When it is still, Wanda Sykes’ face — a soft, almond shape, with bright, brown eyes and a small mouth — is lovely. Thing is, that face is almost never still. As she’s taping promos for her new Fox sitcom, ”Wanda at Large,” her visage scrunches with a rare tentativeness as she tests out a new line.
”How ’bout this?” she says. ”’Hi, I’m Wanda Sykes. My show premieres March 19, but the war in Iraq will have probably premiered then too. I ain’t worried about ‘The Bachelor’ — I’m worried about Tom Brokaw kickin’ my ass.’ Think that’ll get on?”
Sykes, 39, has been writing jokes and doing the stand-up circuit for about a decade, but it’s only recently that her eloquent disgust and whipsaw inflections have amused a mass audience. Her wicked dourness has cracked up viewers of HBO’s ”Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where, in her recurring role as a friend of Larry David’s TV wife, she lambasted a sputtering David for implying she had a sizable butt. She rags on football players in commentaries for ”Inside the NFL.” A former writer and performer for HBO’s ”The Chris Rock Show,” she had a solo stand-up special on Comedy Central in January called ”Tongue Untied,” eliciting roars with impudent lines about President Bush’s high approval ratings. ”Makes sense to me; he’s done everything I expected: The economy’s in the toilet, we’re at war, and everything’s on fire!” (Sykes, to her credit, is a nonpartisan attacker. The Democrats? ”You know it’s sad when Al Sharpton is getting [primary support].”)
”Drew Carey Show” executive producer Bruce Helford became aware of Sykes when Carey, also a fan, insisted she do a few guest spots on his sitcom. Helford and Fox then decided to harness some of Sykes’ free-floating aggressiveness to a sitcom. In the show, she plays Wanda Hawkins, a people-on-the-street interviewer for a Washington, D.C., television station who clashes with the likes of a stiff-necked anchorman played by Phil Morris (”Seinfeld”’s Jackie Chiles). Notes Helford: ”What Wanda needs is a place to make her social commentary from. So what better place than [a newsroom] to have her rub up against a conservative [like Morris’ character] and the network bosses?”
Her show isn’t set far from where she grew up, outside the nation’s capital. The daughter of an Army colonel, she got the comedy bug while working for the National Security Agency. ”I was buyin’ spy stuff,” she says blithely. ”I never knew what it was. The engineers would [give us] designs, and we’d send ’em out to contractors for bids. I was miserable. So I sat down at my desk like all good government employees do — and did work that had nothing to do with my job.” She wrote five minutes of material that killed at a D.C. comedy competition: ”The emcee of the show said, ‘Where have you been?’ I said, ‘Well, that was my first time performing,’ so he showed me around all the clubs.”
Listening to her confident barbs today, it’s hard to imagine that it took Sykes a while to find her voice. ”I was definitely softer. At first it’s just telling jokes and all that ‘Hey, how ya doin’!’ [stuff]. But then you have to put more of yourself out there and take risks — express who you are and stand behind it.”