'I don’t go out of my way to be controversial' | Steve Bennett talks to Sandra Bernhard

'I don’t go out of my way to be controversial'

Steve Bennett talks to Sandra Bernhard

I think I’ve just woken Sandra Bernhard up – and with the fierce reputation she has, that’s a slumbering lioness you don’t want to prod. Maybe it’s the early hour, but far from ripping my head off, she’s as sweet and understanding about the mix-up as you could hope anyone to be. No sign of the terrifying, savage tongue that has made her reputation, thank God.

When I call her back at her New York home an hour later, she insists that her uncompromisingly provocative public persona isn’t just there for the stage. It may be exaggerated a bit, but it’s still an aspect of her personality.

‘As a performer, I am just a heightened version of who I am in my day-to-day life,’ she says. ‘I talk about the things that make me laugh or inspire me. They’re one and the same. I don’t feel I’m like two different people. I’m not some withdrawn, depressed person who suddenly comes to life on stage. I enjoy my life the same way on and off stage but as a performer I give more energy because you have to.’

We’re talking as Bernhard is about to bring her bold show, Without You I’m Nothing, to British audiences, which she claims trump American ones: ‘People in general read more in Great Britain, they’re more attuned. I think they’re used to going to the theatre more, and I think that makes them a better audience.’

She was last in the UK two years ago with her Everything Bad And Beautiful show, which played not just the capital, but the likes of Huddersfield, Worthing and Croydon, too (‘Weird choices, but everything’s an experience, right?’)

This time around she’s reviving the show that cemented her reputation as a live performer more than 20 years ago. Four years after Martin Scorsese catapulted her from the stage of the Los Angles Comedy Store and into the role of crazed stalker Masha in Martin Scorsese’s King Of Comedy, the mix of savage comic rhetoric and powerfully-performed cabaret of Without You I’m Nothing established her as a cult favourite.

So why revive it now? ‘It’s a classic show and it’s a 20-year anniversary,’ Bernhard says. ‘I can’t over-intellectualise it too much, it’s pretty simple. People love that show it was a seminal experience for me, and as a live performer it kinda established me, you know?’

The world is a different place now than it was 20 weeks ago, let alone 20 years. So did the show need updating?

‘The thing about that show, honestly, is that the bulk of the pieces are from my own life, so they are not topical things,’ she says. ‘The stuff around it is new, but the actual pieces are pieces I could have written a year, six months ago because they are based on my life, my memories.

‘As a performer there’s a through line in all my work. I think I look at the world in a similar way, I think I’ve got a responsibility to my world and my work that I’ve always had. It’s not like I’m that different.

‘The big differences are I now have a daughter who’s ten years old and that’s a big experience. But when I look at the world and I walk out on a beautiful day, I have the same feeling in my life I had when I was ten years old.’

It is sometimes hard to square this image of the happy, mellow mum revelling in the simple joys of life with the outrageous public persona. During the US Presidential election last year she provoked typical outrage when she said on stage that she wished Sarah Palin would be ‘gang-raped by my big black brothers’.

‘I only got grief from the Right-wing because they were blogging and freaking out,’ she says now. ‘But I’m not so worried about insulting Sarah Palin.

I suggest regret isn’t a word in her vocabulary, and she agrees. ‘I measure to a certain extent what I am going to say, and if there’s something in the moment that’s right in front of me, and I address it and it gets a reaction, that’s part of being an improvisational performer.

‘But I don’t go out of my way to say things that are controversial. Either I’ll react to something or I don’t but it doesn’t take much to make people stand up and respond.

‘People who come to see me are on the same page, but everybody’s out there on the internet trying to have their word. Some of them are a little Machiavellian, but you’ve got to keep going, you can’t be intimidated.’

So she’s not worried that her shows are preaching to the converted? ‘I’m not on a crusade,’ she says. ‘That’s too big a job for anybody. I just do what do. If people want to come around to what’s good for them, they will. If they don’t, they’ll continue to live in poverty and ignorance. That’s their choice.

It doesn’t take much to guess her who she’s talking about, but isn’t there a bit of her that will miss railing against Bush’s presidency, which she refers to as ‘eight years of being punished and flogged and abused’?

‘There was certainly a lot of material to take from it, but that’s not my favourite genre, politics, I’d rather be in a situation where I am now, where I have ten minutes less material to draw from but be happier. It’s a good thing.’

She certainly doesn’t consider her role to preach. In fact, she says, she’s not even, strictly speaking, a comedian.

‘I see myself as an entertainer,’ she says. ‘Somebody who brings together elements of burlesque and cabaret and musical comedy and rock and roll and made her own style out of all of them. Of course, I’m funny, that’s part of what I do.

‘For me, it’s most important to entertain people and engage people and whatever they get on a subliminal level, makes me happy. If somebody walks away and feels better about themselves or have a deeper understanding of somebody else’s experience I think that’s a great by-product of what I do, but of course I love to entertain people, ultimately.’

‘I’m not part of the comedy scene, I haven’t been for years. Most of my friends are musicians and writers and artists. I have some really good friends who are comedians, but the comedy scene in general, I got away from years ago.’

She says she now wants to be taken more seriously as an actor – the familiar refrain – saying she’s seeking ‘roles that have more multi-dimensions to them, a little more depth’.

The latest TV pilot, however, wasn’t so serious: a sitcom set in a strip club. ‘It’s about these two women who decide they’d find a part-time job, and they happen to come to a strip club that I’m part-owner in, so I’m like the mother figure,’ she said. ‘It’s a good pilot, so we’ll see if they sell it.’

She’s not even worried that the setting might not appeal to ultra-conservative Middle America. ‘It’s very light and upbeat. I think people will find it cute.’

After her scene-stealing role as Nancy in Roseanne, Bernhard could almost have starred in another hit sitcom of recent times. Unlikely as it seems, she was offered the part of Miranda in Sex And The City. Needless to say she turned it down.

‘It was a pilot show and there were a lot of circumstances around it that didn’t interest me,’ she says. ‘And the money wasn’t good at the time. The original project wasn’t very well written, either. Anyone who saw the original pilot wouldn’t have go that excited about it.

‘Not that I look at the show in its entirety and wish I’d done it. It doesn’t reflect who I am as a woman and an artist. I don’t think I could have played that role, it’s not who I am. If a show doesn’t have some kind of depth to it, it doesn’t interest me. It has to say something that reflects my views as a human being.’

It’s that insistence on being her own person – however controversial, challenging, scathing or vulgar – that made her reputation what it is.

‘Going into the business, you have too be passionate about it, you have to have something really important to say,’ she says. ‘The roadsides are strewn with people who didn’t really have it in them to begin with. It’s OK to get up and have fun, but it takes your whole lifetime to become great as a performer and you’ll only get better if that’s what you are really meant to do.

‘You’ve got to be prepared to commit to that. It’s not as easy as it looks.’

Without You I'm Nothing opens at the Leicester Square Theatre tonight (May 26)

Published: 26 May 2009

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