Wanda Sykes on Working at the NSA, Coming Out, & Shooing the FLOTUS Away

Chatting about her career, her personal life, and poking fun at controversial subjects, Wanda Sykes did not disappoint at 92Y.
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Wanda Sykes Photo

Wanda Sykes at 92Y. (Photo: Michael Priest Photography)

It may have been the coldest night in recent New York memory, but the conversation was warm at the 92Y.

Beloved comedienne, actress, chat show host, cartoon voice over specialist and all-around swell person Wanda Sykes held court for 90 minutes, telling stories and answering questions. It was a rare (and refreshing) appearance where no one seemed to be hawking a product or a book, unless the moderator just forgot to bring it up. Nevertheless, Sykes's schmoozing persona is, as you might suspect, merely a toned-down version of what you see in her comedy specials or on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Her talk zipped all over her career, touching upon some of the greats who helped her along the way. She recalls the first, subtle compliment she got from Chris Rock (eyeing her with a grin, he remarked, “yeah, there's something there”) and seemed genuinely perturbed when pressed to comment about Bill Cosby. “Let's keep the work and the personality separate,” she sighed, before commenting on his great storytelling prowess. She did slip in a crack wondering how he found the time to create his body of work amidst all the (alleged) offenses. “What, did he just travel with a giant suitcase of drugs?” Sykes is a comedian first, diplomat second.

Commentary about others took a back seat to telling her own story, however. Here are five interesting tidbits we learned.

Wanda Sykes Knows Your Secrets

Before her career in comedy, Sykes got, as she called it, “a good government job.” She worked for the NSA and, when prompted, confessed that “yes, she learned some things that were surprising.” She did not elaborate, maybe because it was long ago, or maybe because none of us had the proper clearance.

She later commented that NSA surveillance of US citizens is not something that bothers her. She repeated the common argument that maybe it isn't so bad to trade a little privacy so this agency can keep us safe. She did, however, express annoyance how Internet operations like Google can read your email to sell advertising to you. She cited an example of using the phrase “life coach” then seeing ads for books about life coaches, and suggested that Google “mind its own damn business!”

Comedy Is Combat, and Can Be Addicting

Amazingly, Sykes's very first time on stage came with zero preparation. She entered a DC-area competition and blew away more seasoned performers. Only after she started getting the comedy bug (and watching other sets at clubs) did she start to feel fear. Naturally, it was at her third show where she invited her parents, and that was the night she bombed terribly.

Wanda Sykes Photo

Wanda Sykes talking with moderator Judy Gold. (Photo: Michael Priest Photography)

“You can't sleep after – it's like PTSD,” she explained. “All you want to do is get back out there.” She explained that when other comics warn that a club has a tough crowd, it becomes even more of a challenge. “The audience sucks? No, the audience sucks for you! Let me out there!”

Spontaneously Coming Out

While friends and family already knew that Sykes was gay (and had already been legally married) she didn't officially come out until a gay rights rally in Las Vegas in 2008. The way she tells the story shows how sometimes heroism can be quite unexpected.

She attended the rally as one who was already a vocal supporter of gay rights. A speaker on stage was going on how there was “someone in the crowd who has been a great boon to our cause” and Sykes said she was looking around to see who else was in attendance. “Is Drew Barrymore here or something?” she joked.

When she came up to the stage, the decision to officially state she was gay just “happened organically.” It did, however, make the news. She says that by the time she made it back to the hotel she was on the CNN ticker.

Her parents, with whom she now has a wonderful relationship, were already aware, but not all that pleased. Her mother had previously asked that Sykes stay in the closet “until I'm dead.” When the news made CNN she called her mother and said, “Oh, good, you're still alive! Well, guess what!”


Michelle Obama Photo

Michelle Obama (aka the FLOTUS). (Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House/Handout/CNP/Corbis)

In 2009 Sykes was the host of the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. When she got the call from her agents saying “you're going to meet the Obamas” the first thing she asked was “Wait, am I gonna get them in trouble?”

At the time, she recalled, the President was having a lot of trouble getting his choices confirmed in Congress. “Was this going to be another goof?!?”

Thinking back, Sykes explained how she had very little time to prepare. She and her wife were “on baby watch” and then after her twins were born she really only had two weeks to prepare her material. She says she was tweaking right up until the minute she took the podium.

“I was on the dais table with my index cards, rearranging the order, and the First Lady came over and was speaking to me. I basically had to tell her 'Excuse me, I really need to focus here.'” Off the audience's laughter, who maybe thought Sykes was joking, she continued, “she was kinda being annoying! 'Hey, lady, I'm trying to work!'”

Speak Your Mind, Meet Your Mate

With a smile, she spoke about how she met her wife, a French woman named Alex who has, as she joked, a little Spanish blood in her — you can see it in her a**!

During a time when she was unlucky in love, Sykes was traveling via ferry to Fire Island. While on the boat, she saw this tall, beautiful woman who was with a friend and their child. She was struck by the image and says she heard a voice telling her “this is what your life needs right now.”

Later she was at a party and complaining to a friend about her dating woes. When her friend asked what she does when she meets someone new, she said that she talks about whatever is going on in her life. So, in this case, she had been talking about redecorating her kitchen.

“No, no, no!” her friend countered. “Don't bore people with that, just tell someone they look beautiful.”

Later, they took a walk and met up with her friend's friend. When introduced, as a goof, Sykes deliberately looked her friend in the eye and told this new woman all about redecorating her kitchen.

“Oh, how interesting,” this new woman responded, and then mentioned she had a friend who Sykes should talk to who was very knowledgable on this subject. That friend turned out to be the gorgeous woman from the ferry, who is now Wanda Sykes's wife.