“The last time I was here … I caused a little trouble,” says Wanda Sykes in her new HBO comedy special taped in her D.C. hometown, Wanda Sykes: I’ma Be Me.
Sykes, typically the best thing about bad movies (Mother in Law) or the comedy spice to existing shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm), let loose during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last May.
She’s still riding the pop culture buzz from that performance, during which she called Rush Limbaugh “the 20th hijacker” and praised President Obama’s pectorals and the first lady’s arms.
The special, debuting at 10 p.m. EST Saturday (Oct. 10), cements her status as defender-in-chief — eager to speak out on behalf of the new president. She repeats some of her lines from the White House gig, but doesn’t resurrect her Limbaugh remarks.
She uses the new special not only to celebrate the first black president, but also her newly found personal freedom. The now openly gay performer peppers her stand-up routine with relationship humor, the kind she wouldn’t mention in the past.
The beauty behind Sykes’ best appearances, both on screen and on stage, is her shoot-from-the-hip demeanor. She scrunches up her face, pauses for dramatic effect, and then tells it like it is.
She’s an equal opportunity cynic, and a darned funny one at that.
But once she sidles up to an ideological dance partner, that truth-telling sounds like spin. And no matter how clever her observations can be, it feels like we’re getting a censored version of her genuinely fertile mind.
Why, for example, is the openly gay performer not frustrated by Obama’s refusal to embrace gay marriage? That would fuel some pretty prickly material, but she never holds the president accountable during the special.
She still has enough zingers to bring both sides together for a spell. Her view on illegal immigration:
They’re not illegal; they’re undocumented. … If someone broke into my house … and vacuumed, I might be a little confused but I ain’t calling the cops.
Her best material reflects how a black person reacts to Obama’s presidency:
It’s a little bittersweet. … The first black president and the country is broke.
She also scores by explaining Obama’s decision not to adopt a rescue dog for his family:
The man has to rescue a country that’s been abused by its previous owner.
No matter your politics, that’s a clever line.
Of course, should Obama fail, Sykes would be ready to abandon ship: “Who is this half-white failure?” It’s the only time she dares to tweak The One even gently.
Obama’s presidency resets the clock for black people, she continues. In the past, someone like rapper Flavor Flav hurt the image of her people and reinforced the ugliest stereotypes. Now, “I can relax a little bit,” she says. “I can buy whole watermelons now. I no longer have to grow them in my closet under my weed lamp.”
Still, there’s something truly odd about watching a comic spend huge chunks of her stand-up routine defending a sitting president. She has every right to do just that, and Sykes has a sharper wit than many of her peers, but aren‘t comics in the “mock the president” business?
She’s on more original ground when describing being both black and gay in America:
It’s harder being gay than being black. I didn’t have to come out black, didn’t have to sit my parents down and talk about my blackness.
Smart stuff, and she takes the bit to its logical and hilarious conclusions.
Sykes eventually drops the political material to discuss parenthood. She’s 45 and a new parent: Infants change every day, and she can’t figure out why one of her babies cries for no reason at all. One day she started rearranging the furniture just in case that’s the source of her baby’s tears. Gay, straight — who can’t relate?
Later, she makes a quick, funny detour into pop culture, like when she questions people waiting for the toxicology report on Michael Jackson’s death. “Michael Jackson died of Michael Jackson,” she quips, before launching into a riff on celebrities aging and how it makes her feel even older.
Wanda Sykes: I’ma be Me works better as a cry of empowerment than a comedy blast. She’s clearly intent on defending and celebrating the new first couple, even if she does so in ways the White House social secretary might find … tacky.
Sykes begins the show by saying she wasn’t totally forthright during her White House appearance: “They don’t know that I was holding back. Not tonight, baby,” she says, and partially true to her word she tackles everything from aging to painful hair removal processes.
But we’re still waiting for Sykes to fully open up on topics that might not align with her beliefs.