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Wanda Sykes on Not Ignoring the ‘Orange Elephant’ in the Room for First Netflix Standup Special

Three years after Wanda Sykes’ Epix standup special, she is back with “Wanda Sykes: Not Normal,” this time for Netflix, the company she publicly called out just last year for pay inequality.

“They came in with the best offer,” Sykes tells Variety, not just referring to the money made for selling “Not Normal” to the streamer, but also the fact that they have such a large platform and do not rely on traditional ratings. “They know what their numbers are, but they don’t tell you so I’m not worried about people having to tune in at a certain time. People can watch it whenever they want to watch it, so you get that long life of the special instead of after the first two weeks then it goes away. You always get people who are just now finding it. That was really appealing.”

She notes, “If you get a special on Netflix, and if you put out a good special, and then you go out on tour, your ticket sales go up,” which also held appeal.

With her Push It Prods. banner, Sykes is also producing a standup series for Netflix. Titled “Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready,” it will consist of half-hour sets from up-and-coming comedians, as well as an hour special for Haddish, who also executive produces.

Sykes admits that speaking up publicly to point out how Netflix undervalued her in the past probably did have some influence on the streamer coming in more competitively now. But she also believes that executives were paying attention to “what I’ve been doing and my ticket sales” over the last few years.

“My sensibilities are pretty much the same, but I think I’ve gotten better as a performer. Before it was all about the material and relying on the jokes, but now my acting out and really performing the material has really improved,” Sykes says of the evolution of her comedy style through the years.

Sykes’ journey with Netflix is a well-documented one. In January 2018, after fellow comedian Mo’Nique accused the streamer of racial and gender bias when they offered her a significantly lower sum for a standup special than Dave Chappelle was offered, Sykes tweeted that she was offered even less: not even half of what Mo’Nique had been offered. She shared that she was “offended but found another home.”

Sykes brought that standup special “What Happened…Ms. Sykes?” to Epix, and it aired in 2016, after which she continued acting on “Black-ish” and also joined Comedy Central’s freshman comedy “The Other Two” in front of the camera.

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes she executive produced Guy Branum’s “Talk Show the Game Show” in 2017 and acted as a consulting producer on the “Roseanne” revival in 2018. She also executive produced a standup comedy series “Unprotected Sets” for Epix in 2018.

Her approach to her material has remained evergreen, focusing first on what she thinks is funny and then honing in on what these things have in common that tie together in a larger cohesive theme or message. But the specifics of her sets mix larger scale politics with personal anecdotes about her life and family to different degrees, depending on what she wants to say at the given time.

“For me to go out and not do anything politically, it would be ignoring the orange elephant in the room. People expect me to say something. I’m a black woman and I’m a lesbian; there’s a lot of s— that’s wrong in my world right now. So for me to just go out and talk about my family and act like everything is fine, it’s like, what planet am I living on?” Sykes says.

In “Not Normal,” Sykes opens with the political by addressing the audience with, “If you voted for Trump, and you came to see me? You f—ed up again.”

That opening line was intended to speak to the theme of the special, edited down from her usual hour and a half live show to a tighter hour, in which she covers a wide array of topics she is somewhat baffled by, including Trump’s relationship with Russia, why she believes “black people need a publicist,” menopause and the difference in the definition of “playing” when white parents say it to their children versus when black parents do.

When it came to diving into politics, Sykes says her approach for “Not Normal” was to look at the “big picture” because the fact that the president spends so much time on social media alone was the element that fit into her titular theme.

“He’s tweeting something every day,” she points out. “You can’t get too micro because there’s going to be another crazy thing right after this one.”

Still, she wanted to have a balance because she does want to keep some optimism and lighter moments in her work. “Overall, I still have hope it’s going to work out. It’s going to be all right, there’s just these things we have to get past,” she explains.

Her rule for getting personal on-stage is to remember to put the comedy on herself, even in stories about her wife and kids.

“I’m showing that, ‘Hey, I mess up too.’ As a parent, we screw up sometimes; we do think these things sometimes. I don’t mind showing that yeah, I don’t have my s— together either,” she says.

Sykes is also well aware of the saturation of the standup comedy market now that Netflix has gone all in on buying specials from big names like herself, as well as those who may be able to use the platform to finally make their mark.

“There are a lot of them, but I think it’s going to come down to the quality of the special. There might be a lot of them out there, but they don’t feel special,” she says.

Therefore, her advice to other comedians getting such a break is to make sure they are memorable. “Don’t go up there and just do a set that you’d do at a club,” she says she tells up-and-comers, just as Chris Rock told her before her first special — which was what he said Andrew Dice Clay told him before his first special.

“You want people to walk out and talk about a joke you did or remember a joke you did. You have to set yourself apart.”

Wanda Sykes: Not Normal” streams May 21 on Netflix.

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