Wanda Sykes Is Sick of Going High When Others Go Low in ‘I’m An Entertainer’
(This review contains mild spoilers about Wanda Sykes’ new special, I’m An Entertainer, which premieres May 23rd on Netflix.)
Oh man, not another pandemic show.
That was my reaction to the first jokes in Wanda Sykes’ I’m An Entertainer, her new Netflix special filmed recently in Philly. I guess stories about COVID-19, isolating in place and getting vaccinated are relatable — we were all there, every one of us. But it’s all we had to talk about for two years, and we’re ready to laugh about something else, anything else. Thankfully, Sykes and I are on the same page. She’s got way more on her mind than Dr. Fauci gags.
Yep, there are jokes about our years in quarantine, but rather than soapbox lectures about who’s right or wrong about wearing masks at Trader Joe’s, the pandemic only serves as a launching pad for more personal comedy. Sykes was never afraid of the needle she was getting in her arm because she survived Mosquito Man, the guy who used to drive down the rural roads of her childhood, spraying nasty pesticides all over the neighborhood kids. There was no ice cream truck in Sykes’ neighborhood, but Mosquito Man was more fun. You could practically play hide-and-go-seek in that thick fog of bug poison, she remembers. Was Mosquito Man handing out warnings to the kids to stay out of the line of fire? No way. The guy was “shooting at us like a video game.”
But the secret star of I’m An Entertainer is someone who never appears on stage. That would be Alex, Sykes’ French-accented, chain-smoking wife, brought to life throughout the show by Sykes’ hilarious impersonation. Alex is comic relief, a cool, cosmopolitan counterpunch to Sykes’ more manic comic energy, but she’s also a reminder of all the bullshit that Sykes struggles with as a gay, liberal, Black woman in America.
That’s because Alex can do whatever she wants to do. When builders are constructing new homes near Sykes’ house, Alex is miffed that a window in one of the new places might have a direct view into their master bathroom. Sykes suggests they can just close the blinds. Soon, though, Sykes gets a call from Alex, suggesting the comic go up to the master bath and look out the window. There is Alex, waving from the window of the half-finished home, proving that potential peeping toms can look right in. Sykes is livid — this is the same messed-up thing Ahmaud Arbery did! House under construction, nosing around, checking it out. When he did it, neighbors chased him down and murdered him in the street.
But when Alex wanders around the half-finished drywall? Sykes is both relieved and furious to realize, “If they caught you in that house, they would have chased you down and asked if you wanted to see the other two models.”
Alex, who Sykes clearly adores, is also a symbol of the privilege the comic doesn’t have. Sykes recounts several stories of injustice against Black people throughout the special, some of which put her in a depressive tailspin. Alex, puffing on her cigarette and struggling for words, asks Sykes if she could talk to their (white) kids about why she’s so upset. Sykes turns it around, demanding that Alex explain white privilege and racism to the kids “and make sure we ain’t raising a Proud Boy up in this motherfucker.”
Alex takes another drag on her cigarette and considers her course of action: “Or I can make us some crepes?” Alex did make crepes, says Sykes. “And they were delicious.”
If this sounds heavy, don’t forget something crucial about Sykes — she’s an entertainer, as the special’s title states. Finding a way to laugh about her marriage, her TikTok kids, states that turn back the clocks on abortion and books, transphobia, critical race theory and menopause is what she was born to do. On the one hand, she’s irate about the state of her world. On the other, she’s using comedy to try to stitch everything back together.
So she uses jokes as a sword. After a series of potent punchlines about the January 6th insurrection, including a bit about elderly lawmakers hiding from rioters in Mitch McConnell’s droopy jowls, she anticipates the blowback she’ll get from fellow liberals: “You know, taking jabs at jowls does not move the conversation forward.” When they go low, we go high? That’s bullshit — Sykes is sick of going high. “I want to go low,” she says. “I want to have some fun.”
Taking the high road is boring in Sykes’ world. She’s tired of living like Democrats are PBS while Republicans are TLC. “What would you rather watch, PBS Newshour or Dr. Pimple Popper? Frontline or Sex Sent Me to the ER? Masterpiece Theatre or 90 Day Fiancé?”
Liberals need to get more outrageous and entertaining with their arguments, Sykes seems to be saying. Nobody wants to hear a condescending lecture, and Sykes, a 25-year veteran of barbed comedy, gets that. Instead, I’m An Entertainer gives us moral outrage wrapped up in hilarious impressions and killer punchlines. It’s the kind of special that has you laughing on the couch for an hour, barely noticing that you’ve been nodding in agreement the entire time.