This interview originally ran in MetroBeat.
The Love Machine: Sandra Bernhard brings her unique sensibility to Greenville
She came onto the scene in the eighties, with her standout performance as a crazed fan in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy. She performed stand-up comedy all over the country and made many memorable guest appearances with David Letterman –including a legendary appearance with then-pal Madonna. While she’s perhaps best known for her recurring role as the “lipstick lesbian” Nancy in the sitcom Roseanne, it’s her unique comedy style that really galvanizes people. In this world, there are three kinds of people: the ones who love her, the ones who loathe her, and the ones who’ve never heard of her. There’s no real in-between with Sandra Bernhard. Once you’ve seen her, you’ll have a definite opinion of her. You’ll either think she’s annoying as hell or decide she’s a comic genius.
Her style has always included the profane and provocative. Current targets include the Bush administration, media exploitation of September 11, celebrity culture and the fashion sense of Laura Bush. In 1998, Bernhard took on an entirely new role, that of single mother, by giving birth to a daughter, Cicely (she has not revealed the name of the father).
She’s now touring the country with her new stage show, The Love Machine, which arrives in Greenville at the Peace Center on June 20. A mix of comedy and music featuring a five piece band (she’s released two rock-and-roll albums and toured with Lilith Fair), this show promises to continue her tradition of strong, opinionated comedy.
I spoke to Ms. Bernhard recently about her upcoming show, raising a daughter, her career and a fashion ad that ran on the back page of MetroBeat last month. You may recall the photo of Ms. Bernhard, chest out, hands on bare midriff, looking great to promote a MAC make-up pool party held at Belk. I had to ask her about it.
A couple weeks ago we had an ad for the MAC Pool Party on the back page of our newspaper. When was that done?
Last August. I look pretty much the same. I don’t tend to change much month to month.
Have you done a lot of fashion photo shoots?
Oh, yeah, for years.
Have you started a specific relationship with MAC?
I really like their politics and the people they use and I just thought it was cool. I like their idea of beauty, their whole take on it.
How old is your daughter?
How long did it take you to get back into shape after having a daughter?
I went right back to working out. I worked out my entire pregnancy and I was on stage my entire pregnancy. So I didn’t get too out of shape to begin with. It wasn’t too bad to get back into it.
How do you like having a daughter?
It’s fantastic. The best thing I’ve ever done.
Do you bring her with you on the road?
I do. But not for more than a few days at a time. But I’m only out for a few days at a time, I don’t go out for weeks at a time, I wouldn’t do that.
Are you concerned with body image issues? Doing these fashion ads, do you think about how you might talk to your daughter about that?
I don’t think I’m ever going to need to talk to her about stuff like that. She’s comfortable in her own skin. She’s a kid who’s absolutely at ease with herself. In terms of what I do affecting other people, everybody kind of knows my feminist political stance and I don’t think it ever, to me, is contradictory to take care of yourself and look good. It’s who I am. I’ve never had to diet or work at who I am, so I don’t feel like it’s a compromise. I work out. I eat right. I take care of myself.
Tell me a little bit about the show. It’s comedy and music?
Yes, which is kind of what my shows always are. It’s almost like a post-modern musical. I’m telling stories but they’re kind of theatrical and they lead into songs that are also various moods and coloring and shading theatrically. It almost weaves a whole story about my life and where I’m at in the world and how the world affects us and how we all survive the world.
Are you kind of the female Spalding Gray with music?
No, au contraire. Spalding Gray is very dry. I’ve been doing this longer than Spalding Gray, actually. I’ve been performing for 28 years. I come from much more the entertainment point of view than the monologist. I would never consider myself a straight monologist.
How much of the music is original?
About 60 percent of it — songs that I co-wrote with members of the band.
What kind of topics do you cover in the songs?
They’re kind of emotional, and some are a little bit funny, but they’re all musically diverse and rock and roll oriented.
Who would you say are your influences as far as writing songs?
People from Laura Nyro to Joni Mitchell to early Stones. Todd Rundgren. Burt Bacharach.
Has your show changed since September 11?
This show was all written post-September 11 and based a lot on how the world has spun after and how it continues to spin.
How has September 11 changed you personally?
It hasn’t changed me that much. I’m somebody who’s kind of tuned in spiritually. All this stuff was in the making, the amount of negativity in the world was bound to manifest itself in some big way, so it didn’t come as a big surprise. When you’re kind of grounded spiritually it doesn’t really change you, because you’re already on the path you need to be on to counteract all the illusion of it.
How do you feel about the war on terror?
I think it’s complete and utter bullshit. The only terrorism we need to work on is the terrorism within, the negativity within. If everybody individually did their spiritual work, none of this would be going on. If we’d stop focusing on exterior things and blaming people and these phantom enemies, we’d actually accomplish something. But the government’s never going to admit that.
What kind of things do you do to spiritually ground yourself?
I’m very involved with the study of Kabballah which is Jewish spirituality. There are certain practices, meditations and ways of treating people that work against the negative forces that take us all over. Simple things like being kind to people, for starters.
Wasn’t a lot of your early comedy negative?
No, my comedy’s never been negative.
Confrontational is probably a better word for it.
I’m confrontational because I’m concerned about the way people are, and the way the world is and the mediocrity. But as a strong performer, that’s also a spiritual responsibility. When you see somebody doing something stupid, you don’t just stand by and let them do it.
Which do you prefer — films, comedy, music or writing?
In terms of my live performing, I get to do all of it. I get to do the writing and sing the music and put in some of the acting abilities. When you’re performing, you’re always acting, in a certain sense. So I kind of accomplish it all when I’m performing live. Of course it’s great to do films and it’s great to do certain things on television. It’s something I like to dabble in all over the place.
How actively do you seek film roles?
I seek it pretty actively, but there’s not that many opportunities. It’s a very youth-oriented market. It’s a challenge, but I’m always out there trying.
How did you land your breakthrough role in The King of Comedy?
I auditioned for it along with about 500 other actresses. Then I went through a process of auditioning and I got it.
Were you performing comedy before that?
I know I’m in a minority when I say this, but I liked Hudson Hawk [the notorious box office bomb starring Bruce Willis].
Actually, a lot of people in retrospect enjoy it. It’s constantly on cable. I always get great feedback. It’s a cute film. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be when I accepted it, but I don’t regret doing it.
What did you think it was going to be?
The original script was much more tongue-in-cheek and much more sophisticated. They dumbed it down.
What are your perceptions of the South?
I love the South. I love coming down here. I think people are super nice and warm and lovely. There’s a mystery and beauty to the South that’s very different from the rest of the country.
You know, South Carolina basically gave the presidency to George W. Bush in the primaries.
The whole thing was pretty corrupt, so you have to just grin and bear it until we can figure it out two years from now.
How do you feel about President Bush?
I think he’s a manifestation of people’s laziness and complacency. That allowed him to win. People need to regroup and appreciate when someone pretty intelligent and pretty caring is running the country.
What kind of music are you listening to these days?
I just got the new Norah Jones cd, which I like. Lauryn Hill’s new album. There’s too much competition out there among the cool black chicks.
Does your daughter listen to that?
She listens to whatever I listen to. She’s got a very eclectic ear.
Has she been corrupted by Barney or the Teletubbies?
What’s your television watching policy with her?
Only PBS or HBO Family. No commercial television.
How long will you be able to keep that up?
For a while.
Are you consciously trying to keep her life normal?
Well, her life isn’t normal. She has a very exotic life. But she’s not spoiled.
You’re a single mother. Do you get a lot of help?
I get a lot of support from a lot of friends and family. I’m doing okay. No complaints.
Sandra Bernhard will perform at the Peace Center on Thursday June 20 at 8 pm, all seats $30. A pre-show meet and greet reception to benefit AID Upstate will be held from 6:30-7:45. Benefit tickets are also $30 and include both the reception and the show, with $5 from each ticket donated to AID Upstate. Only benefit ticket holders will be admitted to the reception. Contact the Peace Center box office, 467-3000 or (800)888-7768, for reservations.