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Laughing Matter

by Erica Bauwens

Comedian and actress Wanda Sykes shares her passion for making others smile.

Wanda Sykes burst onto the comedy scene in the mid-’90s, earning recognition from big name comedians like Chris Rock and Larry David almost instantly. Her biting, honest and easily relatable routine helped her land notable roles, appearing on The Chris Rock Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and eventually leading to her own show, Wanda at Large.

These days, Sykes has broadened her horizons. Still performing on stage, the Media, Pa., local continues to act, write and produce. She’s currently one of the executive producers for NBC’s Last Comic Standing, a competition that pits up-and-coming comics against each other in the hopes of winning $250,000 and a chance at their own NBC show.

The mother of two also expanded her reach into the children’s market, using her instantly recognizable voice in animated projects like Rio, the Ice Age films and Nickelodeon’s Cowman. And her relationship with Nickelodeon spawned her next big role as a collaborator on their parent-driven site NickMom, which produces both reality and non-reality content for parents to watch after the kids are asleep. We spoke with Sykes in advance of her November stop at the Borgata about her hopes for her upcoming series, and found out just what famous comedians do when the microphone’s not in their hands.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: As a mentor and executive producer on Last Comic Standing, how excited were you for the show’s return?
WANDA SYKES: I’m very excited about it. I was excited from the jump when we went out to look for comics, and watching all these showcases and stuff. The last thing a comic wants to do is watch other comics, because I’m out touring myself, and when you’re watching other comics, you have to put this wall up and try not to rewrite their own act and just enjoy it as an audience member. But I enjoyed it; it was so much fun and it was so inspiring to see so many comics I had never heard of. They were so funny and surprising. And I’m really enjoying that process.

SJM: When working with fellow celebrities, is there competition?
WS: My relationship with Larry David is totally different than with Chris [Rock] or another comedian, and when we work together our relationships are all different. So on a show, they give you a little bit with what’s going on and you just rip or go. We all want a better show, the best product we can do, so we help each other, or pitch ideas to each other. But that’s writing and at the end of the day that’s the show. As a stand-up, you’re doing your own material. Here’s the thing: Comics hate it when you’re having a conversation with a comic and you can see them try out material on you. You’d just prefer to have a conversation or talk with your friends. But from time to time, I’ll be talking to my friends and they’ll say something funny, so I say, “You’ve got to use that.”

SJM: How do you keep your act new and exciting for fans and for yourself?
WS: I like to talk about what’s going on in my life; and it may just be sharing something funny or complaining about something. And that keeps it fresh for me. As comics, we’re self absorbed; we get up there and talk about ourselves and people are there to hear it. To me, the key is to always find something new. If I come up with a new line or a new bit on stage, that’s the best, that’s what makes it fun. It’s fun trying to keep going and going until you find something funny. And if you don’t, it’s fun to say, “Well I don’t know what the hell I was thinking,” and just rip yourself sometimes.

SJM: You’ve made Atlantic City a fairly regular stop. Any favorite A.C. spots?
WS: When I get there, it’s pretty much time to grab something to eat and get ready for the show. Then we do the show, gamble a little bit or something and I’m headed out to the next spot. That’s the downside of what we do; you don’t really get to enjoy the city when you’re there. I’ve been to Margate a couple of times, and I love to visit there in my free time.

SJM: You’ve also done a lot of work in the animated world; how different is the approach?
WS: The stand-up is how I started and how I got the other projects that have led me to this point in my career. But I will always love stand-up and will always continue to do stand-up. But the TV and the movies, that’s just so much fun for me. I love it; and I don’t take it for granted. You get to work with other people and meet a lot of really great people I would never get to meet.

SJM: What can you tell us about your new venture with NickMom?
WS: Being a mom, I realized that you’ve got to have a sense of humor to get through this and not hurt anybody! It can be hard, and I realized that it would be fun to give moms and dads a break. They get to go off, exchange funny stories, and learn some fun ways to deal with their kids. We’ll find some funny ways to trick their kids into eating food that they can’t get them to eat. I would love to bring in a detective to teach them how to interrogate their kids, get to the bottom of the real questions. Like: “Who broke the lamp?” Teach the parents how to dust for fingerprints or something.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 4 July, 2014).
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