Sandra Bernhard :: On love, loss, Liza & what she’ll be wearing this summer
I give her a little shit for it, but let’s face it, Sandra Bernhard on the phone is better than most celebrities in bed. And if the lady wants to stay in town and enjoy her damn co-op, who are we to interfere? That’ll all change soon enough as she hits the road on a summer tour that will take her to locales as far flung as the Napa Valley and Shirley, Massachusetts, banging the drum for her first official comedy album in over ten years entitled "I Love Being Me, Don’t You?"
When she does ring up, promptly, it’s a "revitalized, spent the weekend in town, while everyone else was trying to get out" Sandy. She describes a day that heretofore sounds suspiciously Sondheim: "off to gym, then to a fitting," but even that’s apropos as she has some big Broadway musical news to break. And she’s funny, focused and even a little flirtatious while she does it. She is not, thankfully, pushing a cart around Balducci’s, as she was last go ’round, so our conversation is mercifully uninterrupted by potato salad price-checks.
Tony Phillips: I’m sad that we’re on the phone again, Sandra, we’re always on the phone!
Sandra Bernhard: Well, maybe one of these days we’ll meet up in person again.
Tony Phillips: I feel like we’re characters in a Nancy Meyers’ screenplay.
Sandra Bernhard: (Laughs) I wish we had the apartments or houses she always has. Maybe we’d be quicker to hook up if we knew were meeting up over a croissant. That’s funny.
Tony Phillips: So tell me about your day so far.
Sandra Bernhard: My day so far? Well, I got up and I had a little breakfast. Then I went to the gym and worked out with my trainer. I stopped by Integral Yoga Foods and got a smoothie and filled up my bottles of lotion. I like to refill bottles because I try to be a little bit conscious of the earth. And then I walked home, took a shower and went downtown to meet up with Ralph Rucci, the designer who’s doing my clothing for Town Hall.
Tony Phillips: Very exciting.
Sandra Bernhard: I had the final fitting for my two dresses.
Tony Phillips: Can you say anything about them?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, one of the dresses is all sequins and you can kind of rub your hand over it and it goes all silver, or you can rub your hand up and it goes all black. They’re two-sided sequins.
Tony Phillips: Very X-Men.
Sandra Bernhard: I know! It’s really groovy. And the encore outfit will be a cat suit with a fabulous feather kind of tent over it. So they’re two really stunning, stunning outfits.
Liza and Arnold
Tony Phillips: And you’ve just announced that you’ll have some competition in the sequin department.
Sandra Bernhard: Who do you mean?
Tony Phillips: Liza!
Sandra Bernhard: Oh! Well, honey, there’s no competition with Liza. She’s the one and the only. We can only sit by and watch and listen when Liza’s on stage, but we will deliver the goods.
Tony Phillips: How did that happen?
Sandra Bernhard: I just called her and asked her. We’ve been friendly for many years and we’ve done a few, little things together. She did an episode of this new cooking show with, Oh God, what’s his name? I’m going to blank and he’s so cute... oh, Rocco DiSpirito!
Tony Phillips: Now Eat This!
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, he has a new cooking show on Bravo and they did this birthday party for Liza. There were six people and she invited me to come on. That’ll be on sometime in the next month or so.
Tony Phillips: Wow!
Sandra Bernhard: And then I just went to her birthday party at her house recently. I just said, "you know what, why shouldn’t I ask Liza? Liza asked me. Why shouldn’t I ask Liza?" And, of course, I knew she’d love it, because she likes to get out and she always comes to my shows. She came to my show at Joe’s Pub over Christmas and New Year’s and she said, "Coming to your show is like sitting at a restaurant and eavesdropping at someone else’s table," which I thought was so brilliant.
Tony Phillips: Yeah, that is great.
Sandra Bernhard: Isn’t that cool? And I thought, shit man, you know, what’s good for the goose is good for the Sandra.
Tony Phillips: So have you guys talked about what you’re going to do?
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, yeah. We know what we’re doing. I threw the ball into her court and she came up with a song. And I’m not going to tell you.
Tony Phillips: That’s okay, because I’m going to use this moment to lobby for "Ring Them Bells" regardless of what she chose.
Sandra Bernhard: (Laughs) It’s not "Ring Them Bells," but it is a very cool song.
Tony Phillips: So now, what the hell is going on with you and Arnold?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, it’s a story I’ve told many times over the years, but I was just on Rob Shuter’s show, which is so much fun.
Tony Phillips: I love him.
Sandra Bernhard: I do too, but we were just going off on different, topical stuff, so I told this funny story about how back in the 70s, when I was really like a kid, I was sitting on the beach. I’d just come to L.A. And Arnold was walking around the beach chatting people up and he stopped by and started talking to me. Just schmoozing, you know, maybe flirty, but, like, why wouldn’t he be? I was about 20 and I don’t know if he’s younger or older than me? We’re about the same age, I would guess. But he was being flirty and it was fun and then he just wandered off.
Tony Phillips: The stuff I’ve been reading has you contesting this period as "when I was skinny," and I keep thinking, when has she not been skinny?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, when I was in my twenties, believe me, you can probably find some pictures, I was bone skinny. Now I’m thin like the way a woman should be, but I was so skinny you’d be worried about me.
Tony Phillips: Dangerously thin, ahead of its time! I love it, but I just can’t imagine you being more than five days away from fully camera-ready.
Sandra Bernhard: (Laughs) Well, you’re right about that. I’m just lucky. I never go to that place where I have to go, "Jesus Christ, if I don’t lose ten pounds, I’m in big trouble." But this was just out of being a teenager and I didn’t have baby fat. I had baby thin.
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Watch Sandra Bernhard on The Rachael Maddow Show.
Comedy and music
Tony Phillips: I’ve been reading a lot about this new album as your first comedy album in more than ten years and I’m thinking, that’s great, I still have a copy of "Without You, I’m Nothing" on cassette. I listen to it all the time. But none of this "comedy album" business prepared me for how fully wrecked I was going to be when I heard your cover of Melanie’s "Beautiful People," which opens this new disc.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, you know, I always like to mix it up. My version of comedy always has music, you know what I mean? But in the sense that I got up and really improvised that night is the reason I classify it as a comedy album. Normally, I would do five or six songs with pieces in between, but I got up that night and just went crazy. I was on a roll, on a tear. And I was in the Castro, it was a gay comedy thing and I just didn’t care. But I just didn’t care in the best possible way, so I went for it. And I didn’t know it was being recorded, as I mention. I go, "I bet this isn’t being recorded because my brilliant shows never get recorded." And as it turns out, it was being recorded, so that’s what I mean by comedy album.
Tony Phillips: So is it just an audio recording?
Sandra Bernhard: Unfortunately, yeah, because they did video recording it, but it wasn’t lit properly.
Tony Phillips: Your true fans will seek that shit out. We’ll find it.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, well maybe they can throw up a couple things on YouTube or something.
Tony Phillips: I can swear Melanie has worked her way into your sets before. I definitely think of "The Key Song" as part of your repertory.
Sandra Bernhard: I probably reference that. I’m sure. Why wouldn’t I?
Tony Phillips: So you talk a little bit about that crazy Antin brood on this album.
Sandra Bernhard: Do I?
Tony Phillips: Oh, yes honey. "The Antins, at it again... " You don’t really explain it, but I think any self-respecting gay is genuflecting doing the opening number from "Burlesque" right now. And I get that you’re really good friends with Steve, but I’m wondering what your take on Jonathan Antin is?
Sandra Bernhard: You know something, I don’t really have a take on Jonathan. He’s always been really sweet to me. I mean, he cut my hair a couple times and they were not the best haircuts in the world, bless his heart. But he’s sweet enough. And Robin I love because she choreographed "Without You, I’m Nothing" the movie.
Tony Phillips: And again, the gays are genuflecting and doing Pussycat Dolls choreography.
Sandra Bernhard: And Steve was in the movie. I’ve known him for a long time. He came up with the title of my book, "Confessions of a Pretty Lady" and he also came up with the title "Without You, I’m Nothing." So he’s been an integral part of my life. I haven’t seen him in a while, but I do have a fondness for Steve.
Tony Phillips: I ask about Jonathan because I met him recently and we had this weird moment where our eyes locked from across the room. So, of course, I ran home to cyber-stalk him. And I learned that he’s straight. How can that be?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, I think he just comes from that generation and that family where they’re just, like, flirty, you know what I mean?
Tony Phillips: Oh, yes.
Sandra Bernhard: And maybe, under the right circumstances, he would be gay.
Tony Phillips: You are not helping!
Sandra Bernhard: You know, I mean, he might have turned out gay. It’s all kooky.
Tony Phillips: It’s a Jon Peters moment.
Sandra Bernhard: It’s is, exactly.
Tony Phillips: I was also surprised to hear you talking about Grindr.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, the reason I know about Grindr is someone brought it up right before I went out onstage. I’d never heard about it before. The guy who does my hair out in San Francisco, he started telling me about it. I was like a vacuum that night, everything that I thought about or heard that day, the bag broke and the dust flew everywhere.
Tony Phillips: There’s a Grindr for girls now.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh God, honey, no matter what my situation was, and I happen to be in a very good situation, but I would never put myself into that harm’s way. I mean, I have a daughter. That’s not even in the realm of possibility. It probably never would have been, actually.
Tony Phillips: I find it odd that the whole thing’s based on proximity.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, I guess if people are really desperate and they want to hook up, they do that. But that, to me, is totally, totally unacceptable.
Tony Phillips: I agree. When I get on there and see people within 200 feet of me, I think, this fucker is in my building. I’m not sleeping with anyone in my building. I have to do laundry with these people!
Sandra Bernhard: Can you imagine? That’s the other thing, you want to get as far away as possible and never see them again.
Tony Phillips: Now the other news that you break on this record is your upcoming musical with Mx. Bond (Mx. Justin ’Vivian’ Bond).
Sandra Bernhard: Right!
Tony Phillips: You must have made some progress on that because this concert was recorded last year.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, we did a backer’s showing and two staged readings at Joe’s Pub in March. We didn’t get enough people down. And then we had a meeting recently with a theater and somebody had turned us onto a director and we were supposed to meet with that director and that hasn’t happened yet, so it’s a long process. I hate to say it, but it could be another year before it sees the light of day.
Tony Phillips: I’m terrified of jinxing it, but can you talk about it all?
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, yeah. We play not estranged cousins, but cousins who’ve gone on two divergent paths in their lives, but were very close. We meet up at a family friend’s wedding in Maryland and I’ve taken to doing all kinds of handicrafts, like crocheting and needlepoint. He has an art gallery in New York and is super-hip and I’ve married my boyfriend, who’s turned into a religious fundamental Christian and I’ve gone down that path. And I’ve had it. My two kids are grown up so I end up showing up at his doorstep in New York City. We go off on this major, spiritual flight of fancy, it’s sort of a romp and at the same times it’s really emotional. Two people come back together and affect each other’s life.
Tony Phillips: So early on in the process, what cast albums were you trading back and forth? What would you say it’s modeled on?
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, nothing. We didn’t model it on anything (laughs). We just went for it. I came up with the idea. He loved it. We sat down and started writing. We both wrote a lot of the songs together. I wrote one of the songs with Jason Sellards from Scissor Sisters. I wrote one song. We collaborated in different variations, but we all came together on the songs.
Tony Phillips: So I was talking to this photographer that I met on the set of a Michael Lucas production and he photographed you a while ago. He shot you at the pool table.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, those are great shots.
Tony Phillips: Richard Mitchell.
Sandra Bernhard: Yes!
Tony Phillips: Richard told me a really great story about that shoot. He said you guys were working all afternoon and he was getting photos, but nothing was kind of popping and he was starting to panic a little. And then he said "Jumpin’ Jack Flash" came on the radio and you just pulled down the spirit. He was going crazy just trying to shoot it all and then he said, when the song was done, you just threw the pool cue down and walked out, like, "if you didn’t get that, then too bad."
Sandra Bernhard: It sounds like me. We shot it over at Hogs & Heifers. It was really fun. And it’s true. I have a really hard time doing these static shots. I tend to need music to inspire me to get a great photo. Otherwise, you feel like you’re just standing there and you get self-conscious. I know that sometimes you’ve just got to stand there, but I do my best stuff when I’m moving and grooving and somebody’s able to capture that.
Tony Phillips: After he told me that story, i was looking for the photo and I found it in USA Today, of all places, attached to this article about The Sandra Bernhard Experience.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh my God!
Tony Phillips: I know, just before 9/11.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, good for him. He got it out to more than one outlet.
Tony Phillips: And Robert Bianco wrote, "Bernhard is so busy celebrating herself she doesn’t leave any room for the rest of us."
Sandra Bernhard: (Laughs) That’s so perfect. Hey, I better do it because I can’t afford to wait for anybody else to do it.
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Watch Sandra Bernhard on The DL Show.
About ’The King of Comedy’
Tony Phillips: I never really got that Sara Switzer, your co-host on that show, is Sara your girlfriend today.
Sandra Bernhard: No, no, nobody did. Nobody ever would have.
Tony Phillips: Did you guys meet on that show?
Sandra Bernhard: No. Nu-nu-nu-no. We met before that. She was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine and asked me to write a piece about the millennium.
Tony Phillips: Wow, how glamorous.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, it was very glamorous. And that’s how we met. And then we literally bumped into each other on the street and then it all kind of came together. She hadn’t been with a woman before, but we just hit it off and it was just one of those magical connections. We’ve been together for almost 12 years.
Tony Phillips: Was that a hard sell to the network, you guys as a pair? Or did they just not know?
Sandra Bernhard: No, they didn’t know anything about it.
Tony Phillips: That’s awesome.
Sandra Bernhard: (Laughs) And also, I mean, the really funky part was, had the show gone on, which it was supposed to do--although 9/11, you know, finished it off -- we were going to totally re-vamp the whole thing. We were going to bring in an audience and she wasn’t going to do it anymore. She was just going to write on the show because it didn’t really work and it wasn’t fun, but it was fun for a minute. That’s all we had to do it in.
Tony Phillips: Have you guys collaborated since?
Sandra Bernhard: We’ve written several TV projects and stuff, but now she’s writing her own scripts and stuff.
Tony Phillips: I can remember sitting with you guys one night for Kiki and Herb at Fez.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah!
Tony Phillips: You guys came in and David LaChapelle and his boyfriend were also at our table. You had never met David, so I was able to introduce you, but then I got all obsessed with this third woman that was with you.
Sandra Bernhard: It might have been Elyse Roth, who produced my show. Was she kind of "New Yawk" sounding?
Tony Phillips: No, not at all. She was very La Jolla. Very West Coast. White tennis shirt, popped collar, kind of older, looked like she knew her way around a golf course.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh my God, I wonder who the hell that was?
Tony Phillips: I know, she was major.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, it’ll come to me.
Tony Phillips: Twitter it later.
Sandra Bernhard: I will!
Tony Phillips: I’m really surprised you’ve embraced the whole Twitter thing.
Sandra Bernhard: I have. I really love it. It’s a really easy outlet. And I always have lots of little things to say, you know what I mean? It happens very quickly, and then I’m done with it.
Tony Phillips: One of the really self-indulgent things I did to prepare for this interview was to watch "The King of Comedy" again.
Sandra Bernhard: That’s always a good thing to do.
Tony Phillips: And there’s that scene really early on where all the stage door Johnny’s are around Jerry Lewis’ back door waving their autograph books, and that guard comes out and gathers all the books and brings them inside, slamming the door in these people’s faces. But before he closes the door, you hear this off-camera voice say, "Have him write something personal."
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, that’s funny.
Tony Phillips: Yeah, but that’s celebrity Twittering to me, in a nutshell.
Sandra Bernhard: That’s hysterical, you’re right.
Tony Phillips: So what happens to Masha? She just gets decked by Jerry Lewis and then we never see her again. Did you have a backstory?
Sandra Bernhard: She just runs off into the night. She just goes off and probably figures out the next big person to stalk and she’s still out there running after him.
Tony Phillips: Your scene in the limo is really incredible.
Sandra Bernhard: I know, it really is.
Tony Phillips: How was it working with those folks? All your stuff seemed so immediate, so one-take. I mean, I know it was a long time ago, but&
Sandra Bernhard: Throughout my life, that will be one of the big experiences, no matter what. Because I was so young and it was like, I was just thrown into it. And Scorsese did a lot of takes. Of everything. So we really, really rolled up our sleeves. And for me, it was really no big deal, I mean, what else was I doing? I loved it. It was great working with everybody. it couldn’t have been a better situation. And I felt like that’s where I belonged, with the best of the best.
Mixing it up in SF
Tony Phillips: So fast forward a bit, you’re getting ready to bring this tour back to San Francisco. For Gay Pride. Will it be a new show?
Sandra Bernhard: They’ll be maybe a few things that were on the album, but probably not. I’m working on some other stuff now that I’m going to do at Town Hall. So we’ll see. I’ll be mixing it up.
Tony Phillips: You know, the last time we talked was 2007. You were doing Plan B in Miami. And the 20th anniversary of "Without You, I’m Nothing" was coming up. And I had this really great idea during the interview. I said, "Hey, Sandy, you should really bring that show back." And you said, and I’m quoting here, "I don* t think so. I thought about it before, but certain pieces don’t really resonate for the times we’re living. And also, for me as an artist, I* m not always interested in going back to what I’ve done before." So at this point, I’m like in the Kubler-Ross bargaining phase, you know? So I give up the ghost of an entire run and ask, "What about a one-off?" And you say, "I don’t think I would have fun doing it again right now. I’m constantly interested in really just dealing with what’s going on in my life and just pushing it into the future."
Sandra Bernhard: Right. Well, I did do it.
Tony Phillips: I know!
Sandra Bernhard: So where were you?
Tony Phillips: Completely devastated, that’s where I was! The scoop of my career.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, maybe you just caught me in that mood. And then I decided, never mind, I will do it.
Tony Phillips: What did you think when you re-did it? I always thought it was so relevant.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, no, it is. And I enjoyed revisiting the show, but I don’t know, all my material, I think, is still relevant. It’s just that when you’ve done a show for six months at a time, I would wake up and all through the night the material would be running through my head. You sometimes need a hiatus from it. But I definitely dip into some of my old stuff again because it’s kind of time for it. It makes sense.
Tony Phillips: It’s interesting, we were talking about Justin Bond before and I had a chance to see his Christmas Spells show down at Abrons Art Center two years running, and I really thought it was going to be a new show the second time, but I ran into him recently and told him I was so happy to have a chance to see two identical shows because it just clarified so much about his process for me. Like all that stuff that seemed so extemporaneous the first time happened again the second time, but it still felt as off-the-cuff. I actually told him it was the first time I realized he wrote this stuff down. He was like, "Uh, yeah." But I’m wondering, is it the same for you? Do you have scripts?
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, I do. I have scripts for most of my big shows.
Tony Phillips: So something like this new album must be nerve-wracking then?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, no, because I didn’t know I was going to improvise that night. I had material set, but I was just in the zone and thought, what the hell? It was a one-off and I just felt really tapped in and I just went for it. But it was effortless, obviously, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like I had to push it.
Tony Phillips: So what else can you tell us about this Town Hall gig?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, Justin Bond will be there. And Rufus Wainwright. And Liza.
Tony Phillips: Proving once and for all they are not the same person.
Sandra Bernhard: I’s just going to be super-amped up and high energy because of that, but also because it’s New York, it’s the beginning of the summer, It’s like a celebration.
Tony Phillips: It seems like you’re taking that Andrea Marcovicci advice about the co-op, but then again you’re not, because you’re also getting ready to do this summer tour. I’ve gotten used to the Sandy summer run in town. You know, the Daryl Roth. You and the flying Spaniards.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, don’t worry about that. I have plenty of time off during the summer. I never do week after week after week on the road. i do like, four or five dates, I come home. It’s very easy-breezy. I need to do a lot more dates this year because I gotta bring home some money. And I need to get on TV. And I need film work. So put that shit out there.
Tony Phillips: The Porgy money!
Sandra Bernhard: I need my Porgy money and I need it now. In big, big barrels. That’s what Mama needs.
Tony Phillips: Wow, well break a leg with this tour. I’m really excited for it. Always a pleasure.
Sandra Bernhard: Okay, I look forward to seeing you soon. Bye, honey.
Editor’s Note: Sandra Bernhard’s upcoming dates are: 6/5/2011, The StephenTalkhouse, Amagansett, NY; 6/7/2011; Infinity Music Hall, Norfolk, CT; 6/8/2011, Town Hall, New York City, NY; 6/18/2011, Uptown Theatre, Napa, CA; 6/24-25/2011, Marine’s Memorial Theatre, San Francisco, CA; 7/16/2011, The Bull Run, Shirley, MA; 9/2-3/2011, The Crown and Anchor, Provincetown, MA. For more information visit her website.
Watch Sandra Bernhard on The Wendy Williams Show.