The thing that most annoys some people about Sandra Bernhard is what others worship in her. Namely, you never know when she's being serious or sarcastic. A couple of years ago, when her latest one-woman show I'm Still Here...Damn It! was playing to sold-out crowds in New York City, she spotted Carol Channing in the audience and flooded effusive praise into the mic. Ticketbuyers reportedly shifted uncomfortably in their seats for a few minutes -- it's one thing to hear Bernhard rag on Naomi Campbell and Elton John and Courtney Love and other magazine-cover stalwarts, but quite another to be sitting next to her prey as she squeezes off round after round. It turns out that Miss Sandra is not only a genuine Channing fan (she caught the daft blonde stage-star live in Hello, Dolly! when she was a kid), but she's equally fed up with the irony overkill in today's American popular culture. While people have never doubted she always says what she means, they've sometimes questioned if she means what she says.
"I don't think smug is funny," Bernhard says during a chat from her hotel room, picking up dates "here and there when I can" but not launching a national "tour tour" of U.S. dates for I'm Still Here...Damn It!. "Irony is a very special quality to have, and when it's used right, it's part of a multilayered work that's more complicated than 'I'm saying the opposite of what I mean, isn't that hysterical?' I'm an entertainer. My goal is a strange combination of trying to amuse people and affect them at the same time. Hopefully, my shows create a comfortable space for the audience to use their own energy."
At her best, Bernhard really does make you feel a part of the show while sharing her prickly thoughts -- about famous people, the pitched battles among contemporary feminists, being Jewish in a predominantly Christian society, digging women and men, and waxing idolatrous about the female icons of performance who awe her. The key word is "share" -- her fans tend to rely on her to speak out against the superficiality of our pop-media culture. A vigorous Bernhard show clears the psychic nasal passages of frivolous congestion. Her controversial covers of the rock and pop standards she loves are embraced or rejected by audiences, loved or hated, but they're key to her presentation. Unlike Bette Midler, to whom Bernhard owes a great debt in performance form (if not style), her singing is fragile and unpredictable but utterly convinced of its own good intentions. Midler is the diva whose abundant talents have separated her from the rest of humanity; Bernhard, thanks to her intelligence, locates and delivers the humanity inside her musical aspirations.
She leads by example, secure with her own abilities, adept at identifying phoniness, but not preaching to people. "Luckily, my audiences are across the board -- men and women, straight and gay. I try to have that appeal, but never by telling people how they should live their lives. There is a lot of preaching about self-confidence and how to be a success these days." Especially, Bernhard notes, citing Lifetime and the Oxygen cable channels, aimed at women. She is perplexed by it.
"You have these 24-hour networks dedicated to stories about women who are beaten by their husbands and boyfriends, who are agoraphobics and addicts with eating disorders. It's all stories about victims. What, they think that Lifetime makes women in the Midwest feel better about their lives?"