- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

"I'm outspoken," says Wanda Sykes, star of "Wanda at Large," a new sitcom that premieres tonight at 9:30 on Fox. "Sometimes I say things that maybe I should have thought twice about saying."
Before turning to comedy, Miss Sykes, a Virginia native who grew up in Anne Arundel County, Md., worked at the National Security Agency, the federal government's supersecret, high-tech communications intelligence-gathering arm.
Outspokenness, it is safe to say, would not be high on the list of personal qualifications the NSA seeks in its new hires.
"I knew I wasn't supposed to be there. I was wasting my time, and I was wasting the government's time," she reflects. "Not that I was doing a bad job," she quickly adds.
Anyone who knows the caustic comic from her work on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Chris Rock Show" can attest that spydom's loss was comedy's gain.
Her new show casts Miss Sykes as a District-based comedian who ends up as a television commentator. Her everywoman character will butt heads with conservative commentators and television executives who never know what she'll say next.
The early results are middling. The first episodes offer a few laughs, chiefly supplied by Miss Sykes, but the setups are fairly predictable.
"Wanda at Large" hews so closely to the star's own identity that in the pilot episode, it even mimics an actual moment from her recent past.
She once found herself at a wrap party for HBO's "On the Record With Bob Costas." With a few snorts from the bar for courage, she began to opine about the man of the hour.
"He couldn't avoid hearing me. I was pretty loud," she says.
"I'm a Bob Costas fan, but after a half-hour conversation with Bob, you find out Bob knows everything. Every now and then, he should just shrug, mix it up. That would amaze people," she says, recalling the thrust of her jabs.
Mr. Costas didn't mind the ribbing, she says. An executive producer of HBO Sports was more than amused he wanted that unexpurgated banter on one of his shows.
The incident netted her a commentary gig on HBO's "Inside the NFL," where she brings the football elite down to size.
Letting the air out of inflated egos has become the comic's calling card, whether it's on Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers" or a recent one-hour stand-up special for the same network.
She says finding the right sitcom to harness her instincts took time.
Before "Wanda at Large," Miss Sykes rejected several pilots that didn't suit her comic persona including one that would have cast her as a maid who wins the lottery but insists on staying with her white host family.
"Wanda at Large" finds Miss Sykes front and center both as its star and as a writer and executive producer.
"Five years earlier, I wouldn't have been ready for it … my writing is so much better now, especially coming off 'The Chris Rock Show,'" says Miss Sykes, who earned a writing Emmy for her work with that ensemble.
"I have to be in the writers' room, or it's not gonna work. [Otherwise] I have to do a lot of acting, and we don't want that" she says.
She isn't afraid that her abrasive comic style will get squelched in a sitcom format.
"These are the people who brought you 'Man Versus Beast,'" she says of Fox. "You can do whatever you want."
Her first foray into network television, a sketch comedy show for NBC called "The Downer Channel," proved calamitously unfunny.
If "Wanda at Large" similarly sinks without a trace, she still has plenty on her plate. She recently inked a book deal, and her work with HBO and Comedy Central continues.
A cursory glance at her career suggests a shrewd series of choices culminating in her own sitcom. She insists she simply takes work that appeals to her.
"Things came along, projects just interested me," she says. "It wasn't really a plan, but I didn't want to jump up there [right away] and say, 'I need my own show.'"
Although Miss Sykes has been making people laugh with her comic rants since high school, she never considered a comedy career until she was working for the NSA. Hearing a radio advertisement for a local comedy competition reminded her of all those high school pals who had laughed at her spontaneous jokes.
She cobbled together five minutes of material for her impromptu act. She didn't win, but the process left her exhilarated.
"It was like a light went on," says Miss Sykes, who returns to the area May 1 through 4 for a stint at the D.C. Improv on Connecticut Avenue NW.

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