LOS ANGELES - Jane Fonda was coming to wardrobe. Jane Fonda was coming to wardrobe. Wanda Sykes, in a makeup chair on the set of Monster-in-Law, had to get out of there.
"I was like, I can't meet Jane Fonda today. I'm not ready for that!" says Sykes, the fast-rising actress and comedian who has parlayed her stand-up success into film and television roles.
For all her success - she drew critical raves for her role in the spring film Monster-in-Law, her first major Hollywood film - Sykes can still seem like the star-struck kid who grew up in Gambrills in Anne Arundel County and worked at the National Security Agency.
Eventually Sykes would meet Fonda, and they got along so well that Fonda wrote a blurb for the back of Sykes' new book of humorous essays. "She's just a really cool lady," Sykes, 41, says over a latte one recent morning at a cafe on Ventura Boulevard. (She ordered a small. "I don't want a bowl of coffee," she told the waitress.)
Sykes' role as the assistant to Fonda's character in Monster-in-Law was just one chapter in a busy year. Sykes published her first book, Yeah, I Said That, recorded voice roles for two animated films, continued her occasional stints on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Inside the NFL and Comedy Central's Crank Yankers and went on a nationwide stand-up tour. She also starred in an unscripted Comedy Central show, Wanda Does It, and has begun work on the monthly HBO sports program Costas Now.
She's a long way from her days at the NSA, where she had high-level security clearance for her job as a procurement officer. Still, the work didn't interest Sykes, partly because there was so little of it.
"I felt like I was stealing from the taxpayers, I really did," she says. "I was just bored. I thought, this cannot be the rest of my life. I knew exactly what I was going to do every day - get up, work, go home, drink, go to bed or pass out. It wasn't for me. I felt like I was supposed to be doing something different."
Through her years at Arundel High School and Hampton University, Sykes had always been told she was funny. So she decided to try stand-up comedy, beginning with a Coors Light Talent Showcase in Northern Virginia about 15 years ago. She can't remember what she said ("something about my parents"), but she killed, and she fell in love with stand-up.
She worked the D.C.-area clubs and by 1992 was confident enough to quit the NSA (thus depriving the security agency of perhaps the funniest person to ever work there) and move to New York to pursue comedy full-time. She was lucky - and talented - enough to land a spot on The Chris Rock Show, for which she won a writing Emmy in 1999. But, as a female comic, she occasionally had trouble getting work in clubs.
"The club owners would say, `I already have a female on the show tonight, and I can't put two females on,'" Sykes says. "They think we'll talk about the same thing. But then they'll put on 20 guys who all do [anatomy] jokes."
Sykes' breaks came in unusual ways. In 2001, at a wrap party for Inside the NFL, Sykes heckled the executive producer of HBO Sports, Rick Bernstein. "I had no idea who she was or who she had come with," Bernstein says. "But she was very funny."
The next day, Bernstein was in a meeting trying to come up with humorous segments for the show's second season. He asked who was that woman who heckled him, and they brought Sykes in for an interview.
"She had me cracking up," Bernstein says. He took home a tape of her work and watched it that night. "I don't think my wife's ever seen me laugh so much."
He wanted Sykes to do a segment on steroids for Costas' new show, but they couldn't find a ballclub that would let Sykes interview its players. "We called six teams," he says. "No one was willing to do it. They don't see any humor in steroids."
Her segment on the Costas show is called "Disrespecting the Game," an often humorous take on timely sports topics. For a future segment, she hopes to interview female Indy car racer Danica Patrick - said to have a major influence on young female athletes - and take her around to little girls who will have no idea who she is.
While professional athletes usually enjoy speaking with Sykes, it's not hard to see why teams' management would have reservations. Sykes is known for pushing the envelope and being slightly offensive in her humor (such as her thoughts on Michael Jackson's recently concluded trial, which, sadly, are not printable in this newspaper).
She also had a knack for tweaking authority. When she was invited to deliver the commencement address at her nephew's high school in Manassas, Va., she told the graduates: "Let's be honest. Some of you are going to college. Some of you are going to get a job. And some of you should probably report to the county jail right now. You know, go ahead and serve your time. Knock it out while you're young and then start life over again."
Recounting the story, she says, "The kids laughed, but I don't think the superintendent cared for me."