Sandra Bernhard, comedienne and actress
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's been 30 years since my guest, Sandra Bernhard, appeared in the Scorsese film, the king of comedy. And in her new show, Sandra tells her audience, she knows it's hard to look at her and not think somehow time has stood still for her. Sandra Bernhard is a comedienne, provocateur, cabaret entertainer, perennial bad girl, and she's bringing her new show to the La Jolla Playhouse. Thank you so much for being here.
BERNHARD: You lulled me into a relaxed state with your beautiful voice and rendition of my history.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I got to tell you, it does seem crazy the king of comedy is so long ago, right?
BERNHARD: I know it's -- listen, you know, we're hurtling through time.
CAVANAUGH: Did you envision your career was going to be a long one? Is this part of the plan?
BERNHARD: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I never had, like, a plan -- people have their five-year or ten-year man, maybe I should have had one. But no, I mean, I always knew that I would be a perennial performer.
CAVANAUGH: And who were, like, your icons when you were growing up?
BERNHARD: When I was really little, carol channing, carol burnet and Mary Tyler Moore and Barbara Streisand, and all the people that were au courrant in the day.
CAVANAUGH: And all multitalented, who could bring a cabaret show sort of --
BERNHARD: Exactly. And back in the day, you take somebody like Shirley McClaine or Sammy Davis junior, do you know Martin, all those people who played Las Vegas also were in films, they were singer, they did it all.
BERNHARD: And that was just what I grew up assuming an entertainer or performer did. And nowadays, everybody's, like, oh, you do so much. That was just what I raised on! You know, what kind of excitement and endless possibilities.
CAVANAUGH: That kind of you view of show business.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the name of your show, I love being me, don't you? What inspired that?
BERNHARD: I went to a friend of mine who's a really, really crazy performer named amber Martin, and I said help me come up with a title. And she came up with it. But it was so succinct to me about where we're at in social media. Everybody on twitter, everybody on Facebook, it's always, like, everybody's blogging, everybody's the last word on everything. I mean, you look at twitter, your twitter board out there, that's just yours, and you multiply that by 5-billion, and everybody's got an opinion, which we all do. However, I feel like we've been taken over by the common place.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you're fascinated by twitter though.
BERNHARD: I wouldn't say I'm fascinated by twitter. I just used it. Fascinated is a word I reserve for nature or relationships or walking down the street and seeing an odd tableau, you know? In New York City. There's many things I'm fascinated by. Twitter and social media is not one of them.
CAVANAUGH: Not one of them. With YouTube though and Facebook, do you think there's this idea, you know, you wanted to get into show business. Everybody fancies themselves a performer now.
BERNHARD: Right, right but the difference between me and where you start now is that I actually came -- you know I started in Los Angeles, and I came with I very clear vision of what I wanted, I came with a very strong point of view, and I started performing live at the comedy clubs, I used them as a launching pad and a platform, but I got up almost every night of the week from the time I was 18 on, I was on stage at least three or four nights a week, homing my craft. And then it led to other things, but I continue to go and do it. And I still do to this day.
CAVANAUGH: So the instantaneous nature of since I can use social media, all of a sudden you should watch me or listen to me is not interesting to you?
BERNHARD: No, because at the point you want that sort of exposure is the point you should have already done the at least five years of work in places where nobody saw you.
BERNHARD: Yes, the comedy clubs or the little venues where people go and sit and strum their guitars and there's ten people there, and they're all look at you quizzically. But that's where you get your confidence, that's where you discover who you are as an artist, and where you get your clear point of view.
CAVANAUGH: For people who haven't seen one of your show, it's a long way from the idea of that comedy club. It's not regular sort of standup with a water bottle and a mic.
BERNHARD: Right! Thank you, yes.
CAVANAUGH: It's a whole show. Tell us about your show.
BERNHARD: Well, I like to think of themes sort of a postmodern evening in Las Vegas. Only I address things that maybe those people wouldn't have. I mean, I -- obviously I address feminist issues, I talk about my own life. It's a travelogue. There's funny little stories of things that have actually happened with people, unexpected people that we all know. I really try to craft a journey through my work that encompasses politics, it encompasses, you know, pop culture, it encompasses my life, my -- raise my daughter, having a girlfriend. But to me, it is like written and open-ended in a way where I can infuse it with my stream of consciousness, and things that are happening in the moment and my life and things that I am absorbing in the moment. So it's a constant infusion of freshness. And then I also sing, I have a band with me. Music was always my first love. I've written a lot of songs over the years. Sometimes I do my original songs, sometimes they're covers. But I always try to take songs that I feel have some -- you know, they're almost like a punctuation on a thought, and an idea or one of my monologues am
CAVANAUGH: Now, are the theatre is going to be decked out cabaret style.
BERNHARD: That's what I understand.
CAVANAUGH: Now, do you work the audience when you do a show?
BERNHARD: Well, I mean, I certainly -- there's an interaction. About you les now than when I did it back in the '80s.
CAVANAUGH: Why is that?
BERNHARD: It's just too distracting. And -- I don't know, I just don't think it's necessary to encompass, you know, and talk to the audience as much.
CAVANAUGH: Lyou've got an awful lot going on too.
BERNHARD: Yeah! That's too much going on, and if you give the wrong message, all of a sudden, everybody is talking.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha.
BERNHARD: And occasionally something will happen where you're engage somebody, but I'm not looking for somebody to engage with.
CAVANAUGH: Are people still surprised that when they learn you have such a superb singing voice? Is that something something, like, my good! The woman can sing!
BERNHARD: I think new people come to see you, people who are get what you do, they don't totally absorb it. So no, it's not a total surprise. But it's nice that people enjoy my singing, of course.
CAVANAUGH: That's your first love, right?
BERNHARD: Well, it's a toss up. I love to talk. I've always been a social commentator. But I do love music.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you say that you want to stir things up with the audience. And you know, there aren't that mean performers that seem to still like doing that.
BERNHARD: I only mean it in the sense that I think that as an artist and as a performer, you owe your audience something that stirs them. And I think -- we also owe our audience some resolution to the stir. I'm be just going to stir the pot and let it burn. I give them at least my answers to the problems of the day.
CAVANAUGH: Now, is it -- do you think that it's like easier to be controversial now than it used to be because things are a little safe?
BERNHARD: Oddly, yes. I think that, I mean, certainly right now with the whole regressive Republican debate going on, and certainly on women's issues and social issues, I think that there's -- it's incredibly surprising.
CAVANAUGH: Are those the topics -- the &%PTics that intrigue you now?
BERNHARD: Yes, but I try not to go overboard with them because it's -- it's too oppressive. You don't want to take the life out of the party.
BERNHARD: But it's certainly fun to touch on it.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and how could you not?
BERNHARD: How can you not! Being a responsible woman.
CAVANAUGH: You have done some very funny bits that I've seen on bravo, watch what happens.
BERNHARD: Yes, that's my new thing that I'm doing weekly on Andy Cohen.
BERNHARD: Yeah, my pop culture rants. And hopefully what I'm heading toward is doing a half-hour weekly show of my own on bravo.
CAVANAUGH: That would be great.
BERNHARD: That's what we're working toward. But I'm playing in a landscape that's so different than what I do. So it's kind of funny and in --tic that I'm there commenting on all this stuff where that's sort of the home to it, you know?
CAVANAUGH: Not the TV format, but you mean the message of Bravo?
BERNHARD: Yeah. I mean, I'm talking about the house wives, the everything that's on there is totally antithetical to who I am is yet feeds my commentary. So it's a kind of funny marriage.
CAVANAUGH: It certainly is, because I saw one of them that you did about celebrity perfumes?
BERNHARD: Yes! With Mary J. Blige sitting next to me.
CAVANAUGH: Are you still waiting for someone to get you a Jessica Simpson perfume?
BERNHARD: No, two people have gifted me with Jessica Simpson perfumes.
CAVANAUGH: How long does that celebrity perfume thing go on? I saw at Christmas time, a Liz Taylor commercial for white diamonds
BERNHARD: Apparently, that is the highest grossing perfume of all times
CAVANAUGH: She was dead almost a year!
BERNHARD: It continues to be, but it goes to her estate. White diamonds is the No. 1 grossing perfume of all time.
CAVANAUGH: Look at the things you know!
BERNHARD: Yeah, I was discussing it with somebody who knew about that, and I don't know who it was, we were talking about celebrity fragrances.
CAVANAUGH: And you also did one on the academy awards, how disappointed you were.
BERNHARD: Well, they were just boring. It was really hard to mine anything interesting from it, so I had to dip back into, you know, days of yore, and lore, and folk lore.
CAVANAUGH: And jack vaLance doing his --
BERNHARD: 1-armed pushups.
CAVANAUGH: When you long for those days, you know something is wrong.
CAVANAUGH: As you mentioned, you had a 13 year-old daughter, and a lot of performers don't want to see their kids go into the business. What do you think about that?
BERNHARD: Well, I certainly don't want her to either.
BERNHARD: Maybe if it was 30 years ago, and there was still some sort of future in it, and there was a real sense of adventure that I had when I was starting off, I would feel differently. But since she's not chomping at the bit to do it, then I certainly wouldn't -- I feel like a lot of celebrities push their kids into it too, which I find very disturbing.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I mean, that's what they see when they grow up, they see mom go off and do this business and you get applause and all of that. And if must form you in a way.
BERNHARD: I don't think any kid sees that and wants is that inherently. I think a lot -- I'm serious, I think a lot of performers sort of bring their kids into it, and go isn't this fun? Isn't this nice and the kid's not going to argument
CAVANAUGH: And has it been fun so far?
BERNHARD: A lot of it's fun. Yeah. It's great and a lot of it's hard work. And a lot of it's disappointing, and a lot of it is antithetical to a lot of what I -- you know, just feel philosophically. But you try to work around is it and make the best of it.
CAVANAUGH: That's really interesting. You know, I have a really frivolous question to ask you now.
BERNHARD: Please! Why not?
CAVANAUGH: Talking about your deeper issues here. You are a fashion icon, and I'm just wondering what are you going to be wearing during the I love being me show?
BERNHARD: Well, I am wearing a very easy dress, it's sequinned with some, you know, large bobbles by Mastina. And I bought it on sale. I am still wearing a lot of Ralph Rucci, a friend of mine who designs for me. But the dress is so fragile, and sometimes I don't want to travel with it. I'm afraid it's going to get wrecked. So sometimes I bring things that are cute but not, you know -- and then I do a surprise encore which I really can't give away.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, all right.
BERNHARD: It's very simple though, it's nothing over the top.
CAVANAUGH: Somehow I don't believe that.
BERNHARD: No, no -- well, I guess it's over the top but not in an obvious way.
CAVANAUGH: Sandra's show, I love being me, don't you, runs tomorrow, March 14th through the 17th at the La Jolla Playhouse. Thank you very much.
BERNHARD: Oh, it was lovely. It was wonderful to be here, and I'm so excited about performing at the legendary La Jolla.
CAVANAUGH: La Jolla Playhouse.