Most of us had a moment. It could have been when the adorably psychotic Masha in The King of Comedy had her dream date with Jerry Langford/Lewis. Maybe it was the brilliantly realized, self-enclosed world created in performance film Without You I'm Nothing. Perhaps it was the tuna sandwich story in memoir Confessions of a Pretty Lady. It could have been the definitive characters on Roseanne or The L Word or when she named her daughter Cicely or when she segued from Pink's "Just Like a Pill" to Lita Ford's "Kiss Me Deadly" in her 2006 off-Broadway show Everything Bad & Beautiful. It could have even been this past March, when she sparred with grackles at her surprise South by Southwest show in the Cafe Mundi parking lot.
Diehard Sandra Bernhard fans can usually pinpoint when it was they were first smitten, because encountering the singular actress/comedian/singer/storyteller was just that kind of life-altering event. Here was a blatantly complicated woman putting a stake in the heart of the lie that a woman couldn't be funny – make that tear-inducingly hilarious – and unconventionally gorgeous without also being self-deprecating, proving that she could turn her scathing wit outward toward more deserving targets, for whom she showed no mercy. At the same time, she was and remains sexy, goofy, brainy, and – all without losing her edge. That she hasn't lost a step in that regard makes her unusual in the entertainment world; that she's bringing the whole package back to Austin is pee-in-the-pants exciting. In anticipation of that event, she spoke with us by telephone from her New York City home.
Austin Chronicle: Lately, I've been following you on Twitter, which seems like a medium that's really made for you.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, it really is. I've really been enjoying it, because I think in those little bursts of ideas, and then I move on to the next one. So it's fun when I can kind of just throw it down and share where I'm at in that moment. It's the perfect medium for that.
AC: It reminds me a little of parts of your stage shows.
SB: Yeah, it is. They're very stream of consciousness.
AC: How would you say your work has changed over time?
SB: I think I've gotten a lot more introspective. I think I know myself better. I think I have a firmer grip on who I am, on the essence of who I am. I think between the time you start your career – I started when I was 19 – until for me, when I had my daughter, I was a little bit looser and more freewheeling. I didn't have to take stock as much as I do now. I think all the cumulative experiences I've had over the years started to jell. I feel like when I'm onstage, it's a calmer me. That has nothing to do with the energy I put into my shows, but just in terms of being able to access things in terms of being an actress and a performer, I think I have more availability to a variety of emotions now than I did 10, 15, 20 years ago.
AC: I noticed you threw in some Catskills-type schtick the last couple of times I saw you. Is that conscious?
SB: [Laughs.] I think it's fun. Everybody's so cynical now and such a know-it-all and a smartass, so I like to break it up with some old-school, Borscht Belt relief. Although obviously it's tongue in cheek. It's fun just to bring people up. My work has always been layered with irony. You know, it's a lasagne of irony. One layer's cheese, one's irony, one's vegetables, and then there's irony again. I really like to also uplift, entertain, and engage people. You can't be all jaded for two hours – that's just not interesting. I bring along so much history and things that have influenced me or things I grew up around or things my grandparents talked about. I'm like a sponge: I'm going to squeeze it all out onstage. I'm full of metaphors today.
AC: How do you know Kathy Valentine?
SB: I'm friends with the Go-Go's from many years back, and we kind of just stayed in touch over the years. We kind of got reconnected on Twitter.
AC: Yeah, you and Kathy Valentine and Roseanne Cash seem to have some sort of chummy, girlfriendy thing going.
SB: Yeah, we're a triumvirate. A recent triumvirate. Obviously, they're both incredibly talented and really nice ladies. Very solid.
AC: I enjoy being a voyeur in that.
SB: That's what's nice about Twitter, too, is that there's a few regulars who always write to me and then there's all the others out there that you imagine that, hopefully, are enjoying the exchange.
AC: At some point, you started working with rock musicians – I guess I noticed it when I saw your show Everything Bad & Beautiful in 2006. I think it was off-Broadway ....
SB: That was at Union Square.
AC: When did you start working with the live rock band?
SB: I've had musicians playing with me since Without You I'm Nothing.
AC: Well, I meant particularly rock.
SB: My music's really eclectic. I always do a little bit of the jazzy, sexy, loungey, and then I go to the rock and kind of back and forth. I think Everything Bad & Beautiful was just more rock-y in general. It was a good band for that show.
AC: Sometimes your music gets overlooked in comparison to the stand-up and the stories. What goes into your choices of songs and combinations? How much work do you do on that?
SB: I always choose music that I feel I can bring my own kind of irony and point of view to and also do something that wasn't done originally. There's a few people that I tend not to do because they've done the song so perfectly, but I think it's fun to take something that is unexpected and kind of turn it on its ear. Also, I like songs that tell stories, even if they're kind of heavy metal or hair bands. I kind of did all that before it became like a Glee thing. Which is slightly irritating, but it's my fault. I should have turned it into a TV show, but whatever.
AC: Yeah, if you could have turned all those things that you did into TV shows ....
SB: Well, I tried! But what I wanted to do 10, 15 years ago, everyone would say, "I don't know how we can do that." It had to take its course in the culture. I guess when you're kind of ahead of the curve, you're not going to be the one to benefit from it. You have to water it down and make it into something more palatable, which I'm not always willing to do.
But I take my music very seriously. I love my music, I love my singing. I love hanging out with musicians. I just like talented people. I get ideas from listening and watching and collaborating. I like to straddle the fence of telling my stories and singing my music. It is, it's a kind of a mash-up where rock & roll meets cabaret and burlesque, and all the different performance explorations that I've been doing for years.
AC: How do you stay contemporary with pop culture? Who's intriguing or laughable to you right now?
SB: Lady Gaga. At first I was wary, but I think she's pretty talented. I think she's going to burn out in about two minutes physically. I have a problem with people who get so voracious. I know it seems like it's impossible not to these days. I think people get into this business and feel like if they don't make it happen immediately, they're just going to fade away. And most of them do. I think it's a real dilemma and a real problem for the longevity of an artist these days.
Obviously, you know, I see people on the Internet. My daughter, who's like 11½ – she loves Regina Spektor, who I'd never really listened to, so she's turning me on to things. It's not that I'm not interested, it's just that I don't have time, and I don't necessarily access those kind of Internet radio things, but she does. She's starting to introduce me to some new artists that are interesting. I read a lot, and I try to stay on top of not only contemporary and pop culture but politics and literature and film. It's reading; it's exposing yourself. I'm in the eye of the storm here in New York City. I can walk down any street in my neighborhood and walk into an art gallery and see what's going on and be inspired, so I'm lucky in that way that I don't have to go too far to find things that are relatively contemporary.
AC: Your bits about celebrities always seem to have some underlying function as cultural critique instead of sort of just schtick. A fair number of comedians do celebrity bits now, it seems.
SB: Oh, I know. It's cheap; it's a cheap shot. Some of these people are in a Joan Rivers vein. I spun off in sort of a whole other direction. It was always kind of my longing to actually know people, to be touched by fame, to be near it, to be a moth around the flame – and at the same time repulsed by it and afraid of it. I've always kind of walked that double line of being an artist and performer and intrigued by success and money and the kind of fast-paced life and also wanting to keep my feet rooted in sanity. That's what my pieces have always been about.
AC: Sort of a love-hate thing?
SB: Yeah. Sort of, in a way, yes: an inner struggle for me as a performer. I'm sure along the way I could have done things that [would have] made me a lot more money and a lot more famous. And yet I've always had a natural, kind of, my hand was out holding the wall, pushing it back. Because I've always been afraid that if you have that much success, how much humanity can you maintain?
AC: Have you seen that humanity sort of drain away in people?
SB: Sure, yeah, absolutely. That's why my friends who I'm very close to who are in the business, like Chrissie Hynde and Marianne Faithfull, and even people like Roseanne, there's a list a mile long, have been able to step back from it at different times and regenerate and go out into the world and really have spiritual experience and then come back to work. I think that if you're in a certain position where you are so catered to and so used to a certain kind of attention, it's very hard to stop it, and then you can never replenish yourself.
AC: You're also very political. At your Cafe Mundi show, you talked about how having an abortion used to be a rite of passage for young women instead of some shameful thing you didn't talk about. Does that feel more transgressive to say out loud now that some states are doing things like requiring women to look at ultrasounds before they have abortions?
SB: Yeah, there are times when I'm glad I'm just saying some things in front of my audience, because why put yourself out there to these people that are so violent and horrible? Because if this is what they want, let 'em have it. But then there's a part of me that says, "Well, there's these other people that will become victims of their narrow-minded, fearful philosophy." Everybody does need a champion, and everybody does need somebody to stand up and say: "This is not the world that we've evolved to. We want our freedoms and our privacy and our rights." I pick and choose my battlegrounds.
AC: That one law in particular seemed almost sadistic to me, particularly hateful.
SB: Well, it's very anti-woman. We're living in the tail end of the misogynistic era, and a lot of people just don't want to let go of it.
AC: Why do you say "tail end"?
SB: Because I feel like we're having a seismic shift in culture and evolution, and that's why there is all this kind of revelation about the Catholic Church and child abuse, and just sort of the end of religion the way that we've known it. And the transference to a more spiritual world and a less religious world. We're kind of in a battle. People are battling against themselves and a lot of people are battling – [doorbell ringing, possibly dogs barking] – against authority. It's just a time frame that I feel like things changing and shifting.
AC: How observant are you in your Judaism? Do you go to a synagogue?
SB: Yeah, I do. I go to shabbat. I go to holidays. But once again, it's more like cultural, spiritual experience for me. I really love it. I grew up around my family, and my grandparents came from Russia. I have that connection to it in that really deep, wonderful, spiritual way. I don't feel controlled by it. But if I was a religious Jewish woman, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I'd be wearing flesh-colored tights and a sheitel [laughs]. But, you know, even the Orthodox women are still smart and powerful in their own way.
Oh my god, my daughter just got home, and she's disagreeing with me on that!
AC: Has she had her bat mitzvah yet?
SB: In June.
AC: How's the planning going?
SB: The planning thing, beautifully. She needs to write her speech, but other than that we're in good shape. [Laughing.] She's telling me to shut up!
AC: Aww ....
SB: It's a good shut up, though.
AC: Who's going to entertain?
SB: She's just putting her set list together, and we're putting it on an iPod that will play throughout the evening. She's going to have her friends in one part of the room dancing, and the rest of the people will be eating and conversing.
AC: So it's not going to be like one of those MTV Sweet Sixteen shows, with Kanye or something?
SB: No, there's no scene. No, no, no, no. I certainly won't be performing at the bat mitzvah. She would have a fit. [Laughter.] She would not put up with it for one moment. [Cicely: "No. No!"]
AC: Do you need to go?
SB: No, she's just sitting here over my shoulder. She's enjoying it.
AC: You spent a lot of your childhood in Arizona, right?
SB: Unfortunately. No, not unfortunately. We moved from Flint, Michigan, when I was 10, in the Sixties, when there was still a lot of open space. I used to go horseback riding on trails and around mountains. It was really fun! I mean, it was a weird place. I've mined a lot from my Arizona experience. I've written songs about it, and I've talked about it ad infinitum because, yeah, it was bizarre, it was growing up in Arizona. A Jewish girl in the midst of, I don't know, it's another world. And now, of course, it's gone totally crazy.
AC: Does anything about the recent anti-immigrant law, which you've tweeted about, pull you back there, to childhood?
SB: No, no, it doesn't, because it wasn't like that when I was growing up. It was much, much smaller. There's been such a huge influx from L.A. after earthquakes and stuff, where people fled to Arizona to get away and escape, and it's expanded out for miles and miles and miles where it used to be just empty desert. It's a much different place altogether. As transient and as melting-pot-ish as it was when we first moved there, now it's just cuckooville. Everyone who wants to have a gun and is paranoid and crazy heads out to Arizona. It's a bummer, you know. It's just overkill. There's an inner struggle there in that state because there's pockets of it, like Sedona, where things are pretty hip and interesting. Then you get to Phoenix and the environs around Phoenix and the people are just cuckoo. They have that sheriff there, that Arpaio. He's fascist; I mean, he's nuts. He's just a fascist freak!
AC: I wonder if we'll find out something secret about him at some point.
SB: I don't think so. I think he's just nuts. Period. [Laughs.]
AC: Do you get much flak for identifying with African-Americans, and I know this is tongue in cheek too – saying you're a woman of color, stuff like that?
SB: Only from white people. Who don't understand it. [Laughs.] No, I'm just kidding. I certainly don't get any flak from the black community. I mean, Paul Mooney – who was really the person who discovered me – everyone knows my association with Paul and my performances on The Richard Pryor Show. My work has always paid homage to black culture and how much I think it brought to American culture. Without it really we would have no music scene; we would have no entertainment scene. Everything from Madonna to Lady Gaga [Cicely laughing] has been a derivative of the black experience. Rap music, soul music, any – I mean [Cicely whispers, "Justin"], Justin Bieber would end without the black experience, believe it or not. It's always been my sort of confessional, above all, to thank the black artist, who has not always had it easy.
AC: I'm having trouble making the leap with Justin Bieber.
SB: I don't mean it literally. I'm not saying that in a praiseworthy way. He tries to, like, rap and do his little stupid things. We all know. It's hard not to mention things. Even though they're passing fancies.
AC: If I were 10, I would probably think he's cute.
SB: My daughter doesn't think he's cute.
AC: Really? Is she 12?
SB: She'll be 12, yes.
AC: Maybe if I were younger, then.
SB: Like 6 or 7? [She and Cicely are both laughing.]
AC: Well, I remember liking David Cassidy and Jack Wild.
SB: I know, but David Cassidy was actually talented in comparison to what's happening now. I love David Cassidy!
AC: Does Cicely think that's true, too?
SB: Yes; she nodded. She's in agreement with me here.
AC: I understand you're a huge Friday Night Lights fan. How did that happen?
SB: It started with the film. I saw the film two or three times. I was deeply moved by it. It was one of the great landscapes and portraits of American culture. It really amazingly translated into the TV show. It's heartbreaking. I think it reveals the real undercurrent of young America. It's a wonderful show. The writing's amazing – I cry every episode. The acting is sublime. They always manage to capture it in a way that's almost like a documentary.
I feel like it's just not gotten its due, that show. They don't let it go, but they never really celebrate it. Nobody ever gets nominated for anything; nobody ever talks about. It's the weirdest thing to me. I think it's too close for comfort for a lot of Americans. It's not fantastical enough or far enough away from the actual experience. I think it scares people in a certain way.
AC: It's also maybe – it's grim, but it's probably not as grim as it gets. Out here in the hinterlands.
SB: No. I mean people are sharp and amazing and beautiful on the show.
AC: And also there's not crazy racism or homophobia whatever. I mean, not that that's necessarily incredibly common, but it does exist.
SB: I think they go pretty deep, but naturally nothing on TV is going to go that deep. You want to be entertained, too.
AC: Yeah, I probably wouldn't want to watch a show that grim. Since you're coming to Texas, I wanted to ask you a bit about that. I know you've talked in your shows about the hateful Bush twins coming to New York, and at Cafe Mundi you talked about having canceled your Austin show last tour, and you said that you were afraid it all had gone over to Bush. But you also have a good relationship with some Texans ....
SB: Yeah! I mean, I've been wanting to get back to Austin for eight years. I was honest about that – I had at least two gigs booked down there that got canceled. It was really weird, because I used to play the Paramount all the time to great success. So I didn't understand why that was happening, but – it was just weird. The bottom dropped out of both of the dates. I was like, "What the hell?" But you can't get too paranoid about it. I guess the timing just wasn't right. I plan on coming back as much as possible. Certainly to Austin.
AC: And I guess since you grew up in the West, you have a pretty good sense of how things are.
SB: Oh, I love coming down. I mean, I love America! I love the weird places, I love the dark places. This is a great country. That's always been the irony of where I've stood, because if you really love this country, you want to see it get better. All these politicians, and these tea-baggers, and these people that are trying to pull the rug out from under it – I don't think they love this country. I think they're just locally insecure and want attention. So they'll do whatever they have to do to get attention. They're not really thinking about this country. Sarah Palin does not love this country. That's a bunch of crap and a misnomer. She loves herself. She wants to be celebrated. She's part of the whole pop culture phenomena. She's happy as a clam now! She left her job in Alaska and went out to become a superstar! She's making bank and everybody's kissing her ass and she's coming to New York and going to the Time 100 party and all this shit! She's loving it! Does she care about this country? Would she roll up her sleeves and sacrifice for this country? She didn't – she left her gig. That was the answer. People in this country deserve better, and they deserve the best, if they'd only let it happen.
AC: Why do you think people are so into her?
SB: People relate to her! People want to be famous. They want to be on Real Housewives of New York and Kate Gosselin and Dancing With the Stars. They think this is the American dream. It's not about talent; it's not about passion. It's not even about wanting to be a good leader. It's just simply being acknowledged.
AC: Do you think it's partly her looks?
SB: Sarah Palin?
SB: Well, she's pretty in that sort of unfortunate way.
AC: [Laughs.] How so?
SB: I don't know – she's just cheap! She's cheap pretty, you know? Not deeply like European sexy supermodel pretty. It's all tacky cheap pretty with the, you know, hair extensions and a Bumpit up in her crown. Cheap, cheap work.
AC: I didn't think about it – she might have pioneered the Bumpit phenomenon.
SB: Well she certainly is celebrating it. That's for sure.
AC: [Laughing.] She is. Though she's let it down a bit recently.
SB: Oh honey, if she has a bad day, that Bumpit's back in there.
AC: Do you think it's gauged to how well her day's going?
SB: [Laughs.] It's a barometer. For sure.
AC: I like that. A Bumpit Barometer.
SB: The Bumpit Barometer! If it turns red, she's hot; if it turns blue, she's cold!
AC: How aware are you of the controversy around Austin Pride?
SB: My manager's filled me in.
AC: So you know for years the official Pride organizers focused on presenting the gay community as this kind of buttoned-down, mainstream, consumption-oriented ....
SB: Self-loathing ....
AC: Right – and really pointedly, not just by happenstance or by boring them but by actively excluding anyone they thought was weird or arty or something. How do you feel about that and about performing at one of the alternative events that are springing up this year?
SB: I think it's good when things get shaken up. When the mainstream gets involved with any sort of fringe element – gay, black, whatever it is – it scares them. They're fascinated by it, but it scares them simultaneously. So they're going to want to bring people in that are like Uncle Toms and do the tap dance. In blackface. They don't want the real deal. They don't want anything that threatens them; that's the reality.
AC: And you feel like that's self-loathing?
SB: Well, I don't really know who's involved in organizing it, but they feel safer with people who are self-loathing or who don't really take it to the limit.
AC: What's you preference, in terms of a parade or an entertainment or a festival?
SB: [Laughs.] I don't like any of them! I hate festivals and parades, but I'm happy to accommodate people and entertain them, whoever they are. If they want me and they've got the checkbook out and they're happy to have me there, I'm happy to be there.
AC: As a woman who's had a nuclear family for a while now, how do you feel about the idea of official Pride emphasizing family. Do you think that's meant to include your family?
SB: I never thought about it. I don't really know. Listen, I'm going to do what I do wherever I go, you know? I'm not that concerned about whether I'm embraced or not. I guess I was the choice of the alternative festival because they embrace the alternative. And I guess I am the alternative, for sure. But I'm not going to overintellectualize this situation. And I certainly don't think it's necessary to beat a drum about it. I just feel like I'm going to come down and have a good time and I just feel like, whoever comes, I'm sure people from either side will come and check it out.
Sandra Bernhard returns to Austin for We're Still Queer Honey!, an alternative Pride event featuring White Widow, God-Des & She, DJ Mary Coronado, and more, Friday, June 4, 5:30pm (doors), at Pine Street Station, 1101 E. Fifth, www.pinestreetstation.com. Advance $15 tickets and $100 VIP access available at www.district512.com.
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