Wanda Sykes has a very specific memory of hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2009. “I shushed the first lady,” Sykes tells me, laughing. “I was sitting next to Michelle Obama and going over my notes, and she was trying to make conversation. I’m looking over my cards and I gave her like a look like, ‘Uhhh, don’t you see I’m working? Stop talking.’ ”
She tells this story to prove that she won’t be intimidated by the star wattage in the Dolby Theatre on March 27 when she makes her Academy Awards hosting debut alongside Amy Schumer and Regina Hall. “I don’t think I’ll get star-struck because I’m working,” she says. “When I’m focused and there to do a job, it’s all about getting the work done.”
It all began for Sykes 35 years ago when she was just 23 and performed her first stand-up at a talent showcase in Washington, D.C. “Luckily, the show went well,” she remembers.
From there, Sykes worked her way up to becoming one of Hollywood’s top comics. In addition to winning a writing Emmy in 1999 for her work on HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show,” she’s appeared in dozens of television series, including “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and most recently, “The Good Fight.” In film, her credits range from “Monster-in- Law” to last year’s crime comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County.”
Sykes signed on for the Oscars after she learned she wouldn’t have to do it alone. She’s in production on Season 2 of her Netflix sitcom “The Upshaws” as well as “History of the World: Part II,” a Hulu series sequel to Mel Brooks’ 1981 film. “I have a pretty full plate,” Sykes explains. “I wasn’t going to do it if I had to be responsible for all three hours, but I said, ‘Hey, with two other hosts, I can do that.’”
Co-host Hall recently told me that part of the job is to “poke fun” of Hollywood. Schumer has said she wants to “take the piss” out of the audience. So Sykes surprises me when she says she has no targets in sight. “I’m not going after people or anyone in particular,” she says. “Look, it’s a big night. People worked hard on these movies. They got all dressed up and hope to take home some hardware. So I want it to be a fun night. I don’t want people to be nervous and be like, ‘Oh, my God, what is she going to say?’ I don’t want to create that type of environment. I want people to relax. We’re going to have fun.”
Sykes insists her onstage shtick will not include singing or dancing. When I suggest she should be suspended from the ceiling in a Spider-Man onesie, she laughs, “Have you been listening in on our production meetings?”
As they prepare for the big day, Schumer has made at least one appearance at L.A. nightclub Largo at the Coronet to try out material. Sykes has no such plans: “You go to a comedy club, and it’s talking to folks off the street. It’s not seeing if Helen Mirren thinks it’s funny. I need to know if Helen Mirren thinks it’s funny.”
She says she’s not as up on this year’s films as one would assume for an Oscar host: “I did see ‘House of Gucci.’ There were a lot of accents in that movie.”
She also recently watched “CODA” — “That’s an excellent movie” — and “Encanto” because movie viewing is usually dictated by her 12-year-old twins, Olivia and Lucas, whom she shares with wife Alex.
“I will say I’m like an average moviegoer. I love movies, but to me it comes down to time,” Sykes says. “People who really love movies, they make time. Me? If I have the time, I’m gonna take a nap. Sometimes they coincide. Sometimes I try to go to the movies, but I end up taking a nap. It’s like the most expensive nap I ever had.”
As usual, this year’s Oscars are not without controversy. The Motion Picture Academy has come under fire for pushing the presentation of eight craft categories to a pretaped ceremony taking place right before the three-hour show, with highlights edited into the live program. “I go back and forth on that because those folks worked hard and they want to get some airtime,” Sykes says. “But the show gets knocked constantly every year for being too long, and the ratings are dropping. Hopefully, this will help make a good show and bring in more people. I really hope we hit the three hours and that’s it. I hope we don’t go over.”
Then she adds, “You know what? I’m going to bring my airhorn. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m getting these folks off the stage.”
The 94th Oscars will be broadcast live from Hollywood on ABC on March 27 at 5 p.m. PT.