Comedy Icon Will Perform at Benefit for Broward House
Sandra Bernhard remembers a performance on a certain gay cruise that did not go well.
“I was laughing about the ship, calling it the ship of fools, and making fun of the whole idea of being out on the ocean in this Vegas-like performance room, and these queens got really bent out of shape and freaked out,” Bernhard recalls. “They were all from the Midwest and saved their money for this trip. They started throwing their glasses at me and I had to get myself off stage. That was one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had performing.”
That was 15 years ago, and the world has changed—there’s little chance of anyone hurling a glass at Bernhard when she performs at Parker Playhouse Saturday, March 27. The show is a benefit for Broward House, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals living with HIV and other health issues by providing various services. The performance will feature Bernhard’s trademark mix of comedy and music.
“It’s my style,” she says, “sort of a post-modern mash-up of monologues, cultural observations, music and general hilarity.”
Bernhard’s musical repertoire—she trained as a vocalist and when she was younger wanted to sing opera—mirrors her eclectic tastes. She cut her rock and roll teeth on Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, but also honed her ear for pop standards with Barbra Streisand, Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick. Right now she’s listening to new material by her pal Chrissie Hynde, the Scissor Sisters, and Lady Gaga, who she calls crazy and interesting. Bernhard will probably perform a mix of vocal classics and rock and roll, as well as songs from her latest CD, Whatever It Takes.
And for those looking forward to hearing Bernhard’s current world view, expect some riffing on a certain aspect of mass entertainment.
“I think one of the most interesting things is the disgusting evolution of reality television and people who have no talent taking away work from people like me who have spent their whole lives creating a body of work that deserves an outlet,” says Bernhard. “Culturally we’re in a bad period and I don’t see it changing anytime soon because the powers that be support it. It’s cheap entertainment. People want to be the center of attention and they’ll do anything. I think we’re culturally bankrupt, and that bothers me and disappoints me, and, to a certain degree, pisses me off.”
Bernhard was ahead of the curve when it comes to reality television. In the 1990s she pitched an idea to HBO: a day in the life of Sandra Bernhard, a lightly scripted version of Berrnhard’s own life, something along the lines of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which debuted in 2000.
“They looked at me and said, ‘I don’t understand what you mean,’” Bernhard says. “Now of course, 15 years later, it’s all come to pass. I’m not sure I could do it at this point. I wouldn’t be willing to go to those places that people go to. Probably what I do isn’t weird or exploitative enough. If it didn’t happen then it’s not going to happen.”
But if there were a reality show about Bernhard’s life, the viewing audience would probably be surprised at what they’d see.
Bernhard, known for her unique outlook and acerbic humor, is really a homebody who enjoys making a nice home for her 11 year-old daughter and her girlfriend of nearly 11 years. Scenes in the 2010 version of the Sandra Bernhard reality show would feature her helping her daughter with homework, doing laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and walking the dog. Think Donna Reed with an edge—if, of course, Donna Reed were a Jewish, bisexual mom whose looks and charisma invites comparisons to Mick Jagger.
“I’m a nurturer,” Bernhard says. “I like a nice atmosphere in my home and I really like to take care of my home. I like things to be fresh and clean and nice for everybody.”
But if a network came knocking and proposed that show, Bernhard would send them packing. “I would never exploit my daughter, my girlfriend or my dog,” she says.
While she is hesitant to talk about upcoming projects, Bernhard would like to land more dramatic film and TV roles. Her breakthrough role was in The King of Comedy, after all, a dark comedy in which Bernhard played a worshipping fan of a late night talk show host. The role landed her all kinds of accolades and turned her into a critical darling.
“I think I have the capacity to do some interesting, deeper roles,” Bernhard says. “I think that people are taking me more seriously and remembering what I’m capable of.”
Thanks to syndication, some of Bernhard’s TV appearances are still seen frequently, including her guest spot as herself on “Will & Grace” and her recurring role as a lesbian on Roseanne, one of the first regular gay characters on TV.
“I don’t think of myself as a gay icon but I guess I am one,” says Bernhard. “Certainly I’ve always been part of the gay culture and had a big gay following. The whole gay movement has changed so much. People are able to look at themselves in a much healthier way. I hope it gets to the point where we don’t have to define ourselves as gay, but just to be smart thinking people in the world all doing what we do. That’s not to take away the unique qualities of being gay because that’s really important but sometime we pander to a certain audience or we feel totally inadequate. I think there’s got to be a happy medium.”
Bernhard has enjoyed success in film, television, music and live performances while always being true to herself.
“Sustaining my consistent excellence as a performer and really never falling below my standard as an artist—that’s something I’m very proud of,” Bernhard says. “I’ve really maintained my voice as an artist and I think that’s really difficult to do. Hopefully I’ve introduced ideas that people never would have thought of before and made them more comfortable with ideas of sexuality, race, and gender, removing the limitations people put on themselves. When you can do that through entertainment it’s very powerful.”