Honestly, the thing where I like Wanda Sykes the best is her appearances with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. It’s what made me give her stand-up a chance when I got to “W” in the library catalog. Certainly it wasn’t her movie career, which is primarily a combination of Not My Thing and Just Actually Bad. Yes, I know she’s been on Black-ish, which I promise I’ll get around to at some point, but even the majority of her TV work, considerably better than her movie work, has been solidly in the Not My Thing category. Which is a shame, because I add her to the “should be in a screwball comedy” list. Which, as we all know, is something I wish we’d bring back anyway, even before getting into how many comedians would excel in one.
There are not many comedians who came to stand-up by way of five years in the NSA. But that was her first career—she took her BS in marketing and became a contracting specialist. Wikipedia says she was “not completely satisfied” with her job there. She also did some work for the Hal Leonard publishing house, because stand-up comedy doesn’t really pay the bills for most people. She was one of the many talented people who was part of the Def Comedy Jam, with her real big break coming when she opened for Chris Rock—who is, I’d note, a year younger than she is.
She doesn’t want to be typecast as the Sassy Black Woman, which is unfortunately one of the few roles in mainstream comedy for black women at all. This is one of the reasons I’d love to see her in a screwball; I think her combination of intelligence and energy would be great for that. And her attitude; I won’t use the word “sassy” myself, but definitely “forceful” would be a good descriptor. She could be someone who drives the plot instead of being driven by it, and the best of screwballs tends to have at least one of those.
I do not, however, strongly suggest that she appear in dramas, because I’m not one of those people who insists that the true test of an actor is their performance in drama. Maybe that’s not where her strengths lie, just as there are fine dramatic actors who just have a hard time being funny. If that’s what she wants, I hope she gets her opportunity, goodness knows; it’s just that I’m not going to insist that it’s the only way to prove her talent.
The other place I’ve seen her is on Finding Your Roots on PBS, which is one of my favourite shows. She is, according to experts, the only person so far whose family has been traced to free roots in the late seventeenth century—her paternal ninth-great-grandmother was a white indentured servant who gave birth to a biracial child from whom Sykes is descended. Her response to that knowledge was to compare that ancestress, Elizabeth Banks, and her relationship with the child’s father (who I believe remains unidentified) to her own marriage to Alex Niedbalski. After all, she and Banks both have had relationships with someone not of their race. Sykes just has greater ability to speak out about hers.