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For Sandra Bernhard, 'The key is always to be in the moment and listen'

Sandra Bernhard
Courtesy of the Cedar Cultural Centre
Sandra Bernhard: "Pieces in the show range from the very personal to the anecdotal, quick little cuts of what’s going on in the streets – overheard conversations, people I’ve run into, family drama – all interwoven with music with my band."

Before speaking with Sandra Bernhard earlier this month, we read this in the Village Voice: “Sandra Bernhard is an intimidating interview subject.” Great. Thanks, guys.

Knowing her reputation for caustic wit, no-holds-barred commentary and hyperspeed smarts, we expected to come away a little singed. In fact, Bernhard was gracious on the phone, gave us more time than we asked for and even talked about her dog – “a little mix rescue dog from Tennessee named George. He’s really funny and one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever had.”

A comic, actress, singer, activist, author and award-winning host of her own live radio show, “Sandyland,” on SiriusXM, Bernhard will touch down at the Cedar on Thursday with her latest one-woman touring show, “Sandra Monica Blvd.: Coast to Coast.” If you haven’t yet seen her live, perhaps you saw her in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” or during her years on “Roseanne,” where she played Nancy Bartlett. She had recurring roles in “The L Word,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “2 Broke Girls” and said during our conversation that “the goal is to get back on television in a great ensemble situation.” Meanwhile, here’s some of what she’s up to and thinking about now.

MinnPost: Having a live radio show five days a week is almost like a real job.

Sandra Bernhard: It’s more like a real job than anything I’ve ever had. I’ve done television over periods of time, but then you take big breaks. It’s been good. It’s been a base of operations for me and a great platform to hone my work every day.

I like the whole process – putting music together and being able to go in and extemporaneously talk about what’s going on in my life and my day. Everything from the personal to the quotidian to the political to the funny to the abstract, and then talking to people. Most of the time it’s very interesting and fun. It’s nice when you can have an intellectual but fun conversation with somebody not under duress.

One of the shows I did was with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. We actually rode on the M train, which is the train I take back and forth to work every day, and we went all the way up to Queens, where Debbie was from originally, and then came back down, and we recorded the whole conversation on the train and played music. I’ve been trying to get Patti Smith to come on and do the same thing, but she’s been harder to pin down.

MP: From your years of traveling and doing shows, and now radio, it seems like you know everyone. Who don’t you know that you’d really like to know?

SB: I’d love to interview Hillary Clinton. I’d love to interview Michelle Obama. It’d be interesting to talk to Lady Gaga. Those are just some people off the top of my head that I haven’t met yet that I think would be more than fascinating to talk to.

MP: Who do you wish you’d never met?

SB: I don’t think I feel that way about anybody. There were certainly people along the way that I wouldn’t necessarily want to have on as guests again or hang out with, but every time you talk to somebody you learn something new about yourself and your ability to take it to the next level.

MP: People have praised your show for its real conversations.

SB: I’ve always loved meeting people, and I’ve always been able to engage with people. And I never get tired of meeting people, no matter how much I’ve traveled, how many people I’ve met. Whether it was on an airplane, in a taxi – if you connect with somebody it’s fun, even if it’s five minutes or five hours and you never see the person again.

The key is always to be in the moment and listen. If you’re really listening to somebody, it’s like merging onto the freeway. You may get caught up in a flow, you may have to slow down, you may have to go faster, but if you’re really focused with your eyes on the road you’re always going to find the way into a conversation.

MP: Your touring show, “Sandra Monica Boulevard,” is described as “a journey to find the soul of America.” Do you think it’s lost?

SB: It’s certainly fractured and in pieces. I think of Minneapolis as someplace like New York that’s a liberal bastion, and people welcome people from the outside and make them feel at home. America is a funny place. It’s 50 disparate states of mind, and every time you go to a different city or state you have to adjust your thinking. That’s what keeps me on my toes as a performer, talking to people and being in the moment, taking in the landscape and taking the temperature of where I am. … I think America is going through a catharsis, and I’m not sure where we’re going to land when it’s all said and done.

MP: Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

SB: I am optimistic. I just think it’s the nature of mankind and society and culture that we have these ebbs and flows, big dips and big climbs back up. It’s like a roller coaster. Sometimes when you’re coming down it’s not pretty, and the climb back up isn’t easy, but then you’re back on top with the vista again. We had eight years with a really great, sentient president and a fabulous first lady who genuinely cared about this country. And then we crashed back down, and there were exterior forces at play – Russia. I don't know. We don’t fully know yet, but it’s clear that there were many polarizing forces that created this miasma.

MP: Will you do something special for us in your Minneapolis show?

SB: There might be a small tribute to Prince, because he’s always played a huge part in my work. For years I closed my show with “Little Red Corvette.” It’s the denouement of my film, “Without You I’m Nothing.”

Pieces in the show range from the very personal to the anecdotal, quick little cuts of what’s going on in the streets – overheard conversations, people I’ve run into, family drama – all interwoven with music with my band. My musical director [Mitchell Kaplan] travels with me, but I’ll be using two local musicians as well that comprise the Sandyland Squad Band. I’ve always been a singer, and it was sort of my first love, and so now I’ve created these postmodern musicals that weave these stories together and punctuate them with some sort of a great song. That’s become my trademark.

MP: Since you cover contemporary issues, can we talk about sexual harassment?

SB: I’ve been relatively lucky in my career and my life. I haven’t really dealt with anything that was traumatic, certainly. And I think, being somebody who deals with things by shooting from the hip and being funny, you can disarm people a lot easier than if you’re an ingénue and an actress who’s gone into a situation where she has no control.

I’m not saying had I been in a room with somebody like Harvey Weinstein something couldn’t happen, but I’ve always been a little bit savvier than a lot of people because I have sort of a cynical, jaundiced view of Hollywood and the machinations therein. I’ve just been really lucky that it hasn’t happened to me. I think it’s great that it’s being revealed, and I think that from the top down, from our president down, everybody should pay the price for it. I wish he had paid the price, but hopefully eventually he will, because the contempt that he has for women, and the laissez-faire attitude that his supporters have about it when it comes to him, are very disturbing. I hope and pray this is the beginning of the end of the patriarchy and that people finally begin to respect each other, but it’s yet to be seen and we’ll just keep tabs on it.

MP: So you don’t have a #MeToo?

SB: I honestly don’t, and of course I’m über supportive of all the women who’ve gone through this.

MP: Let’s end with a question Roseanne asked you in 2012: What makes you laugh?

SB: Crazy, random things. Things that I see in the street – garbage or trash that people throw out – the things that are just abandoned on the street. My dog makes me laugh. People who are brilliant and funny make me laugh, and there’s a huge swath of people who fall under that. But I think it’s the surprise things that happen, the things that come out of left field, that make me laugh the hardest.

Sandra Bernhard brings “Sandra Monica Blvd.: Coast to Coast” to the Cedar Cultural Center on Thursday, Nov. 16. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8. All ages. FMI and tickets ($45-$80 VIP). 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Comments (1)

Seasoned

Good questions for Sandra. I always thought she was a little too wacky and out of control when she was younger. Always trying to shock. Now she is a seasoned and thoughtful performer. I am enjoying it!