For Wanda Sykes, it's a 'Monster' of a year

Times Staff Writer

Over the last year or so, comedian Wanda Sykes took a role in "Monster-in-Law," started and finished a book, "Yeah, I Said That," and went out on a nationwide stand-up tour. She also continued her recurring stints on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Inside the NFL" as well as Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers," and starred in the recent "Wanda Does It," an unscripted comedy in which, apparently not satisfied with her usual armload of jobs, she tried others on for size -- pilot, fast-food cook, hooker. (The service she offered as the latter was a beating: The potential John declined.)

It's a pretty good run for someone who used to work -- as little as possible -- as a purchaser for the National Security Agency.

"I was bored silly, and I really felt like I was stealing from the government, from the taxpayers," Sykes recalled of working for the NSA. But for Sykes, growing up in Maryland, government was the local employer.

"I had friends who worked there, but I didn't have the same goals," Sykes said over an iced latte at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf near her home in Sherman Oaks. "They all wanted the house, the kids, the marriage -- I'm sure in a different order -- but I didn't want any of that stuff. It seemed so safe and so boring."

While mulling career options, Sykes was flipping through her high school yearbook and noticed that everyone had commented on her sense of humor. Thus emboldened, she entered a local comedy contest and fell in love with stand-up. After moving to New York to tour the comedy club circuit, she lucked out with a gig writing and performing on "The Chris Rock Show."

The jobs just kept coming. But right now, "other than whoring this movie," as she put it, Sykes, 41, said she's unemployed.

"Monster-in-Law" has Sykes acting opposite Jane Fonda -- in Fonda's first film role in 15 years. Sykes claimed to be enjoying the junkets -- almost.

"It gets to the point where you can hear the same question only so many times," she said. "I made the best of it.... I had fun acting like it was something I'd never heard before," she said, and then put on a surprised look. "'Was it intimidating working with Jane Fonda?' You know, I never thought about it!"

So, er, was it intimidating, working with ...?

"It was a little nerve-racking," Sykes said. "When it comes to acting and movies, she's royalty And then when I saw all my scenes were with her, and I had to call her an old slut, I thought, 'I can't call Jane Fonda an old slut, they'll take away my SAG card,' " Sykes said.

So she avoided meeting Fonda for as long as possible. At Sykes' costume fitting, when she learned that Fonda was due to show up in 15 minutes, she made sure to be out of there in 10. When they finally met at the first table reading, "Jane was really sweet, she grabbed me and hugged me, and said, 'I heard so much about you. This will be a lot of fun, we get to fight.' I didn't really say anything, I was in awe."

Wait a minute, Wanda Sykes was rendered speechless?

"I'm pretty shy," said the woman who manages some intimidating work herself. At 5 feet, 2 inches, she finds the people who are most daunted by her are ... football players. "I walk into a locker room with these huge 350-pound guys towering over me, and they're like, 'Ohhh, here comes Wanda, watch out. Go easy on me, Wanda.' It's funny."

On the other hand, some fans are a little too enamored of her humor, infused as it is with words that are unprintable here.

"When I was on the book tour [last fall], people said, 'Curse at me!' And I was like 'What?' 'Curse at me when you sign the book.' ... Or people had their cellphones, saying, 'Leave a message cursing people out for calling me.' What? I'm not doing that. I need a reason to curse at people."

An authors' alliance

SYKES and Fonda bonded early on the set when they discovered both were writing books. (Fonda asked to read Sykes' galleys and returned the next day of shooting with a positive blurb for the back cover.)

"With Jane, I teased her about everything, because we'd already crossed that line," she said. Since most of her scenes were with Fonda, as her long-but-not-quietly-suffering personal assistant Ruby, she didn't work enough with co-star Michael Vartan to give him much grief. "I just teased him about being pretty. That's a pretty man." As for Jennifer Lopez, "the woman gets so much crap from every other source," Sykes left her alone.

She was happy to poke fun at director Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde"), who she said looked like a 13-year-old skateboarder on the set. She was recently asked to give him an award at a gala event but said she has no idea what it was for. "Robert's Australian. They're recognizing ... something," she said, adding that she knows she wasn't his first choice for presenter. "I'm pretty sure Reese Witherspoon is busy, Jane's busy, Jennifer's busy." So Sykes was next on the list? "I don't even know if I'm fourth. I'm just available. I'm unemployed."

Well, not really. Sykes is involved in Bob Costas' new HBO show. "I think it's called 'I'm Bob and I Know Everything,' something like that," she said. "I get a little segment on it called 'Disrespecting the Game.' " She also has voice-over roles in two upcoming animated movies, "Barnyard" and "Over the Hedge."

"I'll be dead by the time they come out, it takes them so long," Sykes said of the pace of animated film. "I'll just put in my will, 'Leave my nephews the premiere tickets,' because I know I won't be here."

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