Sandra Bernhard Is a Do It All Kind of Gal
Actress/singer/comedian Sandra Bernhard continues to tour nationally and overseas with her new live show Feel the Bernhard, which spotlights her own unique, sharp blend of “hysterical insight and outspoken views, with rock-n-roll, cabaret, stand-up and a little burlesque.” Bernhard’s show, which also features her band the Flawless Zircons, has sold out venues in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and all points in between. In addition, Bernhard hosts Sandyland, a Sirius XM radio show. She phoned us from New York.
Talk about the genesis of your new show.
Well, all my shows come from what’s going on in my life and what’s going on in the world. Some of it is fictionalized and some of it is true. I try to weave in stories and items and songs, some of which I’ve co-written and some of which are covers. It’s like a postmodern musical. It’s a little bit stream of consciousness and sometimes improvisational. I try to take people on a journey. Every year, I do a show at Joe’s Pub in New York between Christmas and New Year’s. I try to come up with new material then. Year to year, the shows really change. The show I did last year, I have never done anywhere else. For me, it’s fun because I like to keep the material fresh and kind of cutting edge. This show will be a conglomeration of material from the last couple of years. I can’t keep throwing material away if no one has seen it. A lot of is based on the radio show I’m doing every day on Sirius Radio. I write a lot of new material every single day because I’m on air five days a week. It comes from all different places. Sometimes, I go on a roll and it’s totally improvised.
Do you address the current political climate?
To a certain degree. I do it in a funny, offhand way. I have a bit of a rant and then I jump off of it. I don’t write jokes about people. People have their Trump jokes or Hillary jokes. To me, it’s more of an emotional rant. I think that’s what people come to me for.
Have you been surprised by Donald Trump’s success?
Yes and no. I think he’s an opportunist and he’s played on people’s darkest emotions, like racism and sexism, things that a big swath of Americans get into. He’s from New York City. That’s not how he lives. His life is too diverse to feel that way. He’s a shyster. Ultimately, whether he wins the nomination or not, he thinks it helps him with his brand. But I think his brand is so tarnished because it’s so cheap and flimsy. I think he thinks, “Wow. I hit a nerve and I’m going to keep running with it.”
The nomination has been so polarizing. I don’t remember previous elections being this polarizing.
Absolutely not. He’s an opportunist.
Do you support Bernie or Hillary?
I love everything Bernie has to say, but I don’t think he has the wherewithal to implement it, so I’m definitely a Hillary supporter. She’s been in the trenches and knows what she’s doing. She’s a realist and a pragmatist. We can’t afford to have someone like Sanders. First of all, we’re not going to break up the banks. He’s not going to take down Wall Street. There are too many promises that are impossible to keep.
Do you think there’ll be a backlash if she’s elected?
I don’t think so. When he doesn’t get the nomination, which [Sanders] is not going to get, it will be what it is. She’ll win and she’ll work her ass off. She’s a worker. What does she need this shit for? She was already First Lady and she tried to implement healthcare and they shot her down for that. She’s been senator and secretary of state. Is she imperfect? Yes. We all are. You can’t be in politics as long as she has and not made some missteps. Some of it isn’t pretty.
Talk about what it was like growing up in Flint, Michigan.
When I grew up there, it was a boomtown. The auto industry was at its peak. My dad was a doctor and there were lots of professional people there. People were making money hand over first. The working class had a decent life. GM left and the town was gutted and left behind as a burned-out hellhole. It’s not that people don’t want to work and want their lives to be functioning. But when you have no industry, what are you going to do? Now, they give them the shitty water. What do they care? Kids will grow up to be mentally challenged. They don’t care and they knew it and now they have to fix it. It’s all these cynical politicians who claim they love America. They need to bring some industry back. They need to contribute to the infrastructure and make it a functioning country again.
If it were a more prosperous city, they wouldn’t have any water issues.
Of course they wouldn’t.
It must’ve been culture shock when you moved to Arizona.
To a certain degree. I was really little. It was an adventure. I liked Arizona at the time. Nobody had built it up yet. There was miles and miles of open desert. It was weird but fascinating. I got a whole other take on life going to high school there. I segued to Los Angeles when I was 18 to start my career. I was able to draw on those disparities and different experiences along the way.
You began your career at the Comedy Store in the ’70s. What was that whole scene like?
It was great because it was open to anybody and a free for all. It was before the Internet. There were a certain amount of people who were talented and most of them made it. It wasn’t necessarily a great place for women, but I made the most of it. I wanted t do something different. I wanted to entertain. I wanted to sing and tell stories. I didn’t tell jokes per se. It was an opportunity to get up and perform. I took advantage of it and made it work for me.
How’d you wind up in New York?
I didn’t really come to New York. I always went back and forth every other month or something. I was a free spirit. I was always doing a movie or a TV show. If I wanted to go to New York, I’d go to New York. I’m in New York more now because my daughter is here and she’s in school so this is where I base myself. I was in L.A. a lot more last year when I was shooting Two Broke Girls and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It varies month to month with my work.
What made you want to transform your comedy into performance art?
I never saw myself as performance art at all. I based it on the entertainment of the ‘50s, the Shirley MacClaine and Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. It’s postmodern entertainment. I take the elements of what those people did and turn it on its ear. I sing sexy, groovy songs.
You set out to do that?
Yeah. I grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show and Sonny and Cher and the Dean Martin special. Everyone did it all. They did sketches, they’d have on guests. They’d sing. They would tell funny stories. They’d sing a ballad. That’s what I loved. That’s how Johnny Carson’s show was. It was all over the map. That’s what my show is.
Even Donny and Marie.
Yeah, in their own strange way.
Looking back on your career, what do you think of as the highlights?
I’m always moving forward. You become a good performer, and you get better. It’s night after night after night of going up and maybe bombing and getting over it. That’s the way the life of a performer. If you stay in it long enough and you’re good at what do you, you just get better and better.
As you get older, do you find that your material still connects with young audience?
I just think by nature of what I do, I should be appealing. It’s just fun. It’s like talking to a kid. I’m very youthful and I’m the same person now as when I started out. I’m kooky and funny and sexy and sad. I’m all over the map and I think that’s appealing to everybody. Even my friends who are my age or older, they’re the fun, smart people in the business. I’m friends with Michele Lee and Lanie Kazan. I love them. They’re eternally young and hip and brilliant. I have younger friends. I’m great friends with Belinda Carlisle and Chrissie Hynde is one of my best friends. We are what we are. You start off a certain way and just try to get better and better and smarter and smarter.