Sandra Bernhard is discussing her new album, I Love Being Me, Don’t You? A blend of her signature brand of critically acclaimed comedy with two musical covers that showcase her idiosyncratic singing talents, it was recorded at the 1400-seat Castro Theatre in San Francisco last October.
“I was just on a roll that night. I happened to be plugged in to my source. It was all one-off material, talking about what was going on in San Francisco and political topics ““ it’s nothing I could ever re-do. I think people will really dig it.”
Yet even though she’s not attempting a verbatim “re-do,” she is bringing a stand-up show with the same title, I Love Being Me, Don’t You? to the relatively intimate, 240-seat REDCAT in LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, August 11″“21. Following sold-out runs in New York, Miami and London, she’s also preparing for an international tour.
Defining Sandra Bernhard.
Sassy, fearless, outspoken ““ whether you love her or hate her, Bernhard is an in-your-face comic diva. Racy, confrontational and occasionally offensive yet also self-deprecating and angst-ridden, she has created a body of work that’s defined by her iconoclastic style and ironic look at the world that spins around her.
Bernhard first gained attention in the late 1970s with her stand-up comedy. Playing on her strengths as a gifted raconteur and humorist, she often bitterly critiqued celebrity culture and political figures. In 2008, Sarah Palin was the subject of Bernhard’s blistering vitriol. But now Bernhard considers that old news and declines to discuss the resulting controversy that her nasty if jokey comments sparked.
Actually, “bitter” is perhaps too harsh a description for Bernard in 2011. These days she balances her acerbic observances with generous comments about women she admires. On her new album she praises Angelina Jolie, Angie Dickinson, Tina Turner, L’il Kim and Lily Tomlin.
“Yes, that’s the other thing about my work,” she says. “Even when I am critiquing, it’s still an homage to the great performers and people who have influenced me, even indirectly. Anyone who is an iconoclast has influenced me. People like Julie Christie, Catherine Deneuve, Lauren Hutton and the great singers and performers like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Lady Gaga and Adele ““ I mean, if I sat down and wrote a list it’d probably be five pages long.”
Not that her REDCAT performances are likely to wallow in feel-good testimonials. She can still go on the attack. “Yeah, if they deserve it,” she declares. “People who get in my firing line are people who get in the way of other people’s happiness and freedom.
“But it’s not really exactly what I am after. The political target is lower on my level of importance; I’m much more interested in pop culture and funny little stories about my life. Some are fictionalized and some aren’t.”
Now 56, the tall, slim and “˜jolie laide’ performer seems grounded and thoughtful yet full of fire and still going strong. I Love Being Me, Don’t You? is Bernhard’s first comedy album release in over 10 years, although she has toured various cities in the States and the UK during the past decade.
Attempting to categorize Bernhard’s signature style of comedy-infused performance can be difficult.Â Her kind of comedy isn’t really sarcastic. Is it satirical?
Speaking on the phone from her home in New York, Bernhard puts me straight. “It’s actually neither. My live shows take elements from cabaret, burlesque, rock and roll, musical theater ““ all with an ironic twist. You’re gonna get the whole buffet of performance from me. “˜Irony’ is a much more apt description of my style.” She quietly adds, “Sarcasm is more of a “˜cheap shot.’ I feel you gotta dig a little deeper with your commentary, with your comedy.”
Although the CD and current tour share the same title, in fact each live performance is different. She tries to maintain a bit of mystique about the topics she’ll cover in her live show.
“It varies. I don’t really like to go into specifics in an interview. There’s so little left to the imagination these days. When people come to see you live, I don’t want them to have already read all about my act. It’ll be nice if it’s a surprise.”
However, LA fans can expect “an up-to-the-moment reflection on what’s going on in the world, in pop culture and politics. And, of course, it’s always in my style of including stories from my life and experience, putting it all up against great music. It’s a mash-up of culture, politics and theater. I’m on stage with a four-piece band ““ I don’t play any instruments ““ but I sing. I do write songs,” she adds.
The San Francisco show featured a lot of random improv, plus off-the-cuff riffing on topical subjects and social commentary on such subjects as antique versus modern technology, iPhone apps, twitter, environmental consciousness and so on. Distilled down to an hour, the album is book-ended with songs, kicking off with “Beautiful People” by Safka Melanie and ending with a mash-up of rocker Pink’s song “Just Like a Pill” with “Kiss Me Deadly” by Lita Ford.
While she’s generally onstage for a full two hours, she pokes fun at her garrulous tendencies, joking, “I put on a show close to the length of the Boss [Bruce Springsteen.]” She says she would never shortchange the audience.
So how does she sustain the stamina required for live performance? Says Bernhard, “I’m a very balanced person, on both a spiritual and a physical level. I take excellent care of myself and eat really well, but I don’t like to talk about my health regimen. Otherwise I’m just going to sound pretentious and stupid.”Â She adds, “My daughter’s 13 and so I have got to be solid for her. We have a great time and she’s a good kid.” Bernhard currently lives in New York with her daughter Cicely Yasin and her life partner, writer and PR executive Sara Switzer, who was attached to Bernhard’s talk show The Sandra Bernhard Experience (2001) as a writer and co-host.
Roots in LA comedy
When asked to identify the important elements that make up a successful one-woman show, Bernhard doesn’t hesitate. “Well, years of hard work. Also, a sense of great fun and willingness to go right out to the edge. Really it’s all about being who you are and having an original voice.”
After Bernhard moved to LA, she started making regular appearances as a stand-up comedian at the Comedy Store, while she held a day job as a manicurist in a posh beauty salon. She joined other (now big name) comedians such as Leno and Letterman in picketing the Comedy Store until they were given a modest performance fee. The Comedy Store even opened up a small space, called The Belly Room, purely for female comics to do their acts and to attract and build their own audiences without having to compete directly with the men. Speaking of her formative years during her early 20s, Bernhard recalls that era as “a launching pad and a place to work out the kinks [in my act].”
As her popularity as a comedian grew, Bernhard was cast as a supporting player on The Richard Pryor Show in 1977, a short-lived variety series.Â Her caustic and cutting-edge humor seemed to fit in perfectly with Pryor’s controversial style, but censorship, tough competition and low ratings led to the show being snatched off the air after only five episodes.
Bernhard gained world-wide attention and critical acclaim when she starred alongside Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis playing Masha, a crazy stalker and kidnapper in Martin Scorsese’s drama The King of Comedy (1983). (She has said that hundreds of women tried out and she believes that even Meryl Streep had auditioned for the role, which she landed thanks to a manic and hyperactive performance as well as her improv abilities.) Bernhard later spoke of her contentious relationship with co-star Jerry Lewis. In a couple of interviews she claimed Lewis called her “fish lips”, and that he “wanted me to free-fall through a glass table covered with hundreds of candles in my bra and panties and high heels.”Â She refused, later saying, “I am not that kind of physical comic and I didn’t want to end up taking Percodan for the rest of my life because of injuries.”
Bernhard began packaging her stand-up shows as performance albums. Her first solo show, in 1985, was entitled I’m Your Woman and gained a fairly lukewarm critical reception. The album release proved similarly unsuccessful.
Undeterred, Bernhard continued to work on film and TV while crafting a more volatile, performance art-oriented live show that capitalized on shock effect. Success came in 1988 with her Off-Broadway performance piece Without You I’m Nothing. It was a cult hit and immortalized into a film, also called Without You I’m Nothing (1990) and set in an imaginary LA nightclub, as well as a double album. Here her comedy style crystallized into her trademark blending of pop culture topics along with incisive social commentary, boosted by music.
Her television credits include a six-year stint (1991-97) as Nancy Bartlett on the hit network series Roseanne (she was one of the first actresses to portray an openly lesbian character on American series TV), a recurring role on Crossing Jordan, hosting her own talk show (The Sandra Bernhard Experience, 2001), and tough-talking turns on The Sopranos, Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, The L Word , Will & Grace and Law & Order.
In 1992 Bernhard appeared in a fairly tasteful nude pictorial in Playboy magazine (in one photo she is touching herself while completely covered in gold paint) and also penned the accompanying essay, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of her arrival as a sex goddess.
But it’s really the live performances where this comic diva is truly in her element. And “I’m really excited about coming back to perform in LA,” she says. “I’ve created so many of my shows in LA ““ it’s where I started my career. I get a lot of inspiration from LA and I have a lot of friends out there from when I used to live there on a more regular basis. I consider NY and LA to be my two “˜homes’. Even though I spend more of my time here in NY, a big part of my excitement is creating in LA as well.”
** Photos by Eva Tuerbl
I Love Being Me, Don’t You?, Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), 631 W. 2nd Street, LA. Opens August 11. Thurs.-Sat. 8:30 pm; Sun. 7 pm. Through August 21. Tickets: $45-50.Â 213 237-2800. www.redcat.org