When Mike Epps was looking for inspiration for his new comedy for Netflix, he got the idea of looking to the past. One of his favorite shows was Sanford & Son, so he broached the idea to Wanda Sykes of creating The Upshaws in the image of the Norman Lear comedy, and she was on board with the idea as well.
What they came up with is the story of Bennie Upshaw (Epps), the head of a Black working-class family in Indianapolis, a charming, well-intentioned mechanic and lifelong mess just trying his best to step up and care for his family. Kim Fields plays his wife Regina, and Sykes plays his sister-in-law Lucretia, who never has a kind word for him.
With both Epps and Sykes being standup comics, The Upshaws quickly became more than a family sitcom, it addresses topics that are relevant to modern life. In that way, it also resembles the Norman Lear series, like the aforementioned Sanford and Son, All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons.
“I grew up watching Norman Lear sitcoms, and also in my standup, I like to talk about things,” Sykes tells Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview. “I like to talk about issues and what’s going on in the world. So, it was important first and foremost to be funny, but also to say something. So, when we’re having conversations in the house, they’re conversations that we’re having in my house, or maybe in your home. It was important to not just be the all-out funny show.”
While Sanford and Son was more about the relationship between Fred Sanford (Redd Fox) and his son Lamont (Demond Wilson), Fred was always getting sassed by Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), and this is what the dynamic between Bennie and Lucretia pays homage to.
“I see that with our relationship on the show,” Sykes continues. “We do have that Fred/Aunt Esther relationship. She can’t stand her brother-in-law; he can’t stand his sister-in-law. I can see the comparison.”
Sykes also talked with M&C about how the partnership between Epps and her happened, how Fields was cast as her sister, and how COVID-19 affected filming and the content of the series.
Monsters & Critics: You and Mike both have Netflix comedy specials. Is that how the idea for this came about?
Wanda Sykes: Actually, no. I’ve known Mike for years, going back we were both working the clubs in New York. So, I guess I met him in the ‘90s. How this idea came about, we had a meeting. “Hey, Mike wants to do a show. He wants to talk to you about it.” He told me he wanted to do a show about a working-class family in the Midwest, where he’s from. I said, “Okay,” and thought about it and came up with an idea.
M&C: So, other than the fact that he’s from Indiana and his character Bennie’s from Indiana, what did you take from his life to make the show work?
Wanda Sykes: Oh, man, Mike has a pretty colorful life. I read his book, a lot of great stories, and we knew we wanted to make it a little messy, the family situation. So, I just took a lot of things from the book and used some of that to make this character, Bennie, and create the family.
M&C: Right. Because you’re basically an East Coast girl. You were born in Virginia raised in Maryland, so it’s a whole different feel.
Wanda Sykes: Yeah. But, you know, I’m from a very rural part of Virginia. So, I’m not like this slick East Coast girl, I got some country going on in me.
M&C: What do you like about Lucretia? Is she based on women that you know?
Wanda Sykes: I have aunts and uncles, so I definitely know characters like that. I think it is a nod to LaWanda Page. That was one of my favorite shows and I love that relationship, so it definitely is a nod to her. I love playing Lucretia. She had her come up through a work accident. You find that a lot in African American communities. I know growing up, if somebody got hurt or insurance payments came in that was usually how you got ahead.
M&C: So, we know how you and Mike became a part of this, but what about Kim Fields. What was it about her that made you say, “Oh, yeah, she could be my sister?”
Wanda Sykes: I’m a Kim Fields fan. She’s been in this business longer than all of us. We knew that we wanted someone who was solid, funny, but just also a really good actor, and Kim checked all the boxes for us. When she came in and did the audition, she had this comfort and this chemistry with Mike that we just saw. I had the same thing with her, too, where it was like, “Yeah, I can easily see us being sisters.” It just clicked.
M&C: This isn’t just a show about family, but loyalty was a big story point, especially when Bennie brings home his friend that is just out of jail to keep him from going back to jail. What issues were important to you other than family?
Wanda Sykes: Like you said, friendship, loyalty, and how relationships that we have and friendships that we make, they also make up who you are, and I wanted to touch on that. I also wanted to point out that people may have been in prison, but they’re your brothers and sisters, your family members and friends, and when these people come out of there, they’re embraced by their friends and family. I wanted to show that side also.
M&C: How has COVID-19 affected the show? Did you have to rewrite scenes to have fewer people in them? Did you have to stop production for a while?
Wanda Sykes: We were shooting episode five in March  and then we were shut down. Actually, we were ready to shut down because it was just getting too scary, like “Why are we still here? What are we doing?” Luckily, Netflix came in and said, “Okay. Yeah, that’s it. We’re shutting down.” But the writers continued our room for a month or so. We picked back up and just wrote the rest of the episodes for the season. And then in October, they said, “We’re bringing things back.”
They had a very strict COVID protocol. We were tested every day. We got the PCR test and then we got the rapid test every day, the mask and face shield, and there were HEPA filters all over the place. The COVID team, they were excellent. I felt safe. The first days it’s like, “Oh boy, are we doing the right thing?” But we knew that we had to be responsible for each other. So, it was like, hey, you go to work, you go home, you be safe. We didn’t have one positive case, so we were very fortunate. And we were just so excited that we were able to finish the season.
We did have to have to go back and rewrite some things. We did do a COVID pass of our scripts, where someone would say, “Hey, we’ve got too many extras in here or too many people in the scene,” so we did have to make some adjustments.
M&C: Do you miss going out and doing standup, or have you found other ways to satisfy that need?
Wanda Sykes: I do miss it, but I’ve been so busy with the show and with other projects that it’s not like I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs. But I am ready to get back out there to the clubs and work on some new material because there’s so much to talk about. We’ll see how it goes. I’m not going to take any chances and get out there too soon.
I’ll also think about my fans. People want to come to see me. I know everybody’s desperate to get out and have fun, but I don’t want to be a cause of people coming out too soon or not being safe.
The Upshaws is currently streaming on Netflix.