As she takes Bombshell across the UK, Tiff Stevenson picks the stand-up and social commentator as her comic idol
They say never meet your heroes and I'm not likely to, as most of mine are no longer with us. This way, I suppose Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, Victoria Wood and George Carlin can't disappoint. So I thought I would pick someone who is very much alive and who you have the possibility of going to see at some point. Someone who I think is so relevant for this period of reckoning in politics, entertainment and beyond.
I came quite late to Wanda Sykes, maybe four or five years ago, after someone suggested I check her out as we had a similar idea on reproductive rights. I'd obviously seen her in movies before but I hadn't come across her stand-up. The first thing I watched was her special Sick & Tired and I was immediately struck by how much the crowd loved her. Also I had no idea just how famous she actually was.
She spent the first couple of minutes dealing with that fact, and talking about very broad and accessible things. Then after about 15 minutes, another gear kicks in. You barely notice it happening but we're into social politics and big philosophical ideas. An immediate masterclass in how to take all of your audience with you. There is never a point in that special that Wanda isn't accessible, in the room, one of them. Even though the 'them' is a very disparate group of people: some were there having watched the TV show Crank Yankers, some from seeing her in Jennifer Lopez rom com fodder, and some pure stand-up fans.
Technically excellent and gut-bustingly funny, my favourite bit is probably debating the economics of the space race: 'what has NASA ever given us apart from a mattress you can jump up and down on and not spill your wine? The space programme is a big ass welfare programme for really smart people'. That special blew my mind a little bit and I loved her from that moment on, with the cheeky glint in her eye, her charisma, and how easy she makes it look on the surface whilst underneath there is furious intellectual peddling. That's what I aspire to with my comedy and seeing her nailing it reinvigorates me every time.
Sick & Tired was before Wanda came out, and from that point on the work just got even better. By being open about her sexuality she was able to unpack homophobic attitudes as well as racist and sexist ones: 'it's easier being black than gay; I never had to come out as black'. All this did come at the personal cost of being estranged from her parents, but she's bold and brave and I love her for it. A hero should be brave.
The next piece of stand-up I watched was her performance at The White House Correspondents Dinner. It's significant for a few reasons: firstly, hardly any women get this gig, so a black, gay woman is a huge deal. This came during Obama's first term and Wanda was able to talk about race and being an outsider in a way that I don't think anyone else could have. It was heavily political, completely partisan and ruffled everyone's feathers.
There were angry pieces in Deadline Hollywood, Slate, Hollywood Reporter and Fox News, and to me, shaking the establishment is exactly what stand-up should do: if someone isn't getting angry then you ain't doing it right. They weren't ready for Wanda and it was incredible. It was risky too; at this point in her career she was already a star so there was more for her to lose than gain. She threw jibes at Obama mocking him for frequently being caught with his top off and how he becomes half-white if he screws up. Literally no one could have done this apart from Wanda. Also anything that annoyed Christopher Hitchens that much is a win in my book.
After watching that performance, I became a little bit obsessed with Wanda and her wife Alex: their red carpet-slaying looks, their family which feature heavily in Wanda's more recent work, and how much their very existence and lifestyle seem to confuse and anger right-wing men. I shout 'yes!' over and over at Wanda's stand-up. I watch films I wouldn't normally give the time of day to because she's in them. I just want to be best friends with her so maybe this is one hero I should meet.
Tiff Stevenson: Bombshell is on tour until Saturday 26 May.