8 p.m. (doors at 6)
620 T Street, NW
$35 advance, $40 door
By BRIAN WALMER
Sandra Bernhard brings her live show, an evening of stories and songs, to the Howard on Saturday night. (Photo courtesy of Roots Agency)
Itâs a busy Monday afternoon for actress/comedian Sandra Bernhard when we talk.
âIâm dealing with lots of business stuff, tons and tons of stuff,â she says, her voice instantly recognizable.
Controversial, sexy, outspoken Bernhard has been a staple in the entertainment world for three decades and shows no signs of slowing down.Â She continues to appear on various TV shows and tours with her stage show, which is in Washington this weekend. Look for her Saturday night at the newly refurbished Howard Theatre.
In a sense, Bernhard, whoâs been out for years, is not a typical comedian.Â She doesnât just stand there telling joke after joke, waiting for the audienceâs reaction.Â Instead, she engages the crowd with her views and takes on everything from politics to pop culture and weaves in a selection of songs that drive her point home.
Her current show, âI Love Being Me, Donât You?,â debuted in 2011 and has evolved dramatically since then, a trend she credits to her constant wave of new ideas and her own boredom.
âEvents occur and my life changes, things happen and I fold it in because Iâm excited about telling a new story.â
Bernhard was here in 2008 for a three-week engagement at The Jewish Community Center for the 20th anniversary of âWithout You Iâm Nothing,â a show that helped put her on the map in the late â80s.
âItâs always interesting to look back and have a different perspective on what was going on at the time.Â Bring it into modern day.Â You of course have to alter it for whatâs going on.Â A lot of it still holds up so I think thatâs a great thing.â
She says D.C. audiences are more open minded than other markets.
âActually I think theyâre more informed, that makes them more open minded,â she says. âThe last time I played D.C. was that long run at The JCC, so I assume that was sort of the general audience.Â They were relatively informed and smart as one would expect in D.C.Â They seemed to be into it.Â At the same time longing for entertainment, because Iâm sure itâs tedious being in that city with all the politics and stuff.Â I really enjoyed performing there.â
Of her trademark out-of-left-field covers, which previously have included acts as far ranging as Nina Simone to Bob Dylan, AC/DC to Prince, she says she starts with the lyrics.
âItâs always a song that has a great story, lyric that resonates even if it at first it seems kinda hokey or over the top,â she says. âLike a hair metal song.Â Itâs just like a song that I can tap into the emotion and turn it into something sorta different and thatâs kinda the criteria for what I do.â
And, as one might expect, with Bernhard, itâs about much more than simply singing a song. One thinks of her recent take on Lady Gagaâs âThe Edge of Glory,â which elicits an âexactlyâ from the comedian.
âYou gotta really give the audience what they came to see and what they pay for,â she says. âAnd never make fun of a song. I donât like making fun of songs even if theyâre sort of laced with irony and Iâm bringing something very different to them.â
Later this month, Bernhard will be at Carnegie Hall for a Prince tribute.
âAs you know, âLittle Red Corvetteâ is kinda my signature song and when I read about it I called my manager and said, âYou gotta get me on this, I mean this is insane, this is like my signature song, nobody else can do this,â so when it all came together I was very excited.â
The mix of comedy and music is more unusual in the performing world than you might initially think. Along the way, Bernhard has recorded four albums of music. She says sheâd love to do another studio album and would âlove to collaborate with a great producer. But you know you need money and need support and I donât really have that right now, but I hope I do again.Â In the meantime at least when people come see me perform, they know Iâm in the pocket.â
The day of our phone chat is the Monday after the Grammys, which Bernhard said she watched just enough of âto know it was really depressing.â
âThe music business is so [pauses] itâll never be what it was,â she says. â[TheÂ Grammys] tries to keep this illusion alive and it just doesnât work anymore.â
But with the paradigm shift has come certain freedoms, Bernhard suggests. She maintains a level of control that would be harder to ensure at a major label. Despite the constantly evolving nature of her tour, she says her various live releases still manage to capture enough of each show she does to keep her happy. Look for a release culled from a five-night run she did at Joeâs Pub in New York last year âsoon,â she says.
Since Bernhard gets asked constantly about Madonna â everyone remembers her famous cameo in âTruth or Dareâ â we took a different route. Of Cyndi Lauper, whom Bernhard joined for a few dates on the singerâs 2006 âBody Acoustic Tour,â she waxes nostalgic with no apparent subtext.
âSheâs a great talent and it was fun and interesting,â Bernhard says. âI didnât do that many shows; it was just the right amount.Â We knew each other and she needed some support out on the road and they asked if I wanted to do some of the dates and I said âYeah, you know, sure.ââ
Bernhard has seen a few episodes of Lauperâs new reality show.
âI think itâs sort of entertaining in a way you know?Â Itâs yeah [pause], I donât know if sheâs happy with it.Â Iâm sure it was sort of a real compromise on her part.â
Is there nobility in the willingness of Lauper â or any star â to put him- or herself out there to that degree?
âI donât think thatâs necessarily enchanting for people,â she says.
And yes, Bernhard considered the idea herself, perhaps to a further degree than many fans may realize. She says her idea for âA Day in the Life of Sandra Bernhard,â she calls a âlightly scripted version of my lifeâ she pitched 18 years ago to HBO, failed to secure a green light.
âThey didnât understand what I was talking about. It was kind of the first and the last of it all.â
A more recent delve into similar terrain â her web show âComedians Walking and Getting Mani-Pedis,â intended as an answer of sorts, to Jerry Seinfeldâs âComedians in Cars Getting Coffee,â ended up being âkind of an experimentâ that âI wasnât really happy with.â
Despite guests like Lizz Winstead, Rosie Perez and Wendy Williams, Bernhard says it âdidnât go where I wanted it to go.â
âI came up with the idea of doing a show from the manicuring station but the people who produce it came up with that stupid title and I was totally not into it,â she says.â
Itâs on indefinite hiatus.
We dart around to all kinds of topics in our remaining moments and Bernhard, whom, as you might imagine, can be intimidating, is game for it all.
She does confess to a little self-censorship when it comes to whether her soon-to-be-15-year-old daughter, Cicely, is in the audience or not. She knows sheâs sometimes mentioned in the act.
âI think sometimes now more than before itâs starting to irritate her,â Bernhard says. âWhen sheâs at the shows, I try not to do certain pieces that I would do when sheâs not there. She doesnât follow me that closely either. Like if I came home with a CD, sheâd never sit down and listen to it so Iâm not too worried about her staring into the material per se.â
Because so much of her material is autobiographical, she has no plans to write a memoir. She says sheâs been frank enough, though she confesses to âsemi truthful, semi made upâ story telling in her act, to keep her name largely out of tabloids.
Other celebs, she surmises, want it.
âYou look at Rihanna and Chris Brown.Â Obviously they want the publicity. Theyâre willing to sacrifice their personal happiness, especially her.Â They got that whole thing going and I think itâs depressing, especially for a woman.Â I donât think itâs necessary to put myself out there in that way.â
Her trademark openness, she says, made her own coming out nearly moot.
âMy work always spoke for itself which was all about personal expression, independence and freedom, no matter who or what you are,â Bernhard says. âThatâs really where I stand on all of that.Â What do I need to do that for?Â Iâve always been comfortable in my own skin.â
Celebs who make their coming out a proclamation or acceptance speech event â Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes is fresh on everyoneâs mind â strike Bernhard as excessive.
âI donât need approval of my peers or my supposed group.Â You know, Iâm not a group kind of person. I find that very self-serving. Who fucking cares anyway?â
Pressed for her comedic successors, she cites the cast of âBridesmaidsâ and name checks Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler.
âAll that kind of grouping of girls who kinda came from the imrpov world are just really smart and funny and talented.â
She calls the late Phyllis Diller, whom she appeared with on Roseanne Barrâs âRoseanneâs Nuts,â âamazing and incredible â I just love her for who she was and all the years she kept at it and was so brilliant. Sheâs a fabulous person. Iâm so glad I got to know her. She was really a cool lady.â
A new book â it would be her fourth â is âon the back burner.â Bernhard says she would need a âbigger platformâ than she currently has to make it worth the effort.
Thereâs only one topic that comes up for which Bernhard is tight lipped.
Though vague, she does admit to a writer friend who âjust came up with an idea for me and another actress thatâs under development right now,â she says.
Could it be? Brash, outspoken Bernhard declining to elaborate?
For once, mystery prevails and she sounds almost coy.
âIâm really excited about it but Iâm not gonna talk about it until itâs really happening.â