There was a lot to be distracted by during Wanda Sykes’ performance at JFL NorthWest. People were constantly in and out of their seats, the flashlight action by the ushers was non-stop, and the lady to my right appeared to be writing a novel. Additionally the room was full of security guards, tasked with ensuring that not a single cellphone left a pocket or purse. “Absolutely no phones during the show,” we were told—at the entrance to the building, then again on the way to our seats, and twice more before Sykes herself stepped on stage. At one point during the show, she would pause to point and tell two people in the audience that she saw them and to stop it.
Sykes opened by poking fun at the American presidential hopefuls. There were some laughs, but it seemed many people in the room didn’t know anything about how Ben Carson spoke or how Bernie Sanders dressed. It wasn’t until she touched on Trump that the audience roared. They seemed relieved. Finally, a candidate we know something about! Later after reflecting on what a terrible role model Barbie was, she would endorse Clinton, twice. This felt like an awkward plug and was met with a loud boo from the upper balcony each time.
Despite the emphasis placed on making sure nothing was taped, recorded or photographed, many of the jokes told had already been tested out on the Ellen Degeneres show—in particular, the bits about Sykes’ French wife and their two small children. Her jokes about marriage, parenting, and race were a highlight. Where the three intersected, I laughed the hardest; it was here that she was most relatable. Sykes shared her everyday concerns, making the audience laugh while acknowledging that life has it’s challenges—like the fact that her daughter might be the mean girl at school or that, as the only black person in a “house full of white people,” she’s had to surrender her n-word privileges.
Wanda Sykes is a brilliant story teller. She takes her time getting to the punchline without exhausting her waiting audience. The deliveries are always slow, but never boring, and she powerfully employs her body to tell jokes. Perhaps most importantly, she’s the only person I know of who has made a joke about Bill Cosby that was both funny and tactful. When this punchline came, the relief in the room felt almost tangible.
On the whole, Sykes’ performance at JFL NorthWest was very funny, but it felt as if a third of the room never laughed. I however, was not among this silent third. For the second time in a week, I left Queen Elizabeth Theatre with tired cheeks, ready to take a long break from laughing and smiling.
Wanda Sykes performed at JFL NorthWest, Vancouver's own comedy festival, on February 24, 2016. For more information about the festival, visit jflnorthwest.com.