Wanda Sykes had a strong year on television this year, between “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and The Jeffersons,'” her Netflix comedy special “Not Normal” and her recurring role on “Black-ish.” She is a nine-time Emmy nominee, winning 20 years ago for writing on “The Chris Rock Show.”
Sykes recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about how she got involved with “The Jeffersons” special, how she came up with material for “Not Normal” and her relationship with Anthony Anderson on “Black-ish.” Watch the exclusive video interview and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: I wanna start with the “All in the Family,” “Jeffersons” live event. That was just here in May, two or three weeks ago. What was it like getting that phone call and wanting to play Louise Jefferson?
Wanda Sykes: Instead of a phone call it was an email. I got an email from Jimmy Kimmel and he said, “Hey, this is hush-hush but we’re gonna do a live version of ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’ We’re gonna do the original scripts and would love for you to play Weezy if you’re interested,” and I’m like, “What do you mean if I’m interested?” My initial response was I closed the email because to me, it was like, “Did this really happen? Am I dreaming this?” So I wait a few minutes and I open up my laptop and I check my email again. I was like, “Okay, it’s still there so I guess this is real and it’s happening.” The dates, I knew automatically that it was gonna be a problem because May 21st was the release of my Netflix special and I had all this press lined up to go out and promote that and “The Jeffersons” was the 22nd so I just emailed back, I said, “Look, I have a lot of stuff going on that week for my Netflix special but I definitely wanna do this so please give me a few days to work out the dates with my publicist before you call Queen Latifah.” And he said, “Okay.” He agreed to that. We just started moving things around because this was my dream gig. I wanted to make sure I was able to be available to do it.
GD: Knowing that Norman Lear was gonna be involved himself, I’m sure that made it even better.
WS: Absolutely. Since I got into the business, whenever someone asks me what kind of show you wanna do, I always say a Norman Lear show. I wanted to talk about something. I wanted to have those conversations that people are having in their homes. I wanted to do that on camera. To be in a situation where I’m not doing a Norman Lear-like show, I’m actually doing a Norman Lear show and working with Norman Lear… And he was there. He is at the rehearsals, he’s giving us notes, just sharp and funny and a wonderful man to be around. That was just an incredible experience.
GD: Those sets you were on are gonna be over at the Westfield Mall here in Century City for a few days, I think through this Sunday. What was it like for you walking into the Bunkers; house as well as the Jeffersons; apartment for the first time?
WS: Oh my god. They did such a great job recreating those sets. I think we all wanted to sit in Archie’s chair (laughs). We all wanted to get in that chair. I grew up watching those shows so for me, it was just an incredible experience to be there in that same set and the furniture, the swinging kitchen door, the porch. I teared up when I just saw the house number on the porch. I’m like, “704 Hauser Street, this is just incredible.”
GD: Did any particular prop make its way home with you after that night? If you could have, was there one thing you would’ve loved to have brought home with you even if was something big, like the swinging door or something?
WS: I’m sure one of the chairs. I don’t know if anybody did but I think that’s actually in a museum.
GD: Smithsonian has those original chairs.
WS: Yes, absolutely. They have the originals. A photo maybe from the “Jeffersons” set may have went missing. I’m not sure.
GD: What about Jamie Foxx? Tell us about working with him. He really had the swagger down.
WS: Jamie, he nailed George Jefferson. He did Sherman Hemsley’s original take on George Jefferson and he was having such a good time with it. We just loved working with him. For me, it’s like, “It’s live,” and to me, I felt like I was still working with net. With that cast and with Jamie, I knew if anybody blew a line or whatever, Jamie was gonna be there to say something funny, get us out of it. I didn’t think that he was gonna be the one to blow a line, though. We just had a blast working with him and it’s so good to see him working to the comedy world because he’s been doing all these dramas. It’s nice to see him back with us on the comedy team.
GD: I’m interviewing Marla Gibbs tomorrow. That was the big surprise for the whole episode. What was that like working with her and having her on the set with you?
WS: Just mind-blowing, really. Like I said, I grew up with the show and Marla Gibbs, Florence is just iconic, that character and what she did with it. She pretty much took over the show with Florence and then for her also with “227,” such an amazing career and she’s still sharp and still so excited to show up and go to work. In between scenes she wasn’t sitting around in her dressing room. She was there on-set watching us and laughing and having a good time with us. Even during rehearsals, every time I opened that door, the whole crew, everyone, we all would just have to take a minute to take it all in of her being there with us and hitting the marks, all the lines. First take of the rehearsal she had all her lines. She knew it. To me, it was just the symbolism of, “I’m opening the door for her when she’s opened the door for me and just about every other African American comedic actress out there.”
GD: I remember these shows too growing up and I don’t remember a character like her on TV before that.
WS: Right. She was not just the housekeeper or the maid. She was a maid with opinions. She was a real part of that family. She mattered. She was not just this one-dimensional character or “the funny maid.” It was so much more to her, so much more depth to that character that she brought to the screen.
GD: If they could bring back any show and you played another character like you did for this live event, what would be the show? What would be the character you’d wanna play?
WS: I would love to play Aunt Esther, “Sanford and Son.”
GD: Oh, there you go. And that’s Norman Lear, too. Maybe we can make that happen. Why don’t you play Fred Sanford? After “Hamilton” threw the doors open for everyone and everything, you could play Fred Sanford.
WS: You know what, you’re absolutely right. I would love that.
GD: Let’s talk about your Netflix special. Before I even knew I was interviewing you I watched that the weekend right after it debuted and so funny. It’s called “Not Normal.” You’ve been up at the Emmys twice before for Variety Special but it’s been a little while. You don’t do them all that often. What goes into your process of getting a new set ready?
WS: I don’t know that it’s a special. It takes a while for me to figure out if it’s a special. I start off just writing a bunch of jokes, just writing. If something just sparks from the news or something from real life, like in my life, I just write it down. Then I go out and do 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there, build it up and build it up. And then I get to a point where I say, “Okay, what do I wanna say? What am I saying with these jokes?” And try to find if there’s something thematic that I can carry throughout the hour. Then, when something sparks I say, “Okay, I know what this special’s gonna be about. I know what I wanna say.” Then I get rid of all the jokes that don’t fit into it and I just keep writing more jokes to that thing. Then, once I get it to place where I feel like it’s a solid hour, then I go tour. I tour for about a year and a half or so. Then when it’s close to doing the special, I go back into the clubs where I can run it three or four times over a weekend and just tweak it, fine-tune it and then go shoot it. It’s a process. It takes at least two years.
GD: For every joke or story that makes it into that hour plus, how many did you go through to get to that point?
WS: I would say the percentage of the material that I first started with this tour, the “Oh Well” tour, I would say about 60% of it. I kept probably about 60% of it.
GD: You definitely discuss your family and your kids and your wife. Do they ever say anything about you talking about them onstage?
WS: Well, it all depends. If it’s good stuff, my wife loves it. Sometimes, after a show, I get home and she’s like, “So, how did my jokes do tonight? Did I kill tonight?” Sometimes if I’m harsh, I might have to pay a gift or send some flowers or something. Bottomline is, I love them, they’re the most important thing to me, people to me, my family. That’s the most important to me. So it’s never mean-spirited or too harsh but sometimes the truth can be a little rough.
GD: I’ve gathered from watching it you’re not a Donald Trump fan.
WS: You picked that up?
GD: I’m not too swift but about halfway in I’m like, “No, I don’t think she likes him very much.”
WS: (Laughs.) I don’t think there’s anything about me that would say, “Oh yeah, she’s a Trump fan.” I’m a black woman. I’m a lesbian. There’s a lot I have that are at odds with Donald Trump.
GD: Do you have somebody picked out out of all these 30 or 40 people that running? Is anybody triggered your button so far about somebody you’re thinking about supporting?
WS: Kamala Harris definitely. Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg. So I guess it’s the black lady, the old lady or the gay guy.
GD: You’re listening to them and trying to figure out what they’re talking about and what you like and don’t like.
WS: For me, they’re the frontrunners as far as policies and they have a plan, especially Elizabeth Warren. She really has a solid plan instead of a lot of soundbites. The three of them, they’re my frontrunners right now.
GD: Now that the special’s been streaming for a couple weeks, what’s been the response? What have you heard from people?
WS: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. This is my fifth special and I don’t know if it’s the platform. I know I have to credit the platform for a lot of it just because people have access to it across the world and also it’s not appointment TV. You can watch it whenever you watch it. All throughout the day, I’m getting responses of people watching it or watching it over and over again. Like I said, it’s been overwhelmingly positive and also I’ve never had this much response from a special. One, the platform, but two, it’s pretty damn good.
GD: Is there any one joke or story that you told on there that you’re getting more response than any other?
WS: That’s what blows me away is it seems like everyone has something different to say. That’s how you know it’s pretty solid, when people love the Vicks VapoRub, they love Esther, some people love the Trump stuff, the toilet paper on the back of the shoe, Clay Aiken and moonshine. I’m getting across the board the hot flashes, the menopause stuff. People are relating to it in a lot of different ways. It’s pretty much relatable, I guess.
GD: As we wrap up I wanted to ask you about “Black-ish.” You’ve had two straight nominations there in the guest acting category. They just released the ballots yesterday. Your episode is “Each One, Teach One” for this year’s voters. What did you like about that one coming into the season?
WS: What I really like about this episode and what they do such a good job at accomplishing, we touched on a subject that I think a lot of especially African Americans, how they feel in the corporate world, like, “Wait a minute, am I now the black guy?” They feel like they’re there to meet a quota. Things have gotten a lot better but I know that still exists, especially from speaking to my friends who are in corporate positions. Also, it was fun because my character, Daphne, actually got to make sense. We’re always in that office and it’s always something crazy and it’s absurd the things that we say in the office and it was nice to be able to have a real conversation with Anthony Anderson’s character. But of course, at the end, she goes right back to being her crazy self. That was a lot fun to play.
GD: We’ve been watching him for a long time in his career. He started so young. What do you like about working with him?
WS: I love Anthony. He’s just a great guy off-camera and on-camera. He’s funny. He’s a really good actor. I know after doing “The Jeffersons” with him and also I’ve seen him turn in these performances on “Black-ish” that I told him I could easily see him doing August Wilson plays. He’s such a good actor.
GD: People forget he was on “Law & Order” for a while and then he was in “The Departed” for Martin Scorsese. He’s a really good dramatic actor.
WS: He really is. When he can fire on all cylinders like that, comedy, drama, he’s just fun to be around, good to watch. I remembered a couple nights while we were rehearsing “The Jeffersons,” there was a cast party and after that party, Anthony and his wife took me out and were giving me a ride home and he drove past the Laugh Factory because he knew my billboards were up for my special, for “Not Normal,” and I hadn’t seen them yet. So he just pulled up and was like, “Come on, let’s take some pictures,” and I get out and I look at the billboard. That’s just who he is. He’s just really supportive, a good friend and I just love him.
GD: This has been such a pleasure today. You might be the Bill Hader or Donald Glover this year at the Emmys. You might have four nominations yourself like they did last year.
WS: (Laughs.) Well, that would be great.
GD: You have nine already and can you believe it’s been 20 years since you won for writing on “The Chris Rock Show”?
WS: Wow. Yeah.
GD: Did you go that night? Do you remember much about that particular win?
WS: Absolutely. I remember that night and I remember when they said “The Chris Rock Show,” we all looked at each other like, “Did you hear what I just heard? That’s us!” Being on that stage, I can’t remember who it was. I think it was Allison Janney. She was sitting in the front row and she made direct eye contact with me while we were onstage and she was like, “Good for you.” I was the only woman up there on that stage. It was a really great night.
GD: Congratulations on such a great year and thank you so much for joining us today.
WS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.