a president who's, you know, racist, homophobic, sexist, but this is just the first one that we can confirm. And the crowd just turned then. And it was like, oh. And then I got it. It was like, shoot. That's right. I forgot. I'm a black, lesbian female, and they aren't ready for this yet. You know? It's like, white guys, sure. Go ahead. Come on out. You can make fun of it 'cause we see it every night on late-night TV, white guys making fun of the president. OK. Yeah. And especially this president. Fine.

But they weren't ready to see a black woman, who's happened to be a lesbian, also, making fun of the president. And the room, it was 50-50. I mean, like, fistfights broke out in the audience. I mean, it was...

GROSS: Are you serious?

SYKES: I'm serious. It's Boston. Come on. Yeah. I mean, really. It was nuts. It was nuts. It was - people were doing the, you know, hail Hitler move. They were - I heard N-words. I heard, you know, then you would hear other people, you know, telling them to, you know, shut up and all that. It was crazy.

GROSS: So what did you do onstage?

SYKES: I said, I have to try to somehow diffuse this. So I pulled out my cancer card.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: You know? I was like, hey, we're here for (laughter) - we're here for the Cam Neely Foundation (laughter).

GROSS: Is that a cancer foundation?

SYKES: Well, yeah. So it's a type. It's a form of - yeah. It's to fight a form of cancer, yeah. Yeah. And I was like, OK, hey, guess what? We're here for a good cause. You know, I had cancer. And then people kind of, like, settled down. And then I got 'em back. I did. I got 'em back and, you know, and there were still some rumblings going on in the audience, but I wrapped up my set.

And, you know, and then as I said thank you and bye and as I was walking off the stage, my wife was there, and she runs out on the stage and grabs me and, you know, just gives me a big kiss. And so again, half the audience is going nuts. You know, like, applauding. And the other half is like, wait a minute. Wait. What's going on? What's happening? Who - why is this white woman kissing her now? What is going on?

And my wife, she's, you know, smarter than I am. So as we're leaving, she throws up the peace sign. And me, still bitter, I gave the finger.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: And that was on - I believe that was on the front page of The Boston (laughter) - on the Globe or something the next morning. It was pretty, pretty funny. One of my finest moments.

GROSS: Very much a mixed message. (Laughter).

SYKES: Yeah.

GROSS: See the moral of the story...

SYKES: And then my wife and I had to talk about it. I was like, wait a minute. You - I thought we were both doing the finger. She's like, no, Baby. I was doing the peace sign. Love, peace. I was like, oh. I was like, no, I was feeling the finger. I couldn't get that index up. Couldn't get that index finger up.

GROSS: That's really funny. Is life for you personally different under President Trump than it was under President Obama?

SYKES: Yes. Absolutely. I have to - you know, you have to think about things now. You know, when you - even, like, something simple as going into a restaurant. You know, you go in, and you see it's kind of crowded. And you try to get - you say, OK, you want a table? I have to read the host. I have to read the hostess to see how this is going to go down. Like, oh, boy, if this person is, you know, a Trump person. We might as well just go to another restaurant.

GROSS: Are you concerned because you're black, because you're a lesbian, because you're a famous comic? Like...

SYKES: You can check all those boxes.

GROSS: All the boxes, yeah.

SYKES: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So on the scale of annoyed to afraid, where are you now?

SYKES: Wow, OK. I'm more on the end of annoyed because I don't live in fear. It's just - like you said, it's just another annoyance. It's just, you know, something that you just got to deal with. Like, oh, God. Really, this again? So I'm like 10 on the, you know, annoyance level.

GROSS: And an annoyance in part because you feel like you have to read people more carefully than you did before because it's such a divisive time.

SYKES: Right. And what's so funny, people who are not Trump supporters, especially white people, I can feel like they want you to know that - where they stand, which is hilarious because it's like they're being racially profiled now, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: So I noticed, like, white people are quick to tell me, oh, that Trump, huh? Oh, God, what a piece of work. And I'm, like, we weren't even talking about politics. Like, I just met you. You know, it's just so funny where they just feel like, OK, let me just get this out right away.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Wanda Sykes. And her latest comedy special "Not Normal" on Netflix is nominated for two Emmys. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Wanda Sykes. Her latest comedy special "Not Normal," which is available on Netflix, is nominated for two Emmys - one for best variety special and the other for outstanding writing in a variety special.

So I want to play something from an earlier special. This is from a 2009 comedy special on HBO that was called "I'ma Be Me." And this is something you recorded about how you felt after Obama was elected.


SYKES: First black president. I'm so happy because now I can relax a little bit. You know, I can loosen up. I don't have to be so black all the time.


SYKES: Don't have to be so dignified - you know? - because we did it. Black folks, we always got to be dignified. Yeah, because we know if we (expletive), we just set everybody else back a couple of years, right? Oh, we should've killed Flavor Flav, like, ten years ago.


SYKES: He has been holding us back. But we did it. Now I can relax a little bit. I can dance on camera. I couldn't dance on camera before. When I was growing up, my mother, she wouldn't even let us dance in the car. You know, we'd be sitting in the car. A good song would come on the radio. We'd...


SYKES: My mother's, like - she would stop the car. Do you want to dance, or do you want a ride?


SYKES: Because you ain't dancing in my car. White people are looking at you.


SYKES: I'm like, huh? White people are looking at you. I'm like, oh, damn.


SYKES: She was right.

GROSS: That's Wanda Sykes from her 2009 special. So did your mother tell you that, that white people are looking at you, so you've got to be dignified?

SYKES: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, my parents, I don't know, you know, another black person my age who didn't hear that, yeah.

GROSS: How different is it to be onstage when your job is truth-telling, and everybody is looking at you? And comics aren't famous for being dignified, per say. They're famous for being, like, comic truth-tellers, sometimes harsh comic truth-tellers. So it's, like, kind of the opposite in a way. Do you know what I mean?

SYKES: Yeah. You know, maybe that's why I love doing standup. Maybe that's it. Maybe that's where I can - I feel I can be free. But then again, there is my mom's voice in the back of my head when I'm on stage, and I know there's a line. I do think about that.

GROSS: So you were the first African American woman to host the White House Correspondents Dinner, which used to have a comic...

SYKES: Right, yeah.

GROSS: ...Until a couple of years ago. And you were the first comic to be there at the White House Correspondents Dinner during the first year of the first African American president.

And in one of your - in one of your comedy specials, you talk about an hour before you went onstage to perform with President Obama and Michelle Obama in the audience, your publicist or manager came to you with a note saying please do not use the F word or the N word during your talk. Who did - did the note come from the White House?

SYKES: That's a good question. I didn't - I don't know if it came from the White House or if it came from the...

GROSS: Oh, the correspondents. Oh, kind of - yeah.

SYKES: Yeah, I think it came from the correspondents. I don't - I'm pretty sure the White House would know better, I would think.

GROSS: So did you have to change your...

SYKES: Come on, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: (Laughter) Absolutely not. I mean, I had no intentions on going in that room and using the F word, and absolutely not the N word. Come on. That's nonsense.

GROSS: So you actually got some grief for that dinner because you were making jokes about Rush Limbaugh, who was at the time one of the most famous ultra conservative media personalities. And he had said he wanted Obama to fail. And you said that's like saying he wants America to fail, and you hope Rush Limbaugh's kidneys fail. So what was your response to that? What kind of response did you get?

SYKES: I'm ahead of my time, really. I mean, I called it all. I called it - no regrets. Now, was it a very Christian think of me to wish that a man's kidneys fail? No, but it was just a funny joke. But that's how - yeah. That's how I felt about the whole thing where he was hoping America fails just because there was a black president.

GROSS: So there is no longer a comic performing at the White House Correspondents' Dinner because of a couple of years ago when Michelle Wolf was the comic and she made a joke about Sarah Sanders and - about how Sarah Sanders burns lies and used them for eye makeup to create her smoky eyes. They decided this is just, like, too much. Comics have gone too far. We're ending the whole thing of having a comic. We're going to have a historian instead. What was your reaction to that?

SYKES: It was just ridiculous. It's a funny joke, and it is based, like you said, in truth. Sarah Sanders Huckabee - she gets up there, and she lied every single day to the American public. She lied, and their reaction to this - to say no more comics, I'm like, well, thank you. Now, you know, you're doing us a favor because really, accepting that job and doing - you know, and going into that room as a comic - it's like hosting the Oscars but without all the glam and the red carpet and the nice swag bag and all that stuff, you know? It's - we're doing God's work.

GROSS: So I want to play another clip, and this is from your 2009 HBO special "I'ma Be Me," which sounds kind of funny coming from my mouth, doesn't it?

SYKES: But you nailed it.

GROSS: Oh, thank you.

SYKES: I'm telling you, I was very impressed. I was like, oh, go ahead, Terry. She nailed that - "I'ma Be Me."

GROSS: So this is a clip about how it's getting harder to be black and a lesbian, and this is from 2009.


SYKES: It's harder. It's harder being gay than it is being black. It is because there's some things that I had...


SYKES: ...There's some things that I had to do as gay that I didn't have to do as black. I didn't have to come out black.


SYKES: I didn't have to sit my parents down and tell them about my blackness.


SYKES: I didn't have to sit them down. Mom, Dad, I got to tell y'all something.


SYKES: I hope you still love me. I'm just going to say it. Mom, Dad, I'm black.


SYKES: What? What did she just say? Oh, Lord Jesus, she didn't say black. Lord, did she say black? Mom, I'm black. Oh, no, Lord Jesus, not black.


SYKES: Oh, not black, Lord - anything but black, Jesus.


SYKES: Give her cancer, Lord. Give her cancer...


SYKES: ...Anything but black, Lord.

GROSS: That's hilarious. How did you think about that? I mean, how did you come up with that?

SYKES: I guess it was the realization - I had to have this conversation with my parents about being a lesbian. And I was like, wow, OK, this is kind of ridiculous. And it was very difficult. And, you know, this is after - we had Barack Obama as president, and I thought about it - that I had more rights as African American than I did as being, you know, a gay American because that night when he won, it was very - it was bittersweet, you know? I was so super-excited and happy and proud of our country and the direction we were going. And I'm living in California, so at the same time, Prop 8 passed, so...

GROSS: And Prop 8 says that the only marriage the state would recognize is a marriage between a man and a woman.

SYKES: Exactly. So then that passed, and it's like, OK, so we move forward, but then they take away my rights to, you know, be married. So yeah, it felt like, wow. Now I can't believe now it's actually harder to be gay than, you know, to be African American. And that joke was, you know, for that time, especially now that we do have marriage equality, but there's still a lot of things that that we need protection from, you know, like jobs and housing. So it is still, you know, a fight out there, but I don't know - like, right now, no. I don't think it is harder today.

GROSS: My guest is comic, actor and writer Wanda Sykes. Her Netflix comedy special "Not Normal" is nominated for two Emmys. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with comic, actor and writer Wanda Sykes. Her Netflix comedy special "Not Normal" is nominated for two Emmys. She's been doing comedy about President Trump and about being an African American and a lesbian married to a French woman. They have two children.

You actually came out during an anti-Prop 8 rally, right?

SYKES: Mmhmm.

GROSS: Came out publicly.

SYKES: Right.

GROSS: How did you choose that...

SYKES: And that was in Vegas.

GROSS: ...As the opportunity to do it?

SYKES: Well, I didn't even know that I was going to do it. It wasn't planned at all. I was in Vegas performing at, I think, Planet Hollywood, and I had a show that night. And there was the national day of protest. And the LGBT Center in Vegas, they were holding a rally. So it's like, hey, let's go out and support and protest.

So I get there. And it's a - you know, a large crowd. And the head of the center, she's speaking. And she said, you know, we have someone out here who's an ally, and she's a strong voice for the community. And I'm just going to put her on the spot and see if she will come up and say a few words. Now, I'm looking around in the audience thinking, is Drew Barrymore here or what?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: Is Pink here? What's going on, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: I'm looking around for the ally. And then she said Wanda Sykes. I'm like, oh, no, I'm part of the family; I'm not the ally. OK, so I go up, and it just was - just happened. And I, you know, made the speech. And then when I - we started the march, my friends were there, and they were like, you know you just came out. And I was like, huh? And they were like, yeah. And I was like, oh, I - well, I guess I did.

You know, my wife was there. And we went on with the march. And then when I got home to the - back to the hotel room - I should say when I got back to the hotel room, I'm looking at CNN, and now I'm on the crawl. And I was like, oh, boy. OK.

GROSS: (Laughter). What...

SYKES: I guess I did.

GROSS: What did you say that was the official coming out?

SYKES: I said I'm proud to be black, a woman and gay.

GROSS: So once the crawl hit CNN, what happened next in your life?

SYKES: A lot of text messages. My publicist called and said congratulations and that she was proud of me. And she said that was the perfect way to do it. What else? Yeah, a lot of - just a lot of very supportive phone calls. And it did - I mean, it took my parents a while to jump on board.

GROSS: Did they...

SYKES: They didn't...

GROSS: Is that how they found out or did you already tell them?

SYKES: No. No, I had already had the conversation with them. But I remember my mother specifically asking me not to do that, not to be public, while she was, you know, still alive.

GROSS: Well, what - how do you handle that? Because your life is yours, and there's a fight to be fought, and you wanted to be part of it, but I'm sure you also wanted to respect your mother. So what do you honor? Do you honor, like, the LGBTQ movement? Do you honor your own sexuality? Do you honor your wife? Or do you suppress all that for a while, while your mother's still alive, and honor your mother?

SYKES: I mean, it was hard. And, you know, deep down I look at it as I am honoring my mother because I'm a product of my parents. And my parents instilled these values and this strength in me. And so for me to deny who I am and to be silent, then I think that would be dishonoring them because that's not the person that they, you know, made me to be. So I - you know, I had that conversation with them from that angle, and, you know, eventually they got it.

And now, you know, we're so close, and everything is great. They're amazing grandparents. And, you know, I think now their concern is more for my safety than anything else.

GROSS: I'm really glad to hear that things are good between you.

SYKES: Thank you.

GROSS: Do you think your mother was more surprised than she might have been because you - in the '90s, you were married to a man for several years?

SYKES: I think so. Yeah, I could see how that could be misleading.


SYKES: The old bait and switch. I could see that.

GROSS: Did religion figure into her response when she didn't want you to come out publicly and when she was really upset that you were gay?

SYKES: Oh, religion is, you know, grounded in everything that they do - so absolutely, yeah.

GROSS: Did you go to church a lot when you were young?

SYKES: Yes, yes. When I was young, in, you know, teenage years, there was one point when they - we had just moved, and I found a church before they did. And so I - you know, so I got them to go back to church. And I still go to church; not that often, but there's a church that I love in Los Angeles. And so when I'm - you know, when I'm in LA, I try to make it there. You know, I read the Bible and more so spiritual writings and stuff like that.

So yeah, I - you know, I lead with love. That - no - doesn't mean I'm going to vote for Marianne Williamson. But...


SYKES: ...She makes some great points. She makes some great points. Although, she did say she was going to write a check, so I don't know. Yeah. That check sound pretty good, the reparations check. I don't know.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor and writer Wanda Sykes. And her latest variety special "Wanda Sykes: Not Normal" is nominated for two Emmys for outstanding variety series and outstanding writing for a variety series. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is comic, actor and writer Wanda Sykes. And her latest variety special on Netflix, which is called "Wanda Sykes: Not Normal," is nominated for two Emmys.

So your wife is French. She's white. You have two children who are white, and you joke about how you're living in a house with white people and you're a minority in your own home. So that's very funny, but I'm sure there's some truth to that, too. Is it unusual for you to be in your own home and be, like, the racial minority in your own family?

SYKES: It is. It feels weird when I think about it, but now, when it's, you know, just the four of us, then, you know, I don't think I think of it then. But it's like, when, like, her family is there or, you know, we have a bunch friends over, I do kind of look around, and I go, man, there's a lot of white people at my house right now. Wow. And it's not like I don't like it or it makes me uncomfortable. It's just I noticed it, you know? And it's like, wow, OK. And sometimes, I'll call a friend like, hey, man. What you doing? You want to come over? And he goes, what? You got too many white people in your house?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: I'm like, yeah. Yup.

GROSS: Had you considered motherhood when you were in a heterosexual marriage? And when you imagined the possibility of motherhood, if you imagined it, did you imagine it differently in a straight marriage than you did when you were, and as you are now, in a lesbian marriage? Because now you're the mother of two children.

SYKES: Before, no, I didn't want kids. I had no vision of having kids at all. I remember when I was little, I pictured myself with kids, but there was never a man around. It was - I don't know if maybe he died in my mind or something. I don't know, but I did see myself with kids. But there was never, you know, a dad around. That was when I was little.

Now - then when I was older, I was like, oh, God, no, no kids. I never - I don't want kids. And when I met my wife, she - that was her thing. Look. Right up front, I want kids. And I was like, well, can you give me, like, six months to think about it? And let's just continue dating, and then we'll see. And if I know it's not for me, then, you know, we'll just call this quits, and you go on and find somebody who wants to have kids.

So she agreed, so - but after that six months, even before then, I quickly was like, you know? Why wouldn't you want kids? Why wouldn't you want to start a family with this person? And it's the best decision I've ever made.

GROSS: What do you love about being a mother?

SYKES: I guess it takes you out of yourself, you know, just to be able to just love something so much and just want to be there and take care of them and not worry about yourself. It's just good to know that I have that capability. You know, it's like, oh, I could do this. I thought I was so self-absorbed, but this is - wow. Look at me. Look at me parenting and being caring about something else, you know, other than myself. Yeah, it's just beautiful. And they - yeah. I've just learned a lot about myself, so I guess that is kind of, like, about me again. Damn it. I thought I had this.

GROSS: (Laughter). So your wife gave birth to twins, and you joke in your latest comedy special about how people are always asking you - because your two children are white - how come you didn't choose an African American donor so that the children would be biracial and would reflect both of you instead of the donor being white. So you joke about that in the special, but you must have had pretty serious conversations about that.

SYKES: Well, actually, we didn't have that many conversations about it. I was good with it. I was like, look. You're doing all the heavy lifting. You're, you know - you got to - you're getting the shots. You're going through this - the process. You're going to carry them. You're delivering them. Of course you want the kids to look like you. Why not? You earned it. Go for it.

And also, I was like, you know, why do the kids have to - need to look biracial to mirror us? Like I said, we're two women. We can't make a baby. So their skin color, to me, didn't - wasn't, like, you know, something that I needed to feel like they're my kids. You know, they are my kids, and they identify us as the French mom and the English mom.

GROSS: Were you surprised you had twins?

SYKES: No. We put two back. We put two eggs back and...

GROSS: Oh, thinking maybe one of them wouldn't take?

SYKES: Right. And she wanted to put three back, and I was like, look. I'm going to tell you right now, if all three take, we're leaving one at the hospital.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: That's the deal. So she said, all right, you know. And also, the doctor advised not to put three back, so we just did two.

GROSS: Right. OK. So something else that you joke about in your comedy special is having a double mastectomy, and - not the most hilarious subject, but, you know, you get some good material out of it nevertheless. But the irony is that you found out about the cancer when you were getting breast reduction surgery. So...

SYKES: Right.

GROSS: ...What's the connection?

SYKES: Do you mean, like, why did I have...

GROSS: How did they discover it during breast reduction?

SYKES: Through the pathology of the tissue that they removed from the breast reduction...

GROSS: Oh, so they just - they do...

SYKES: Yeah. They found cancerous tissue in the - right.

GROSS: So they just routinely do a pathology when they do the breast reduction?

SYKES: Right.

GROSS: And...

SYKES: Right.

GROSS: And what they found was ductal carcinoma in situ, which is sometimes referred to as stage zero breast cancer.


GROSS: And I don't think it's typical to have a double mastectomy after that. But you decided you really wanted to do it. If you don't mind, can you tell us how you thought that through?

SYKES: Well, here's the thing. It wasn't like they found a lump and was able to, you know, isolate it and remove it. This was after - like I said, after a reduction. So they couldn't really identify where it came from...

GROSS: Oh, I understand.

SYKES: ...You know? They could just say, oh, it was the right one or...

GROSS: I understand.

SYKES: ...You know? And - yeah. And also, I have a incredibly strong history of cancer on my mom's side. You know, we've lost, I mean, you know, I've lost, you know, aunts and - to breast cancer, ovarian cancer. My uncles, all the boys on her side, they've had prostate cancer.

I mean, there's something. And I just was not taking any chances because they wanted to put me on Tamoxifen, I believe it's called. And it's - and I would have to, like, just stay on that. And it - what I understand, it, like, talked about mood swings. So that's not good for being a standup comic to, you know, be on stage and all of a sudden, you have a breakdown. You know, menopause is doing that enough for me right now.

But I was like, I'm not - I don't want to just be on some drug and still having to get checked over and over again. To me, it's, like, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. So I wanted to do the most. And I just had, you know, we just had kids. The kids were, you know, maybe 2. So I was like, look; I just want to take - get this taken care of.

And my doctors, they also advised the same thing. They was like, this would be the best option as far as not having to, you know, worry about it as much. I mean, I still have to go get checked. But yeah, and I was, you know, it was tough, but I feel great. And I got some perky boobs.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: Got some perky boobs out of it.

GROSS: You probably had to decide what size do I want.

SYKES: Yeah, you know, I started to go small. And then I said, you know what? Screw you, cancer. I'm going to go even bigger then where I started.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Wanda Sykes. Her latest comedy special, which is called "Wanda Sykes: Not Normal," is nominated for two Emmys. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Wanda Sykes. Her latest comedy special, "Not Normal," which is available on Netflix, is nominated for two Emmys - one for best variety special and the other for outstanding writing in a variety special.

So let's talk about how you became a comic. You started working at the National Security Agency. I think you had, like, top security clearance. And you were working as a procurement agent. Do I have that right?

SYKES: Yes, top security clearance, and I was a contracting specialist or procurement officer, yeah.

GROSS: So what does that mean?

SYKES: I bought stuff, basically. Anything from, you know, I guess surveillance equipment or something to office furniture, whatever - you know, I serviced the agency. So whatever someone needed, they would, you know, send in, you know, a purchase order. Or if it was detailed, I would get drawings or, you know, blueprints and would go out and price it and deal with the contractors to, you know, to do the job or build whatever piece of this equipment is that, you know, that was required.

GROSS: What was the security clearance process like for you? I'm thinking a lot of comics when they were young would not have wanted to put themselves through that and probably would not have gotten a security clearance.

SYKES: Well, I mean, you know, I come from a military family. My dad, you know, he's a retired colonel in the Army.

GROSS: He worked for the NSA, too, didn't he?

SYKES: Well, he - more at the Pentagon. My dad was at the Pentagon.


SYKES: Yeah. So, I mean, I was never a bad kid. So my - yeah, I had a clear path. It wasn't a problem getting, you know, getting a clearance. The only thing I think - I smoked weed in college, you know? And I was just honest about it. And he was like, all right, don't do that again. I'm like, all right, cool. And that was pretty much it.

GROSS: So how did you think of going into comedy and leaving your job at the NSA? I mean, they're very different professions, needless to say.

SYKES: Yeah, I always loved comedy. We watched a lot of comedy at home growing up. You know, we had all those great variety shows. You know, Moms Mabley was, you know, still is, like, my hero. I remember seeing her on, like, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

And so comedy was always in the background. And I just got bored at work. And I looked around, and I was like, this cannot be my life for the next 20 plus years. I need to be doing something else.

And there was a radio station, local radio station. They were - it was a - Coors Light was sponsoring a talent show, and comedy was a category. And it just hit me, like, you know what? I should write some jokes. Never been to a comedy club. Didn't know any professional comedians. And - I mean, I knew some preachers. We had a lot of preachers in our family. You know, they're performers.

So I said, OK, I'm going to - I'm just going to write some jokes, and I did. And I auditioned, and they put me on the show. And it all started from there. I fell in love with it.

GROSS: So the first time you were in a comedy club performing, what was your material like?

SYKES: Oh, God, it was basically doing an impression of what a standup comic does, you know? Like, it was just generic jokes. I think I did a joke about the auto shade. Remember those big sunglass cardboard things...

GROSS: Oh, yeah, that you'd put on the windshield.

SYKES: ...You put in your window?

GROSS: Yeah.

SYKES: Yeah, you put in your windshield. I was reading it, and it had instructions on the side of it. And I'm like, who really needs instructions for this because, you know, it says to make sure you remove it before starting your car. And I'm like, who needs that? Who needs that? Who's driving around 95 with the, you know, big sunglasses in the window?

GROSS: Because it covered the whole windshield. Like, you wouldn't be able to see anything.

SYKES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: OK, so some of your material now is really very personal. And some of the things that, like, women are reluctant to talk about, you talk about on stage - for example, going through menopause, having a belly in part because you're going through menopause. You've even named your belly Esther Rolle after the actress.

SYKES: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you decide to do that?

SYKES: You know, I don't know. It was, like, when it popped up, I was like oh, my God, look at this fat roll I have right here. Where, you know, where'd that come from? And I don't know. Then I just started - I just gave it a voice one day, you know? We were - I think I was ordering food. And I was like, you know, I should get a salad. And then I just - looked at my gut, and it was like, I want some French fries.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SYKES: And I was like, OK. All right, you're right. And I would just - I just would have conversations with my gut. And my friends would crack up.

I think the first time I did I was with my friend Kim Whitley. And she was just - she just died laughing. She's another comedian. She died laughing. And I think Esther wanted French fries, and I said, Esther, they don't have fries. There are no fries on the menu. And Kim was like, yes, they have fries. I said, shh, Esther can't read. She's dumb. She can't read. And Kim just start laughing. And so - and she was like, I heard that.

So we - yeah, and then it just became a thing. And she was like, you have to do that on stage. She was like, girl, you have to. Esther - people will love Esther. You have to. And yeah, So I put Esther out there, and everybody loves her.

GROSS: Well, Wanda Sykes, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been great. I really appreciate it.

SYKES: Why, thank you. I appreciate it, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Wanda Sykes' Netflix comedy special is called "Not Normal." It's nominated for two Emmys - outstanding variety special and outstanding writing for a variety special.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer about her investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations against Al Franken, or with mystery writer Laura Lippman, or with Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler about how your phone and smart speaker are spying on you, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.


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