Wanda Sykes can be devastatingly funny. An Emmy Award-winning writer and comedian, Sykes is a regular on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Inside the NFL -- and also on Crank Yankers, a Comedy Central offering that features puppets acting out nasty, real-life crank calls made by a stable of comics. As Wanda Murphy, Sykes called up a tow-truck operator and hollered, "There's a turd in the backseat of my car!" Her incredulous target was so amazed that he had to get his friend on the phone, too, and the two men were soon laughing so hard they could barely talk. Sykes did it all with just her voice -- a honking, squawking, outraged bray, the acid essence of indignation applied to a poop joke.
If Sykes can do so much with just her voice, why is a whole show devoted to her not funny? In FOX's new Wanda at Large, Sykes plays a diminutive loudmouth hired by a Washington, D.C., TV station looking for a "Charles Barkley trash-talking" type to spice up a snoozer of a political talk show. After Sykes' character, Wanda Hawkins, crashes a company party and lights into the star anchor (which parallels the real story of Sykes' own hiring by HBO exec Rick Bernstein), sweaty TV suit Roger (Jason Kravits) decides she's the perfect woman to resuscitate the anemic station. Soon Wanda is out on the street, harassing gun buyers and showing up on the green of a men-only country club with a naked woman. "Can we play here?" she asks. "Of course," say the bug-eyed men. When the model is clothed in ugly golf togs, however, it's another story.
The premise of the show is good. All the Sykes elements are there: the tempestuous hair, that paint-peeling voice, the bullheaded attitude made all the more funny and fearsome for her short stature. But the show's creators have larded their new show with so many extraneous sitcom ingredients that Sykes barely has time to be herself. She's truly at large.
Perhaps the biggest problems are, as Wanda would say, "those damn kids" -- the niece and nephew she's helping her widowed sister-in-law raise. The cute munchkins pop over all the time, giving Wanda the chance to show the softness that underlies all her inappropriate parenting. It's sitcom bunkum, really, this need to sweeten her up. Wanda's an unpredictable firecracker, speaking over-the-top truth to power, and that's the role Sykes was born to play. FOX's decision to domesticate her is a cop-out; it's almost as if someone is afraid that Sykes will scare away the viewers.
It's a strange turn for FOX, which has never before been afraid of raising our ire. With its slew of bottom-feeder shows, it has consistently seemed to take delight in pushing the taste envelope. Why pull punches now?
Maybe because Sykes -- this smart, lefty-political, enraged black woman -- happily goes after the hand that feeds her. Networks such as FOX, fat politicians, the white people who hire her for "color" but then are afraid of what comes out of her mouth -- no one is safe. As Hawkins, she tears into the concept of "news you can use," a FOX staple. "I'm sick of shows showing you how to do stuff," she says, such as where to buy anthrax or how to make a bomb. She also comments on-air about a smart woman commentator's freaky face-lift. (Greta van Susteren, anyone?) But there's no catfighting scene here; Wanda's whole point is about gender inequality. Why, for example, does this great journalist feel like "she had to go out and get a whole new head" while "Roosterneck," an old white guy, feels like he can sit there with all his chins? Wanda also takes on race -- and argues for segregation. "All old white men should be segregated from the White House, the Supreme Court . . . and from movies with young women," she declares.
One favorite target is Wanda's Bryant Gumble-esque co-worker Bradley (Phil Morris), a handsome black conservative who is overheard saying, "That's the problem with you liberals. You always wanna be liked. Me, I'm willing to be despised for my principles." He and Wanda clash with charming regularity, and the spats are quite telling -- the unthreatening, clean-cut man basking in his job security, the spiky woman about to get bounced from her position every second. But their sparring masks a grudging respect, and maybe even the stirrings of attraction. Despite their differences, Wanda seems to hint, these two characters, these two political worldviews, will find a way to coexist.
When Wanda is allowed to take on the injustice around her and engage in political throw-downs with Bradley, the show takes on a daring energy and edge. FOX must have known how fierce Sykes can be, as it put her in the latest possible time slot and has to frequently bleep out her cursing. Sykes is amazing, and you can see hints of her talent. She manages to take what's nearly become a cliché -- the person of color yelling that the emperor has no clothes -- and make it hard-hitting, but also complex and vulnerable. After all, her character learns there's a price to pay for speaking your mind: She's fired after two weeks, and then rehired. For Wanda Sykes, that price is being saddled with sitcom kids, even over her strenuous protests during the show's development. But I hope that FOX bucks up, realizes that it doesn't have to "humanize" a brash woman with adorable moppets and discovers that it doesn't need quite so many of the weird dream sequences that are straight out of that unfeminist sitcom Ally McBeal.
One of those sequences did have it right, though. After Wanda is hired, Roger asks her friend Keith (Dale Godboldo) whether the station will regret bringing her on. Keith flashes to an image of Wanda, head spliced onto a Doberman, worrying Roger's pants. That's Wanda, all right. FOX needs to unleash her and let her run with her mouth. She may tear a hole in the seat of your pants. But if she does, more than likely, you deserved it.
Noy Thrupkaew writes about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online.