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Q&A: Wanda Sykes On Ruth Ellis, ‘Pootie Tang’ & The Republican Takeover

By |2014-11-18T09:00:00-05:00November 18th, 2014|Entertainment|

Wanda Sykes isn’t letting the recent Republican takeover get her down. In fact, considering all the funny fodder it will undoubtedly inspire over the next couple of years, she’s all right with the right. “It’s bad for the middle class and the poor,” the comic says, “but it’s great for comedy!”
Known for her wry political commentary – along with memorable roles in “Monster-in-Law,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” CBS’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and 2001’s “Pootie Tang,” one of her earliest films – Sykes will headline a gig at 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at The Whiting in Flint.
The funny-woman holds a special place in the hearts of metro Detroiters. She’s a public supporter of the Ruth Ellis Center, a local social service agency that helps at-risk kids, including LGBT youth. In fact, in 2012 she headlined its second annual benefit and made a surprise $15,000 donation.

Would you mind sharing one of your fondest memories at Ruth Ellis?
There’s so much talent there, it’s crazy. These kids use writing, music and art to deal with things, and that’s a great outlet. I go there for a visit and I always get a little talent show. One or two of the kids will get up and sing or rap, or I’ll read something one of them has written.

How have your visits to the center inspired you?
It makes me wanna do more, and to speak out more on their behalf. And hope that we solve this problem! There shouldn’t be kids getting kicked out of their homes just because of who they are. It just makes me wanna keep the conversation going and talk to parents and be there for the kids. I’m in touch with the administrators and, of course, always giving my support financially.

How has the thrill of doing stand-up changed for you since the late ’80s, when you launched your comedy career?
Wow – I don’t think the thrill of it has changed any. The more you do it, the more confident you get, I guess. It’s really more about my life, because I’m always talking about what’s going in my life. If I’m in an exciting part of my life, and things are great and all that, it’s fun to get on stage and talk about it. And even when it’s not, it’s fun to get on stage and gripe about it! (Laughs)

Having done stand-up for as long as you have, though, does it start to feel like work?
You know, it’s the travel that feels like work to me. It’s not really the show. It’s just the getting there, like, “Oh, man, I could really use a nap right now, but gotta get going, gotta get to the airport.” That part is work, but the shows themselves are usually fun, and I guess that’s why I love it and why I continue to do it. It’s always new; it’s always different.

I miss seeing you on the big screen, and on TV. Have you been looking at any film or television scripts lately?
I have. It’s not like I’m intentionally avoiding film and TV; I’ve just been really busy with touring, and I started a production company with Page Hurwitz, a good friend who’s my producing partner. We’ve been busy with “Last Comic Standing.” We already started doing showcases and picking the comics for this upcoming season. I kind of go with the flow, that’s the fun part of what I do. I am reading scripts now for TV shows and movies, so that will probably be the next project I do in 2015.

Any that stand out to you?
Yeah, quite a few things, but I don’t think I can talk about them yet. We’ll see.

Comedy or something dramatic?
It’s mainly comedy, but one of my agents did send me a small part in a drama that he thinks I should take a stab at. I just fear I’ll ruin a good drama by everyone waiting for me to be funny!

A friend of mine wants to know: When was the last time you danced like Biggie Shorty in “Pootie Tang”?
(Laughs) I get called Biggie Shorty probably every other time I’m in an airport. Somebody yells it! I always get a Biggie Shorty call! Usually when people mention “Pootie Tang” they’re pretty much telling me they smoke weed.

Well, like I said, a friend of mine wanted to know.
Oh, it’s your “friend” then? Mmm. OK. (Laughs)

When you look back at “Pootie Tang,” what goes through your mind? That skirt wasn’t exactly covering a whole lot.
Yeah, but I was a crime fighter! (Laughs) I threw a good party, but I also kicked a little butt – all for the kids, all for the kids! Actually, I look back and go, “Wow, I was in pretty good shape back then.”

Will you let your kids watch “Pootie Tang”?
When they get older. The guy who played “Pootie Tang,” Lance Crouther, is one of my closest friends. He’s pretty much like my brother. My kids call him Uncle Lance, so I know that they’d get a kick out of watching the two of us. They’d probably look at us thinking we’re ancient. But all those crazy clothes and dancing around – I’m sure they’ll get a kick out of it.

You’ve been such a pillar in the gay community since you came out in 2008. Before your coming out, do you recall a situation where, as a public figure, you had to conceal your sexuality?
Not that I can recall. My friends who are my friends all knew, and the people I work with knew. I was never walking along with a girlfriend and somebody showed up and I had to, like, push her in a ditch to hide her. That would’ve been hilarious, though! (Laughs)

Why do you think some celebrities in 2014 are still hesitant to come out?
Unless you do it and you experience it, it’s pretty scary. And you don’t wanna be identified as just one thing – that shouldn’t make up who you are.

How are you feeling about the recent election and the Republican takeover?
I’m torn. It’s bad for the middle class and the poor – but it’s great for comedy! The funniest material comes from Republicans in office, so yeah, I look at it both ways – bad for the country; great for comedy!

The Sixth District Court recently upheld the ban on gay marriage in Michigan and in several other states. How are you feeling about that, and also the progress, or lack thereof, of the gay rights movement?
There’s a higher court, but, really, it’s unconstitutional. I still feel good about (the gay rights movement), and I think we’ve made tremendous strides. It’s gonna continue in the right direction, and I also think that’s how the Republicans are gonna shoot themselves in the foot – by trying to go backwards. If they start rolling back, it’s really gonna just unravel what little game they think they have.

About the Author:

Chris Azzopardi
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.