Still Bad & Beautiful:
Sandra Bernhard Goes On Plan B
by Tony Phillips
Public controversy has always been stock and trade for comedienne Sandra Bernhard, so much so that the topic warrants an entire section in her bio; but just past the quarter century mark of her own career and settling comfortably into motherhood in her fifties has allowed the star to — if not necessarily mellow — then care slightly less. And though the television talk show has always been a career touchstone for Bernhard (think how the Madonna relationship played out almost exclusively in residence on Late Night with David Letterman,) her situation has changed significantly since she exploded onto the scene in 1983 starring opposite Robert De Niro as the sexual compulsive Masha who kidnaps talk show host Jerry Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
Another television talk show — ABC’s embattled The View — makes for an interesting case study in just how much things have changed. "I follow it a little bit," Bernhard admits of "foster kid" Rosie O’Donnell and her ouster from that program, "but I just try and stay clear of the day to day stuff — the arguing and the battling going on between people — because in the meantime, the war in Iraq rages on and people’s consciousness is still where it is and I don’t see it making any really big changes until people really get up and learn to fend for themselves, but all this circus atmosphere really doesn’t interest me."
But whether she’s tuning in or not, Bernhard is inextricably bound up in the whole mess, happy to play Archduke Ferdinand in this latest world war. Before O’Donnell even debuted on The View, Bernhard appeared on the show about a year ago for a super-awkward yet totally compelling seven minutes in which she incited the now defunct Star Jones to race panic and then took on right-winger Elisabeth Hasselbeck over the war in Iraq via our First Lady, whom Bernhard described as "heavily medicated." Fingers were pointed in faces and "honey" was thrown back and forth with intent until Joy Behar mocked storming off set in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Even though producers pulled the plug on the segment, it was one of last year’s genuine YouTube moments.
At the time, Bernhard cared enough to make reference to a "little freaked out, intimidated, frightened, right-wing Republican thin-lipped bitch" in her Plushglass lip gloss spots, but alas the master’s tools will never dismantle to master’s house and MAC cut the line. Who knows, she could have even been talking about Ann Coulter. But these days, Bernhard is showing solidarity with O’Donnell by performing on a Rosie Cruise in July. Or perhaps it’s just a gig. "We’re only on it a couple of days," Bernhard explains, "because if you don’t get off at a certain point then you’re kind of on it for a week and I don’t want to be on it for a week. A couple days sound perfect."
If that sounds a world away from previous mutinies on the high seas, perhaps the difference lies in Bernhard’s yoga-obsessed traveling companion. "Yes, I’m bringing my daughter," Bernhard corrects when queried about taking the kid along on the Rosie cruise. In fact, she sums up her day off thusly: "A lot of grocery shopping, you know, taking care of my life. I just ran a bunch of errands and things associated with my weekend, now I’m getting ready to meet my little girl at her yoga class and sign her up for new one." Bernhard’s often joked about her nanny factor, stressing the sweeping, cleaning and laundry duties, all of which she takes on herself, but her hard work is paying off. Her eight-year-old Cicely is whip-smart, recently held forth on which dancers were yogically trained the last time I bumped into the two of them at the ballet.
At that time, Bernhard was still scouting around for an appropriate New York venue for her new show, Everything Bad & Beautiful. She’d just wrapped a successful run at Hollywood’s Silent Movie Theater and was looking for an east coast equivalent that packed as much punch. She found it in the Daryl Roth Theater, a former bank on Union Square, and the show, apropos enough, looked like it had buckets of money thrown at it. Sure, she’s always done the most with what’s she’s had: from Without You I’m Nothing’s show-closing bikini underwear ensemble to that single Chinese lantern used to such hysterical effect in I’m Still Here...Damn It! If Bernhard’s décor budget was a shoestring, then at least she managed to have the world by it, but Everything Bad & Beautiful was like a quantum leap design-wise. The show was played on a David Swayze set that looked like a Moroccan fantasia. You could almost hear the cash registers ringing all summer as Bernhard finally took her advice and stayed in town to enjoy her damn co-op.
"God I miss that set," Bernhard remembers, but at least she’ll now have a CD to help conjure it. Long taking a hit for the self-produced discs she hawks at her live shows, Bernhard has put together quite a package for the limited edition CD version of Everything Bad & Beautiful. "The album of this show was recorded live, so it’s pretty true to the actual performance," she explains, "if I was going to make a film I might try and do something different again." She’s also cooked up an entirely new show, Sandra Bernhard IS Plan B From Outer Space, and she’s currently touring that through 2008. She’s pared her backup band down to a trio and kicks things off with a Jennifer Holliday salute and concludes two-hours later with a rollicking homage to Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses and, natch, Prince. Along the way she takes on celebrity adoption craze, her Manolo Blahnik shoes and, of course, George W. Bush. When I tell her I love the title because his presidency has resembled nothing so much as bad, 50s sci-fi she replies, "The only reason we wound up calling it Plan B is because it was the alternative show to Everything Bad & Beautiful. It’s really a very contemporary, whatever’s-happening-in-the-moment, spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness show of interwoven music: some covers and some original. It allows me to address what’s going on now and be kind of hands on with the audience."
She’d almost have to be a little instructive. Her projects usually travel over so many platforms one needs some help. Consider the one-woman Off-Broadway smash Without You I’m Nothing. First there was the show, then a live recording of the show and finally a film. And the film was a high concept interpretation of the show, starting in a black jazz club and giving us some of Bernhard’s most memorable characters including the batiked and militant Nina Simone riff called Peaches. "That was with a director named John Boskovich who was my collaborator for many years," Bernhard explains of the film, "Nick Roeg executive produced it. It was completely torn apart from the live performances and translated into a much more filmic experience." And that show’s impending twenty-year anniversary? "I don’t think so," Bernhard says of a revisit, "I thought about it before, but certain pieces don’t really resonate for the times we’re living. And also, for me as an artist, I’m not always interested in going back to what I’ve done before." Not even a one-off? I’m begging now. "It is an amazing show," Bernhard agrees, "but I don’t think I would have fun doing it again right now. I’m constantly interested in really just dealing with what’s going on in my life and just pushing it into the future."
Future gigs for Plan B include the upcoming run at Miami’s Colony Theater. "I can take Miami in very small doses," Bernard says of the weekend-long engagement. When one imagines a 48-hour debauch involving Albita and maybe throwing a television set out of her hotel window, Bernhard corrects, "I get in on Friday and have two shows that night and two shows on Saturday, then I’m out on Sunday to go Saint Pete. I don’t think I’m going to running around doing too much other than just taking it easy and doing my shows." Taking it easy? Slipping out for an afternoon’s hot stone therapy is hardly the earmark of a woman of rock and roll. What gives? "Well, you know, I’m just kind of on the road off and on as the dates come in," Bernhard explains, "when you have a rock band you go out for two months or three months at time, but that’s a little hard for me with who I am and having my daughter. I don’t really stay away for that long and also in between I’m up for movies and television things so it’s a little different from being just a live performer. I do the dates when they come in and kind of sprinkle them through the year."
So perhaps Bernhard no longer needs to hide behind the rock star persona? Or maybe she’s just discovered that the indoctrinated can handle this for her. Consider Charles Isherwood likening Bernhard to The Rolling Stones’ ancient frontman when he reviewed her Everything Bad & Beautiful in The New York Times. "Picture Mick as an angry, neurotic Jewish girl — I know it’s hard, but try — and you’ve pictured Ms. Bernhard to the life. The comparison extends even to those lips, plush piles of rubbery flesh that make poor Mick’s look like a leaking inner tube." Flattering? Perhaps, but maybe less so when one considers Bernhard’s childhood. Born in Flint, Michigan, her family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, when she was still a child. She famously described her parents thusly in Without You I’m Nothing: ""My father’s a proctologist, my mother’s an abstract artist. That’s how I view the world."
But how the world viewed her, and, thanks to Mr. Isherwood continues to, is perhaps more revealing. She’s always joked about the blonde WASPs that populate Scottsdale and famously riffed on a childhood fantasy in which she wakes up on Christmas morning a gentile, but underneath the laughter lies a childhood spent enduring racial slurs directed toward her distinct features. So while she’s grown into a beauty that is able to joke about being "the only actress in Hollywood who didn’t pay to have these lips" such progress didn’t come without some pain. After graduation and what she describes as her "kibbutz moment," Bernhard moved to Hollywood at the tender age of 19 and took up residence as a manicurist in a posh salon while slipping out for auditions during the day and paying her dues at night to become a regular with a following at The Comedy Store.
One wonders who the next Sandra Bernhard will be — and please don’t say Kathy Griffin — or if she’s even possible in today inhospitable climate? "I think it’s impossible," Bernhard posits, "just because of where we’re at culturally and the kinds of outlets that are so limited. Everybody expects immediacy from success and to become a good artist and performer you need time to develop. We no longer have that luxury. And that’s sad. Just the consciousness of it is completely different." Of her own nascent career, she explains, "The main thing was it was a different time. If you had your direction and a dream, you could follow it very easily." If that’s sounding pretty dire, Bernhard allows, "I think people can still find their way, it’s just much more difficult. It’s harder to stay on the path."