WANDA SYKES, WHO was born in Portsmouth, Va., and raised in the Gambrills section of Anne Arundel County, had a breakout year in 2005. The comedian published her first book (Yeah, I Said It), had her first major role in a Hollywood film (Monster-in-Law), completed voice roles for two animated features, and continued her recurring roles on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Comedy Central's Crank Yankers.
She was a latecomer to comedy, however. After graduating from Hampton University, Sykes worked at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Hecht's and as a contracting specialist at the National Security Agency.
Sykes, 41, talked to us last year. Here are excerpts from that interview:
What gave you the courage to try standup comedy? The thing is, I wasn't even a novice starting out. It was more -- I had no idea. I'd never been in a comedy club. I went in blind. I didn't know any standup comics, so I was able to go into it without needing the courage and worrying that all this could go wrong because I hadn't seen it happen before.
You didn't know how brutal audiences can be?
Exactly. There was nothing to be afraid of.
Did you find you enjoyed it right away? What were your first experiences like?
My first experience was great. The audience laughed. It was wonderful. It was a Coors Light Talent Showcase. It was at a hotel, I think, somewhere in Northern Virginia. I told some jokes about my parents. I can't even remember.
So you went over well and that gave you some momentum?
I fell in love with it. The guy who emceed the show, he was a local comic, Andy Evans, and he pretty much became my mentor. He showed me where the comedy clubs were in D.C. and which nights had open mikes, and he'd emceed a lot of the open mikes. He helped me out. I went over material with him.
Once I had built up enough material where I could go out on the road and at least be the middle act, I thought, I can do this. I can support myself doing this, and that's when I decided to move.
Never having seen a standup show, how did you get the idea to be a standup comic?
I watched comedy. I loved watching standup on TV and I loved all of the variety shows, and I think it was after seeing Whoopi Goldberg, her HBO special Around the World, I said, OK, I'm gonna write some jokes. I loved Lucille Ball and Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show. I loved Johnny Carson, too. It just came naturally to me to create a joke.
What makes you laugh? What do you find funny?
I laugh at a lot. I love Peter Sellers. I like physical comedy. Also, Albert Brooks. I love his movies. Eddie Murphy. Of course Richard Pryor, he's like the greatest ever. I like Monty Python. I love all that stuff, too, but it's more. I can laugh at the absurd and I can also laugh at things that are also grounded in reality, and you find a lot of things grounded in reality really are becoming absurd.
Where do you get your material?
I read the paper every day. I like to see what's on, see what people are talking about, see what's in the news, what's in pop culture right now. Or relationship things. I love to start with the paper.
How would you characterize your comedy?
I think I say things that people think but don't say. I found a way to say what everyone wants to say but don't because they're afraid.
Do you miss Maryland?
I don't miss the humidity -- not at all. I still have friends back there. You know, it's always fun to see them. But I mean the weather and everything [in Los Angeles] -- I love it out here. At first I missed New York when I moved out here. I really missed being in the city. But after a few winters out here, that really goes away. You visit New York a couple times and you're freezing. This isn't bad.
Do you get back to Maryland much?
The last time I was there was when I played the Meyerhoff in January (2005). My parents, they moved back to Virginia.
Wanda Sykes will perform Feb. 17 at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. Call 202-783-4000 or go to warnertheatre.com