GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Wanda Sykes knows more about stand-up comedy than most.
A long career as a comic brings her to Grand Rapids for Gilda’s LaughFest and an appearance in DeVos Performance Hall tonight.
But she’s also executive director of “Last Comic Standing,” which means she hears a lot of stand-up comedians. The ninth season of the show opens in May with 100 comedians raring to go.
“Last year, it was great. But we totally revamped the format,” Sykes said recently. “We went around the country, and we picked all the comics.”
To get those 100 comedians, Sykes and her staff heard upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 comedians.
“Closer to 2,000,” she said with a laugh. “It was a long process, but it makes the show.”
The show that first aired from 2003 to 2010 on NBC returned last May. This time without the audience vote to help determine the last comic standing.
“We’re not even allowing America to vote,” she said with a laugh. “We don’t trust America.”
But the experience has left Sykes, who’s been ranked one of Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Funniest People in America, feeling good about the field of stand-up comedians working today.
“We went through a period where comics were too cool for school,” she said. “If you laugh, great. If you don’t, I don’t care. Instead of performing and trying to make the audience laugh.”
That has since turned around, said Sykes, whose stand-up style is witty material delivered in a sassy voice.
“I was so surprised and pleasantly surprised that there are a lot of comics out there who are passionate about making people laugh,” she said.
Some things haven’t changed. Stand-up still is a male dominated profession.
“It’s a hard life,” said Sykes, ranked No. 70 on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time and the only African-American woman on the list.
“It’s not just about the material and doing the show. It’s also the logistics of being on the road and traveling and staying in hotels.”
“It’s kind of lonely. I can see more women having issues with that life,” she said.
But it has its rewards.
“The instant gratification, the laughter. It still amazes me,” she said.
Even as a kid growing up in the greater Washington D.C. area, Sykes enjoyed making people laugh.
“Mark Twain said the two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why you were born,” she said.
“Comedy is a gift. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I was put on this earth.”
Wanda Sykes has spent time on “The Chris Rock Show,” “The Drew Carey Show,” and has been a recurring performer on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
She’s enjoyed success as supporting character on several shows including “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” Her own sitcom, “Wanda At Large,” which aired in 2003, and her own late-night talk show, which debuted on FOX TV in November 2009 and ended the following April, both were short lived. But she takes it in stride.
“I’ve been very lucky in this business,” she said. “I also work hard and put in the effort.”
A past winner of a BET Comedy Award in 2005, an American Comedy Award in 2001 and a Primetime Emmy Award for “The Chris Rock Show” in 1999, Sykes has been a trailblazer throughout her career.
Famously, she was the featured entertainer for the 2009 White House Correspondents Association dinner, the first African American woman and the first openly lesbian to get the nod.
Shortly before the appearance, radio host Rush Limbaugh, talking about President Obama’s agenda, and remarked publicly, “I hope he fails.”
In response, at the dinner with the president in attendance, Sykes quipped: “I hope his (Limbaugh’s) kidneys fail, how about that? Needs a little waterboarding, that’s what he needs.”
“It wasn’t spontaneous,” she said. “I wrote the jokes. It all was prepared.
Sykes first visit to Grand Rapids had nothing to do with comedy and everything to do with Steelcase, Inc.
Before going into comedy, Sykes spent five years in Washington D.C. as a contracting specialist for the National Security Agency.
“We were buying furniture,” she said. “We came to negotiate.”
By By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk | firstname.lastname@example.org
Wanda Sykes at LaughFest
When: 8 p.m. Monday, March 9
Where: DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW
More info: Call LaughFest at 616-735-HAHA (4242) or go to Ticketmaster