Who says a diva has to look like a Disney princess? Sandra Bernhard, who's been alternative comedy's reigning diva for three decades, is anything but conventional-looking — she's all odd angles and disheveled hair, with accusing cat's eyes, a knobby nose and a jagged mouth that looks as if somebody carved it with a razor blade.
Yet a diva she is, queen of the hop, high-snark voodoo priestess of not only the gay culture but of the entire American intelligentsia, famous and beloved not only for her incessant and pointed pop culture bitching but for her tendency to mix things up with a full-throated cabaret or R&B tune, often when one least expects it.
The native of Flint, Michigan spent her formative years in Arizona, and at 18 re-located to Los Angeles. She was onstage within a year.
The world at large will recognize Bernhard, for the most part, from Martin Scorsese's 1983 film The King of Comedy —she was Masha, the slightly insane best friend and co-conspirator of Robert de Niro's Rupert Pupkin character — and from her lengthy stint on TV's Roseanne. She starred as Nancy Bartlett, one of television's first openly gay female characters.
Her one-woman off Broadway shows have included I'm Your Woman, Without You I'm Nothing, Everything Bad & Beautiful, Excuses for Bad Behavior, May I Kiss You on the Lips Miss Sandra? and I Love Being Me, Don't You?
Bernhard's Sept. 8 show at Club One (yes, it's at 4 in the afternoon) is co-sponsored by Savannah Pride — the 2013 PrideFest will be Sept. 14 in Forsyth Park.
It's been 30 years since The King of Comedy. I'm sure there are some people who never saw Roseanne or some of your other stuff – do you think there are still those who think you really are crazy Masha from that strange and disturbing movie?
Sandra Bernhard: I think they did for a long time, and some people still do. I mean, it's hard for people to keep up with all of the different performers and entertainers out there, so when one thing has that impact, I think that's the indelible mark that you make on people's psyches.
I certainly at that time was more like that than I am now. I still have that kind of edge to me, but it's a very over-the-top kind of persona ... but I don't think it's a terrible persona for people to think I have. It keeps people at bay sometimes!
Are you interested in doing more series TV? A lot of performers ...
Sandra Bernhard: Yes! I'm actively seeking roles in television, some that I've written but mainly I'm just going up for stuff. I would love to land on a good, quality TV series, like Roseanne, but obviously it's a different time ... but whether it's a dramatic role or a comedic role, I'd be really happy to have that right now.
You've said that it doesn't matter to you if you're playing to a gay or straight audience — what you like to do is engage people.
Sandra Bernhard: Right! Exactly. Absolutely. If people are articulate and smart and well-read and informed and open, they're gonna be the right people for my audience. And that's across the board. Curious people.
Why do you think you have such a large gay following?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, I think I have that sensibility — it's ironic, it's a little bit, you know, tongue-in-cheek, it's satirical, it's smart. People take it in any way they want. Some people think you're being bitchy. I think I'm being ironic. It's a strong female funny figure, and I think gay men like that.
Do you think Kathy Griffin stole your shtick?
Sandra Bernhard: I don't think she stole it on purpose, but I do think she took the superficial elements of it and did her thing. But you know what? It keeps forcing you to go deeper, when you do what I do. And that's all that matters to me, is that I continue to find things that I think are interesting to talk about, and new approaches. And keep going deeper. I mean, you don't want to stay the same your whole career.
You've always seemed very focused to me. Have you always been that way?
Sandra Bernhard: I knew when I was 5 years old that I was going to be a performer. I was always very focused on it, and always kinda did it my way — I wrote my little stories, and did my little offbeat performances, in my bedroom. And sang along with Joni Mitchell and Carole King, and Barbra Streisand and all the rest of the greats. So yeah, for sure, I was focused on all that.
Musical theater was my first love, because I'd seen Hello, Dolly when I was 8 years old, in Detroit at the Fischer Theatre with Carol Channing. So she was one of my big heroes. It was all kinds of influences, you know, it was a lot of art and music and theater, that kind of expression, in my house. With my parents and my three older brothers, there was a lot of eclectic stuff going on. There were a lot of different influences, but I had my own point of view for sure. I knew where I was heading — I just didn't know quite how I'd get there.
After high school, you went to Israel for eight months. Why?
Sandra Bernhard: I had a lot of family over there, my brothers had all gone, it was kind of a rite of passage for a Jewish kid in the '70s to go work in a kibbutz. It wasn't religious at all. The kibbutzim are not about religion; it's socialism, and that's how they developed the country. So it was really cool to go over there and work — you know, dig in and have that great experience.
You started performing right after you moved to Los Angeles. You were 19 and — more or less — right off the bus from Arizona. How did you know it would work?
Sandra Bernhard: I knew from the reaction from friends and the people I hung out with that it was working. I engaged people and we all had a good time. I mean, I made them laugh. I knew how to turn a phrase. I loved talking, I loved music, and I just knew how to weave it together in my own way. It was instinctive.
You said you were inspired by the early female comics like Totie Fields, Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. How so?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, they were very truthful about their lives, and where they were at in the sociological times where they were living. They were very honest, and funny, and raw, and I just think that was inspiring. I didn't necessarily want to say what they were saying, but I loved how they did it.
In your new show, you talk about how social media is creating a generation of people who don't know how to communicate. Can you expound on that?
Sandra Bernhard: I think it's very easy for people to weigh in and comment on all manner of topics when you don't see their face, and they're not on the firing line. 'Cause that's what Twitter and Facebook are, places where people just lash out and say whatever they want, without any real forethought. Because if there's a person standing in front of you, you're going to be a little more sensitive to their feelings. And also have a conversation, a back and forth. When it's just one-sided, you can say whatever you want and then shut it off and walk away. And I don't think that's conducive to intelligent debate.