- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 13, 2001

At first glance, comics Whoopi Goldberg and Wanda Sykes have little in common. On stage, the Oscar-winning Miss Goldberg wrings humor out of shrewdly observed characters. Miss Sykes relies on her simmering comic burns to break up audiences.
But Miss Goldberg paved the way for a generation of comics, including Wanda Sykes, who can now approach the profession without the fear that comes of braving the unknown.
"She's an inspiration, and she's opened a lot of doors for black female comedians and women as a whole," says Miss Sykes, most recently seen on NBC's "The Downer Channel."
"She really elevated women as far as broader roles, and money."
With high-profile roles in films such as 1985's "The Color Purple," 1986's "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and 1990's "Ghost," for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Miss Goldberg became a household name. The New York native, born Caryn Elaine Johnson almost 52 years ago, has been a reliable font of humor for nearly two decades.
Now her work has earned her a more rarefied honor, the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which she will receive Monday at the Kennedy Center with some of her closest show biz pals by her side.
She will be joined on stage by Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, colleagues from the "Comic Relief" series of HBO specials that raised millions of dollars for the homeless. Others stars slated to appear include Miss Sykes, comedienne Caroline Rhea, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, comic Tommy Davidson, comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and actor-comedian Alan King.
Miss Sykes, best known for her work on HBO's now-defunct "The Chris Rock Show," first saw Miss Goldberg on a HBO stand-up special featuring a character called Fontaine, a barbed-tongue junkie given verisimilitude by Miss Goldberg, who suffered from a drug problem of her own early in life.
"That really stuck with me," Miss Sykes says of the persona.
As does every performer, Miss Goldberg has had her low points. She drew mixed reviews for two Academy Awards hosting stints, and her 1992 television chat fest didn't last much longer than many other late-night wannabes. Yet she has displayed a knack for surviving stinkers like the barely released "Theodore Rex" (1995) or an ill-advised sketch in blackface with then-beau Ted Danson at a 1993 Friars' Club roast.
"It's sheer talent," Miss Sykes says. "She's always been honest. You have to respect that."
Miss Goldberg's more recent work, starring and producing "Hollywood Squares," might be seen as a safe retreat to an undemanding genre. But Miss Goldberg leaned on her celebrity pals to make regular appearances and gave the old show a hipness it never had when Paul Lynde commanded the center square.
Besides, the gig hasn't slowed down her other projects. Witness starring roles in this year's "Kingdom Come" and the minor summer hit "Rat Race." That punishing schedule is just part of what makes Miss Goldberg, who declined a request to be interviewed for this story, a rare talent, says Miss Sykes.
"She's always working. She creates vehicles for herself," she says. "She'll do something serious, then a comedy."
* * *
Award ceremonies often applaud talents whose best work lies behind them. For Miss Goldberg, the opposite could prove true. In addition to producing "Squares" and Lifetime's "Strong Medicine," she is producing two feature films and a Broadway musical, "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and her film ledger shows little signs of waning.
And behind her scratchy voice and thick mane of dreadlocks lies a perceptive woman with initiative and a solid sense of her surroundings. Like or hate her brand of left-wing politics, Miss Goldberg's efforts on behalf of the humanitarian series "Comic Relief," combined with her work supporting those with drug problems and AIDS, paints a complex portrait of an artist willing to do more than make us laugh.
What did Miss Sykes think when she heard Miss Goldberg won an award previously bestowed upon Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor?
"Maybe next time," she says, before adding with a laugh, "It's totally deserved."
The closest Miss Sykes came to meeting her comic mentor occurred a few years ago when Miss Goldberg visited "The Chris Rock Show" as a guest.
"I didn't meet her, but I was in her presence," recalls Miss Sykes. "That was enough."
The fourth annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Nov. 11 on PBS.

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