Wanda Sykes’ Not Normal: Comedy Without Cruelty

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

In the last year, Netflix has hosted specials by a range of lesbian comedians. Hannah Gadsby, Tig Notaro, and now – with the release of Not Normal – Wanda Sykes. From the get-go, Sykes is not afraid to get political. As an African American lesbian living through the Trump administration, she has little other choice.

45 has been the butt of many jokes relating to his racism, incoherence, tangerine complexion, and complete lack of skills you’d expect to find in the President of the United States. This subject has been mined on a daily basis since Trump threw his red MAGA cap into the Presidential race. But Sykes, a veteran of the comedy circuit, strikes comedy gold with her impersonation. Her body language shifts from smooth and open to hostile and aggressive. The playful light behind her eyes dims to match his vacant stare.

Not Normal is guaranteed to leave you longing for the days when a tan suit and a sleeveless dress were the biggest scandals to be found in the White House. Still, there is a vein of optimism running through Sykes’ performance. Between jokes, she reminds us of an important silver lining: “we sent more women to Congress than ever before. All kinds of women: African American, Native American, Asian American, Muslims.” The resistance is happening, and women are at the heart of it.

With a subtle shift in gear, Sykes steers away from feminist polemic. She is, after all, a comedian. Not Normal pokes fun at feminist contradictions, pointing out the irony of women supporting #MeToo and declaring Time’s Up on Hollywood sexism while continuing to watch shows like The Bachelor.

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

She gets a lot of laughs for pointing out that “you never touch a Black woman’s hair – not even if she’s got a tarantula on her head.” Many viewers will find catharsis as well as humor in Sykes description of the post-holiday skin comparison maneuver that white people in offices around the world insist on pulling with their Black colleagues.

Sykes is at her strongest when she’s pulling material from her personal life. Not Normal is filled with side-splitting anecdotes about what it means to be a Black woman with a white wife and white children: “white supremacy is on the rise and I’m in a house full of white people!” The layers of tension that often surround the racial politics of family are dissolved by Sykes’ humor.

Scattered through Not Normal are references to “my wife.” Even now that same-sex marriage has been legal in all 50 states for four years, it is powerful to witness a woman stand on a stage and say those two words. A transracial lesbian family might not be a lot of people’s idea of normal, but with her material, Sykes manages to paint a picture of family life in which anybody could see themselves. She is hilarious, insightful, and universally relatable in a way that Black women aren’t always shown to be. With Not Normal, which Sykes wrote and produced, she has opened the door for families like hers and mine to be seen as exactly that: normal.

photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Throughout the special, only pop stars and Presidents are the targets of Sykes’ barbed humor. Unlike many of her white, male peers, Sykes manages to complete an entire set without once taking aim at vulnerable people. Not Normal is a timely reminder that it’s possible for a comedian to be funny without casual racism, misogyny, ableism, or cruelty.

Like Gadsby and Notaro, Sykes only ever punches up. Those men who have built reputations as edgelords of the comedy world would do well to take note. The warmth Sykes brings to the stage is her greatest asset, the magic that has fuelled a career of 30 years and counting.

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