Despite two attempts at both a reality television show and a sitcom, Wanda Does It, Wanda At Large, and critically-lauded cameos on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Wanda Sykes is a performer plagued by the difficulty of turning her brazen wit and let-it-hang personality into an A-list franchise. That’s one of the reasons why seeing her in front of a mic, riffing as she sees fit, is Sykes at her unboxed, unfiltered best. She owns the stage like a WWF champ, convincing you that you’re simply witnessing the power of raw personality rather than the expertise of a performer completely at home in her own skin.
One reason for Sykes’ limited appeal may have to do with the fact that her style isn’t exactly radical or conservative. She doesn’t fit within our revised notion of “edgy” (the “meta”-racism of Sarah Silverman comes to mind); she’s a comedienne simultaneously as vintage as Richard Pryor and far too impolitic for the Dane Cook and Jerry Seinfeld “did you ever notice” humor that makes a virtue out of not taking risks with your audience. Instead, Sykes sets herself up as a trustworthy reality broker in the classic comic sense of the word. She’s simply saying what’s on everyone’s mind without the slightest hint of cruelty. She stands outside groupthink and institutional power on topics ranging from not liking sex that goes on too long to thinking dolphins are racist to taking on the Iraq war and nuclear proliferation, and she does it with the jaded clarity of regular thinking folks.
Her everywoman talent becomes clear as she uses comedy to subtly build allegiance for her party-of-one. She has clear stances, without sounding partisan. When she tackles highly contested issues like abortion, commenting on George Bush’s recent Supreme Court appointments (“I had two abortions on the way here. I’d better stock up.”) her delivery lacks the divisive bite of someone like George Carlin or David Cross. When she adds, “It’s not like women are out there having abortion parties. Girl, let’s do something crazy.” , you understand that she has an impeccable knack for making even the most bitterly fought issues seem like matters easily taken care of with a little good housekeeping truthin’.
All of these attributes make up the psychology of a comic who understands the power of identification. We love Wanda Sykes because we can picture ourselves having a great conversation with her; we want to listen to her broadsides up close and personal. Few comics have both larger-than-life personalities and the ability to seem wholly ordinary. Paula Poundstone comes closest to what Sykes has, here, but even she seems loveably awkward, an observant outcast who would fumble any easy social interaction.
Part of Sykes’ homey genius comes from her slow to anger style; the fact that she can convey seriousness and severity without being given to pompous fits of anger. When she’s discussing her exasperation with the Iraq war, she sounds like an irritated old woman, shooing stray cats from her bird feeder. “Let’s say they do establish a government. Alright, big deal, they establish a government. Eventually, they’re going to elect an asshole and he’s gonna fuck up every accomplishment that we made over there. I mean, it’s gonna happen. We did it.” Of course the flat transcription doesn’t catch her bemused slowly striding new-sheriff-in-town delivery, which comes full of pauses that play like the equivalent of slapping a hysteric.
Certainly not all of Sykes “one of us” performance, or even most of it, is pure theater. She wasn’t born rich and has had to work for years to reach a struggling level of fame and success. She’s also one of the few comics who keep class front and center throughout her routine. Poverty, unlike sex and race, isn’t one of the more glamorous subjects for comics, but Sykes proves that it’s also one of the least mined and most interesting. When she talks about losing money in the stock market dot com crash, she responds to a friend who tells her that she needs to put her money to “work”: “I work, that’s enough. My money stays home. I want my money barefoot and pregnant.”
Even when you disagree with Sykes, you can’t help but be swayed by the blunt, self-evident nature of her cadence. “The space program is a big ass welfare program for smart people. These people are so smart; they’re useless.” If Sykes has a politics, it’s the tired bemusement of the dispossessed. Sick & Tired’s tone runs this populist gamut without the taint of hate and emotionalism that usually follows populist appeals to “common sense”. Some of Syke’s routine sounds like the campaign speech for some non-existent anti-corporate and socially liberal movement. She suggests, “What they really need to do is form a Department of Personal Shoppers. That’s what we need. We need some working single mothers and let them handle the budget. You know, some people who know who to pinch a penny. Two billion dollars on a bomb? You could have got these bombs at Target.”
The joke displays Sykes evident mastery of absurdity by making a suggestion simultaneously ridiculous and enlightening. Our government spends money the way it does because the people that make up the governing class have little connection to the daily struggles of making ends meet. In the real world, you can’t deficit spend for long without having creditors calling every 10 minutes and Sykes sincerely comes from the daily grind of trying to make a living and make do while the creditors call.
That plain Jane approach serves the Sick & Tired performance well. Though the DVD comes with a few negligible and unnecessary extras like the audience Q&A session, the material in here stands up to repetition. Despite her stints on Larry David’s partially scripted and partially improvisational show, the Seattle performance captured here doesn’t get bookended by skits or interactions with people on the street, though Sykes excels in the off-the-cuff chemistry of the moment. Sick & Tired serves laughter like Sykes prefers her drinking: straight no chaser kissing the rim of a bottomless glass.
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