Q&A: Sandra Bernhard

As her show opens in Philly tonight, she talks to us about pop culture, motherhood and more. By A.D. Amorosi

Photo by Eva Tuerbl

Though she’s made noted star appearances in film (Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy) and television (from Roseanne to Hot in Cleveland) – and is the quintessentially smart bantering guest with talk show hosts like David Letterman and Bravo’s Andy Cohen, it’s during Sandra Bernhard’s live shows that she’s most formidable.

Though most famous for the first of these genre-baiting productions, Without You I’m Nothing (also released as a feature film), Bernhard has gone on to several other equally uproarious live events like Excuses for Bad Behavior, Giving ‘Til It Hurts, Hero Worship, The Love Machine, Everything Bad and Beautiful and Broadway’s I’m Still Here…Damn It!

In her latest song and satire revue, I Love Being Me, Don’t You?, the out comedian doesn’t just skewer pop culture, she also looks at motherhood (she’s got a daughter, Cicely Yasin) and spirituality during a five-day run at Painted Bride Arts Center starting Jan. 10. We caught up with her as she was getting ready for opening night.

When do you know it’s time for a Sandra show?

It always happens naturally. I start off doing some smaller shows – developing the pieces and music and as I perform it starts to take shape without a lot of effort.

Do mammoth productions such as I Love Being Me make mere stand up shows pale in comparison for you?

I always try to make every show dynamic from a smaller club to a bigger theatre. It’s just what I expect from myself.

How do you know when to discard characters and topics as they fall off the cultural loop? Like Sarah Palin, perhaps?

I needed to stop talking about her just to take away the power around her. Things only last so long, unless they’re personal. Then you can keep them forever

Growing up, what did you know you could do better first: singing or making people laugh?

I always entertained my family on both levels – making them laugh and pulling their heartstrings with a big song and dance number.

Your daughter is a subject within the show? Does she enjoy this?

No, she does not. No kid wants to be the fodder for their mothers’ shows, but I try to keep it generic which helps.

What makes you competitive? You know, professionally?

I try to keep that under check, but when you have friends in the biz sometimes, it irks me a little when they get a role or get to do a performance somewhere that I’d like to do. But that passes quickly because I’m happy for them.

You may be the only person other than me who is a bigger fan of Bravo. What hooked you?

I’m not such a big fan of the Housewives, though I have watched them in small doses. But it’s fun to talk to them on Andy’s show because it’s where my sense of irony shines the brightest.

Justin Vivian Bond was part of your Town Hall show version of I Love Being Me. I know you guys are doing an act soon called Arts & Crafts. What can we expect?

Arts & Crafts is a play with music and not a two-person show per se. There are other characters and a script. If it ever comes to pass, it will be produced in a theatre with a director and all that comes with it.

Your silver lame and feathered costumes for this show are designed by Ralph Rucci, an immensely talented Philly gentleman who grew up mere doors from me in South Philly. What made you go with Rucci?

I have become very close with Ralph Rucci. He is a wonderful person and an amazing artist with a great soul. Andre Leon Talley brought us together and the rest is history.

You seem very much at peace, from the past to your present, as an out personality. What are the perks of having been so self-actualized for so long?

Perks is not the word I’d use to describe it. It’s a must-do situation. We have to transform along the way in our lives. That’s why we are here to seek and attain balance and a sense of the world around us. We must be responsible for ourselves, for family and friends, and then to be able to go to the next step and affect change through our work and creativity.

You’ve been part of many gay-themed events – you even appeared at Pride a few years ago. And you’ve been given awards and floated in parades. You are a queen in this City of Brotherly and Sisterly love. Are there locals who you can shout out by name?

One of my best friends who helped start my career, Lotus Weinstock, was a Philly native. She was born Marlena Weinstock, and was a comedienne and singer and one of my dearest friends. David Brind is another of my home boys. He has directed my live shows, written for me in his film Dare and is a young, brilliant talent and a real reflection of the Philadelphia sensibility.

Who do you see and hear doing quality stuff these days?

I like Adele a lot. My daughter plays the groovy new tunes and then I catch on from there.

Who influenced you?

I was influenced and inspired by so many people: Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Carol Channing, Mary Tyler Moore, the list goes on and on. I am sure people have appropriated some of my style. I hope they put it to good use.

I Love Me, Don’t You?, starting Jan. 10, Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St., 215-925-9914.