“It’s the small things that have always made me laugh the most”

Comedian, singer, actor and author Sandra Bernhard has spent the last 40 years answering interview questions about women’s rights, gay rights, politics, fashion, pop culture and her friendship with Madonna. So what could Xpress possibly ask the woman behind I Love Being Me, Don’t you? Turns out, Bernhard never answers a question the same way. And she has plenty to talk about with her new show, Sandyland, which comes to Diana Wortham Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 12. 8 p.m. $40/$45.

Mountain Xpress: Can you talk a little but about Sandyland without giving away too much?
Sandra Bernhard: Thematically it’s very diverse. I cover a lot of area. It’s a travelogue of my home live, my work life sparkled with funny, weird observational asides and a smattering of politics. I get underneath things. I try to go for the personal more than the global because so many people talk about things on blogs and the internet and I think people get beat-up by the obvious. So I like to take you into Sandyland, which is a little bit more intimate. Along with that I have my band, The Flawless Zircons. I’m actually bringing my guitar player from New York. He’s putting together some local musicians, so when I get down there they will have hopefully studied the music and will know it inside out and we’ll hit the stage running. It’s some songs I’ve written and some cover tunes that will weave around the material and make it more of a one-woman show than a dry performance. Music always adds a nice element to it.

What’s the process like for putting together a show — do you write on a schedule? No. There’s just stuff that happens all the time that I jot down constantly. I keep a big list of new ideas or things that happen at home or when I’m traveling. Things that I’ve observed. My hit-list of funny things to talk about it. Then I get tired of them and I add in other stuff. Sometimes I bring things back. It’s a lazy susan of ideas.

Was there one particular idea that jump-started this show? It doesn’t happen like that anymore. I kind of never did because it’s a thread. As you evolve as an artist and a person, your work evolves. It becomes more sophisticated and layered and naturally you become better at what you do. You become a better performer and things evolve from there.

How have you seen your relationship to performing progress over the years? When you start out when you’re 19 and you’ve been doing it for almost 40 years, of course you change. Every year you change, you shed your skin. In the best-case scenario you become a deeper thinker, somebody who’s more connected to what’s important and you reflect that through your work. That’s hopefully what I’ve been doing and will continue to do.

Has what strikes you as funny changed? How can it not? What was funny in 1976 is not necessarily going to be funny in 2013. The big picture of what I find funny has remained the same, but the smaller things have definitely changed. Some of the bigger things, too, but it’s the small things that have always made me laugh the most. The funny, weird things that happen day-to-day in life, to me, are the weirdest and most intriguing.

Themes that you’ve dealt with a lot, like women’s issues and politics, after following them over the years, does it become depressing? It’s frustrating. I grew in the whole fight, the feminist era. I was very young when things started to shift and it was an exciting time. Now I have a 15 year-old daughter and we’re revisiting all these things again. It’s very frustrating and confounding. I don’t really understand why so many men have such a high stake in deciding what women should do with their bodies and their reproductive rights. Or why people wouldn’t want to support women who don’t have access to the proper medical care or the education to help them along. Why do we want children who aren’t wanted or can’t be taken care of? It all wraps back around to issues of racism and class, and of course that’s very depressing and disheartening.

Do you see patterns in Americans becoming more liberal, more conservative and the pendulum swing between the two? I think, overwhelmingly, people are more liberal than they were in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most sentient, thinking people want to be able to control their lives and their destinies and not be forced into situations or not have access to things. I feel like religion has a big part in it: It forces people into a certain corner that they can’t get out of. But in general, I think people think, “This is absurd. We don’t want children right now, so allow us access to birth control and education.” There’s just a few really controlling and strange people in the world who want to stop people from having those freedoms.

Comedy has always seemed very male-heavy — has that changed since you’ve been performing? I think the whole landscape has transformed. From the time I started, there were certainly more women, at that point, aspiring. Now, it’s such a female-driven business. All the actresses, from Tina Fey to Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham. There’s a list a mile long that came out of improve groups, that came out of stand up, that came out of acting. Kristin Wiig. With the internet and social media, people have had outlets to get their careers started in different ways. There are all sorts of different avenues people take now, so it makes it much more eclectic and easier to have a foothold.

Do you think that “Saturday Night Live” has had a big part in that, or is it just coincidence that a number of the women you mentioned got their start on that show? It sort of goes hand-in-hand with the times we’re living in. People embrace comedy and women in comedy in a much bigger way than they did when I was starting out. I think women are just much more savvy now and willing to go down avenues that they weren’t allowed to go down when I started.

But you were never part of “Saturday Night Live.” No, they weren’t interested in me and it really wasn’t what I was interested in doing. I don’t really sketch comedy per se. I’ve always done it my way, outside the box.

Does the process of creating comedy still surprise you? Well, yeah. I always think it’s interesting to see women or men or anybody find ways of being funny. But there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s really mediocre or less than mediocre that really shouldn’t be allowed to flourish because it’s just a bummer. It’s counterproductive, too. There’s both sides to the coin.

Do you still do a lot of improvisation in your live shows? At least half of the material in my shows comes originally from an improvisational moment. I do tend to write a lot in the moment. You never know. If there’s something crazy or fun that’s happened on that trip, I’ll definitely weave it into the show.

Is that more challenging when you’re doing a show with a band as part of it? Not at all. I go on and do as much material as I want and then they do a song. It’s not like they’re playing constantly. It’s not operatic in nature. Sometimes I want them to play underneath me, because it sets a mood, but they’re mostly on and off.

Between your work in film, TV, standup and as an author, is there one medium that feels most authentic to you? I think live performing, for me, is the thing I feel most comfortable doing. But my acting and creative process all folds into it. Without one, I wouldn’t have the whole. Ultimately, I love live-performing the best, but then, if you don’t have television or film to continue to keep you out there and back it up, it can’t sustain itself.

One of the roles you’re known for is Nancy Bartlett on the sitcom.Roseanne. It was a fabulous experience that still continues to flourish years after the show’s been off the air, and still has so much relevance and meaning. To be a part of that great ensemble and the collaborative experience was incredible.

She was a gay character on TV years before Ellen Degeneres came out on her show. It’s funny that sitcom characters serve as some sort of a litmus test for the American collective consciousness, but do you think that level of acceptance has changed? It definitely has a big influence. Throughout all the years of television, whether it’s All in the Family or any of the real trend-setting shows, they all made a difference. Certainly Roseanne played a huge part in people’s awareness of all kinds of working-class issues and problems.

What would be an equivalent character in 2013? What does the mainstream really need to address? It’s probably kind of a rehash of the same old thing. It’s issues of race. It’s women’s issues. Gay characters need to step up to the next level and be much more… Modern Family does a good job with that. But a continuation of all these things that are still unresolved. Part of the ongoing debate of American culture and politics.

Are you happy with where you are in your career at this point? I love what I get to do, but I certainly want to be back on television and be doing more films and out there in a bigger way. I’m working on that. I’ve created a bunch of script shows that other people are writing for me and I’m being considered for things that get cast on network and cable. Hopefully one of these things will come together shortly.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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