D.C. Comedy Impresario Richard Siegel Hosted First Contest Sykes Entered
Wanda Sykes — the emcee of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, who is known for her often raw, blush-inducing commentary — has a lot of inquiring minds wondering just how raw her routine might be this Saturday night.
One of her biggest fans thinks that, when time comes for her to address her high-powered audience, “she really should tone it down. Audiences here are a lot more conservative generally,” Richard Siegel tells WHCInsider.com. “They don’t like things getting too edgy.”
The longtime producer of the annual “D.C.’s Funniest Celebrity” contest, Siegel knows a little about what kind of comedy works in this town. He’s also known Sykes since the late 1980s, when he was managing a local stand-up comedy contest at the Comedy Cafe, located above a strip club that enforced a dress code.
On not much more than a whim and a desire to change careers, Sykes — originally from this area — entered the contest. Her day job then was working as a procurement officer at the National Security Agency — generally not a breeding ground for stand-up comics. But when she took the stage, Siegel noticed.
“She had this very sarcastic, rebellious and hilarious delivery,” he remembers. “And her material was great. She didn’t get a lot of attention, but I thought she was really funny.”
Impressing Siegel even more was Sykes’s personality. “She was very pleasant and easy to get along with and very cooperative, a really nice person,” he says. “And that’s a rare memory to have of any comedian, because they’re generally miserable, depressed, angry, neurotic and annoying people. It was very telling that Wanda wasn’t like that.”
(Around that same time Siegel spotted another rising local star — Dave Chappelle. “He was miserable and depressed already, and he was just 15.”)
Sykes was born in Portsmouth, VA, in 1964 and raised in the D.C.-Maryland area. She attended Hampton University and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in marketing. Before landing at the NSA, she worked a string of jobs, like waitress, video store cashier and fast Chinese food cook. It was while moonlighting as a stand-up that Chris Rock noticed her and signed her to open for him on an upcoming tour.
Siegel says he wasn’t surprised in the least when Sykes started to hit big, and he adds that the comic personality she projects today hasn’t changed much at all since the early ‘90s.
The Comedy Cafe is no more, but the contest Siegel originally managed eventually evolved into the “D.C.’s Funniest Celebrity” contest, which will take place this year on Sept. 30 at the Improv downtown. Along the way, several high-profile types who have “White House” on their resume in one way or another have participated in the contest, including Tony Snow, Helen Thomas, Sarah McClendon and Norah O’Donnell, among others. This year, he’s hoping to convince NBC’s chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd to enter.