Wanda Sykes: Oh, I love going for walks. Not just good exercise for you, but I get a chance to catch up with my friends. You know, I love walking with my wife. I like the companionship, is what I really like. So I’m glad I have you guys here to talk to, and I guess you enjoy companionship, too, because that’s why you’re listening to me run my yap.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time To Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos and songs that have influenced their lives. Wanda Sykes left a comfortable job to pursue standup comedy. Now she’s an Emmy-award winning writer, actor, and comedian. On this walk, Wanda talks about what she learned after she bombed on stage and how a big break came from taking a chance.
Wanda Sykes: We are walking on a nature preserve. It’s about 25, 30 minutes outside of Philly. We got some snow on the ground, but it’s sunny, which I love because, you know, it’s been very cold here. So this is like the heat wave. This is great, to be out.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
A lot of people don’t know this. Before I did standup, I worked at the National Security Agency. Yes, the NSA, top-secret security clearance, the whole nine, all that. I lived in the Maryland/D.C. area. And when you live there, you end up working for the government in one… one facet or the other. So I worked there, and I enjoyed it. I loved the people. I loved the, the mission.
But I just knew it was something else that I was supposed to be doing with my life.
So I just thought about it. It’s like, “What is it that you’re supposed to be doing? Why are you here on this earth? What’s your gift?”
And I always loved comedy, but I never pursued it when I went to college because, one, I didn’t think my parents would pay for it. And two, I didn’t really know anyone personally who had taken that path.
So I was listening to the radio on my way to work, and the radio station was doing a, a talent show. And comedy was one of the categories.
When I got to work, I, of course, you know, handled my work, and then I wrote some jokes.
And I went to the club and the manager, I guess, he said, “Okay, what you got?” I did like four or five jokes, and he was like, “Good, you’re in. Be here Sunday.”
Sunday comes around, and I’m all excited and, and, mind you, like, I’d never been to a comedy club, never, you know, even, like, been on stage like that just doing standup. This is all new. So get to the show, there’s singers, there’s dancers, and now it’s time for comedy. There was like two other comics on the show. One you may know, Tony Woods, he’s, like, D.C. legend. He had just started out, too.
I go on stage, and right out the gate, boom, big laugh. I wish I could remember some of the jokes I did. And then, you know, I was just killing. I didn’t even know I was killing. I just thought that’s the way… From what I saw on TV, that’s the way it worked. You do a joke, and people laugh. You do a joke, people laugh. So I had no idea how special and how rare it was. I just knew it felt great.
Get off stage, and the emcee, Andy Evans, who’s also a D.C. legend, he goes “Where the hell have you been? Where did you come from?” And I was like, “Well, I work at NSA.” And he said, “Well, I’ve never seen you in the comedy clubs or anything.” I said, “Well, I don’t know where the comedy clubs are.”
So, I’m like, “Okay. I clearly have won this contest. So let me just wait for them to announce the winners.” So then Tony Woods goes on, and Tony has a great set. They’re laughing, but that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? You do a joke, and they laugh. But I thought I was better that night. They announced the winner. Of course, Tony Woods. I wasn’t upset, you know? I just said, “Okay, I didn’t win this time. I’ll win next time.” You know, it felt good. I loved that, being on that stage and having people laugh just because of something that I said. I was like, “This is it.”
Thursday nights, I think, was the only night for open mic. Did that a couple times, and then next month rolled around. It was time for the competition again. So I was like, “Okay, I got it this time.” I’m so confident I invite my whole family: my mom, my dad, my brother, a couple best friends. And my parents had no idea what was going on. They were like, “What are you doing? Why are you… What do you mean you’re doing comedy?”
So I go on stage, and this time, I’m like, “You know what? I’m… I’m going to do some new material because those people, they saw the stuff I did the last time. So I should do something new.” Again, no idea, clueless about how comedy works.
So I go on stage, new material, bomb. I, like… It’s awful. Like, first, they’re just being polite and just not laughing, and then the moving of the chairs… This is a big banquet room. People are just, like, uncomfortable. And, oh, this one woman sitting up front, she just looked at me like I was getting on her last nerve, like, “Ugh, somebody please stop her.”
So now I’m just running through the jokes, just… And it just got worse and worse because now they can’t even understand where I’m trying to be funny. So, anyway, I get to the end, say good night, and they damn near gave me a standing ovation because they were just so happy that I was getting off the stage.
So get off the stage and of course I have to now face my family. And my mother could see, like, the hurt on my face. And she just gave me a hug, and she said, “Look, don’t you worry about it. These people don’t mean a thing to you. Nobody cares what they think. You have a good government job. And now you can just let this go.”
Okay. So I get home, couldn’t sleep that night. Next morning, couldn’t eat. I was just miserable. And even my friends was telling me I had a stupid look on my face. I couldn’t… It, it was just visible. You could see that something was wrong with me. I was not myself. And I call Andy, and I’m like, “Andy, I can’t shake this. I can’t eat, sleep. I’m just miserable.” He said, “Oh, you’re a comedian.”
I’m like, “What?”
He goes, “Yeah, that’s what happens when you bomb. And you’re going to feel like that until you get back on stage and you have a good set.”
Now that was, what, like Monday. So I had to wait until Thursday. I mean, a lot went through my mind. You know, it was, “How bad do you want this?” The thing is I just had that… that yearning for, for what it felt like the first time I got on stage. And then I’m telling myself like, “Hey, so what happens Thursday if you get back on stage and you bomb again? What you going to do?” I’m like, “Oh, my god. I can’t, I can’t… I can’t live like this. I can’t keep feeling like this. What if I just say I’m done with it and don’t go back on stage? And let’s see if the feeling will go away.”
It wouldn’t go away, just kept bothering me. And I knew how much it meant to me. I knew how much I wanted this. And I knew how easy it would’ve been to say, “You know what? My mom’s right. Screw this. I’m just going to go back to NSA, work even extra harder there, and… and just be comfortable.” I couldn’t live with that.
So Thursday comes around, and I’m like, “I’m getting back on that damn stage.” So I go to the club. Of course I’m… I’m nervous waiting my turn, waiting my turn. And it didn’t help that some, some comics ahead of me also bombed. So I get on stage, and this time, I’m smart enough to at least do the jokes that I know work. So I went on with the strongest stuff first, got laughs, not huge laughs, but they were laughs and that’s all I needed.
Good set, I had a good set. All that pain I was feeling and that… My shoulders relaxed. I had an appetite. Everything was, was right. Everything felt right.
I just keep going back to what my friends had said, you know? “Hey, you’re funny. You should be on stage.” And I believe that I knew that, too, but never wanted to take a chance. I didn’t know how to do it, or maybe I wasn’t ready. But once I did, I was like, “Okay, this is my gift. This is my calling. This is what I’m supposed to do, and it’s going to be painful. You’re going to get embarrassed sometimes. You’re going to be humiliated. But it’s why I’m here.”
So we all have that little voice, right? It’s telling you what you should do. You know what you should do. You know what you want to do. You know, give it a shot. Listen to it because you never know. You know what? Hey, and either it’s going to work out, or maybe it’s not going to work out. But at least you gave it a shot, and makes you even more prepared, makes you stronger for the next time.
[SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS ON ICE]
Getting a little patch of ice here, need to concentrate because I do not want to fall and bust my a**. That would not be cool. You got to look cool.
I am a full-time comedian, left Maryland. Now I’m in New York, I guess it was like 2000, 2001. Writing on “The Chris Rock Show”, the Emmy-award-winning “Chris Rock Show”. And, yeah, I mean, life is great. I’m in the union. I got health care. Oh, my god.
So, we go on hiatus, “Chris Rock Show”, finished our season. So now we get a break, and my good friend, Lance Crouther, who was also a writer on the… on “The Chris Rock Show.”
So Lance landed a gig working on the, the HBO show, “On the Record with Bob Costas”. Now, I’m a big sports fan. So they had a wrap party. So I was hanging out with Lance, and he’s like, “Hey, I got to bounce. I got to go to this wrap party for Bob Costas.”
And I’m like, “Take me.”
And he’s like, “Wanda, come on now. It’s, it’s a work thing.”
And I’m like, “Come on, I’ll behave.”
And he looks at me a little sheepishly like, “Eh, Wanda, come on.” And I’m just following him now.
I’m like a little sister, “Come on, please can I go? Take me.”
I said, “Look, I promise, I’m just going to go in, grab a drink. I’m going to sit at the bar and have a little food, and I’ll… I’ll be quiet. You won’t even hear a peep out of me.”
And he says, “All right.” So, soon as we walk in the door, grab a drink, and I show him… I tell him I’m going to head to the bar. But Rick Bernstein, he’s the executive producer, the head of sports over at HBO, he spots Lance and he, “Hey, Lance,” and waves him over. You know, I didn’t want to be rude because he was kind of waving at me, too. So I’m on Lance’s heels walking over.
So Lance turns around, looks at me, and I just kind of shrug like, “Come on, the guy’s waiting for you. Come on, go, go.” So we get over there. He introduces me. I’m very polite, “Thanks for having me.” And Lance is like, “Well, they really didn’t have you here, Wanda, but thanks for crashing.”
Having a good time. Food’s being served and drinks, more drinks. I look over, and there’s Bob Costas. I love Bob, and he’s holding court, and I mean holding court. So everyone’s just standing around listening to Bob. Bob is just going, talk, talk, talk. And then Rick asks a question when there was a little break from the… from the Bob monologue, and Bob jumps in and starts in again. And by this time, I’m like, “All right.” I just go, “Good grief, Bob, why don’t you give somebody else a shot? You know, I know stuff, too.”
And everyone just turns and looks at me, and Lance is like, “Oh, god. I can forget about this job.” And I say, “Hey, Bob, you know what would be refreshing, if just… just once, if someone asks you something, and you said, ‘I don’t know.’ Oh, my god. We would love that.” And I said, “You just know everything.” Everyone is laughing, and I’m just going in on Bob, and they’re all just dying laughing. And Rick Bernstein, he gets his chair and comes closer to me. And Bob is also laughing, and now we’re all talking. Everybody’s yammering and we’re talking about sports and I’m just ripping into everybody.
Now, Lance is feeling better because everyone’s laughing, but he still thinks he’s going to get fired. So, so then Rick Bernstein comes over to Lance, and Lance goes, “Okay, here… Here comes the shoe. Here we go.”
And he goes, “Look, I want to put this on TV. I want this. So why don’t you guys come by the office this week and let’s figure out how we can put this,” like, pointed at me, “this in sports.” Are you kidding me? I go into a party and I told Lance I’m going to be good. But I was like, “You know what? I’m going to be me.” So now I have a, a meeting with the head of sports at HBO.
So Lance and I go to the meeting, and he’s, he’s telling us about the different shows. And he goes, “Inside the NFL”.
And I’m like, “I love ‘Inside the NFL’. We watch it all the time. Love it. I know a lot about football.”
So he goes, “Okay. Well, this is what we want. We want you guys. We’ll send you to the game or get you access to whatever you need. You go, and you produce a piece. You shoot it. You edit it. And just bring us back the piece.”
You won’t believe some of the places that we had access to. You know? Man, I’ve been to, what, three Super Bowls. Yeah!
I was… I was in New Orleans when the, when the Patriots won their first one. It was so funny. It was Media Day, and everybody was hounding Bill Belichick about whether it was going to be Drew Bledsoe or Tom Brady who was going to start the game. And we did this piece where I dressed up like an old-school news reporter. I had the hat and the trench coat. And I’m yelling at Bill Belichick like, “Coach, coach, coach, coach!”
And he’s like, “Yeah.” He… he points at me.
And I was like, “I know everybody’s talking about this quarterback thing. I want to know who’s going to be kicking that sucker. The game is called football. I want to know whose foot is going to be behind that ball, right?”
And the other real reporters, right, they looked at me like, “Who is this clown? Who is this clown?”
We actually won three Emmys from that show, so… just from telling Bob Costas to shut his yap. I love Bob. He’s a great guy.
And you know what? Speaking up at that moment, it just opened so many doors for me. From running my big mouth, I just got a new audience, and I got it because I spoke up. I was like, “I’m not going to sit there and be quiet.” You got to speak up, you know? Be heard. You see an opening, and, and you’re like, “You know what? This is my shot. This is my opportunity.” Take it.
[SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS]
Oh, man. It is good to be outside, just walking and just being out, man. It’s been so stressful. Good lord. I don’t know how to feel about all this stuff, man. You know, I have kids now.
Oh, so I guess I should let you guys know and not assume that you know everything about me, but I married a, a white Frenchwoman. And we have two kids, twins, and they’re white. So I have a biracial, international family. Yeah.
I’m even uncomfortable talking about this, you know, the situation with just the racial tension and all and the, the police because, as an African American, when you start talking about the cops, you know, and if you even, like, try to say something positive about the cops, then people think you’re tone-deaf or, you know, you’re a sellout. But I don’t like that it’s perceived that Black people don’t like cops or Black people think that all cops are bad. That’s not true.
Your experiences, that’s… that’s what informs you. And we all have different experiences.
Like, okay. I was in college. This was back in ‘85, I guess, ‘84, ‘85, down in Virginia at Hampton. So one night I’m driving. I have this, this Mustang.
We went out, me and two other friends. Tracy’s from New York. Jeanette’s from, like, the D.C. area, and I’m from Virginia but grew up in Maryland, right? So we go out to get some wine, or as we called them, our study aids.
So get the wine, we’re driving back to campus, and it’s… It’s raining like crazy. I mean, it’s just a mess outside. And my car breaks down, just dies. So I get off to the shoulder, and we’re thinking, “All right. Do we leave the car and try to walk back to campus? We probably got like, maybe like two miles. Or try to call AAA. What are we doing, you know? And how far is the phone?” Remember, because this was ‘84, ‘85, so no cellphones. We sat there for a minute, keep trying to start the car, nothing. And then all of a sudden, whoo, behind us. Now, me, I look up. I’m thinking, “Okay.” Tracy’s from New York, and she’s just like, “It’s the cops, man. They going to… This… We in Virginia. We in the South. It’s dark. Nobody knows where we are. They’re going to kill us.”
And I’m like, “Okay, calm down.” Actually, I didn’t say that, but in my mind, I was just going, “Wow, she really went there from just the cop car to, to, ‘They’re going to kill us. We’re women out here. No one knows where we are. We’re done.’”
So this old white guy is the cop. He gets out, comes up to the car, and he’s like, “What’s the problem?”
I was like, “I can’t… My car died, officer.” And he looks in the car. He goes, “Step out for a second.” And Jeannette’s like, “You don’t have to get out this car. You don’t have to get out of the car.” And I’m just like, “Will you just let me?” You know? So I get out the car. He gets in. He looks. And he sees it’s a stick. So he puts the car in, in neutral, and he tells me, “Okay, this is… this is what we going to do. I’m going to push. When I push, you do this. You pop the clutch.”
So I get back in. Again, it’s raining. It’s, like, crazy, So, anyway, he gets behind the car. He pushes. The car starts. I take off, and then I stop so I can say thank you, and the car dies again. And he starts yelling at me, “Why the heck did you do that? You don’t stop. You just got to keep going and get all the way back to campus. Don’t stop it! Just… Okay, I’m going to do it again, but this time, you don’t stop. You just get going.”
I’m like, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” So he does it again, gets the car going. I take off, and because I’m on the shoulder, I hit a muddy patch. And I look in my rearview mirror, and he is just covered in mud, just head to toe mud. And I just felt bad, but I did what he said, just kept going.
But he, he was a good cop. I remember that, and that stays with me.
But my mother-in-law from France, she came to visit, and she was with her sister. And they went to Philly for the day. And when she came back home, I could see that she was… Something was wrong. She looked physically, like, shook. And I was like, “Mommy Claude what’s happening? What’s going on?” And she told me that they were in Philly, and they got to this area, and there was a bunch of police motorcycles, you know, beautiful motorcycles just lined up.
And she and her sister were taking pictures, and a couple of police officers came out, and they were very friendly. It was like, “Hey, you want to get on the bike? Go ahead, get on.” And they were, you know, standing by while he’s taking pictures, and he’s asking them about France and everything, she said. And then, there were a group of Black kids came over, and they were looking at the bikes.
And she said the cops just turned, just was like, “Get away from these bikes! I will bag you. Get the… " And the kids ran off. And then the cops just turned right back to her like nothing happened and was like, “Let’s get that photo.” And she said her and her sister were like, “No, no, no, no,” and they… Then they just… Then they left.
And she said those kids weren’t doing anything. They were just being inquisitive the same way she was being inquisitive with her sister but was treated very differently. And that’s the problem.
So I don’t know, man. I, I think even my kids now, if we’re out or we’re driving, they’ll, they’ll go, “Mommy Boo, there’s a cop. Mommy Boo, there’s a police.” And I’m like, “Wow, these are little… They’re white kids. They’re white kids. Why… You know, you’re afraid, too.”
I mean, I do know where the fear comes from, but I don’t know if they’re afraid for themselves or afraid for me.
And then I think about it. I go, “You know, it’s because of what they’ve seen.” They saw what happened over the summer and with the protests and how the police were brutal with the protesters. They, they hear about the… They see about the stories of unarmed Black people, you know, being murdered. They know George Floyd. So that’s their view, that’s how they feel.
But they also know that there are good cops. We have a good friend, and he’s a cop. He’s great. They love him. They are just aware.
It’s like, there was a time when, if my kids would’ve said, “Hey, Mommy Boo, there’s a cop,” I would’ve said to them, “Well, it’s okay, honey. We’re not doing anything wrong. They’re not going to bother us.” But that’s not true. And, and they know it’s not true. So, you know, I’m not going to lie to them. I don’t have the answers. I, I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t. I don’t know.
But you know what? That’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay if you don’t know what to tell them. I think now is time for action. That’s what it is, not to tell them how to navigate where we are now. It’s to do something where they don’t have to worry about that. That’s what it is, talk to them about what we need to do to get some change.
Well, this is beautiful. It’s a large clearing, and I love when the snow hasn’t been touched. And there’s this tree, and all I see are my footsteps going up to this tree. This big, beautiful tree just has its own space, kind of like the showoff. But it’s surrounded by many other, different trees, but this one tree’s kind of, like, standing out like, “I’m special.”
This tree, I think, has a loud mouth. This, this tree wants to be seen. I see you, tree.
Music, it just… can just change your day. Like, one song can just pull you out of the dumps. Sometimes you just want to dance and have fun. Sometimes you want to sing about love when you’re in love. You know, I, I listen to a lot of different music, so it all depends on what, what mood I’m in or what mood I’m trying to be in. So music is really like medicine, man, for me.
Sade, oh, my god. I love Sade so much. This is when I knew it was time for me to leave the NSA. I went to a Sade concert, and the next day I called in happy. I called my boss, and I said, “Look, I’m fine. I’m not sick. I’m just too happy to come to work today. Do y’all have happy leave?” And he said, “You know what, just stay home because anyone who has the balls to call in happy and just to be so honest, I… I want you to enjoy your day.” I’m like, “Well, okay, cool.” But “Keep Looking” is just such a great song, and if you’re beating yourself up, and you need to make that shift, put this on.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
Yeah. “Keep Looking”.
[MUSIC - “KEEP LOOKING” BY SADE]
Swing Out Sister, “Breakout”, this is a happy song. This a do-your-dance song. This is a… It pumps me up. Sometimes I listen to this before a show.
I listen to this before going into a, a meeting where it’s like, “You got this. Don’t stop to ask. Just do it.”
[MUSIC FADES IN]
I do like a lot of pump-up music, pump-you-up music. Well, this definitely will pump you up.
[MUSIC - “BREAKOUT” BY SWING OUT SISTER]
Earth, Wind & Fire, “September”, you know, I, I just love Earth, Wind & Fire. So any Earth, Wind & Fire song, it just… it just makes my day. They’re all about peace and love and, you know, unity. They just make me happy. And September is when I met my wife, when I met Alex.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
So I had to play “September” because… just to thank her for letting me get out of the house for a walk. I think this is going to put a little pep in your step.
[MUSIC - “SEPTEMBER” BY EARTH, WIND & FIRE]
Okay, well, this has been fun. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I’ve enjoyed talking your ear off.
I’m going to head back home, and probably be time to do some homework with the kids and figure out, what are we going to have for dinner tonight? I don’t know. I got to make something. But, anyway, hope you enjoy the rest of your day.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.