SANDRA BERNHARD IS appalled at the mention of the C-word.
"I've never considered myself to be cynical," she said resolutely in a phone interview last week. "I'm critical in, I hope, a constructive way. I'm interested in society and culture growing and changing."
Bernhard's voice, a dramatic instrument on stage, is less exaggerated in conversation. But her clear-eyed, subtle humor remains. (Asked to name three eternal human traits, she replied, with typical punch, "Impatience, the need to be loved, and the need to eat—a lot, all the time.")
I'm Still Here, Damn It!
Moore Theater, March 8-14
The singer, actress, writer, and comedian was preparing to take her acerbic, ultra-observant, wholly uncynical self on the road with her latest show, I'm Still Here, Damn It!. Fans of Bernhard's keen social commentary will be happy to know that she's lost none of her stinging, stiletto-sharp wit, despite becoming a mother for the first time last summer and embarking on a well-publicized study of a branch of Judaism called kabbalah. Both her daughter and her religion show up in her work. "I am involved in studying kabbalah," she states in I'm Still Here, "but I don't feel the need to talk about it incessantly. I think it's reflected in everything I do."
This generally earns some laughs, despite the fact that it's meant sincerely. Bernhard is not unaware of the contradictions between her work and her life, and she explores them in her latest book, May I Kiss You on the Lips, Miss Sandra?; one vignette, a dialogue between two women about a friend who's "become very spiritual," seems to mock the seeking that Bernhard herself is engaged in. Yet her point, she explained, is characteristically subtle:
"It goes so much deeper and wider than saying, 'I'm a spiritual person.' Nobody is so righteous. If they were, they wouldn't be here anymore—their souls would be elevated on to the next level. It's one thing to say, 'I'm studying spirituality'—that's realistic—but the rest of it is all talk."
Don't be fooled by her designer wardrobe, pouting lips, and film and TV credits (including five years as a regular on Roseanne). Bernhard staunchly maintains her Hollywood-outsider status. "I don't really hang in that celebrity world," she asserted. "I actually have quite a distance from it. I drop into it, and people drop into my world, but on a day-to-day basis, my friends are much more down to earth than my work would let on. But, you know, it wouldn't be very interesting in general to talk about people that people don't know."
So Bernhard regales audiences with the absurdities of the rich and famous, and surprisingly enough, her comments inspire little wrath. "There's nothing I'm saying that other people wouldn't—just not as humorously or as quickly. I don't think there's anything that's really that shocking or insulting [to the people I'm talking about]. It's pretty obvious stuff."
Well, not to all of us. Who else but Sandra Bernhard would perform a phantom composition "by Sting and Elton John, in memory of Gianni Versace (with all proceeds donated to fashion victims around the world)" or imitate Liza Minnelli belting out Soundgarden covers?
Bernhard turns audience members into co-conspirators—quite a trick when you suddenly find yourself outside the cozy confines of an off-off-Broadway theater, as she did this winter. I'm Still Here had an extended run on the Great White Way, where Bernhard had plenty of opportunities to commune with "uptown visitors" and tourists.
"There were a lot of those kind of people," she noted. "After awhile the New York audience is going to dwindle, and it's going to start to be the out-of-town crowd—that's what supports Broadway. Some nights you're in the mood to have fun with them and some nights you just do your work and call it a night."
In fact, Bernhard alters her bits depending on her location. "It's always a mood thing," she said. "You can pick up the vibe of the city, and it definitely affects what you've been doing or what you've been saying."
On her opening night in Seattle, this meant additional spoofs on Broadway stereotypes—the theatrical gypsy and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical—which the audience seemed to appreciate more than her jibes at Barney's and henna-painting parties. When her microphone went dead in the middle of a climactic rendition of "Midnight Train to Georgia," Bernhard forged ahead as the crowd sang along until a new mike appeared. The scenario was every performer's nightmare, but Bernhard's composure befits her no-nonsense persona. She doesn't even suffer from stage fright. "I get a certain amount of adrenaline," she acceded, "but you need that to perform, otherwise you'd just be like you are in your real life—and nobody'd pay to see that."
On that point, at least, Bernhard may be wrong.