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Getting Real in L.A. 

Sandra Bernhard, without the irony

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
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If she were a Web site, writer-actor-singer-comedian Sandra Bernhard has said, she‘d call herself www.get real.com -- partly misleading, given this uncharacteristically polite interview. If anybody in her HollywoodNYC circles annoys her, she’s certainly not getting real enough to say so. Perhaps she‘s saving it up for her one-woman show, I’m Still Here Damnit!, at El Rey Theater this weekend, on the heels of a six-month Broadway run. Though in the show she riffs on herself in one hilariously self-deprecating tale about waiting in vain for Courtney Love to call, Bernhard‘s main target is our society and its sundry phenomena. Satirizing everything from the deaths of Versace and Princess Di to Calvin Klein perfume ads, Bernhard careens wildly on waves of irony through a sea of pop-culture references. Pulling herself away from a public-access TV show featuring amateur strippers (“There’s this beefy, gross guy showing his ass!”), Bernhard spoke to the Weekly by phone from her New York home.

L.A. WEEKLY: Your show is a bit of a mish-mash. How would you characterize it -- is it variety? Standup? A musical?

SANDRA BERNHARD: It‘s a hybrid of all those things. Those are all the styles that have influenced me. Growing up with The Carol Burnett Show, Sonny and Cher, Mary Tyler Moore. Also going to see theater, musicals. And being influenced by a lot of different music . . . [Not fitting into a particular category] is pretty liberating. There are times when I probably don’t get certain parts in movies because of that . . . because I‘m a little too eclectic or something. But overall, I wouldn’t trade my stature or status for anything or anybody.

L.A. WEEKLY: Did you write your own music and lyrics?

S.B.: I collaborated with Mitch Kaplan, my musical director, on the pieces that involve music. But I wrote the lyrics to the original songs.

L.A. WEEKLY: The L.A. version of your show is quite a bit different from the New York one. Here, you‘re performing with Medusa & Feline Science and Sonja Marie and 7 Peace.

S.B.: I wanted to do something in L.A. that was reflective of what was happening in the streets there, rather than trying to re-create Broadway in Los Angeles. L.A. has such a completely different vibe, and that’s where I‘ve done a lot of my creative work.

L.A. WEEKLY: You live on both coasts now, but you’ve said you feel more inspired in L.A.

S.B.: Yeah, well, there‘s a lot of space there. And a sense of openness and introspection that you don’t get in New York. It‘s very open physically -- the space is very open -- and you spend a lot more time in your car alone . . . I think you listen to music more when you’re in L.A. . . . when you‘re driving, on the move. Music’s a bigger part of your backdrop.

L.A. WEEKLY: Were you a performer as a kid?

S.B.: Yeah, yeah. I‘ve always had my little funny, weird sense of irony. Not unlike the way I am now, but not quite as sophisticated back then . . . But when I moved to L.A., I fell in with people who were part of that [standup] world, and they said, “You’re really funny.”

L.A. WEEKLY: You talk a lot about God, spirituality and not doing drugs. Yet you have this brassy, foul-mouthed, party-girl image. Are you a good girl or a bad girl?

S.B.: I‘m a really responsible girl. I believe you can have a lot of fun and be completely insane without the influence of drugs and alcohol.

L.A. WEEKLY: So you’ve never really been into drugs?

S.B.: No, no. I never needed it. I‘ve always been able to get up onstage and act things out, and in my real life as well. I’ve never had a lack of outlet for my imagination. And I always felt that drugs hindered it and squelched it and turned it into mush. I never liked the way I felt. It seemed like it took away the edge.

L.A. WEEKLY: People are always asking you if having a baby is softening your edge . . .

S.B.: Yeah. That‘s really stupid. Marianne Faithfull has a kid, Chrissie Hynde has a kid, Patti Smith has a kid. It doesn’t stop you from doing your work. It‘s just a different element of your emotional makeup. In a way, when you have a kid -- if you have a strong point of view about the world -- you want to make the world change quicker and better.

L.A. WEEKLY: Why did you decide to have a baby?

S.B.: Because I knew it was an experience I would have regretted not having. I knew I would have a baby that would be suitable for me and my life. That I would attract and draw a soul that was right for my lifestyle; and she fits right into it.

L.A. WEEKLY: Who’s the father?

S.B.: [quietly] A friend.

L.A. WEEKLY: How has motherhood changed you?

S.B.: It‘s helped me evolve in a lot of ways, emotionally, spiritually . . . enabled me to love deeper than I ever have. And also be stronger and clearer and less [self-]indulgent.

L.A. WEEKLY: What values are most important to pass on to your daughter -- if you had to leave the planet today, and her behind, what would you say to her in the note?

S.B.: To always be completely confident and clear with who she is, and true to herself, and also be extremely compassionate.

L.A. WEEKLY: You’ve been studying the Cabala for four years. Why do you think it‘s such a trend now in Hollywood?

S.B.: Well, I think things are happening suddenly because we’re in a very highly spiritually charged time. When all these things are happening technologically, it‘s a reflection of what’s happening spiritually. Things are all moving at a very high rate of speed. Of course, there are always people who jump on the bandwagon and can‘t follow through; but there are also people who get very committed to it.

L.A. WEEKLY: You’ve been referred to as a “postmodern feminist icon.” Do you get that?

S.B.: I grew up in that era when feminism was taken seriously and the word had a deep meaning. There was a real romance to it. And now I think it‘s really integrated into people’s lives in a different way. It‘s just about getting up, and working, and taking care of yourself. And being responsible.

L.A. WEEKLY: To make a sharp right turn here . . . I have to ask -- what’s your relationship now with Madonna?

S.B.: It‘s so silly to talk about it, you know. It’s like, that was a friendship and a relationship that went on a long time ago, and it ended more or less in a big public way. And we don‘t hang out anymore, and that’s fine. It‘s the way things evolved. When I see her, it’s cool; but we haven‘t had any kind of real communication in eight years. So that’s it. There‘s nothing to say.

I’m Still Here Damnit! will be performed at El Rey Theater, 5514 Wilshire Blvd.; Tuesday, November 30, and Wednesday, December 1, at 7:45 p.m. Call (323) 860-6679 or 936-4790.

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