When comedian Wanda Sykes taped her latest stand-up special, What Happened… Ms Sykes?, back in May at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, she had no idea know how crazy things would get in the presidential election by the time it premieres on EPIX on Oct. 21. But she had a feeling we’d all still be obsessed with Donald Trump.
“What the fuck happened to the Republicans?” Sykes asks in the exclusive clip below from the new hour-long special. It was just after Trump had all but locked up the GOP nomination with his win in Indiana and the comic was feeling bad for those conservatives who were now stuck with him. “I have never, in my life, watched a presidential debate and had the thought cross my mind, ‘Is he about to take out his dick?’” she jokes.
Sykes has just returned from Vancouver Island where she wrapped shooting for a new TBS pilot, World’s End, when she gives The Daily Beast a call to chat about everything that has happened—to her, and the country—since she taped her special. The new show, adapted by Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death) from the Icelandic series Heimsendir about life in a mental institution, finds Sykes reunited with Hamish Linklater, her co-star from The New Adventures of Old Christine. Asked if she plays someone who works there or a patient, Sykes laughs and asks, “What do you think?” (For the record, she plays a member of the staff.)
The comic also recently spent time on the island of Oahu filming a role in the still-untitled mother-daughter comedy starring Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer. “Oh man, I had such a good time on that,” she says. While she couldn’t reveal much about the plot, Sykes did say she is paired up in the film with Joan Cusack. “We’re traveling companions and we’re staying at the same resort that Amy and Goldie are staying at, so that’s how our paths cross,” she said.
Now she’s back on the road for the next leg of her latest comedy tour. Calling from her hotel in San Jose, California, Sykes is in high spirits despite the fact that her luggage didn’t make it back from Canada and she has nothing to wear onstage. “I hate shopping,” she tells me. But the show must go on.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
You taped your new special in May but it doesn’t come out until October. That is a lifetime in a presidential election year. How did that affect your thinking about what material to include?
Well, I knew that Donald Trump was going to continue to be crazy, so anything about him I knew was going to hold up. I didn’t want to get too much into the specifics because it’s such a big gap and I didn’t know what would happen. But I knew he promised them a wall and people seemed to love that idea! So it was pretty much just sticking with the big ticket items.
Now of course he went down to Mexico and seemed to be backing off the wall a little bit, but now he’s back on track.
Oh yeah, well that’s his selling point. That’s the hook. He can’t back off of that or he’s going to lose them. They want that damn wall.
You say in your special that Republicans were “one step above doing yo mama jokes,” but Trump actually did tell a protester last month, “Your mother is voting for Trump.” So now they’ve gone there too.
I missed that moment and of course, I was joking. [Laughs] Prophecy fulfilled, look at that! Genius.
I know you’ve had at least some confrontations during your live shows with Trump fans who don’t appreciate you joking about their guy. What has that been like for you?
It’s a totally different climate now. It’s gotten so ugly. You know, in the Bush years, with George W., comics would say things—I’ve said some things about the president and it was more about his policy. Supporters of George W. Bush who were in my audience, they got it. They may not have agreed with it but at least they got a chuckle out of it and it was like, OK, we’ll give you that one, it is funny, but he still is the president. And I think that’s the way I approached it too. It’s like he’s the president, but we can knock his policies. And his vice president shot somebody in the face, so we poke fun at this. But there’s still a level of respect for the man as the president. But with Trump, he’s not the president, he’s a candidate, and he should not be in this position. He’s just unqualified across the board. And I’m sure my level of anger about him being in this position probably comes across on stage. So it’s crazy, I’ve never had people actually get up and leave over a joke. Especially about politics.
Are you surprised that there are Trump supporters that go to your shows?
No, I’m not. I mean, my audience is pretty diverse. There’s a lot of Republicans who come to my shows, but most of them are like-minded where they’re like, “I can’t even vote for this guy either. This guy’s an idiot.” But I think there’s people in my audience who like me from The New Adventures of Old Christine, so sometimes it’s their first time coming to see the show so they expect [my character] Barb. And Barb is funny and she gets along with everyone and she’s a nice, gentle black woman with all white friends. So I think that’s what they expect and they don’t get that. And then you pour on top of that, now she’s talking about the guy who I want to be president? That could fire them up I guess.
Maybe those people didn’t see you on Curb Your Enthusiasm?
Yeah, yeah, or Black-ish or my other stand-up specials, I don’t know.
Trump’s support among African-Americans is somewhere in the zero percent range and a lot of people have blamed his birther crusade against Obama for that. What do you think explains it?
Well the birther crusade definitely didn’t help. And it’s all the things he’s said about President Obama and all the things he’s said about women and what he’s saying about immigrants. It’s a multitude of things he’s said that will turn off African-Americans. And then to try to talk to African-Americans as if we’re just this homogenous group. He was saying, “the immigrants, they’re coming and they take these jobs and they’re jobs that you should be doing.” And I’m like, did this motherfucker really just say that I should be somewhere cleaning a hotel room? Fuck you!
Conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health have also become a thing as we get closer to election day. What do you think is behind that?
I think it’s what you just said, conspiracy. They’re trying to use any angle to put some doubt in the voters’ minds about her condition or her health or whatever. Anything that can give them a little edge, they’re going to use it. I really am shocked at how bad things have gotten with politics. It’s disgusting, it really is.
You performed at Obama’s first White House Correspondents’ Dinner and now he has done his last. How have your perceptions of him changed over the past eight years?
He’s still my favorite president of my lifetime. He’s done so much against so much adversity. And he has a Congress that will just refuse to work with him. They won’t even let him fill a Supreme Court seat, this is crazy. I admire him and his family and everything he’s gotten accomplished in spite of [all that].
Going back to your upcoming special, you have a lot of material about your family and your kids. How has that experience of becoming a mother affected your stand-up?
Well, it’s weird, because at first I was trying to avoid it. I was going onstage and trying to do the old Wanda. Talking about social issues and politics, and I realized that I had to study a lot and make the effort to check out what’s going on, because I didn’t really have the time to do it. So it felt forced to me. That’s not the way I operate. Usually it just comes from an organic place. And more of those things started happening with the kids and being married and being a mom and everything. And I just had to give myself permission to stop being a snob where you have to say something important. Talk about what’s real and that’s what I’ve been doing.
Have you seen audiences follow you down that path and get into the more personal material along with the more political stuff?
If they’re having a good belly laugh, then they will follow you. So as long as the material is strong and funny, they’ll hang around. I’ve had people [in the audience] where I could tell they were like, OK, enough with the kids. But I mix it up. I have enough where it’s a nice blend. And also the things that I’m saying about being in this family do cross social and racial lines. So I’m talking about things, but the jumping off point is something that’s real for me.