“The Midwest is in my blood,” she says in the press release. “The automobile, the rubber meeting the road, the sound of the factories pumping out the American dream.”
During a recent phone call from her New York home, she spoke more extensively about growing up in the Rust Belt.
“When I grew up there, it was a boomtown,” she says. “The auto industry was at its peak. My dad was a doctor, and there were lots of professional people there. People were making money hand over first. The working class had a decent life. Then, General Motors left, and the town was gutted and left behind as a burned out hellhole. It’s not that people don’t want to work and don’t want their lives to be functioning. But when you have no industry, what are you going to do? [The local government] needs to bring some industry back. They need to contribute to the infrastructure and make it a functioning city again.”
Bernhard moved to the Phoenix area and then went to Los Angeles where, thanks to finding steady work at the influential comedy club, the Comedy Store, she became a sensation in the late ’70s.
“It was great because it was open to anybody and a free for all,” she says of her experiences at the club. “It was before the Internet. There were a certain amount of people who were talented and most of them made it. It wasn’t necessarily a great place for women, but I made the most of it. I wanted t do something different. I wanted to entertain. I wanted to sing and tell stories. I didn’t tell jokes per se. It was an opportunity to get up and perform. I took advantage of it and made it work for me.”
While critics often credit her with turning comedy into performance art, she doesn’t think of her art in the same manner.
“I never saw myself as performance art at all,” she says. “I based it on the entertainment of the ’50s — Shirley MacClaine and Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. It’s postmodern entertainment. I take the elements of what those people did and turn it on its ear. I sing sexy, groovy songs. I grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show
and Sonny and Cher
and the Dean Martin specials. Everyone did it all. They did sketches; they’d have on guests. They’d sing. They would tell funny stories. They’d sing a ballad. That’s what I loved. That’s how Johnny Carson’s show was. It was all over the map. That’s what my show is.”
The current show, Feel the Bernhard, evolved out of a regular year-end gig at Joe’s Pub in New York, where Bernhard performs every year between Christmas and New Year’s.
“Well, all my shows come from what’s going on in my life and what’s going on in the world,” she says. “Some of it is fictionalized, and some of it is true. I try to weave in stories and items and throwaway items and songs, some of which I’ve co-written and some of which are covers. It’s like a postmodern musical. It’s a little bit stream-of-consciousness and sometimes improvisational. I try to take people on a journey. This show will be a conglomeration of material from the last couple of years. I can’t keep throwing material away if no one has seen it.”
Bernhard recently launched her own daily show, Sandyland, on SiriusXM Radio’s new Radio Andy channel; the show gives her a platform for her "strong opinions and unique perspective." It also features “a wide spectrum of guests from the worlds of entertainment and fashion.”
“A lot of [Feel the Bernhard] is based on the radio show I’m doing everyday on Sirius Radio,” she says. “I write a lot of new material every single day because I’m on air five days a week. It comes from all different places. Sometimes, I go on a roll and it’s totally improvised. That’s kind of what I do. I stay in the moment and if I’m talking about something that inspires me, I’ll go off on a tangent. I follow my impulses.”
Feel the Bernhard will also feature her backing band, the Flaming Zircons. And, as its title might suggest, it finds Bernhard addressing the upcoming presidential election. But she delivers those jokes in “a funny, off-hand way.”
“I have a bit of a rant and then I jump off of it,” she says. “I don’t write jokes about people. People have their Trump jokes or Hillary jokes. To me, it’s more of an emotional rant. I think that’s what people come to me for.
And has she been surprised by Donald Trump’s success in the primaries?
“Yes and no,” she says. “I think he’s an opportunist, and he’s played on people’s darkest emotions, like racism and sexism, things that a big swath of Americans get into. He’s from New York City. That’s not how he lives. His life is too diverse to feel that way. He’s a shyster. Ultimately, whether he wins the nomination or not, he thinks it helps him with his brand. But I think his brand is so tarnished because it’s so cheap and flimsy. I think he thinks, ‘Wow. I hit a nerve and I’m going to keep running with it.’”
Ultimately, she believes Hillary Clinton represents the best candidate for presidency.
“I love everything Bernie has to say, but I don’t think he has the wherewithal to implement it, so I’m definitely a Hillary supporter,” she says. “She’s been in the trenches and knows what she’s doing. She’s a realist and a pragmatist. We can’t afford to have someone like Sanders. First of all, we’re not going to break up the banks. He’s not going to take down Wall Street. There are too many promises that are impossible to keep. When [Sanders] doesn’t get the nomination, which he is not going to get, it will be what it is. She’ll win, and she’ll work her ass off. She’s a worker. What does she need this shit for? She was already First Lady, and she tried to implement health care, and they shot her down for that. She’s been senator and secretary of state. Is she imperfect? Yes. We all are. You can’t be in politics as long as she has and not made some missteps.”
Bernhard’s resume includes numerous highlights. In 1988, her one-woman show Without You I’m Nothing
ran for six months on Broadway and delivered a film and Grammy-nominated album. From 1991 to 1996, Bernhard, who is bisexual, starred as Nancy Bartlett, the first openly gay character on a network sitcom, on the sitcom Roseanne. Shock jock Howard Stern regularly books her as a guest on his radio program, and she’s recently had roles on the TV shows Two Broke Girls
and Brooklyn 99
. She’s recorded a number of albums that include both music and comedy. Over the years, she’s opened for acts such as Cyndi Lauper, the Pretenders and the Scissor Sisters.
“I’m always moving forward,” she says. “You become a good performer, and you get better. It’s night after night after night of going up and maybe bombing and getting over it. That’s the way the life of a performer is if you stay in it long enough and you’re good at what do you, you just get better and better.”
As she’s gotten older, Bernhard, 60, says she continues to connect with young audiences.
“I just think by nature of what I do, I should be appealing [to young audiences],” she says. “It’s just fun. It’s like talking to a kid. I’m very youthful and I’m the same person now as when I started out. I’m kooky and funny and sexy and sad. I’m all over the map, and I think that’s appealing to everybody. Even my friends who are my age or older, they’re the fun smart people in the business. I’m friends with [actresses] Michele Lee and Lanie Kazan. I love them. They’re eternally young and hip and brilliant. I have younger friends too, like [singer] Belinda Carlisle. We are what we are. You start off a certain way and just try to get smarter and smarter.”
Sandra Bernhard, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 30, Trinity Cathedral, 2230 Euclid Ave., 216-771-3630. Tickets: $47.50-$125, trinitycleveland.org.
When the Elevation Group, the local agency that books concerts at Trinity Cathedral, issued a press release announcing that actress/comedian/singer Sandra Bernhard would bring her new show, Feel the Bernhard, to the venue on April 30, it included a statement from Bernhard, a Flint native.