Sandra Bernhard began her career in 1975 on open-mike night at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills, a now-defunct place that she describes as "this little bar where a lot of older, lushy Beverly Hills types would hang out." At the time, Bernhard was a manicurist, working in a Beverly Hills salon called Cia, with the occasional celebrity client--Dyan Cannon, Jaclyn Smith, Victoria Principal.
Knowing what we know about her today, it is highly appropriate that Bernhard should have once spent her days manicuring the likes of Victoria Principal. Then, as now, she got cozy with show business' pretty people, took good notes and read them back to us, to darkly comic effect. Celebrity obsession, in fact, has been a Bernhard specialty for several decades--long before sycophantic, self-parodying media outlets like E! Entertainment Television came along to take the fun out of mocking stardom. When Bernhard tells us the details of her friendships with Courtney Love or Madonna, for instance, she's satirizing our need to know about these people as much as the stars themselves.
"But I wouldn't call my work mocking," says Bernhard, who tonight does the first of four "improvised" shows at LunaPark in West Hollywood, warming up for the Broadway run of her latest one-woman cabaret, "I'm Still Here . . . Damn It!"
"It's a strange combination of homage and weird respect and also kind of being on the outside looking in. Even though I'm in the business, I don't feel like I'm a part of it."
It is a late summer Friday, and Bernhard's publicist has suggested folding this interview into lunch and an afternoon of Valley errands Bernhard has to run--to the shoe guy, to the photo development place to pick up pictures of a recent trip to Morocco, to Whole Foods grocery store.
The interview seems the errand for which Bernhard has the least energy. Between bites of a chicken breast sandwich at Dupar's in Studio City, she answers questions about her career and personal life, but with a slight air of boredom. Bernhard has a way of making you feel as though you're back in high school, trying to ingratiate yourself with the coolest chick in class. What her body language (and eventually yours) says is this: It's an empty task, this interview, ultimately meaningless, but we'll live, honey.
Of course, for Bernhard, 43, there are more important things to tend to these days than her next club show. Waiting at home in North Hollywood is her 2-month-old daughter, Cicely Yasin, a subject about which she's protective.
"That's why I kept [the pregnancy] private," she says of her decision to become a mother. "I didn't want people to misinterpret it as a publicity stunt."
In "I'm Still Here," some of Bernhard's most withering commentary is reserved for cheap publicity stunts--specifically, the cottage industry that is celebrity death. She takes off on Elton John's remake of "Candle in the Wind" following the death of Princess Diana, and the benefit album for the late Gianni Versace (with proceeds going to fashion victims around the world, she notes).
Bernhard fans count on her to have a loose sense of the taboo, to run red lights where other comics would apply the brakes. And that isn't going to change now that she's a parent, she says.
"Everything in our society tells you you have to be a nice person. Nice, nice, nice. Keep it nice, keep it easy. And you know what? Nothing gets said when you have to be a nice person. People ask me . . . 'Have you mellowed out now that you've had a baby?' And if anything I'm more fiercely committed to my point of view because I do have a child and I want my daughter to have some semblance of a world that does feel and does have emotion . . . and morals, real morals, not these fake Judeo-Christian morals, but morals about really loving your neighbor as yourself."
Bernhard's outspoken nature onstage has helped level the playing field for female stand-ups who have taken her acerbic, headstrong lead. But Bernhard claims not to know too much or care about contemporary stand-up comedy--male, female or otherwise.
"For me, comedy comes more out of left field than the traditional stand-up stuff," she says.
But she does have more than a few things to say about pop music, including the current wave of waifish, sexy singers to come rolling off the Lilith Fair assembly line. It's no wonder they should bother her, considering Bernhard has strived, in her own vocal work, to emulate the passionate work of the singers she grew up admiring--Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, the late Laura Nyro.
"There are very few unique voices in the world, and there's littler and littler time for somebody to develop their point of view," she says. "People have one good album, and then they're forced to have enough experiences to write something else interesting. And you know what? It's not easy to have those experiences, especially when all of a sudden you're a huge success, you're being promoted and pushed around . . . and there's really nothing to draw from anymore."
Bernhard's shows have long been as much about her singing as her comedy--a reflection of the fact that when she started out, she wanted to be Bette Midler as much as Joan Rivers.
"I wanted to tear your heart out one minute and tear your hair out the next. Hilarity and pathos all rolled into one."
Bernhard was raised in Flint, Mich., and Scottsdale, Ariz., then came to L.A. in 1974. She was 18, and enrolled at the Charles Ross School of Beauty on Beverly Boulevard in L.A. There followed five and a half years as a manicurist, accompanied by a segue into stand-up comedy. She credits fellow stand-ups Paul Mooney and the late Lotus Weinstock with mentoring her during those early years. That first night at Ye Little Club, she did two bits: an impression of Mary Tyler Moore during "The Dick Van Dyke Show" years and a joke about a medium who pronounces her clients extra small, extra large. . . .
Her breakout performance would not come on stage, however, but in film, playing an obsessive fan and cohort of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese's 1982 film, "The King of Comedy." The role seemed written specifically for her, tapping as it did into her ability to turn celebrity stalking into performance art. In the end, Bernhard nearly stole the film with a scene in which she tortures a bound and gagged Jerry Lewis.
"It was way ahead of its time," Bernhard says of the film. "Many people have done films about that subject since then. . . . People didn't understand it. They didn't understand obsession [with] celebrity. It predated that whole phenomenon."
Bernhard would go on to do less interesting films ("Heavy Petting," "Inside Monkey Zetterland"). Still, you want to remember her for that tour de force performance in "King of Comedy," the way she could make you feel so uncomfortable you had to laugh. Some 15 years later, Bernhard's still making people squirm, and they're still laughing.
Sandra Bernhard performs at 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday and Sept. 26 at LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson, West Hollywood. Tickets are $15. (310) 652-0611.