Sandra Bernhard has proven to be a most enduring comedian and her sassy, unfiltered, meta takes on life and pop culture continue to provide thoughtful laughs and so much more. She is and always has been fun to watch and listen to, no matter what she’s saying or doing — in movies, on TV, on record and, more recently, on radio (via her SiriusXM show Sandyland). But being in her physical presence is something altogether other-level. It’s watching a superstar shine but also sort of like hanging out and dishing with your wittiest friend, the one who says things so brilliant and oddball yet spot-on that you often want to jot her words down for future use.
Her latest stage show, Sandemonium, surely will offer all this and then some. Bernhard has perfected her “pastiche of madness,” a term we took from one of her past shows at REDCAT (yes, we jotted it down!). Bernhard is loose and spontaneous-seeming onstage yet remains razor-sharp in her points, ideas and narrative.
Her fearless style made her a perfect first L.A. Weekly cover subject, along with other young groundbreaking female comedians making a name for themselves at local venues like the Comedy Store. The 1978 debut cover story represented everything the paper sought to celebrate: uncensored commentary that was smart and bold but didn’t take itself too seriously, and a celebration of Los Angeles’ creative underground bubbling up to influence and change the mainstream. Forty years later, both L.A. Weekly and its first cover subject are striving for the very same things.
L.A. WEEKLY: How do you put shows like Sandemonium together? There seem to be lots of elements coming together.
SANDRA BERNHARD: All my shows develop at Joe’s Pub [in New York]. I put together a new show every year. The show I’m doing in L.A. right now is sort of a culmination of the past two years. And then the show I do at Joe’s later will be basically all new again. I always throw to in like an older piece just because I think that’s fun and people like to see something classic. It’s always pretty fresh and new no matter what, though.
Your stage shows always feel spontaneous but obviously they have a structure, too. Can you talk a little bit about your process?
That’s accurate. I sort of collect material throughout the year and, you know, every day when there’s something sort of funny that I either do on my radio show, like if there’s a funny riff that I went off on, I’ll write that down and kind of expand on it. And then just like life, you know, sort of day to day, just the absurdity, the fun, the crazy conversations I might overhear somewhere riding the subway or traveling around the country. There’s so much that I draw on. It’s not just typical political stuff or the things that a lot of people talk about over and over again. I kind of have an opportunity to sort of surpass a lot of that because of where I’m at in my life, and just having the expertise in performing and my performance style enables me to be more improvisational. I like to cover material and experiences that most people don’t think about.
What are some of the points that you’ll be hitting with Sandemonium?
I think it’s always about emotions and travel and relationships. It’s the small little moments that happen in everybody’s life that kind of connect us all. … The connective tissue really, of life, the things that people don’t always want to talk about or reveal but I feel are sort of essential to who we are and how, you know, how life has continuity.
It’s all wrapped together with songs, and I have a lot of fun cover tunes and some songs that I’ve co-written with Mitch Kaplan, my musical director. I don’t like the disposable culture we live in. I like the continuity and just, you know, keeping my friends for years. Now more than ever, it’s truly how we all stay sane. I know we all think we’re making friends on Instagram, through pictures, but nope, they don’t really know who you are and it’s hard to reveal yourself completely to that many people along the way. And that’s really something that matters to me.
The way you mesh anecdotal stuff with observations about the world and the absurdity of it all makes the audience feel very connected. Even though you’re a famous actress, I feel like it’s very relatable.
I think it is, too. I’ve thought of my work as very sophisticated, and people have said that I seem to live in a rarefied atmosphere, and yet what I do every day is sort of quotidian. I go to the grocery store or run errands, I clean my apartment, I do laundry, I wash dishes and, you know, take my dog out and I just share that sort of day-to-day existence that makes it relatable but not corny or hokey.
You also incorporate music that you rehearse with a band. The music seems to provide a lot of the structure.
Yes, we have the song list kind of put together. There’s only so much you can improvise. I can’t just start pulling songs out as a repertoire. A lot of the material kind of weaves in and out of the songs and the stories. It’s like life — you’re traveling in the car having an experience, you’re in a new city and all of a sudden the song comes on. Then whenever you think of that trip, or you know, sometime in the future if you hear that song, it kind of jogs your memory back to that time. A lot of it has that sort of texture to it. The music is sort of a punctuation to the experiences in life.
Any artists or styles that you’re really into covering?
I always dip back in the ’60s vibe. Whether it be Burt Bacharach or Sergio Mendes, sort of mellow, kind of groovy. Or it can go really kind of mainstream-y — it can be a Britney Spears song. I mean, I just feel like it needs to be a song that I can turn it on its ear and do something different with it.
With the current state of our government, how do you address politics? It would seem like it could be a huge part of the show.
It really isn’t. Nobody wants to come to a show to be entertained and hear about Donald Trump for 50 minutes. I mean, sometimes I’ll go on a rant on my radio show when it’s in the moment, but I can’t night to night drag people through that. I feel like my work is always inherently political because of the nature of where I stand as a person. I feel like I bring that to these pieces and I think that it elevates the evening. I think people want to be set free and they know where I stand. We’re being pummeled 24 hours a day. … I might throw something out there but I don’t do “didactic political humor.” That’s never been my thing.
You’re right, we are pummeled with it. But your fans would probably be interested in hearing your take on all of it and I think if you felt like doing that, it would be enjoyable.
I feel like when you’re crafting pieces and material, I think it’s like going to the theater. People want to see something that has been worked on and honed, and you can throw in the witty asides. Right now we’re at a turning point. We had a really big win getting the House turned blue again, and I think the wheels were coming off the cart. But I just feel like, what else is there to say about it other than it is just insane. And how did we get here and why are people so gullible? I think that’s really the essence of where we’re at and I think people showed in the midterms that they won’t be gullible anymore and they want to go back to civility to a certain extent. That speaks very loudly to where we’ve been and where we’re heading.
Your breakout role was in the Jerry Lewis film King of Comedy, and you had some hit comedy albums and many great roles on TV. Your fame hit a high point in the ’80s, hanging out with Madonna and being in tabloids and stuff. But a whole new generation doesn’t really know those references. How do younger audiences know you and how will they moving forward?
I just did a guest-starring role on [FX series] Pose. I play a nurse in the AIDS ward. I was very much a part of that when it was happening and I lost a lot of friends to AIDS back then. Because of the response to that role, Ryan Murphy has cast me as a series regular in the next season of Pose, reprising and building a whole storyline around the AIDS crisis.
You also did a guest starring role on American Horror Story, which was really fun. Are you friends with Murphy?
No, we’re not friends, but he’s been a longtime fan and we finally connected. I think he felt like this is the right place for me to drop into his world, and of course, he is a king- and a queen-maker and he kind of takes people who’ve had long careers and revitalizes them. So I’m really thrilled about that.
Other projects you’re working on?
I also just did an episode of this very cool show on Starz called Sweet Bitter, going into a second season. I play the owner of the restaurant. That’s happening and airing sometime in February, I believe.
You’ve been on tons of other shows too — Two Broke Girls, Difficult People, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Broad City.
Yeah, I’ve done a bunch of stuff. Time goes by flying, so I lose track of the seasons. And some of them are shorter. I also did one episode of the reboot of Roseanne.
I was going to ask about that!
This year it went completely off the rails. The show has a new life and I think they’re just … when I watch it seems like they’re trying to introduce new storylines. Whether I’m on it again is sort of a moot point.
But you were on the original Roseanne quite regularly. I think people would love to see you on the new one more. Obviously Roseanne’s gone now. Were you on the reboot when Roseanne was still there or after?
Yeah, with Roseanne before she freaked out.
I read that they actually cut your episode a lot and you weren’t very happy about that.
Yeah, a lot. There were some really funny moments that just didn’t end up in the show. I was bummed out about it, but whatever. I’m really so ready to move on from that for so many reasons.
Tell us about your radio show, Sandyland on SiriusXM.
It’s on Andy Cohen’s channel. He approached me when he was putting it together and said he’d love for me to be one of the linchpins or the anchors of the channel. I sort of needed something at that time that was in New York and kind of daily. I said, yeah, I’d really like to do it. And at first it was sorta like a little uncomfortable because it’s a different medium. But then, within about a month or two, I kind of got into my groove and it’s just been great because I’ve cultivated a much different and bigger audience. I mean, people who listen to Sirius have it in their cars. They have to pay for it if they have it on their computers. So it’s people who take their radio listening seriously. People didn’t really know who I was, and I’ve had the chance to fully explore all the different aspects of my personality with my listeners. I think they really appreciate it and I’ve gotten a lot of new followers because of it.
You’ve come a long way since you were on the cover of the very first L.A. Weekly.
L.A. Weekly has had an impact on different points in my life and it’s just cool that it’s still around. Especially in these times when it’s harder and harder for smaller papers to stay in business. It’s really cool. I love that.
Absolutely. And yes, it has been a struggle. Village Voice being gone is so huge and we’re all working hard to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen here. Do you remember being on the cover of the issue featuring female comedians in 1978?
Yeah, that was me and my good friend Lotus Weinstock. Diane Nichols and a couple others. It’s very precious, having all female comedians on the cover. And it was way ahead of the curve.
You’re from Flint, Michigan, and grew up in Arizona. You moved to L.A. as a young adult to work on your career. Now you live in New York. What is your connection to these cities, and particularly L.A. these days?
I’m in and out of L.A. every six weeks or two months. It’s not like I don’t know what’s going on there. I mean, of course it’s a cliche — the traffic is terrible. But when I’m there, like if I’m working on a TV show, I have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning so I miss that traffic. You know, L.A.’s great, L.A.’s beautiful. I mean, there’s no place like it and when I’m there, I’m so glad I have a break from New York and get to just sit out in the backyard or barbecue in December. I mean, you don’t really fully appreciate that until you’re in New York in the winter and then you go, wow, this is so cool
“Sandemonium” will be at the Sorting Room at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; Thu., Dec. 13, 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., Dec. 14-15, 7 & 9 p.m. More info at thewallis.org.