Wanda Sykes has never been one to toot her own horn, but it’s worth nothing that the stand-up comedian has quietly been making Hollywood history for nearly two decades. She was the first and only female writer Chris Rock hired to work on his eponymous HBO series in 1997; she conceived of and starred in the first-ever comedy series created by a black woman, Fox’s Wanda at Large in 2003; and after Joan Rivers, she was the first woman to have a late-night show on a major network: Fox’s The Wanda Sykes Show in 2009. On October 21, Sykes returns to her first love, stand-up, in the EPIX special What Happened…Ms. Sykes? Vulture spoke to Sykes about the intensely personal performance, why her wife loves when she overshares onstage, and how camera phones are killing original material.
This special showcases your most intimate material yet. Is anything off-limits at this point in your career?
You know what? There was something I was going to include about my son exploring his body and playing with his penis. And then I thought about it and I was like, Okay, that’s too much.
Well, that’s okay because we do get to hear in great detail about you wiping his butt.
[Laughs.] See, that’s something that can help other people. It’s a helpful takeaway.
Does your wife have any input on how intensely you reveal your details of your relationship onstage?
I kind of know where the line is, I guess. But she loves it. I’ll get home, she’ll go, “So how did I do tonight? Did you talk about me?” I’m like, “Yeah.” She goes, “Well, did I kill?” “Yeah, you were great.” She gets a kick out of it. I guess she would probably worry if I didn’t talk about her.
For a comedian, it’s the ultimate sign of love to betray your partner in front of a large crowd.
Right, let’s just go with that. [Laughs.]
You also address your battle with breast cancer and your mastectomy in 2011 in the special. Why was it important to you to include this experience?
I definitely was out of commission for a while and just focused on getting healthy so I could get back to work. I have friends who are going through it now. So I have been most focused on how fortunate I feel that I was able to catch it at such an early stage, rather than dwelling on “I can’t believe this happened to me.” After pretty much every show, I meet someone who says they are grateful I talked about cancer onstage. That shit is scary, so to give somebody who’s going through it an opportunity to laugh, it’s so worth it. I know I needed it.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Chris Rock hired you to be a writer on his short-lived self-titled HBO series in 1997. Do you consider that job your big break in comedy?
Yes, for sure. When he got the show, I got a call to submit some writing samples because he knew me from doing stand-up. I would say that definitely put me on the map. I also was able to get in front of the camera every now and then and do some sketch pieces. I remember I did a bit about the crazy presidential election in Florida in 2000 and the hanging chads. After that, everyone was like, “That’s the crazy lady from The Chris Rock Show.”
Were there any other women on staff at the time?
No, I was the only female writer.
Oh, the stories you could tell.
Yeah, but I’m not going to. Actually, the guys were pretty good. There was no “locker-room talk.” [Laughs.]
How has doing stand-up become challenging in 2016? This is a time in which college campuses offer so-called “trigger rooms” for students who may be offended by jokes, and more recently, people walked out of an Amy Schumer show because she made fun of Trump.
Well, the good thing is it’s easier to build an audience because of social media without having to go to an open mic. But it’s also made it harder— especially for those of us who didn’t come up that way. You want total freedom to be able to try out material, but when everyone has a camera phone in the audience, you feel less willing to do that. And the only way you know if something is funny is by actually doing the joke! But it’s impossible when you’re going to be judged, possibly recorded, and things are taken out of context in social media. Comics don’t like being in our heads and censoring ourselves. I’ve actually had to hire a security guy not for my personal security but for my professional security — he goes around during each show looking in the audience for people recording. All in all, I would say this stuff is definitely having a negative impact on comedy.
Is there a time or performance in your career you felt you’d prepared to kill and your material fell flat? Or performances you regret?
Charities are hard. You’re up there to make people laugh, but they just watched a video package about someone dying a horrible death. And then it’s like, “Okay, my time!” And you’re usually donating your time and not really getting paid anyway. Chris [Rock] always told me, “Just write a check instead.”
Who or what makes you laugh out loud?
I still watch a lot of old sitcoms, especially anything from Norman Lear. They are still making me laugh all these years later, you know? And of course I love Veep. Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] really really makes me laugh.
You were Julia’s co-star on her sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine on CBS. What did you learn about performing comedy from her?
To just go for it. She will try anything, and I love that about her. “Hey, you’re gonna be in your bra and underwear vacuuming.” “Oh, that sounds fun!”
Speaking of Julia and the Seinfeld universe, many fans were first exposed to you from your appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Has Larry David talked to you about appearing in the next season of the show, whenever that may happen?
Larry is ... well, I love him. But it’s not like we bonded so intensely that we hang out. But I’m always happy when we see each other. I’m so happy it’s coming back — I’d love go back and yell at him some more.
There’s been so much controversy about an egregious lacking of women in the late-night space. People forget that you had a talk show on Fox from 2009 to 2010. Why do you think it was so short-lived, and would you ever do it again?
I was given a rare opportunity, and I couldn’t say no. But I was still a series regular on Christine at the time, so I was overworked and couldn’t give 100 percent to the talk show because I was running back and forth between jobs. If I had the opportunity to do it again, of course I would do it, and do it differently. I wouldn’t overextend myself like that again.
On that note, I think you’d be a great Oscars host. Would you ever throw your hat in the ring for the most thankless gig in Hollywood?
[Laughs.] That’s a hard one. Honestly, I don’t know. I will say it’s not currently on my bucket list.