“I don’t think politics is ever comedy gold,” Sandra Bernhard says in her distinctive disdain-flecked drawl. “If things are bad, and people are suffering, to me there’s nothing much to say about it.”
Though anyone who follows her on Twitter will be in no doubt of her feelings towards the current U.S. administration, Bernhard says she keeps that commentary out of her live show.
“I tend to lean towards the day-to-day,” she says of her act, which plays Vancouver as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. “I like to mine the quotidian, the absurdity in life.”
What she describes as a “postmodern, one-woman show” is a cabaret-style performance she has been putting together since 1985, supported by the Sandyland Squad Band. Every year, she creates an entirely fresh routine, premieres it at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, then takes it on tour. The mix of song, monologues, and humorous asides, she says, plays wherever she takes it.
“I don’t change anything,” she says. “If you tell stories based on your experiences, I think people just relate to it—I cover a wide swath of things that I find funny and crazy, and weave it all together. It’s sort of indescribable, and yet it all comes together in what I think is a very original night of performance and music.”
Now 64, Bernhard has been working in showbiz for a few decades: some will recall her performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 movie, The King of Comedy, others will instantly think of her long run in Roseanne (where she made headlines as an openly bisexual woman playing Nancy, a bisexual character). These days, fans tune into her popular daily radio show, Sandyland on SiriusXM, or watch her as Nurse Judy, working with HIV-positive and AIDS patients during the height of the epidemic, on FX’s Pose.
“There is a continuity and continuum to my work that has run from the beginning to now, and will continue to run from here,” she reflects. “What I’m trying to achieve—constantly—is becoming a better performer, someone who stays authentic. I don’t set out to shock, or try and be cutting edge.”
It wasn’t always the case: there was a time when Bernhard’s attitude was decidedly in everyone’s face.
“When you’re young and you’re just getting started, you’re going to be a little more spiky and daring,” she notes. “I still have my edge when I need to have it, but nobody wants to work in that headspace 24/7.”
What hasn’t changed for her over the years, is the thrill of live performance: “If you ask anybody who performs live, they will tell you they’ll do it forever,” she insists. “It’s a gift that not many people have, and you can’t really ever stop or turn back—it was handed to you with a ribbon on it.
“If you can engage an audience night after night and people walk away feeling indifferent or inspired, or just touched or moved, or just laugh, or things stay with them… Why would you ever turn your back on that experience?”
Sandra Bernhard plays the Vogue Theatre Oct. 31 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. For more information, and to check out the full festival lineup, visit Chutzpahfestival.com.