Sandra Bernhard reflects on her career, Michigan roots, and Twitter ahead of Ann Arbor shows
“My shows—almost every six months, they’re almost completely new,” Bernhard told AnnArbor.com. “I just wrote a lot of new material over the holidays, and I did five nights at Joe’s Pub in New York City.”
Bernhard first experimented with performing—whether it was a self-choreographed rendition of “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey” for her parents, or taking the microphone at her cousin’s bat mitzvah in Detroit to sing “Hello Dolly”—while growing up in Flint.
Later, of course, she became a movie (Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy”) and television (“Roseanne,” “The L Word”) star, and developed a distinctive style as a stage performer.
“When you start off when you’re 18, 19 years old and start performing, you’re always going to be told to stick with what works,” said Bernhard. “ And don’t go too far outside the parameters. But I just think when you’re a natural artist and somebody who has a really strong voice, you’re just going to do what you want to do, and you’re just going to keep going.”Bernhard ventured into conventional stand-up comedy first, before recognizing that her talents were better suited to a hybrid show that incorporated music and personal insights. “I really took from a lot of different plates on the buffet, and things that influenced me growing up,” said Bernhard. “Different kinds of musical styles and performance styles, and comedy and acting. I just kind of made my own blend. Kind of post-modern rock and roll meets cabaret meets burlesque. It was a real mash up of all the styles, and that became my signature.”
And after 30 years of performing, Bernhard claims that she never has an “off” night.
“Even if I might be preoccupied, or something’s going on in my life, there’s a way for me to, like—I have my specific set pieces I might fall back on, and music,” Bernhard said. “Also, I actually love taking whatever mood I’m in and putting it into my work, so I always manage to transcend whatever limitation might be there. If I’m losing a paid audience, it might be because I’m in the wrong market to begin with, but that’s very unusual. That might happen at a place like Atlantic City, where people just wandered in from a casino or something.”
Bernhard’s dedicated fans have had a new window into her life and perspectives these past three years, thanks to her regular Twitter activity.
“One night, I was out on the road doing a show or something, and I was with my tour manager, and he signed me up for it, and I tried it and said, ‘Oh, this is fun,’” said Bernhard. “It took a little while to kind of get into it. I didn’t fully understand it at first, and it’s evolved over the years. But I feel like it’s very productive for me, in terms of the message I’m trying to get out.”
Bernhard’s Twitter conversations with musician Roseanne Cash and “Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead have earned attention, and Bernhard also regularly shares her political perspectives—including responses to the president’s recent inauguration.
“I think (Obama) really seemed much more relaxed, and more comfortable in the position now, after four years,” said Bernhard. “I think he’s a little more fearless than he has been. So I feel very positive about it.”
Bernhard also feels good about the ascent of women in the comedy landscape, with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler recently nailing their Golden Globe Awards hosting gig, and the funny female cast of “Bridesmaids” fueling a bona-fide box-office hit.
“I think there’s just a whole proliferation of really funny, smart women, and it’s all done in all these different directions,” said Bernhard. “I think it’s a very exciting, renaissance kind of time. And there’s a whole new generation, like that (HBO) show ‘Girls,’ where people are just comfortable in their own skin. They’re not following the sexy, certain way of looking vibe. I think it all just keeps moving forward.”
Bernhard’s fearless approach to her career, and life in general, make her far less prone to harboring regrets—including her choice to pass on the role of Miranda on “Sex and the City.”
“Nobody knew what (the show) was going to be, first of all,” said Bernhard. “It was ambiguous. And (my decision) was because a combination of a lot of different things. The pilot script wasn’t very good, and the money wasn’t very good. It just didn’t seem like it was going to be a good deal. It’s a misfire, but it wasn’t really a show that spoke to me. I found it kind of regressive in many ways. Even though it became a huge hit, I didn’t think, ‘Oh my God, it’s the role of lifetime.’”
In addition to her busy professional career, Bernhard has a 14-year-old daughter at home. And while most girls that age tend to be embarrassed by their parents, Cicely Bernhard reportedly takes her mom’s various roles in stride.
“I think she appreciates what I do, and certainly, around the house, and in our day-to-day life, I don’t really talk about it very much,” said Bernhard. “So it’s not like, ‘Get over yourself,’ because it’s not how I am. Her needs and emotions come before mine. And she gets a kick out of (my career). She likes to be around the action. But it’s always about her before anything.”
Does Cicely remind Bernhard of herself as a kid?
“No, she’s totally different than I am,” Bernhard said. “Completely. And a totally different generation of kid. Much more comfortable and confident, and she’s growing up in New York City, which is just a whole different experience.”
That shouldn’t be interpreted as a dig against Michigan, though, since Bernhard still looks back at her time in Michigan with affection.
“I lived in Flint, Michigan, until I was 10, when Flint was still a booming town,” Bernhard said. “I have great memories of that being the fun, upbeat time of the early '60s, the Kennedy era—it was a wonderful time.
"Of course, I always like to go back. I’m going to come in (to Michigan) a day early, and see some friends and bop around to some of the old places. It’s nice to touch base with your home state.”
Note: Video contains profanity and adult material.