Is Washington Ready for Wanda? | NBC New York

Is Washington Ready for Wanda?

Wanda Sykes Goes to Washington



    How will she handle the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner?

    If the pick of Wanda Sykes as this year’s entertainment at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner tells us anything, it’s that the days of Rich Little and Craig Ferguson are long gone.

    Little is the PG-rated ’70s-and-’80s-era impersonator who headlined the WHCA’s 2007 dinner and whose performance was largely panned as having been outdated and unfunny. Ferguson, last year’s entertainer, got better reviews but also played it safe; he said at the time that “being funny is more important to me than being controversial.”

    And then there’s Wanda Sykes, whose 2006 CD “Sick & Tired” contains well over 100 instances of R-rated language in just one hour of stand-up. Her routine covers abortion, pornography, sexual acts, prostitution, drug use and strip clubs — and that’s the sanitized-for-your-family-newspaper version of it.

    So how’s this going to play when official Washington sits down for dinner at the Hilton Washington on May 9?

    “She can be very colorful in her stand-up routines,” April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio, says of Sykes. “She also can be very funny without profanity, as she does voice-overs for children’s shows. I hope she falls somewhere in the middle. Not blue but funny and tasteful.”

    Adds another White House reporter: “Based on some of her previous gigs — and the vulgarity she uses — we can only hope that she will respect the office and the crowd by cleaning up her act and making sure that nobody’s offended by her performance.”

    The Washington Examiner’s Julie Mason calls Sykes “salty” but says that could create a more lively dinner. “She does have a provocative act, but she seems to actually like Obama. In the past, it’s been awkward when the entertainment insulted the president — who is under no obligation to attend our annual fundraiser.”

    Liberals will be glad to know that Sykes is firmly on their side of the aisle, having referred to then-President George W. Bush as an “a—hole” who would ruin everything the United States had ever done. She’s called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and she’s made fun of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident. 

    So will Obama get off easy?

    Not necessarily.

    “I’m sick of politicians across the board, Republicans and Democrats,” Sykes says on “Sick & Tired.” “They’re all shady. I’m sick of them. To me, political office should be like jury duty. You should just get a notice in the mail one day and say, ‘Aw, sh—, I’m secretary of state next month. Ain’t this a b——?’”


     Previous WHCA dinner entertainers have certainly done locker room humor during their careers — see: Norm MacDonald and Al Franken. And some, such as Don Imus in 1996 and Stephen Colbert a decade later, have stepped right up to — or crossed over — the oft-described “singe, not burn” line.

    Although it’s safe to assume that Sykes will tone down her material for the May gig, it’s unlikely she’ll make it down to Rich Little land. Her 2003 Comedy Central special was bleeped six times during its broadcast, according to the version available on iTunes.

    Sykes’ representatives did not respond to requests for comment. 

    Jennifer Loven, WHCA president and Associated Press White House correspondent, says that Ferguson was the first to suggest Sykes, after his performance last year. Loven says she told Ferguson that WHCA leaders were looking for “something different than ‘white guy’” for this year’s dinner and that Sykes “was very excited to do it and available.”

    Loven acknowledges that there are risks involved, but she says she thinks Sykes will be “great.”

    “I think it’ll be fun to have somebody edgy,” said Loven. “You always run a risk. It’s not our routine. We don’t have — and don’t want — control over the routine. ... It’s an issue of trust: trust and cross your fingers that it doesn’t cross the line. We’re not censors. ... It’s her job to figure out what’s right for the room.”

    Loven said that when Sykes asked her if the routine needed to be clean, she responded, “Well, the president is sitting at the head table, so you do what you think is appropriate.”

    Loven knows that she and Sykes will be sharing the hot seat. The selection of each year’s WHCA entertainment is one of the most scrutinized decisions of the year within Washington’s social and political circles, and the gig has earned a reputation among WHCA alumni as one of the toughest around.

    “You’ve seen what happens when one of us ends up at the White House Correspondents’ dinner,” Jon Stewart told PBS’s Bill Moyers in 2007. “It doesn’t end well.”

    After Colbert’s alternately panned and praised routine in 2006, the Comedy Central star said: “The crowd practically carried me out on their shoulders” ... albeit before he was ready to leave.

    And this year, the WHCA, its entertainer and its guests face yet another challenge: As the economy falters and media companies lay off journalists, folks may not be in the mood for laughter — or eager to be seen yukking it up at a lavish, black-tie event.