Me: Do you hate doing this?
Sandra Bernhard: No, not at all, of course not. If I don't do this people don't know I'm coming, and it becomes counterproductive to my work.
I'm a quarter of the way through an awkward phone interview with Bernhard, a woman whose persona is impossible to describe without relying on clichés or descriptions that have been used 1,000 times before: "Gay icon," "sassy," "scathing social commentator," blah, blah, blah.
So I'm trying to ask intelligent questions, ones that won't result in my having to rely on those words or their synonyms, but the only thing taking up all the squishy space in my brain is a mantra:
This is weird, this is weird, this is weird...
Music writers and entertainment writers join with musicians and entertainers in the strange dance of interviews all the time. Generally it manifests in 15 minutes of artificial conversation on the phone, a back-and-forth as contrived and difficult as a first date, only worse because you already know the other person's stories. If you do your research, you'll find that there are very few questions that, say, Ellen DeGeneres hasn't been asked, and it's impossible to dig deeply in 15 rushed minutes—20, if you're lucky—especially when you can hear them checking their e-mail while you're talking. But it's a tacit agreement: They have something they have to promote, so they're nice to you (most of the time) and patiently answer. And you have space to fill in a newspaper/magazine/Web site, and if the name on the other line is big enough, you have another feather in your cap, getting you one step closer to that dream job at The New York Times/Vanity Fair/Salon.com, so you do your best.
I gotta give props to Bernhard. She is gracious and as sharply intelligent as she always seems on television and also pretty freakin' honest and not disappointing. "This is something [interviews] I've been doing for years, and you connect with some people, you don't connect with other people, but you try to get the information across and make it as fun and interesting as possible," she says.
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The information, in this case, is that Bernhard is bringing her new show, Everything Bad and Beautiful, to Dallas this week, a show, she says, that "is very captivating and a reflection of the times culturally, politically and musically. And this is something I love to do, and I think I'm a great performer, and I haven't been to Dallas in a while. It's been kind of funny, I've tried to play Texas in the past few years, but since the whole Bush administration took over, it's been a little bit convoluted."
OK, still weird, but we're kind of rolling now...
I ask how something like the songs she chooses to interweave in her shows connect with a specifically political theme. "They're not always related so directly. I think sometimes, you know, you're driving across Texas having a conversation with a friend and all of a sudden a song comes on that can be a punctuation to an emotional moment. It's operatic too. I like to weave things in and out without really saying anything about it at all."
I notice, going back through my research of interviews and articles, that most writers speak more about themselves than Bernhard in the pieces they write. I've done it here too, without even really noticing. And that, to me, actually speaks to what must be the core of Bernhard's cultural resonance: While much of it centers on skewering vapid public figures and the idiocy of much of popular culture, it has a deeply personal effect on a lot of people. Speaking with her, you want to say, Did you know the first time I kissed another girl was after we saw your movie? Did you know that the fact you totally love old Heart songs is the coolest thing ever? She's one of those public figures about whom people have friendship fantasies—If only we could spend some time together, I really think she'd get me—which indicates her art is more than performance or comedy or music. But it's so layered in intricacies and interplay between artifice and genuineness, it's impossible to pinpoint the transcendent moment. Which is what makes it so much fun. And which also makes 15 minutes an impossibly hopeless amount of time to understand any of it.