Sandra Bernhard is a jack-of-all-trades in the entertainment industry. She is a comedian who was a frequent guest on “Late Night with David Letterman” in the ’80s. She is a film and TV actress — you may remember her from the sitcom “Roseanne,” in which she played Nancy Bartlett, or Martin Scorsese’s cult classic movie “The King of Comedy,” in which she starred opposite Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. More recently, you may have seen her in “Pose,” the TV drama devoted to the ball scene in ’80s New York, or “American Horror Story: NYC.” She also is a radio personality — perhaps you know her voice from her weekly show “Sandyland” on Andy Cohen’s SiriusXM satellite radio channel, Radio Andy (102).
Bernhard’s new one-woman show “Spring Affair,” which makes its way to The Vogel at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank on June 4, will offer the variety she’s known for. It’s part cabaret and part comedy. It’s, as Bernhard puts it, “a blend of all the influences that have inspired me over the years and also just the way I’ve developed my style since I started performing years ago. I’ve sort of set myself apart from everybody. It’s hard to identify what it is, but overall, it’s entertainment.”
Bernhard is no stranger to the art of crafting a one-person show. She has done several throughout her career, including the 1988 off-Broadway show “Without You, I’m Nothing, With You, I’m Not Much Better,” Broadway’s 1998 “I’m Still Here … Damn It!,” and off-Broadway’s 2006 “Everything Bad & Beautiful.”
When asked about her Vogel appearance, Bernhard says, “Come out. Come and see a great show. I love what I do. The reason you perform is you want people to show up. And you want to give them a great show, which I will … See your old friends and connect to people. I think that’s so important right now.”
Q: Let me start off with “Spring Affair.” What can audiences expect?
A: My shows are always kind of a work in progress. I tend to layer them and then add and add and add. Then other things fall away that I either get bored with or I don’t think are so relevant anymore. And I like to keep freshening up the music. I work with Mitch Kaplan, my musical director, and we come up with song covers that have had an impact on me and that I love. And I do my weekly radio show “Sandyland” on SiriusXM, which is sort of an incubator for a lot of my material. Once I do my opening monologue on (“Sandyland”), a lot of times I’ll take that material and put it into my live shows because it just makes sense that I’ve already kind of worked it out, in a way. So that’s sort of my process of how I keep evolving my shows and freshening them up.
(“Spring Affair” is) just a show that is fun for the summer for touring, and for getting in front of people who maybe haven’t seen me before, or in a long time. Like any artist, you just keep yourself out there so that people know you’re there, and they can come and see you live because there’s really nothing (that) equals a live performance.
Q: Like you said, you’ll do some covers of songs, but how could you describe your show? A mashup of music and comedy?
A: It’s a one-person show. It’s entertainment. It’s like what people used to do back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. You go see somebody like Liza Minnelli or Barbra Streisand, and they tell stories. They’d sing, they’d be funny, there’s music, there’s a band, and all those kinds of people were influences on me, along with a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B and people from that generation.
Q: I want to ask more about doing a one-person show. You have to get to a really high level of vulnerability or comfort. Do you think about it that way?
A: Well, when you’ve been doing it for almost 50 years, you’re probably pretty comfortable. That’s second nature to me. It’s what I started doing when I was 19 years old. And I just keep doing it and evolving and perfecting it. Nothing takes the place of the years and years and years of getting up and honing your craft. That’s why when I look at social media and TikTok and all that stuff, I just shrug my shoulders and kind of walk away, because you can never have any concept of what it’s like to be a truly seasoned performer unless you have been in front of a live audience for a minimum of five years. I mean, there’s just no way through it. You can’t do it at home. You can’t set up your little equipment and your ring light and call yourself a performer.
Q: And from behind a camera, you don’t have that in-the-moment reaction or interaction.
A: It’s not even about that. It’s about getting up and falling and getting up, dusting yourself off, doing it again. Learning what it’s like to be in front of every possible kind of audience. Trusting yourself and what you believe and the path you’re on and your philosophy and your approach. The only way you can do that is by doing it. So I have a real problem with where we’ve headed with so much of what is considered to be entertainment these days.
Q: Yeah, everyone wants to claim that they’re a star, I guess.
A: But that doesn’t mean you’re an artist. A star is one thing and an artist is something else.
Q: Your show in Red Bank is during Pride Month. Are you incorporating any specific material into that show?
A: My material — it’s all-encompassing. It’s so eclectic. I don’t really pander to a certain kind of audience. People who come to see me want to hear my whole kind of take on everything. So of course, I’m part of the community, and I’ve been ahead of the curve for years talking about issues of sexuality and feminism and almost everything under the sun that we’re still fighting for. So that’s always there. It’s always layered into my pieces. But I tend not to beat people over the head with saying exactly what it is. It’s inherent in my work.
Q: I know some of the characters that you have played or are playing have had that integrated in as well, like your character on “Roseanne” was bisexual. You play a nurse in “Pose” who is helping gay and transgender people during the AIDS crisis.
A: Yes. My work has been totally immersed in supporting people on the margins and lifting them up.
Q: Which of your talents is your favorite? You’re a comedian, singer, actor, radio host.
A: Everything sort of feeds the other. I’m a writer, I’m a performer, I’m an actress, and everything sort of works in tandem. I can’t say there’s one thing that I love more than the other because it’s also fun to mix it up and not just be doing the same thing all the time. And knowing that I can get back to my live performing or go back to working on an ensemble, TV or film … that always makes life very interesting and exciting for me. It keeps it very inspiring.
Q: In your live shows, you’re known for commenting on all different things: pop culture, celebrities, politics. What are some topics or people that are on your mind today or will be part of your show?
A: Well, a lot of it is more ephemeral. It’s just people I’m kind of observing while traveling and on the road. Things just happen at airports. I’m doing a thing about Bed Bath & Beyond closing. I also never really like to tell people what I’m talking about. I’d rather people come and see the show. It’s really very, very, very eclectic. So it’s even hard to pinpoint what it is. It’s like what happens day-to-day in my life, globally, culturally. It is kind of grabbed from all the different experiences that I have every day, and some things really stand out, some things are just throwaways and others turn into longer pieces.
Q: You live in New York City, right? What do you love about New York City? What are some of your favorite spots?
A: I’m very much into my neighborhood. I live in Chelsea. I know a lot of people. I walk my dog and you run into other friends who have dogs. It’s a neighborhood, and I love that aspect of New York. Of course, we like to go out to dinner. There’s a myriad of restaurants: Cookshop, Sant Ambroeus. But we also cook a lot at home. I like being able to just walk to Whole Foods and walk home with my groceries. There’s something really inspiring about being out on the street and being able to accomplish everything, just by walking where you’re going, which is such a New York-centric experience.
Q: Tell me a bit more about “Pose” and “American Horror Story: NYC.”
A: They’re all airing now on Hulu. The best thing I can tell people to do is go to Hulu, watch all the seasons of “Pose,” because it’s one of the most important shows about the trans movement that’s ever been done. My season of “American Horror Story: NYC” was last year. They were both really fun experiences and all the actors were amazing to work with. I became really good friends with Mj Rodriguez. All the guys that were on “American Horror Story” were so fun and sweet and cool to work with. And it’s just nice to be a part of the Ryan Murphy family.
Q: What else do you want audiences that are coming to see you to know?
A: I mean, just that I love performing live. The fact that I’m still out there doing it and loving it. People want to come see somebody that they relate to and that speaks to them about everything that’s going on in the world. It’s just part of the connectivity that audiences have with their performers.
Q: You have a reputation for being honest and outspoken. So I think people do connect with that.
A: I think I speak on behalf of a lot of people who don’t (tend to be outspoken), necessarily. That’s not what they do. So that’s an important target. Being a good performer is like speaking on behalf of other people that are a little bit marginalized.
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