Wanda Sykes Explains How Apple's 'Visible: Out on Television' Is Pushing the Needle Forward

Wanda Sykes — Getty – H 2020

Welcome to LGBTQ View, a column that explores the community and its connection and representation in film and television and other facets of the entertainment world, including people of interest. Each column will focus on an event, episode or scene and how it pertains to the community.

LGBTQ representation on TV is taking center stage.

The new five-part Apple TV+ docuseries Visible: Out on Television, which debuted Feb. 14, is taking viewers inside the strides and struggles of the LGBTQ community through the lens of the small screen. From the landmark Stonewall Riots to the AIDS crisis to FX's ballroom drama Pose, the series takes a comprehensive look at the parallels between movements in society and the evolution of queer representation on TV.

However, much like the push for LGBTQ representation on TV, it took many years for Visible to come to fruition. Executive producer Wilson Cruz (who broke out and made headlines as the openly gay teen character on My So-Called Life) worked on the project for seven years before he landed it at Apple with Wanda Sykes and Ryan White attached (the latter as director).

The series includes emotional conversations with Sykes, Cruz, Ellen DeGeneres, Janet Mock (Pose), Tim Gunn, Billy Porter and many more trailblazers in the queer community as they share their own coming-out journeys and add insight on what it was like to live through the historic moments shown in the show.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sykes, who publicly came out as a lesbian in 2008 during a rally in Las Vegas after California passed the since overturned Prop. 8, opens up about what drew her to the project, how attitudes toward the queer community in comedy are shifting and what areas in TV and beyond need to “step up” with representation.

You came on to this project after it had been in development for years. What was the pitch that made you want to sign on?

I loved what Ryan [White] did with The Keepers and the Serena documentary, so I was like, "OK, these guys know how to do this." That definitely helped me make the easy decision to jump on board. Also, I thought it was very important to tell the history of the community on television, because I know the powerful impact television has on society and how we can change minds.

Were there any concerns bringing the project to Apple TV Plus considering its a relatively new streaming service?

Not at all. They put a lot of money into programming and they picked up an award for Jennifer Aniston’s The Morning Show. They have a lot of high-profile people and programming lined up, so there were no concerns about that at all.

You also have had comedy special deals with Netflix and are an executive producer on Fortune Feimster’s new comedy special. Have you had conversations with them about how to improve LGBTQ representation on the service?

Netflix did my special, we did Fortune’s special for Netflix, so they are stepping up. Now it’s doing more scripted shows. I’m working with them now on a project called The Upshaws with Mike Epps. We’re behind the camera, in front of the camera. Ryan Murphy has a good deal over there with them, too. I think you are going to see more.

Having someone like Cindy Holland, who is openly gay, as the head of originals at Netflix, does that help move the needle for representation?

It definitely doesn’t hurt. It’s an easier pitch with someone who is familiar with the area that you are pitching or the subject matter that you want to do.

You have been very outspoken about Netflix’s pay parity issues. Beyond gender and race bias, have you seen this happen also for those in the LGBTQ community in the last few years?

We know it happens with gender, but I am not aware yet [about LGBTQ pay parity issues], because I haven’t seen everybody’s checks. But, as soon as I do, I will let you know.

You and Ellen both have huge careers in stand-up, how has LGBTQ representation and attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals in that space changed?

My audience is very diverse and even before I was out I had a nice following from the LGBTQ community. Once I came out, now they’re a little more vocal just to let me know that they are there. It took a minute when I first came out, because the audience expected me to go on stage and talk about being gay or talk about gay issues. But I am on stage talking about my wife and my kids, and that is pretty gay. I think my life represents us. I think that is the place where we have to get to, where we can tell our stories and it’s not just the story about being other.

Do you think that there has been more space for LGBTQ comedians in the stand-up world?

It’s still a white-guys world in stand-up. But, we have made huge strides with women, people of color and, now, LGBTQ. It’s opening up. My production company is working on something with Netflix with LGBTQ comedians.

You talk about in the docuseries that most of the strides in LGBTQ representation on TV are for white people. What needs to be done to get more diversity in that space?

Just create more programming. Now we have executives in place who are a little more open and we have creators out there who are making content for us. Also, within the African American community, we have to be a little bit more open.

Do you see any places that doing a good job of that and moving that needle forward?

For Apple to put this documentary out that is a huge jump.

What kind of impact do you hope the docuseries has? 

I think people will get an understanding of why we are saying, "Hey, we need representation." I hope that it crosses over to other groups that are marginalized and we see how important it is to see those stories, because it does make change.

In a funnier moment in the docuseries, you and Ellen DeGeneres name off characters you were convinced were gay but made straight or never specified — a common practice for many in the LGBTQ community. Do you still see characters like that on TV now?

Usually, if I do it, it turns out they are. They are written that way now. I don’t have to do it as much. I don’t know if it’s because I have better gaydar or now we have better programming.

Looking beyond TV, how do you view LGBTQ representation in films? How can the strides in TV be translated to the film industry? 

Film needs to step up. Especially rom-coms, it’s still the gay guy that is the best friend. It still feels old what they are doing in film.

Have you noticed any moments in films where they could have stepped up?

Come on, Harriet Tubman definitely is a lesbian, right? Happy Black History Month.

Looking back on The Wanda Sykes Show, do you feel like things have improved since then for LGBTQ and female representation in the late-night space?

We are still hurting there. Lilly Singh, she’s on at like 4 in the morning or something. We still need work in that department.

What do you think can help that?

Somebody getting a show and when they get the show for us to watch it.

Do you think there is a lot of support within the LGBTQ for shows with representation?

I am not gonna say we should support bad shows just because it is us. But if there is a show on, at least find it and give it a shot. If it’s good, stay with and watch it, because it does help.

What do you think of how LGBTQ characters have been portrayed on scripted dramas and comedies since Ellen?

I love what Shonda Rhimes does. She’s really good at being inclusive and not making it about their identity. It’s still a story, it’s still that character, they just happen to be other. Lena Waithe is doing great programming. Jill Soloway. I think more creators are putting out better content and giving us more screen time. My company Push It Productions with my partner — Page Hurwitz, who is also a lesbian — that’s the stuff we are doing. We produced my special, we produced Fortune’s special, we did a series of half-hours for Epix [Unprotected Sets] and we’ve been very inclusive with the comics we picked.

With your production company, do you find it easier to pitch networks and streamers with LGBTQ content now? 

They are more open to it. They are looking at that the fact people are wanting it, because it is successful.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

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