Coming to Sandra, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sandra Bernhard

Cross posted at Ms.

I have never really understood Sandra Bernhard.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. After admiring her fantastic turn as ballsy sexual harassment lawyer Caroline Poop on Ally McBeal, my absolutely favorite show at the time (1997) about my absolutely favorite “dead feminist,” I told a friend, “I’ve never really gotten the Sandra Bernhard thing.” “Have you ever seen The King of Comedy?” the aspiring-screenwriter and Scorsese fan asked, as if that would settle things. (Scorsese fans always think it will.) A trip to Blockbuster for a VHS and a few hours later I said, “Wow. That’s an amazing movie. But … I still don’t really understand Sandra Bernhard.”

It’s hard to write about a cult figure when you’re not in the cult. So in preparation for reviewing her new show Sandrology at Los Angeles’ REDCAT, I made another attempt at unraveling the enigma that is Sandra Bernhard. Her irony has always appealed to me, but I wanted to know, what’s it all about? What is she really getting at?

In her movie Without You I’m Nothing, available on Netflix, she does a rote, almost solemn, performance of her stand up for an all black audience at the iconic jazz club The Parisian Room. For much of the movie, a straight-faced Bernhard recites her standard jokes about growing up Jewish as if she’s sharing common tribulations with the audience because, as she puts it, “You know our people have always gotten along so well.” No one laughs.

Minus the chocolate-smeared woman, I thought, This is not stand up. This is performance art. The juxtaposition of references from utterly distinct worlds combined with her sober delivery creates a surreality that makes you question whether she’s being funny, serious, ironic, or just silly. The performance of race and ethnicity is always, like the performance of gender, a political act. But if she means to be political, what political statement is she making?

Though my appreciation of Bernhard continued to grow with my research, my understanding of her did not, and I soon found myself in a room full of hard-core fans, all eager to see her new show, feeling like the only one who wasn’t sure what to expect.

Sandrology opens with the titular comedian, singer, dancer, actor and author performing Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain.” In typical Bernhard fashion, everything about her performance – her smile, her dancing, her voice – makes you wonder, Is she serious? Does she like this song? Is she making fun of it? Is she just enjoying being on stage? Can she really be doing all these things at once?

Moving with ease between personal narrative and musical tributes/sendups of Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Carol Channing, Bernhard manages to simultaneously perform herself and authenticate that performance as real. Like a woman doing what she was born to do, she perfectly suits the size of her personality and her voice to the space and to the people in front of her so that you always feel she’s being honest as well as deliberately opaque. References to her girlfriend and her family – she is clearly the “patriarch” of it and she’s clearly proud of that – flow easily off her tongue and land just as easily in the audience’s open minds.

Though advertised as a whole new show, as Sandrology unfolds you may notice that Bernhard’s references are oddly dated: Bristol Palin’s role as spokeperson for Candies‘ abstinence campaign (which she criticizes not by taking down Palin or abstinence but by attacking the quality of Candie’s shoes), the Royal Wedding, and Michele Bachmann. Eventually she admits that she’s not doing an entirely new show, but even then, the guessing game as to what is new and what is not, what is improvised and what rehearsed, continues to throw the whole nature of the performance into epistemological question, with Bernhard loving every minute of it. As if in answer to my questions, while describing a past romantic attraction she adds as a sidebar, “Don’t try to pigeonhole me. Unexpected things get me going. Like my plumber.”

In a perfectly fitting conclusion to an evening of non-sequitors and name dropping, Bernhard performs a medley of “Sex Shooter” and “Janie’s Got a Gun,” wagging her butt at the audience as if to say, “You may not have gotten what you expected, but you can’t deny you got me.”

I have never understood Sandra Bernhard, but I sure do like her. After all, just because she is a Jewish lesbian mother head-of-the-household who makes her identity part of her work doesn’t mean that her work has to fulfill this intellectual critic’s desire for a clear political message. Politics aren’t that simple, and neither is Sandra Bernhard. Perhaps just being in a room full of people who can see and love a person for all of those things at once without even batting an eye is political enough.

Get tickets for Sandrology if you can (only 9 performances left). If not and if you, like me, want to know this woman better, check out Ally McBeal, Season One, Episodes 8 and 9 and Without You I’m Nothing. Oh, and Scorsese fan or not, everybody should see The King of Comedy.

2 responses to “Coming to Sandra, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sandra Bernhard”

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