What You Don't Know About Wanda Sykes

If you love stand-up comedy, you probably know legendary comedian Wanda Sykes from her many specials. Even if you aren't familiar with her telling jokes on stage, you've likely seen her guest-starring on television series, such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," and "The Good Fight." According to the Virginia Pilot, the Emmy-winning talent has been performing since 1987 and shows no signs of slowing down. This year, you can catch her hosting the upcoming 94th Academy Awards alongside fellow funny women Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

While Sykes has been known to dish about her personal life during her comedy routines, there are some interesting tidbits about the Virginia-born, Maryland-raised actress that even some die-hard fans might be surprised to learn. For one, she describes herself as "quiet" and "low key" when she's not at work (via Poughkeepsie Journal). Here are some other things you probably didn't know about the comedian.

She studied marketing in college

Although Wanda Sykes ended up in show business, that wasn't her initial plan. Instead, she attended college at Hampton University, where she studied marketing. While the now-comedian wanted to study something like "drama or theater" in school, she believed her parents would be more approving of a marketing degree, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Looking back, Sykes would tell her younger self to major in a subject she was more passionate about; however, she admits her path might have been good for her at the time. "Maybe I did it the right way, because maybe I wasn't mature enough to start back then," she told Backstage.

Sykes may have not studied what she wanted in college, but she still enjoyed her time on campus. While attending Hampton, she joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and had an active social life. "Lots of friends," she told The Virginia Pilot about her time at the university. "Everybody was about getting their studies in, and we partied on the weekends."

She worked for the NSA

Wanda Sykes might make people laugh for a living these days, but that wasn't always the case. Fans of the funny actress might be surprised to learn she had a serious, and secretive, job before entering the comedy world. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, Sykes went on to work for the National Security Agency (NSA) after graduating college. "When you grew up in that area, that's just what you did," she told the Washingtonian. "You just ended up working for the government."

While at the NSA, Sykes worked as a procurement officer who bought everything from "furniture" to "intel equipment." "It wasn't that exciting, but what we did was very important work," she also told the Washingtonian.

Working for the government might not have been the most thrilling job, but it served as a launching pad for Sykes. During her time at the NSA, she tried her hand at comedy in a local talent show. For the next few years, Sykes did stand-up on the side until she worked up the nerve to leave her full-time job.

Chris Rock gave her a chance

Fans might know Wanda Sykes from shows like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but she got her first major industry job on another HBO show. According to her website, Sykes worked on "The Chris Rock Show" for five years both on-screen as an actress and off as a writer. During her run on the show, Sykes received three Emmy nominations and won one for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Special.

Before working on the award-winning show, Chris Rock noticed Sykes' talent when she spent a weekend opening up for him. "I had bumped into Chris in the clubs from time to time before then," Sykes said in an interview with Backstage. "He never really got a chance to see my set. So, he got to see me that whole weekend and he was like, 'Man, you're really funny. You're really good.'" Once Rock got his show, Sykes was invited to contribute to it and her career "took off" from there. "That was a huge break for me," she told Backstage.

Wanda Sykes is also a voice actor

Wanda Sykes might have a well-known face, but many people recognize her voice, as well. So much so that the comedian has done extensive voice acting work throughout the years and across multiple genres. According to her IMDb page, Sykes has appeared in animated feature films, such as "Rio," "Ice Age 4: Continental Drift," and "Ice Age 5: Collision Course." She's also worked on multiple animated television shows like Nickelodeon's "Back at the Barnyard” and Netflix's "Q-Force."

In addition to lending her unmistakable voice to episodes of big-name shows, including "The Simpsons," "Bob's Burgers," and "BoJack Horseman," Sykes has also done voice work as a narrator ("For Christmas Sake") and in video games ("Tiny Tina's Wonderlands" and "Ice Age: Continental Drift – Arctic Games"). Sykes was nominated for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance at the 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards for her work voicing the character Gladys on the Comedy Central puppet show "Crank Yankers."

She works behind the camera, too

Wanda Sykes isn't just a stand-up comic and actress; she also has a hand in many roles behind the scenes. The Emmy-winning writer has penned episodes of several shows, including "Last Comic Standing" and "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," as well as her own shows "The Wanda Sykes Show" and "Wanda at Large." She was also one of the writers for the 74th Academy Awards.

In addition to writing, Sykes works as a producer. Through her company Push It Productions, which she founded with Page Hurwitz in 2013, Sykes produces comedies that champion diversity. Since then, the company has produced several shows and specials, such as "Talk Show The Game Show," "Unprotected Sets," and the Emmy-nominated Netflix series "Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready." 

"The Upshaws," another Netflix series from Push It Productions, stars Sykes along with comedian Mike Epps and sitcom veteran Kim Fields. The show debuted to high praise in 2021 and was renewed for a second season the same year.

Her wife is French

Wanda Sykes, who was raised in a religious household, came out in her 40s during a rally for same-sex marriage in Las Vegas. Before then, Sykes was married to a record producer, which she often joked about in her stand-up routines. "It just speaks to being in a bad relationship with my husband," she told The New York Times about her jokes. "I was being honest. I wanted to get away."

These days, Sykes is happily married to her wife, Alex Sykes (née Niedbalski). The pair, who wed in 2008, met on a ferry in New York. "Something really said to me — like, audibly — 'Wow, that's what you need, Wanda,'" Sykes told The Guardian about the first time she spotted her spouse. The couple now split their time between the United States and France, where Niedbalski is originally from. The France native can even be seen on Instagram teaching Sykes lessons in the French language and culture. "She is French, and we are very different," Sykes said in InStyle, "but I think we complement each other in all the best ways."

She's a mother of twins

Wanda and Alex Sykes are the parents of two children — daughter Olivia and son Lucas. The twins were born in 2009 and are the couple's only children. In an essay she wrote for InStyle, Sykes admitted she didn't know whether she would ever have kids. However, she solidified her decision after meeting her wife. "As parents, we're a team," she wrote about her partner. "Whenever there is an area where I might be lacking, she covers me, and vice versa."

Since becoming a mother, Sykes has incorporated her children into her act. However, she admitted it has gotten more difficult to do as the twins have grown. They've even asked her to ease off of the family jokes so they won't get "teased" by their friends. "I have to be a little cautious about what I say about them," Sykes told AARP. "I'm not going to embarrass them. But then again, those jokes pay for those little trips to France."

She made history at the 2009 White House Correspondents' Dinner

Wanda Sykes has enjoyed a groundbreaking career. From her stand-up specials to her production work, she's continued the legacy of previous comediennes while paving the way for younger generations of funny women. She's also made history while doing it. In 2009, Sykes became the first Black woman to host the White House Correspondents' Dinner, which just happened to be during the tenure of America's first Black president Barack Obama.

"One of my proudest moments was being the first Black woman to host the White House Correspondents' Dinner," Sykes wrote in an InStyle essay. "Alex had just given birth to our twins [Lucas and Olivia], so it was a crazy time and we weren't getting any sleep. But to go into that room in front of Barack Obama, the first African American president, and do my thing and then get to go back to my hotel room and hold my two babies next to my wife was pretty crazy and incredible."

In signature Sykes fashion, the comic spoke her mind as she hosted the White House Correspondents' Dinner. She even ruffled feathers and made headlines when she cracked controversial jokes about conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh.

She advocates for LGBTQ+ youth

When Wanda Sykes isn't making her fans laugh, they can find her advocating for members of the LGBTQ+ community. According to Pride Source, the multi-talented comic has worked with many LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, including GLAAD and The Trevor Project. One cause dear to her heart is the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth, specifically those experiencing homelessness. Since 2012, Sykes has worked with the Ruth Ellis Center, an organization with a vision to prevent LGBTQ+ youth homelessness in Detroit.

Sykes became involved with the Ruth Ellis Center when the staff invited her to visit while she was in Detroit for a tour. What was initially a brief visit extended to three hours, as Sykes spoke with youth at the center (via Advocate). "I think a lot of people know there are homeless teens," Sykes told Hour Detroit, "but I think they think they're just troubled kids who ran away from home. They don't know these kids were kicked out, abused."

Since her first visit to the Ruth Ellis Center, Sykes has donated to the center, filmed a public service announcement, and hosted fundraising events. In 2019, the center honored Sykes with the Ruth Ellis Legacy Award.

She's a breast cancer survivor

In 2011, Wanda Sykes went in for a routine breast reduction. Surprisingly, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer, when doctors tested the removed tissue from her surgery. "I had just had a mammogram and a biopsy, and it all came back negative," Sykes told People. "If I hadn't had the reduction, who knows what would have happened."

Thankfully, Sykes was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer. However, the comedian was still understandably in shock. Due to her family history with the disease, Sykes decided having a double mastectomy was the best route to prevent complications in the future. While she naturally went through a range of emotions after her mastectomy (admitting to People that she felt "miserable" and "depressed" at times), she ultimately healed emotionally and physically and is now cancer-free. "I feel whole; I really do," Sykes revealed to People. "Because every day, I get to say, 'There's no cancer.' I'm healthy, and that's beautiful."

She has an interesting family history

Wanda Sykes not only has an interesting personality and career, but she also has an interesting family history. In 2012, Sykes appeared on the PBS show "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr." On the series, host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. helps guests trace their family tree.

While on the show, Sykes learned that her ninth great-grandmother was actually a white woman who had a child with an enslaved person. Because of this, her great-grandmother was punished and one part of Sykes' genealogy hadn't been enslaved even before the Civil War. While this was surprising news to Sykes, she admitted in an interview with The Guardian that learning about this piece of family history was also "bittersweet." She explained, "Because OK, wow, I was able to trace one of my grandparents — but the other three [had ancestors who] were just property, so there was no record."

Wanda Sykes loves puzzles

With such a busy life as a spouse, mom, and entertainer, Wanda Sykes might have fans wondering just what she does during her free time. Some might be surprised to learn she can usually be found solving jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles aren't just a fun hobby for Sykes; she also turns to them to help her spark creativity. "When I do the puzzles, my brain is kind of operating from another place and it allows me to come up with great material," she told Poughkeepsie Journal. "Sometimes when I'm doing puzzles I can come up with jokes or just ideas for a show."

Sykes is partial to jigsaw puzzles depicting still life (and ones with 2,500 pieces). However, she did show off her impressive skills on Instagram when she solved a tricky gradient one. "I did it!" she captioned the puzzle photo. "Thanks @iamalexsykes ... please don't give me another one.

Moms Mabley is her idol

With her career spanning multiple mediums and genres, Wanda Sykes is a role model — especially to comedians. However, Sykes has her own comedy icons she looks up to. Growing up, Sykes was a fan of trailblazing comedian Moms Mabley and would often watch tapes of Mabley on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Not only did Mabley pave the way for generations of Black, female, and LGBTQ+ comedians, but Sykes also credits her with "[planting] the seed" for her to be where she is today (via AARP).

In a full-circle moment, Sykes got the opportunity to portray her idol on the Amazon Prime Video original "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" in 2020. Being that Sykes is such a big fan of Mabley, it didn't take much research for her to embody the historic comic. "I felt like I was preparing for this role as a kid," Sykes told Backstage. "My mom and grandmother would tell me I would walk around the house with a dust rag on my head and would actually do Moms Mabley. I've been waiting for this role." Sykes portrayed Mabley so well that she received a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.