For seven years Wanda Sykes had a job at the National Security Agency negotiating with suppliers for spy equipment. "I had the top security clearance and all that," she says. "I was getting all kinds of awards and moving up the ladder, but I thought, this just doesn't feel right; I'm not supposed to be here."
She got that right. Sykes belongs onstage. As evidenced in "Wanda Sykes: Tongue Untied" (airing tonight on Comedy Central), Sykes now deals in a more personal brand of weaponry, hurling incendiary invective in the direction of post-9/11 hypocrisy, White House tomfoolery, clueless dates, corporate thievery and show biz idiocy. A master of the well-placed profanity, Sykes caps the hourlong stand-up concert with a festival of bleeps as she enacts her fantasy impression of the pope, fed up with scandal, cursing out church officials.
"What I do onstage is like lobbing grenades," Sykes says. "It's conversational but -- boom! -- it has an impact."
Sykes also stars in the sitcom "Wanda at Large," slated to debut on Fox some time in the spring, in which she plays a news commentator for a Washington, D.C., TV station. Both the special and "Wanda at Large" showcase Sykes' wake-up-and-smell-the-bull persona.
"There is anger," says Sykes, perched on the couch of her barely furnished "Wanda at Large" production office in Burbank. "It's frustration: It's saying [to the audience], 'Don't you see what's happening? Come on man, you don't see that?' "
Sykes enjoyed a tomboy childhood in Maryland. Her father was an Army colonel, her mom a journalist. Though she didn't begin her career in earnest until age 28, Sykes had been quipping in the kitchen from the time she was a little girl. "My grandmother and my parents would be having conversations with their friends and I'd hang in the back and just chime in with something. They'd laugh, but then I'd get a little smack: 'Don't speak up when adults are talking!' "
But she couldn't quit speaking up. After earning a marketing degree at Virginia's Hampton University, Sykes went to work for the government and in 1987 decided to put together an act after she heard about a Washington, D.C., talent competition. Between her spy agency chores, she wrote five minutes of material, took the stage, lost the contest and fell in love with performing.
In 1992, Sykes quit her day job and moved to New York, where she caught her big break three years later, opening for Chris Rock at Caroline's comedy club. They clicked. Referring to his Emmy-winning 1996 HBO comedy special, Sykes recalls, "When Chris did 'Bring the Pain,' that just elevated the whole bar as far as what stand-up is, how sharp it can be and what it could be used for. I went 'All right, this is how it's done. I've got to step it up a notch. "
Sykes worked five seasons on "The Chris Rock Show." "It was easy for me to write for Chris because we're pretty much on the same wavelength: cutting through the bull, pointing out hypocrisy."
For her efforts, Sykes won a writing Emmy in 1999. More importantly, the pint-sized comic with the plaster-peeling voice suddenly got noticed in Hollywood. "Chris has such a huge following, especially within the industry," Sykes says. "I got 'Nutty Professor II' because Eddie Murphy saw me on the show, and I got a part on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' because Larry David watched it, so, yeah, I got a lot of notoriety."
Among the talent mavens who caught Sykes on Rock's show: Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, who signed the comedian to a series deal early last year. "Wanda has this irascible point of view, she's nobody's fool and she's hysterically funny, so all of those things come together for us in a character that we like a lot," Berman says. "The first time I saw Roseanne at Catch a Rising Star in New York, I was stunned by how remarkably different she was. I feel exactly the same way about Wanda."
Berman says Fox has no interest in neutralizing Sykes, citing the comedian's rant about "gun control -- or the lack thereof" in the series pilot episode.
"Certainly there were people who said, 'Oh you could never put Bernie Mac on the air and keep his personality intact,' but I think we managed to do that in his show, and we're certainly trying to do the same with Wanda by giving her a platform to talk about her issues. The audience is used to irreverent comedy from us, and they're not going to appreciate what our team here appreciates in her if her voice isn't coming through."
In fact, the first pilot, casting Sykes as a judge, was turned down because the premise proved stifling.
While retooling with executive producer Bruce Helford ("The Drew Carey Show"), Sykes began getting other offers. "My agent said, 'People want to work with you; I'm just going to bring you the stuff I think is viable.' And I said, 'No, I want to hear everything.' "
Last summer, Sykes took a break from "development" and hit the road for four months to hone material for her stand-up concert. She says, "The Comedy Central special is a good dry run for the series, I guess, because I didn't curse that much, except for the pope thing. On 'Wanda at Large,' I don't feel like we've been handcuffed in any way. I'm still able to be me, and I get to keep the voice."
Not that Sykes is popping the champagne just yet. Ever the skeptic, she says, "I never celebrate or have a toast and say, 'Oh isn't this great.' Because you know there's going to be a brick to the head. That's what we call it -- the brick to the head -- and you just know it's coming."