Wanda Sykes had quite a streak on television last 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 21 years ago for writing on “The Chris Rock Show.”
But this funny lady had a very special personal connection to the real-life comedy legend, Moms Mabley, that she vividly brings to life for a new generation on the Season 3 finale of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Sykes recalls seeing Moms with her saggy house dress, funny hat and toothless smile on TV variety shows as a kid. “Yes, yes, I remember her on the ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,’ Flip Wilson, Ed Sullivan, ‘Laugh-In.’ She definitely was influential and just stood out for me. And I’m 100% sure that if it hadn’t been for her, I would not be doing this.”
Sykes was familiar with her work, so it wasn’t hard for her to capture the distinctive cadence of how she delivered her jokes onstage while standing on the actual sacred stage in Harlem where the episode “A Jewish Girl Walks into the Apollo” was shot. “I got that. I’ve heard her delivery and timing, she says. “But still you’re playing this legend and on the stage of the Apollo Theater. So, yes, it was intimidating.”
Mabley’s comic rhythm was one thing, but her mannerisms and expressions were even more unique. Says Sykes: “Fortunately, I have all my teeth. She was toothless, so it was that thing of trying to get my mouth and, you know, just to reach. It’s her face, it was just so rubbery. And just so many things went with her face, it was trying to capture all that with a mouthful of teeth.”
It’s after Moms performs that she encounters a rather flustered Mrs. Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), who acts like a hyper groupie backstage and casually talks about opening for crooner Shy Baldwin — a spot that we learn on the first episode was Moms’ before Midge came along and went on tour with singer. The elder comic treats this young white girl rather coldly. As her manager tells Midge, “You got the prime spot, Shirley Temple.”
Sykes describes the awkward encounter this way: “She’s like ‘Wait a minute. I’m Moms Mabley and now I’m opening for Mrs. Maisel?’ I’m sure it’s happened to her before, but not at the Apollo. It’s like OK, wait a minute. I put up with this crap out in the world but now it’s happening here in my home. But I thought she was like, ‘You know what, don’t worry about it. The crowd will take care of this for you.’ She’ll get a taste of the Apollo audience and they’ll take care of it well.” At that point it’s as if Moms puts a spell on Midge as her career trajectory will soon take a turn for the worst.
Sykes goes on to talk about what it is like to step into the show’s married creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino‘s no-holds-barred version of the early 1960s, how they made her longtime dream of paying homage to one of her showbiz heroes come true and a bit about her upcoming voice-over project with Sean Hayes and her new Netflix comedy series “The Upshaws” with Mike Epps, one of many TV productions interrupted by the pandemic.
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