Allow me to begin my discussion of Saturday (Nov. 7) night’s premiere of FOX’s “The Wanda Sykes Show” with a caveat: It’s completely unfair to critique a talk show on the basis of any one episode, especially its first episode. I know this fact, but in the past six months, I’ve provided this sort of initial evaluation (sometimes calling them reviews, sometimes not) for Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno, so if I didn’t do the same for Wanda Sykes, I’m sure she’d be offended.
[Well, she probably wouldn’t actually be offended. Not by me allowing her time to find the structure and voice of her show. In fact, she’d probably be appreciative. If she noticed at all. Which she wouldn’t.]
So, that being said, my first reactions to “The Wanda Sykes Show” — not quite a review, but more like a review than not like a review — after after the break…
Sykes’ most recent comedy special was titled “I’ma Be Me” and that could also be a subtitle for her FOX late night series. This was not an example of a comic attempting to tailor her persona or material to reach a wider or mainstream audience on Saturday evening. I don’t think the premiere of “The Wanda Sykes Show” is going to gain Sykes any new fans, but if you liked her material before, she just came out and did her thing and the audience was pleased.
The show began at 11 p.m. with a toothless filmed bit that chose to make fun of Ann Coulter for having prominent eyelashes. I bet even Ann Coulter thinks she has more substantive mockable qualities than her eyelashes. The video was weak and humorless and gave the impression Sykes may be prepared to pull her punches, but she set those fears to rest by following with nearly 10 minutes of jokes about Barack Obama haters and the mess left by George W. Bush.
Some of that political material felt flat, or seemed like Sykes trying to be edgy by slamming Fox News, which only sounds risky if you’re completely unaware that FOX and Fox News have 100 percent separate corporate and executive structures. This wasn’t Sykes biting the hand that feeds her, especially if you remember how outspoken she was about FOX’s treatment of “Wanda at Large.”
But sometimes she hit her mark, like when she noted “When you say things like ‘We gonna vote that fascist out of office,’ you really sound dumb.” And, if nothing else, she made it clear that she isn’t going to make herself into an apolitical Jay Leno type just to broaden her appeal. She vowed to be Obama’s “Tell People Where To Go and What to Kiss Czar” and there’s probably room in the marketplace for that.
Test shows aside, this was Sykes first experience on her new stage and there was evident discomfort, largely on the part of the director. There’s ample room on the set for mobility, but Sykes didn’t work her way around, didn’t project to different parts of the appreciative audience. Instead, she stood steady and was tightly framed mostly in close-ups, which proved claustrophobic and didn’t showcase the set. Like many comics, Sykes can be a prowler, working her way around a stage, so this is probably just an example of initial uncertainty.
After the opening 10 minutes of politics, Wanda did a few minutes talking with friend Keith Robinson, a conversation which moved, again, to President Obama. Then she returned again for Wandarama, an “In the News”-style segment that played as “Weekend Update”-lite and was inconsistent, but at least diversified the topics from merely political to political, but also Adam Lambert.
The show’s second half was guest-driven and offers potential, once the inevitable refinements occur.
Sykes welcomed “Amazing Race” host Phil Keoghan, plus FOX stars Mary Lynn Rajskub of “24” and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell of “Brothers.” And the four of them sat at a long newsdesk and talked. Again, the director had no idea how to make the conversation visually interesting, so the entire second half of the show stagnated. I don’t know if I missed the openness of a couch, or just being able to see peoples’ legs, but this newsdesk thing may not be a good idea.
A better idea, though? Giving the guests alcohol. So Keoghan cradled a glass of red wine, Rajskub fiddled with the olive in her martini and everybody appeared to be having a jolly time. This is what many talk shows already do for guests in the green room, but it was nice to see the boozing out in the open and even if the guests weren’t necessarily funnier than they would have been otherwise, it was definitely more sociable.
With the guests, Sykes discussed child rearing — “I’ve been learning my parenting techniques from Jack Bauer on ’24,'” Rajskub cracked — and the appeal (or lack thereof) of spending $4.5 million for a vacation on a space hotel. Keoghan did at least one good take-off on his “Amazing Race” persona, while Mitchell had a joke about crawling up the stairs (“The Grudge”-style) after his misbehaving child that was funnier than anything on “Brothers” this season. After all of the politics of the show’s opening half, the guest portion didn’t go in that direction.
The premiere closed with “Inappropriate Games,” hosted by Wanda’s drag queen sidekick Porsche (Portia?). This week’s game? “Know Your Asians.” Turns out Hideki Matsui is Japanese and Ming-Na is Chinese. So that was neither tricky, nor edgy, nor funny. But better luck next time!
Moving forward, I’d love to see “The Wanda Sykes Show” open the format up. I’d love to see Wanda outside of the studio or using the audience. Really, I’d love to see Wanda do anything other than standing or sitting. The material in the premiere was less of a problem than the execution of that material. But it was just one week and unlike with a nightly talk show, “The Wanda Sykes Show” won’t be able to do course correction after a few quick episodes. The thing the show has going for it is the host’s confidence in her own voice, a voice I often quite enjoy.