Sandra Bernhard is a consummate performer, blending elements of cabaret and stand-up comedy while examining the personal and the political. The tall, lanky, outspoken comedienne has been skewering the notion of fame and celebrity long before that other famous redhead Kathy Griffin stepped up to a mic. She’s also been proving the existence and relevance of funny ladies for years (the late Christopher Hitchens even gave her a pass in his infamous essay for Vanity Fair, which sparked a debate concerning the gender inequality in the comedy world).
Bernhard is a brash yet contemplative critic of popular culture who has crafted several venerated one-woman shows both on and off-Broadway, immortalized on countless recordings (most recently I Love Being Me, Don’t You, released this summer) and in films. Bernhard returns to the New York stage next week with a string of New Year’s Eve-themed shows at Joe’s Pub, where she’ll be celebrating herself and touching on a variety of pop-culture and political topics. We spoke with Bernhard about what she has planned for her run at Joe’s, her performance style, and her musical theater ambitions.
Let’s talk about your upcoming shows at Joe’s Pub. You’re doing eight of them in four nights, right?
Eight in four nights. I usually do two hours and this is like an hour and ten. It’s appropriate for the venue and the holiday season. People like to come in and they don’t like to be tied up all night long because they always have somewhere else to go.
Are you doing anything special for the New Year’s show?
Yeah, Joe’s Pub always turns it out: the champagne, the glamour of New Year’s Eve for those who brave being out. I always try to tie in a year-end wrap-up and make it fun and festive and also a little introspective.
That’s what’s so appealing about your act. You not only have standard stand-up fare, but you also include a lot of music, performance, and introspection. Is that something you’ve been doing since the very beginning when you started in L.A. in the ‘70s?
I think naturally that’s how I am as a person. I can be full of hilarity and really out there and then I kind of come back to neutral and recharge. I think that’s just people in general. We work at a lot of different levels as people within our own minds and in our relationships with friends and lovers, and I like to show all sides of that way of being we all experience every day.
I see your material as more of a conversation between you and your audience. Do you try to incorporate that a lot?
I do! I like to really bring people in and have it be kind of a cocoon of fun and, you know, just kind of cover all the different topics that people find interesting and that I love to expose about myself.
You’re very active on Twitter, as well.
Twitter’s good because it’s the same thing: I can throw an idea out there, or something that really made me laugh, or something that’s provocative. You don’t lose the momentum. Sometimes if I go a month without performing I’ll keep a notebook and journal. But it’s just so great when it’s so ephemeral. You know a week later nobody will care, but in the moment it’s a great outlet for all those thoughts.
Looking back on what you’ve done throughout your whole career, who would you say are your biggest influences, in both the comedy and music worlds? I know you’re a Laura Nyro fan, which I was thinking about today because she was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I know! I wish she was still here doing her thing. It’s interesting because I was watching some of [Lady Gaga’s] performances on TV and—I don’t know if Lady Gaga is familiar with her, [but] I’m sure she is because she’s a very smart person—I thought, I’m sure that was another influence on her, sitting acoustically at the piano and playing. Something about their energy is very similar. Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Carole King. All the rockers. Stevie Nicks and Nina Simone and the Supremes and Aretha Franklin—it goes all over the place. When I was little [I loved] Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Mary Tyler Moore, and Barbara Streisand, and when I was a little bit older starting my career, Lily Tomlin. That’s a good cross section of people that I drew from when I first started performing.
You may be tired of talking about “women in comedy” and being compared to other performers, but something I find fascinating about your act is that you’re not self-deprecating at all. Is that something you’ve always tried to be conscious of and achieve?
Yeah. When I first started performing it was a very conscious decision because I was kind of a product of the feminist movement and it was so liberating at that time. Like, I don’t have to put myself down, I don’t have to be a victim of what society thinks women are supposed to be, and it was a real conscious decision and…made for an interesting approach to comedy that I was really happy I got to experience in my formative years.
Do you think the self-deprecating style may have hindered women who perform comedy?
I think people in the early days who I adored and still do, [like] Joan Rivers [who] is obviously still amazing, [wrote material] that was a reflection of the times. I don’t necessarily think that they felt that way but I think that’s what people related to and it was comfortable—a realistic jumping-off place. That’s what these women experienced in their lives. What else were they supposed to talk about?
Do you think you’ve surrounded yourself with other kinds of groups and scenes and that’s where you get your energy from?
I mean, listen, I’m post-feminist, I’m post-gay liberation. I’ve kind of come through all of those movements and be able to blend in the political and the emotional aftermath of all of them and put them into a new context. Certainly my friendships with people are all over the place, and I have friends in a million different places and directions. I guess that’s just my life in general. I enjoy people who are smart and funny and provocative.
Occasionally you poke fun at celebrity friends or make jokes at the expense of famous people whom you may or may not be friends with. Do you ever run into people who are aggravated with that material?
I feel like what I’ve done is disseminate pop culture and fame, and the fine line…of [people] just being who they are in the world and longing for fame—the same kind of fame [examined in] King of Comedy. I didn’t write that movie; I was just fascinated by the juxtaposition of being who I am, which is a real person [who is] friends with famous people and [is] in the public eye, so I always played with those notions. And most of my work when I’m talking about celebrities, you know, is kind of made up, fictionalized. I don’t go for cheap shots; it’s not like I’m there to rip people apart. It may be a veiled critique, but it’s not just a critique of the performer. It’s a critique of what made that person and what people on the other side expect from fame. It’s very layered and never like, “She’s fat, she’s ugly.” That’s not even in the realm of what I do, so I don’t think people ever are offended, and if they are they don’t understand it. It’s rare…I haven’t gotten too much blowback from people about it.
On the last album you recorded, you talk about the musical you’re writing with Justin Bond. Do you have any more details about that?
We finished the first draft of it and he got kind of sidetracked [so] it’s been a bit stalled out. I hope we can revisit it, but right now it just seems like we’re off both off in our own directions. Hopefully we’ll get it back together again and try to get it done, but right now we’re kind of in a holding pattern.
Is it a narrative musical or is it more of a cabaret act?
It’s a narrative musical. We play these estranged cousins who reunite at a wedding and it’s kind of like this journey. The music’s great and the story’s cool. It needs work and it needs a director and a collaborator to help us finish it. But we both have so much going on, it’s kind of crazy. Is that something you’ve always wanted to do? Originally when I first started off I wanted to be a musical comedy star. I got sidetracked into doing my own work, [but] I kind of feel like my live performances are like mini-musicals. So if the right thing comes along, absolutely I’d love to do it.
I saw this week that you were on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live and talked about being one of the original actors who were considered for Sex and the City.
I was offered the role and at the time it wasn’t right. In the first place, when most shows start up, there isn’t necessarily a buzz like, “This is going to be the next big show!” Maybe if I’d been able to project a little more into the future, or maybe if I’d been in a different headspace it would have been something I wanted to do, but at the time it just wasn’t the right fit for me. I think Cynthia Nixon did a great job in that role. Honestly, I could have done it but it would have been a much different approach to it. But everything’s meant to be; there’s something else waiting for me whether I’m creating it or I just get cast, but it was a fun show for sure.
Have you felt that working on your own stuff opens up more doors than auditioning for things?
Well, I audition for things, too. I kind of go at both approaches, but you know, I’d be very happy to be cast on a great ensemble show. Tonight I’m on Hot in Cleveland, and in the spring I’m on [Good Christian Bitches] with Kristin Chenoweth. I just filmed that. That’s the kind of show…I’d love to be on; [part of] an ensemble but not [carrying it] all on my shoulders. There’s a lot for good stuff that you get to do, so that’s what I’m looking for right now.