Let's get the important thing out of the way first: Wanda Sykes is a big fan of the New Orleans Saints. And the first time she came to New Orleans, it wasn't as a comedian, but as a comedic correspondent for HBO's Inside the NFL, a job for which she won three Emmy Awards in the early 2000s.
"My best friend is from Louisiana. They [the Saints] weren't doing so hot back then," Sykes adds, laughing. "But I went to the Super Bowl when it was in New Orleans — the Rams against the Patriots — and that was my first time in New Orleans, and I fell in love with the city."
So who's her favorite Saint? "It's gotta be Drew," Sykes says. "Drew Brees is just an incredible player — breaking Johnny Unitas' record. [Darren] Sproles is just incredible. [Marques] Colston. It's just a solid team.
"After Katrina I was doing a piece on them when they were playing at a college. I did a bit where I went to Habitat for Humanity and asked them to build them a new stadium," she says, laughing again. "I met the players, Joe Horn, all of them, and I said, 'You know what? This is gonna be my team.' I'm all with the Saints."
Sykes began performing standup comedy in the late 1980s, eventually opening for Chris Rock and going on to work as a writer on The Chris Rock Show, for which she won her first Emmy. She has been a regular on several TV shows since, most notably Wanda At Large, The New Adventures of Old Christine and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as appearing in movies (Monster-in-Law, Evan Almighty, Pootie Tang). Sykes also briefly had a late-night talk show and has starred in several one-woman comedy specials. In 2003, Comedy Central named her the funniest woman on television.
This week, Sykes is bringing her standup act to the Mahalia Jackson Theater, a return visit to the town where earlier this year she filmed her latest comedy, The Hot Flashes — the tale of middle-aged women reforming their old high school basketball team to raise money to save a mobile breast screening clinic.
"I finally learned how to control myself," Sykes says of New Orleans. "I can enjoy the city, I can eat the food. Now when I'm there, it's not even about Bourbon Street, I'm all over the city. Such a beautiful place. The last time I was there I had my kids come stay with me for a little bit, and we went out to Storyville [Storyland]. There are beautiful parks; it's just a great city."
What's Sykes' opinion of this year's never-ending presidential election?
"Here's the thing that really bugs me," she says, referencing the first presidential debate. "I don't know who showed up. Mitt Romney — everything he says is the exact opposite of what he said on the campaign trail. I did a special for [cable channel] Logo, and I had to study and read a lot, so I know what his position and his platform is. So he's standing there, and I'm saying, 'That's not true.' After the debate they say, 'We're gonna see what the fact-checker says.' To me, that's where the system has fallen apart, right there. This is a debate and you're talking to the American people, you're running for office, everything coming out of your mouth should be fact.
"Why are they getting away with being able to tell lies like that?" she adds. "I would like an airhorn to go off whenever someone lies. Or maybe they can do like they do on Nickelodeon; they get slimed whenever they lie."
In 2009, Sykes created a ruckus when she emceed the White House Correspondents' Dinner and insulted both Rush Limbaugh and former vice president Dick Cheney. ("Dick Cheney. He's a scary man. He scares me to death. I tell my children that if there are two cars driving down our street — one has a stranger in it and one has Dick Cheney, get in the car with the stranger in it.") She'll be hosting a second political special on Logo the night before the presidential election.
In recent years, she's become an advocate for same-sex marriage and LGBT issues; four years ago, she married her wife Alex in California during the legal interregnum when same-sex marriage was legal there.
Sykes also was known for her jokes about never wanting kids. Now she has twins. What changed? "My wife," Sykes says. "I met her, fell in love, planned on being with her the rest of my life, and she was really big on kids. I said, 'Well, let me think on it,' then I thought, 'Why wouldn't I have a family with this woman?'"
Last year, her family was shaken when Sykes went in for breast-reduction surgery and routine testing found ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in her breast tissue — also known as "stage-zero cancer."
Given her family history of breast cancer, Sykes decided to have a bilateral mastectomy.
"I'm not going to let something just linger," she says. "That would have meant you've got to go get checked every three months — why go through that? I'm not gonna gamble, and if I do, I'm taking what's going to give me the best odds."
How's her health now?
"Great! The reconstruction surgery has been completed," she says. "I'm 48, but now with the boobs of a 22-year-old."
All of this may be fodder for her show at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, and she's looking forward to the visit. "I finally mastered New Orleans — well, let's not say mastered. I finally have gotten it under control where I don't think I'm gonna die on the way to the airport," she says.
"The first time [I visited], I really thought: Oh, my God, I'm gonna die just as soon as I get through security. Security might think I'm a dirty bomb or something. You know, when you get up with alcohol still just pouring out of you, and you're still drunk — oh, it's bad. It's just bad."