JFL Northwest Comedy Festival, Vancouver
February 18-27, 2016
The regal nature of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre was relieved of its pomp with only two hanging banners narrowing the colossal stage. There was one main spotlight on one little rug for a night of stand up with one of the most recognized and respected voices in American comedy.
Sykes is taping her new special in San Francisco in May, with this Wednesday’s show at the QE a necessary stop in what leads up to a taping. The night had a casual vibe of experimentation. Sykes took her time to play and futz with strings of stories, probably not in their final order, but who cares? Sykes is a 30-year seasoned comedy vet. The jokes are already damn good.
What took damn good to damn great were Sykes’ understated physical act-outs, genius in their simplicity and ability to send the room up in roars. With a static posture, she became a pair of aging breasts and made fine use of a stool to signal she was driving to Mexico where it would be safe to teach her kid a lesson (but, as an audience member learned, don’t ask any further questions about her personified paunch, Esther). The physical comedy boosted Sykes’ stage presence, filling in gaps where material wasn’t yet at its sharpest. The end of bits sometimes broke loose and quiet until she got back on her main point. But Wanda knows what she’s doing, even when she doesn’t.
Not much of the material spent time knitting her point of view to Vancouver’s. No bits about rain or weed or hockey. Instead, there were small nods to make sure the auditorium was on the same page. When she turned the mic on the comedic failure, which was Jim Webb’s run at the US Presidency, I, as a born-and-bred American, wanted to experience Sykes on home turf. Webb is already two news cycles ago, and while laughter of recognition came out while Sykes personified Webb, it was a laughter that said: We don’t know this dude, but we know America is nuts right now, so this doesn’t surprise us.
It was here I was impressed and frustrated: Vancouver made a good show of laughing at the current political and social commentary every American comedian must exonerate themselves from, but I also wanted everyone to know how good it felt to my apple-pie heart to see Wanda deep dive in on Trump, police shootings, and—in one of the show’s most candid moments—Cosby.
It’s not that it was funnier to me because I’m American, or that I think Canadians aren’t also suffering from Trump’s verbal dumping on the world. Sykes is at the height of her comedic powers and she offers what the best comedians can for us civilians: relief.
As a counter point, Sykes’ characterizations of her younger French wife (mimed cigarettes and high-pitched accented Franglais included) brought a knowing laughter out of the crowd I couldn’t muster. We don’t have a Quebec in the States.
What I’m saying is—as I know writing a review for a comic who needs a nice blurb from me as much as Vancouver needs more rain (lame callback)—is that comedy is important not just because it’s funny. When comedy can make you feel at ease with not only your world, but with yourself, then something special is happening. When there’s common language between comic and audience, the deeper comedy can do its work.
It’s not for nothing that Darcy Michaels was the show opener. Darcy’s material focused on life as a married man raising an 18-year-old daughter with his husband. Sykes work with the LGBTQ community brought her the GLAAD Media Award in 2010. As she opened the show with a list of the facts of her life—now long divorced from her husband, at 51, married to her wife and raising two white children—Sykes asked, “How did I get here?” It was a celebratory question. Despite stories of domestic chaos and feeling alien as the only black woman in her very white family, Wanda radiated with ease.
This is not a call to start dating the same gender (although, I recommend it) or to become American (I recommend this less). Wanda’s level of confidence inside her worldview was a reminder of how nourishing it is to hear your thoughts and community reflected back to you, even while still under construction. This is a call to go out and support local comedy.
At least until the new special.
K.C. Novak is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing and Theatre at UBC.