Interview: Sandra Bernhard loves being her–and we would, too

By | June 1, 2011 at 3:24 pm | 3 comments | Features | Tags: ,

Comedian, singer, writer, mom and all-around kick-ass broad Sandra Bernhard took some time out of her insanely busy schedule to talk to us about her newest album, I Love Being Me, Don’t You? (out June 7), fictional girl fights and Roseanne Barr.

Pre-order the album on iTunes.

I listened to your album.
Oh good.

It’s so fun. I’m curious how much of that is prepared and how much is just you having a good time in a room full of people who obviously adore you.

That night [October 2010 at the Castro in San Francisco], which was this concert of kismet, they just happened to be professionally recording it. And I just happened to be on and plugging into my improvisational goddesses and just went on a tear. So, so much of that night is really a one-off that I could never re-create again.

There’s that moment where you’re like, “They’re obviously not recording me tonight, because they never record me when I’m doing well.”
Exactly. I had no idea that they were recording it. I guess that made it even better, because I felt like I was free to say whatever I wanted. And therefore it was being recorded, and you want to capture those nights, because those are the best nights.

Do you go in with…you said you probably couldn’t replicate it, and there are lots of different reasons. Crowds obviously change the way a performance can go—but is there a lot that you go in prepared with?
Oh sure. It’s always important for any performer to have an actual act, you know what I mean? I don’t know anybody that could improvise an entire show every night. If you’re just a little bit off or the crowd’s not with you, you freeze. So, of course. I have a lot of different acts. I have some acts that are with a full band, so they’re more prepared and big pieces and big musical numbers. Then there are the nights that are like the night I did in San Francisco where I have my guitar player and it’s more casual. But even on those nights I have fall-back material, and a point A to point B. You’ve got to have that outline as an artist to get through the night, because as I said, if you freeze up, you’re done.

I’m curious how much over the years the way that you go into these things has changed. You’ve become one of these iconic figures, so you’ve got to assume that most of the time the people who are coming to see you are the people who already love you, so you know you’re going to have support there.
Right. That’s true. That makes me feel more responsible. Because if somebody comes back to see me year after year, I don’t want to cheat them. I don’t want to phone it in and be like, “You’ve heard this a hundred times.” I’m constantly pushing myself and challenging myself to write new material and try to be on the cutting edge, because there’s a lot of new performers, there’s a lot of people out there. You’ve got to stay in the game and be prepared and willing to do the work. I always try to do that. It’s really important to me.

I know the covers on the album [Melanie’s “Beautiful People” and a hybrid of Pink’s “Just Like a Pill” and Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly”] are beloved covers that you’ve done before. Will those change as well when you start touring with this?
Oh yeah. I’m always looking for new songs that I’ve always enjoyed over the years, and then some of my original tunes. I’m constantly churning up the musical aspect as well. But I do come back to some of the ones that people like, because if you go to see Stevie Nicks, you want to hear “Rhiannon.” You’ve got to walk that fine line, except when you’re doing more comedic monologues, you’ve got to keep that a little bit fresher.

How did you ever decide on Lita Ford for a cover?
I just love that song. Even though when you look at it for the surface value, you think, Oh, this is a tacky song, there’s just something about the Runaways and the early days of women in rock and roll, and they continued to be out there doing their thing…there’s something heartbreaking about it on a certain level and emotional. I don’t know, I just always manage to find the underpinnings to a song like that and relate it to all the kids that listened to it and all the kids that made out to it. There are so many layers to a great rock song, so I always tap into that.

And I feel like she was sort of rare. She was this one chick among all these rocker guys when that song came out.
Exactly. There she was in her leather and her bustier. She was kind of groovy and weird and I don’t know, she’s cool. I like to pay homage.

I have to ask if your girlfriend has heard the album.
Um, no. But she kind of knows all my material. She knows that I can go off on tangents.

I’m always curious…you are obviously not someone who I would describe as afraid to express her opinion—you talk about your girlfriend, you talk about your friend Iman, you talk about the people at the Kaballah Center…. You’re still a real person. When you go home, is it like, “Oh, that’s just Sandra doing her thing,” or is there hell to pay when you go home and your girlfriend knows you’ve talked about you guys being in therapy or her being uptight and reading over your shoulder?
(laughing) Well, you know, I’m sure there’s always consequences to everything, but we’re all on the same page, and I don’t think I ever cross that line with my family. Hopefully people understand. But that’s a very fair question.

Well, I’m wondering also—and this may be a question of just age, too—if your daughter ever listens to your stuff.
She does, but not really. She’s not that interested. She kind of goes like, “Uh, Mom, whatever.” She’s in a different headspace—she’s a preteen. I think she’s just preoccupied with other stuff. We’re very close, and she loves me, and we talk about stuff, but I don’t think she’s that interested completely in what I do at this point. She comes to my shows and she likes to be backstage and run around, but she’s so like…whatever. And it’s a much healthier way to be.

Do you think she has any leanings toward showbiz herself?
I think she’s starting to express some interest in singing and acting. We’ll see how far that goes. We’re just sort of letting her do her thing.

One thing I noticed about this album, and I’m curious if it’s intentional or not—it’s not that political. There’s the stuff that you say about Obama, which I have to say, personally, I completely appreciated, because I don’t think that’s a very popular view right now.
Right. Well, you know, I’ve been political. During the last election I was very political. I think during the Bush administration there was a lot more to talk about for people like me because I felt very threatened by what he was doing. I think I needed a major psychic break from talking about it. The cards are on the table. Any thinking, sentient person knows, you have one way of looking at things or you have another, and I think my way of looking at it is a much more rational way.

I just can’t fight that fight every day, and onstage, especially if people are coming to see me, people are coming to see me. It’s not like I’m in Vegas and people are wandering in from the casino and I have to watch what I’m saying. I feel like it’s just not really worth the exhaustion to talk about things that drive me crazy about the Republicans at this point.

There was some stuff that you said about Sarah Palin a couple of years ago, there was some backlash to that—and again, like I said, I think of you as a pretty fearless person, but you’re also a person, so I wonder if that has any impact on you.

Yeah, it did, it did have an impact, only because the people that are out there are very threatening, and they threaten violence, and they’re just scary people, so it’s like, I want to put myself on the line? The outcome was the outcome that I wanted. She kind of faded into the mist—maybe she’s resurfacing now. I mean, it’s obvious what she’s about, and I don’t feel like I need to put myself out there. It’s not like I’m on Bill Maher where we’re having a political conversation. When you’re onstage by yourself, you have to make things funny, you’re up there by yourself. I am a woman, I mean, there are different levels…sometimes it’s just not worth it.

If she ran again, do you think she’d become something you talked about again?
Well, I would certainly…I would have to sit back and watch how far it all went. In terms of Sarah Palin, I feel like she’s been talked about, and she’s exposed herself and exploited her family and, I mean, there’s really nothing left to say that’s really in the realm of humor. It’s this weird personal thing that she’s played out, and I think it’s very narcissistic. I don’t want to contribute to celebrating her negatively or positively. She has a film coming out apparently that she’s producing where she shows people trashing her. If that doesn’t say it all about somebody, I don’t know what does. I don’t want to be involved in that particular weird scene at this point or any point in the near future.

You talk about being on Twitter, and you obviously tweet a lot. You make a funny comment about it—it is this weird kind of, “Yeah, we don’t want to see people in real life, we just kind of want to tweet at them from afar a little bit.”
Right.

I’m wondering if you ever hear from people that you talk about onstage, whether it’s on Twitter or otherwise…like, you’ve made some comments about Kathy Griffin, and you were talking about Arnold Schwarzengger, and I wonder if you ever hear…like, is Kathy Griffin tweeting at you?
I never Twitter about people. You can’t fully…once again, it’s not like you’re onstage or in a conversation on a talk show where people see you going back and forth with someone. You’re doing it from a void. And if you just say in 140 letters “This person’s an idiot,” of course that’s going to stir up a hornet’s nest, which I’m not interested in doing.

And PS, by the way, I don’t have any battle with Kathy Griffin at all. I simply said she has borrowed from me along the way and she’d be the first to admit it. And what she does has taken it in a whole different direction, but I know that did influence her. And sometimes it’s like, hey, you know, I don’t want to cheapen what I do. Sometimes people take it in a direction I don’t agree with, but I do a more sophisticated kind of performing, and that’s how I like to do it. But there’s definitely no battle.

Well here’s the thing: If you look online at that video you did with Rob Shuter, it doesn’t look like there is. I feel like what happens is, people love battles.
They’re so desperate to find people who are sniping with each other like the Housewives of New York, New Jersey, Orange County, that that’s what they always want to see and they forget that there’s social criticism, that there’s a way of saying things that’s not about starting World War III, it’s about saying, I know this person. I feel like this is the influence and this is how I approach it. I’m not taking the piss out of Kathy Griffin, because I don’t want to. I don’t have the need to do that.

She’s very successful, she’s a woman, she’s out there, God bless her. Good, yay, another funny woman who’s got the temerity to stick it out and become a success. So on that level, I support her. She’s not doing anything, y’know, really bad or disruptive. It’s just a difference in style, and that’s all I was commenting on.

You mention on the album that Arts and Crafts [Bernhard’s play with Justin Vivian Bond] didn’t have a home yet, and obviously it played here in New York City at Joe’s Pub, so congratulations on that.
That was more or a less a night of bringing in producers and stuff. We still don’t have a home. We’re still working on that. We’re looking to meet with a director/producer or a theater company or somebody who will develop it to the next level and put it up at a theater. It’s a long process. I’m super busy, and Justin Bond is very busy, so we’re trying to merge our schedules around meeting with people and making it all happen. That’s a work in progress.

And when you’re trying to get something to happen, you still have to make money, so you can’t put the brakes on the rest of your career because if something isn’t generating money, it’s sort of a weird double-edged sword. And anyway we’re working on something I want to see happen for sure.

I typically think of you as a one-woman thing—when I think of your albums and shows and all that you’ve written. Is the process of collaborating with another person, especially a friend, something you particularly enjoy?
Oh yeah, and I’ve done it in the past. I’ve written with my girlfriend, I’ve written with friends, yeah, it’s really important to have that break of just not constantly having to do your own work. It’s exhausting. I write my own material, so you need those breaks in between and it’s great to collaborate with people that you’re friends with and projects that don’t always see the light of day, but there’s something very fulfilling about continuing to push it in new directions.

Speaking of being exhausted, you’re about to start an international tour of this album?
Well, you know, it’s not all just going to happen at once. We’re rolling it out during the year. June is very busy, because I have a couple of dates before Town Hall on June 8, and Town Hall’s a big, big show, I have special guests coming in. And then I’m going to the West Coast, I’m going to Napa, and then I’m doing the entire Gay Pride weekend in San Francisco. I’m doing two nights of my show, but then like two other nights of stuff that’s just associated with Gay Pride, so that’ll be a busy time.

It’ll roll out during the summer and out through the year, yeah, we’re tying it in with the album because that’s a great platform when you perform live to sell things. So, I mean, that can kind of go on for at least the next year if not more, because it’s not like you’re trying to push a single of an album, so it makes the shelf life a little bit longer.

Is that harder to do now? You have a 12-year-old daughter, you’ve been doing this for a long time—is it something you still enjoy?
Oh yeah, I do. I really do enjoy going to new markets, going back to cities I’ve been to. We always try to stay in a nice hotel, we always try to eat great food, so even though it’s work and it’s pressure and it takes a lot of focus, some of the stuff around it—you get to see friends you haven’t seen in awhile—I always enjoy it. And it always ends up being an enriching experience. You meet fans, people who’ve come back again, it’s like this great thing.

Did you read Roseanne Barr’s recent piece in New York magazine?.
I have read it and loved it and really think she is as always on the cutting edge and so smart and so daring and really has continued to tell it like it is. She did it for 10 seasons on her show. And having been a part of that and having seen how she worked and how much energy and effort went into that along with the emotional sidebar of it all—no pun intended—um, yeah, I loved that piece. I thought it was right on.

So it was accurate to your experience on the show?
Well, my experience on the show was very different. I would come and go. I got to come in and have a great time. It was all on her shoulders. She was the one where the buck stopped and she created it and it was her life that she put it on the line every week. That’s a big responsibility. I guess I could do it, but I don’t think anybody could do it again because I don’t think they’d let a woman do it again.

And that’s kind of what she said, too. That Roseanne was a first and a last.
I think she got in under the wire. She happened to hit at a certain time with a certain opening in the universe and she made shit work. I honestly don’t think it could happen again.

For more info on Sandra, check out sandrabernhard.com. You can pre-order the new album on iTunes.

About the Author

Carla Sosenko

Carla Sosenko is a writer and editor from Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, Self, Jezebel, The Hairpin, The NY International Fringe Festival and some other places. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College, where she majored in choppy sentences. Carla thanks you for reading her words and kindly asks you to read more of them at carlasosenko.com. Follow her @carlasosenko. She thinks you rule.