Sykes recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Susan Wloszczyna about her history with Mabley as a comedian, what it meant to play her and what she’s working on next. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: I would guess this was a great honor for you to portray her because she was one of a kind. She’s basically the mother of Black comedians and set the standard. But I just wonder, I’m old enough to have seen her on “Ed Sullivan” and “The Smothers Brothers” but did you see her while you were a kid?
Wanda Sykes: Yes, I remember seeing her on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “Flip Wilson,” “Ed Sullivan, “Laugh-In,” so she definitely was influential and just stood out for me. And I’m 100 percent sure that if it hadn’t been for her, I would not be a standup comic. I wouldn’t be doing this.
Gold Derby: And I, of course, went to Wikipedia to look up stuff about her and I didn’t realize she is the oldest person to have a top 40 hit because she did an 1969 a version of “Abraham, Martin and John.” She was 75. That is something. I mean, she worked from so many decades through and still was relevant back in the ’60s and ‘70s. So it was amazing. But now, when I saw it was you doing her, I thought you just nailed it because I watched a couple clips again for this and she just had this patter, almost like it was musical, the way her delivery was and I don’t know how much effort that took on your part to recreate that, what she did as a comedian.
WS: I was very familiar with her work so I knew the cadence. I got that and her delivery and timing. But still, you’re playing this legend and on the stage of the Apollo Theater, right? (Laughs.) So it was intimidating. I’m like, “Okay. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it. You just gotta go for it.” And like I said, I had the cadence, but it’s just her mannerisms. And fortunately, I have all my teeth. She was toothless. So it was that thing, too, of trying to get my mouth, her face, it was just so rubbery and she could just do so many things with her face. It was trying to capture all that with a mouthful of teeth.
GD: Right. And I figured they used the marquee in the Apollo but they actually let the production film in there, the real thing and it was interesting to see somebody play the Hines brothers too, like Gregory Hines. I know him from “White Nights.” This show is one of the best things ever to come around. So I always enjoy what the Palladinos stick in there for surprises and recreating the era like that.
WS: Yeah, it really made it easier, I guess, to play because they set the scene. “Okay, here you are. You’re at the Apollo and everyone’s dressed from that era.” So it was like we walked back in time and they really are great with detail, everything from wardrobe to makeup to setting. I mean, I’ve never been on a production where they put that much into just background. It’s a lot of people walking around on that set, but it’s so well organized and they don’t waste time. It wasn’t a lot of sitting around. I was very impressed and just thrilled to be working with them.
GD: Had you ever performed at the Apollo yourself?
WS: Yes, when they had the comedy hour. Yeah.
GD: Right. I figured you made it there. But the costumes on this show are just outrageous. I love that pineapple dress and the little hat and her shoes and all that. So, I mean, yeah, it just brought her to life in a wonderful way to people who probably may not have heard of her before. But now, you and Mrs. Maisel don’t quite get along and she comes up to you just crazy and with no real respect. I mean, she doesn’t even know what she’s doing right then to someone like that and I love your reactions. You tell me what that moment meant when they connect.
WS: Well, yeah, they’re in Moms’s house, the Apollo Theater. That’s her home. She’s the queen there. She rules there. And to have this woman from nowhere, especially a white woman coming to the Apollo and now she’s headlining, she’s like, “Wait a minute, I’m Moms Mabley and now I’m opening for Mrs. Maisel?” But I’m sure it’s happened to her before, just not at the Apollo, so it’s like, “OK, wait a minute. I put up with this crap out in the world, but now it’s happening to me here in my home.” But she was like, “OK, you know what? Don’t worry about it. The crowd will take care of this for you. You know what? She’ll get a taste of this Apollo audience and they’ll take care of it.”
GD: It’s almost she put a spell on her because her upward trajectory of the season starts crumbling and everything starts falling apart. So you started that downfall and she kind of had it coming. But I do think that the Palladinos captured this era so well. I mean, that’s something they do, but putting a little modern edge on it and they always cast so well. But what else could you add about how it felt to recreate someone that is so special to the history of comedy?
WS: I mean, I’ve always wanted to do something about Moms, and I know Whoopi [Goldberg] did that great documentary on her and it’s always been my dream to either play her or do something to get her story out there because she deserves it. She deserves more recognition than what she’s getting when we talk about comedy, especially American comedy and African-American comics. So to be able to play her and to be on the Apollo stage doing that, I mean, it was just a dream. I was living a dream.
GD: Nobody’s really working now so I don’t know if you have any future things you’re doing. You always do a lot of voice work.
WS: Actually, we’re about to start another voice project, something from Sean Hayes‘s company. And Sean Hayes also, he’s gonna voice the main character. But yeah, I was in production on a Netflix show, “The Upshaws,” so we still have several episodes to shoot when we’re back up and going. So right now, it’s just been a lot of writing and notes from different scripts and everything. A lot of Zoom meetings.