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SGN INTERVIEW: Sandra Bernhard on the nature of humor and the future of politics
SGN INTERVIEW: Sandra Bernhard on the nature of humor and the future of politics
by Maggie Bloodstone - SGN Contributing Writer

Sandra Bernhard: Without You I'm Nothing
It's About Life Expo
June 21
Washington Convention Center


If you told me back in the time of the first Bush regime that one day I would be shaking down to my kegel muscles at the prospect of conversing with Sandra Bernhard, I would have taken your crack pipe away from you posthaste. I hate to admit my former cluelessness, but I just didn't get it - was she more than friends with Madonna (whom I never, ever could stand), did she think openly flirting with David Letterman was funny, or what? What's more, I couldn't decide if I thought she was hot or not (a decision I've seldom had to ponder for long). Then, out of morbid curiosity, I saw the film of Without You I'm Nothing - and I got it.

What "it" was, was as if all my obsessions with every rock star and every film I've ever loved were poured into a lanky, slightly androgynous mold, shaken, not stirred, to the tune of "Little Red Corvette" and turned loose on all my pretensions towards hipness since media-saturated, post-boomer childhood. Something like that.

You can have your own opportunity to "get it" during the It's About Life Expo at the Washington Convention Center, when Sandra brings her 20th anniversary premiere of her groundbreaking, expectation-squashing Without You I'm Nothing June 21 (tickets at www.ticketwindowonline.com).

Matter of fact, if you don't, you may as well just turn in your Gay card, cause her appearance, combined with everything else that will be happening at It's About Life, from Gay Bingo June 20 (at which Sandra will be a guest caller) to a virtual Gayville of Gay businesses, Gay community organizations, Gay performers, and all-around Gayety will be kicking off Seattle Pride 2008 with a big Gay bang. But Sandra will be the insouciant Eve in our Gay Garden of Eden, the ambisexual Jesus at our Gay last supper & you get the picture. It's really Gay.

Maggie Bloodstone: I have to admit, right off: Just recently, I finally saw the Streisand A Star Is Born. Know that part where the chick who wants to interview Esther beds Kris Kristofferson, and when Esther walks in on them, the chick grabs her tape recorder, thrusts it at her, and goes "Okay, go!" That's sort of how I feel right now.

Sandra Bernhard: That's hysterical.

Bloodstone: What can those of us who saw the original - and have been quoting lines from it for the last 20 years - expect this time around?

Bernhard: The main piece is from the live show as it was done then, with a little bit of retrospective and introspection of the 20 years that have passed interwoven with improvisation and updated musical numbers.

Bloodstone: Is "Little Red Corvette" still in the finale?

Bernhard: Of course.

Bloodstone: You're one of those rare artists who seems to have no obvious influences, but I figure you must - who, what, and how do you work that influence into your material?

Bernhard: Well, so much and so many have influenced me over the years, and continue, starting with my family and the places and people I grew up around to very early influences like Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett and Carol Channing, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, all the great women singers from Dusty Springfield to Joni Mitchell to Laura Nyro. Streisand, Julie Christie & great novelists, great books that I read when I was young, classic books, films from the '20s and the '30s. My mother playing Debussy on the piano, listening to jazz, Mose Allison to Miles Davis to Lalo Schifrin - all the rock 'n' roll of the time from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin to Led Zeppelin and on and on. And later, people like early Bette Midler and Lili Tomlin, comedically, were influences on me - really, I should keep a running list, but those are the early influences on my work. And just as the years have gone by, people and places and experiences I've had constantly inform my work - it's kind of a wide berth of things that inspire me.

Bloodstone: Synchronistically, I happen to be reading the book Comedy On the Edge, about stand-up in the '70s, and I just finished the chapter on the women comics. The writer, Richard Zoglin, suggests besides the whole boy's-club atmosphere of the comedy clubs then - and I'm guessing now, still - the biggest reason for the lack of women comedians then is that women really didn't have a lot to laugh about.

Bernhard: Well, I've always laughed, and had a much more ironic take on everything - the same things that made me laugh in high school make me laugh now. I just think it's your attitude - either you're sober and bitter and repressed, or you're like an open, rocking, inspired person, and I'm just thankful I've been able to straddle both worlds of drama and melancholy and extreme laughter and hilarity at whatever life has brought my way, which is pretty good, I'm delighted to say.

Bloodstone: Zoglin also referred to a bit you would do where you would target a guy in the audience and say: "I like you & and yet, I'd like to hurt you. And yet, I'm frightened." What was the average reaction to that bit?

Bernhard: Oh, you know, guys love that kind of attention (laughs) - it's so obviously tongue in cheek at the same time. It's kind of fearsome and hysterical all at once.

Bloodstone: Oh, yeah. There's the theory that cruelty is at the basis of all comedy - there's definitely a lot of meanness passing for humor these days, but how true do you think that is, overall?

Bernhard: Well, for me it's not about meanness, it's about turning things around and making them ironic - for instance, right now I'm doing a funny piece about going to Africa and getting involved with orphans and I put an ironic spin on it, because so many people feel like that's what they need to do right now and so it becomes this thing where are they doing it because they want to, or because they should?

Bloodstone: What you do definitely comes from a much more affectionate place than a lot of comedians I don't really want to name&.

Bernhard: I've got a lot of opinions, and I've got a lot of concerns about where our culture's at, and certainly about certain people who have had success based on what I consider to be a modicum of talent & I'm a commentator and an observer, but it's never coming from a place of anger or bitterness, cause that's not my message.

Bloodstone: Who, or what, really makes you laugh these days?

Bernhard: Oh, wow, I've got some of the funniest friends in the world, writers and just generally smart, funny people. There's like Waiting for Guffman & those [kinds of] films are hysterical. My 9-year-old daughter is totally into it, so that's very inspiring to me.

Bloodstone: So, Hillary or Barack?

Bernhard: Well, on paper, I think Hillary is a very brilliant and capable woman, but I think she totally blew it, and I think it's time to turn things around and go in a different direction. It's like, when the dinosaurs died out, they probably fought the hardest at the end, when you look at a guy like McCain, who really is embittered, and furious and angry at everything that's happened to him in his life, and everything he's created, then you see a guy like Obama, who is, in spite of all the trouncing and crap he's had to take this past year, he's on point. So, I've got to say I'm casting my vote to him - I also like when he talks about America, and who populates America, he always says, straight, Gay & and he's the only one who says that. I'm like, yeah, thank you! He's a very inclusive person, and that inspires me.

Bloodstone: How much longer do you think we'll have to wait to get an openly Gay or Lesbian president?

Bernhard: Well, he [Obama] is considering people for vice president like the two governors I think are Gay, from Kansas and Arizona & you never know. Few people would really care as long as they were, like, on it, and together & to me, when you travel through this country, like in the Midwest, all the women who are married look like Lesbians, anyway (laughs). They don't want to deal with their sexuality, they probably don't have sex, anyway, so what difference does it make?

Bloodstone: When can we expect another all-music album like I'm Your Woman?

Bernhard: Well, anytime now, whenever it comes together again & this business is so mercurial and weird, you gotta kind of jump in when you can. I'm constantly writing songs, I do a lot of them in my shows. When I have the resources to get around to doing it, I'm sure I will & thank you, though.

Bloodstone: Have you had any classical vocal training?

Bernhard: Yeah, I have, over the years - I was considering opera when I was young, cause I thought that would be a cool avenue to go down, but it didn't work out. So, yeah, I've definitely studied voice.

Bloodstone: Do you see much of Roseanne these days?

Bernhard: I do, actually - we're very much in touch and we've been trying to get to do some shows together, but right now she's doing an open-ended run in Vegas, so we'll work something out eventually.

Bloodstone: Great. How is Cicely?

Bernhard: She's wonderful - she's a great kid. She's the polar opposite of all the bad kids in the world (laughs). She's smart and wonderful and compassionate and funny and she's a love - thank you.

Bloodstone: I understand you have some family here in Seattle?

Bernhard: Yeah, my brother has lived there since the late '60s - he married a Seattle lady and they've been together for years and they have two daughters - I'm up there at least once a year to see them.

Bloodstone: Personally, I think Seattle is a great place to stage something like It's About Life, with our blue-state consciousness and large GLBT community. Most folks would say San Francisco would be the natural place for something this Gay - how do you think Seattle compares, in terms of overall progressiveness?

Bernhard: I think Seattle's always been very on board with people and their choices and their personal expression because of all the creative energy up there, I don't think it's ever been an issue.

Bloodstone: We're sort of more low-key hip than San Francisco, but we do have our own Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence. In fact, I'm one - I'm going to be one of the Sisters that escorts you to the stage for your performance.

Bernhard: Great, I'll look forward to it. I know I'll be protected (laughs).

Bloodstone: Do you think something like a Gay Expo is the natural progression from the traditional Pride celebration?

Bernhard: Yeah. I think it's a smart next stop; it's almost time for the Gay Pride thing to phase into the next level of culture. It's a great way of merging into the next world.

Bloodstone: In that vein, just this morning, I could hear my boss all the way down the hall cheering the California Gay marriage decision.

Bernhard: I know, it's great; total Gay rights and Gay marriage is right around the corner. Once somebody like Obama gets in the White House, it's going to shift the focus of this country and all this crap is going to fall away and people are going to be back on track with what we need to make this country as wonderful as it can be.

Bloodstone: After eight years -

Bernhard: - of being lied to and having someone act out their own emotional dysfunction on the world stage.

Bloodstone: I never thought I'd live long enough to see a president that would actually make me miss Nixon.

Bernhard: (laughs) Yeah, isn't that funny?

Bloodstone: Even Reagan's malfeasance looks amateurish by comparison.

Bernhard: It's really been something else - but we have to go through these cycles, unfortunately, when we lose track of what's important - not me or you, but in general. Let's hope that everyone gets back on board and try to enjoy their lives again.

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