Sandra Bernhard has managed to sell out shows, write books, record albums, appear on Broadway and in dozens of high-profile television shows, all without sacrificing what she believes in or who she is as a person.  It’s a rarity in today’s society and I was honored to speak with her about her life and her new show Sandyland, coming to the City Winery on October 17th.

Ms. Bernhard has performed countless one-woman shows as well as shows featuring her back-up band, The Flawless Zircons. So what makes Sandyland different from her other shows?

“People like the intimacy of my shows and hearing the funny little stores of places I’ve been,” she said. “I think people like the narrative continuity of a performer, and watching them evolve over the years.  You know their story becomes part of your story.  It’s like any great artist from Bob Dylan to Stevie Nicks, you want to keep being involved in their neurosis and the crazy in their life.”

I’ve been a fan of Ms. Bernhard’s since I first saw her on Roseanne and then The L Word.  My favorite comedic bit had to do with Heart, one my favorite bands.  She nailed the mock performance of “Barracuda,” coming off completely authentic, which isn’t something that can be made up on the fly.

Bernhard has a track record that is hard to defy.  She has stated in several interviews that she knew she wanted to be a comedian when she was five.  Her first performance was an open mic night at a place called Ye Little Club.  She performed at the Comedy Store where she was discovered by Paul Mooney.  She went on to appear in $1.98 Beauty Contest, and then scored a role on The Richard Pryor Show.  This led to her being cast in King of Comedy, directed by Martin Scorsese.  From the get-go, Bernhard was a success.  Many of today’s female comedians including Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, and even Whoopi Goldberg have credited her as a ground-breaking comedian to kick down doors. She did it by being true to herself.

“I think ultimately that’s what happens and why you have a long career,” she said. “I think that if you’re doing it because you love it and it’s fun and it’s kind of off the cuff, I think that’s what makes it interesting to me and that’s where my improvisation skills come in.”

Bernhard doesn’t shy away from topics that are taboo.  Instead she meets them head on and makes you wonder what the big deal was all about.  She does this by reflecting on the world around her and as her view changes, so do the topics that she discusses in her shows.

“People come to see you because they want your take on it, “she says.  In an interview with Marianne Schnall, she said “people that want and need things to be peaceful and creative and beautiful can effect great changes through their work and I like to think that I can do that.”

When I asked her if she felt she was able to allow for great change and a sort of creative peace, she said: “Well, I think certainly to my fans the people who like my work, yes. I mean, it depends on the level of success you have.  I think that you go through highs and lows in your career where more people love me more than others. But I think also, along with creating that sort of peace and well-being and creative freedom, you also sting a lot of people. I’ve had things on the Internet about gun control and things that I feel strongly about and you get a backlash from the crazies and I know that I am affecting people.  I would say a lot more, but because of the kind of violent reaction you get from people I feel like it’s a scary world and I’d rather just maintain a certain distance from some of my philosophies unless it’s at my live shows and then I feel like 99% of the people who are there are there to see me and want to hear it.”

“My first goal was to become a singer,” she said. “When I was really little my first goal was to become a Broadway musical star and I kind of segued out of that and I just loved and was influenced throughout the years by Motown, R & B, and then Jazz and the rock revolution. To me that was always the backdrop of my life.  Music was always a textural, emotional, kind of back drop to whatever experience you’re having.”

Bernhard has an amazing singing voice and it was only natural that she would add music to her stand-up performances.  Once the music was added, her show took on a life of its own. Sandyland has been described (as with several of her shows) as “theatre, rock’n’roll, burlesque, and cabaret” all rolled into one.  She loves, in her words, “the juxtaposition of the storytelling against the music and I think that also sets me apart from just being a comedian and just being a singer.” 

I asked her how she felt about the onslaught of so-called reality television stars and the fact that so many people are getting their 15 minutes of fame and being famous for doing nothing.  Would these people have become successful in the 70’s, 80’s, and (part of the) 90’s when talent ruled the airwaves?

“There certainly is a lot of room to fill up the airspace but not necessarily with anything that I personally feel has a lot of merit,” she said, regarding the plethora of cable TV channels today. “But now because there seems to be the culture of that, then it just gets supported by the media because they just run out of ideas and there’s too much out there and it’s just a banquet of crap.”

I couldn’t help but wonder: would someone like Sandra Bernhard leave anything out of her show in a town the size of Nashville? Any pieces that only work in the bigger cities? “I think I’ll be pretty forthright and give the kids what they came to see,” she said.

She isn’t just focusing on Sandyland.  After a stint on the ABC Family Series Switched at Birth, Ms. Bernhard was called in to do a guest-starring role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  She’s also working a great deal on scripted television shows that she is creating.  “I really, really want to get back on television, and something that I’m proud to be a part of,” she said.

“As long as I have my career, I’m happy doing what I do.”

 

 

 

Sandra Bernhard will be at the City Winery on October 17th.  Doors open at 6 and the show starts at 8. Get your tickets (starting at $42.00-$48.00) quick as this is an intimate affair with just over 300 seats available. To order tickets go to www.citywinery.com/nashville or call 615-324-1010.

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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