With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Wanda Sykes is waiting out the pandemic from her home in Pennsylvania, which she shares with her wife, Alex, their 11-year-old twins and an au pair. From the basement, the Emmy-winning comedian has kept busy writing her forthcoming Netflix series, The Upshaws, and pitching new ones. Here, she opens up about her new normal, which includes “weird” Zoom pitches, a necessary cocktail and watching the news in secret.
Let’s start easy: How are you?
I’m tired. I’m just tired. I don’t know where the day goes. I get pissed when I see these people taking up hobbies and learning another language and reading books. I’m like, where do you find the time?! (Laughs.) I’ve been working from home, so it’s a lot of meetings, our writers room for this Netflix show, The Upshaws, wrapped last Friday, [April 17,] and then the kids take up so much of your time. And then it’s, “Oh, I guess we have to eat. Let me open up the cafeteria.” The majority of my time now is the cafeteria lady, the janitor and the hall monitor. It’s crazy. By the time they go to bed, Alex and I sit down to watch something and we barely make it through an episode of anything. We both fall asleep.
Where were you, professionally, when the pandemic hit?
We were in production on The Upshaws, which I’m doing with Mike Epps. We were shooting episode five. That Friday morning, Regina Hicks, the showrunner, and I were talking, and she said, “We shouldn’t be here,” and I said, “I’m feeling the same way. It’s crazy that we’re still working.” So, we decided we were going to call Netflix — and within a half-hour of us having that conversation, Netflix called us and said, “We’re shutting down.” So, they made the call and they’ve been great with the communication and helping out the crew. It’s been really great on that front. But the writers were able to continue to write, and that was a saving grace because I didn’t just sit here all day and wonder what the death count is and have I washed my hands enough.
In that room, did you find COVID-19 factoring into plot?
When we were breaking stories, we kept saying, “Everyone is at the house and then shelter-in-place happens and they have to stay in the house together.” We’re talking about it and we all laugh, but it’s like, “You know what, when we get through this, I don’t know that we want to revisit it.” I want to watch up a show where things are good — or maybe we’ll talk about it, but I don’t want to live in it.
What about its impact on our culture and our economy?
I don’t know. We pitched our stories and the arc of the show already — that was a long time ago. We haven’t gotten a mandate from Netflix that says, “You’ve got to tackle it.” And I don’t know how we can include this into the stories that we’ve already laid out for these characters, because if they’re concerned about a relationship as a deadly virus is going on, it looks kind of petty, you know? But we’re dealing with a working class family, so money is alway an issue. The issues that a lot of people are dealing with now are already built into this show.
Back to you, what does your day look like now?
I’m usually up by 8, and then the kids eat, read and get ready to start class at 9 and then Alex and I discuss the day. She goes into her office, and I go down into the basement. I have a couple of projects that I’ve been asked to work on and I never had a chance, so I’m now looking into those things and trying to develop a few other shows. We’d had a couple of projects in the works at Netflix through our production company, and of course everything got shut down. And we were doing a big comedy festival with Netflix and that’s on hold — who knows when we’re going to be doing live shows again? But networks are buying now because they’re going to need content, so it’s about getting things ready to pitch. We’ve actually had a couple of pitches via Zoom, which is … weird.
That can’t be easy, particularly with a comedy.
It’s weird. You pitch a joke and then you wait a second until you get the laugh. So, there is that second where you go, “Ooof.” Also, it’s like, what do I wear? And I’m all, “I’m not getting dressed up for this bullshit.” It’s so funny because Alex actually put on a nice shirt today, and I go, “Where the hell are you going?” And she was like, “I just felt like it today.” And I say, “You must have some real important emails, huh?” (Laughs.)
You make part of your living performing in front of crowds as a stand-up. What does the path back look like?
I don’t know when that’s going to come back. I seriously doubt it will be this year. Until we get a vaccine, I don’t know who wants to risk that. And I don’t know how you’re going to get insurance to have a show. And then the audience that would show up? That’s not my audience. My people are sheltering in place.
And what about the content? Will you lean into all of this?
I’m definitely going to talk about it when I get back onstage. But I think it’s going to be tricky finding that sweet spot where it’s personal yet relatable, but also I don’t want to be this angry comic onstage yelling about Trump. Look, I knew he was going to be bad but I never knew he would be this bad. Never. So, I guess it’s finding that area where we can laugh at it without just getting angry and it’s all, “Fuck him. Fuck him.” It has to be funny. I have to find the joke in it. And right now, we’re too close … too deep into it to step back to see what’s funny about about it.
What have you learned about yourself in this period?
Oh, I’m a real nervous Nellie. Like, we went for a walk in the woods yesterday, and a tree had fallen — it was a good size tree, and my daughter wanted to walk across it and my wife was like, “Go ahead.” And I was like, “Nope. Nope. Nope.” And she was like, “She’s done it before.” And I’m like, “What?! You let her do that? Maybe back in February, but not now. She falls off of that tree, breaks her ankle now and we have to shove her into Children’s Hospital by herself as we wait outside to see what happens. No!” I’m very much in the, “Let’s not do that” camp now.
What’s the best advice you’ve given or received about staying sane right now?
Be smart, listen to the scientists, and if you are a person of faith, lean into it. That’s what’s getting me through — leaning into it. Like, OK, there’s a purpose. And it’s so crazy, I was watching Christiane Amanpour and [she had on] Sir David Attenborough, who does all of the nature shows, who said, “If you think the birds are louder right now, it’s because they are.” The animals are all coming back out because we’re inside. They know we’re grounded, basically. And they’re enjoying it. We’ve got rabbits running around our backyard, there was a fox this morning. And the air is cleaner, too. So, it’s like, maybe this will just be a little reset. But, like I said, if you have faith, lean in. And also, there’s always alcohol.
Anything you’ve learned or made routine during this time that will carry over into your post-pandemic life?
I think the longest I’ve been away from my family was, like, three weeks one time, and I’m never going to do that again. This [time with them has been] so important, and the conversations I’m having with them now, I am grateful for that.
What are you watching, reading or listening to as a reprieve?
I mix it up. My wife always has on ChérieFM, it’s a French radio station, and I love it because it’s very eclectic. And he just passed but I always have the Bill Withers Pandora station on. And because I got to work with her back in January, I listen to Brandi Carlile. Love her. Brittany Howard, too. And of course, Earth Wind and Fire and Prince.
What or who have become your go-to news source during this period?
NPR, PBS, Christiane Amanpour, Rachel Maddow. When the kids start classes at 9, I check in on Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC. I like her. And Nicole Wallace, too. But I have to sneak it in because we don’t like to have the news on in front of the kids right now.
How would you describe your corona-era wardrobe?
Ooh, a lot of swag. Free stuff. Alex asked me the other day, “Is every T-shirt you’re going to wear from somebody’s show?” And pretty much, yes. It’s all of the late night shows. I got the Jimmy Kimmel shirt, a Jimmy Fallon shirt, a Colbert one. I got a Last Week Tonight baseball cap that I wear. It happened that first week — you do laundry and it’s like, “Hm, don’t put this shirt away, let’s leave it right here. I just might do that again.”
Is there a cause that’s become particularly important to you in these times?
I’ve been helping out food banks. I’m been donating to those. It’s crazy because when I was on my last tour, I would do these meet and greets. It’s a VIP ticket, they pay $100 on top of the price of the ticket and I’d do a meet and greet for 40 or 50 people, and all of that money I’d donate to that city’s local food bank. I had no idea how important that would be. So, I’m still doing that.
What’s atop your to-do list once this is all over?
Oh, we want to go to Fire Island. Can’t wait.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.