Sandra Bernhard: Forever Naked

Comedian! Singer! Nudist! The Flint native shakes it up, but (thankfully!) no matter what, she's still pissing people off.

By Chris Azzopardi

Sandra Bernhard's erstwhile mid-century modern pad in Flint - now, she says, a "funky" and "depressing" abode - isn't what it used to be. Nor is Michigan. And the Queen of Candid, in typical Bernhard style, is quick to say so.

"It's just gone to hell," she declares, recalling what she calls "Pre-Michael Moore Flint," when Michigan's economic state wasn't more unstable than Britney Spears. "That's what happens when you're reliant on industry, and industry is always in flux - and sometimes it just doesn't work out."

Good thing, then, that the multi-hat-wearing performer fled the state with her family when she was 10, leaving behind below-zero winters, which her doc dad dreaded, for Arizona.

Still, the desert wasn't without ups and downs - just not severe climatic ones - but Bernhard readily admits the move was her Golden Ticket: "It was a whole other experience for me. It was good, ultimately, to have both things in my life: The kind of stability of the Midwest and the kind of craziness of the West."

Now, with digs in New York and Los Angeles, she splits time between the West and the East coasts. She'll return to Michigan in early April, playing hostess to the Detroit Fringe Festival from 2 p.m.-4 a.m. April 5-6 at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Detroit. Those anticipating Bernhard to channel rocker chick (she'll be there sans band) or tear up celebs may be sorely let down - but, Michigan: Prepare to be talked about.

Bernhard phoned Between The Lines from L.A., where her daughter is spending her spring break. The do-it-all sass-master is working and hanging with the 9-year-old, who - for better or worse - is unlikely to follow in mom's unfiltered-trap footsteps.

"She's definitely got her own point of view, and she's very funny," she says, "but she's a little more restrained than I am. Kids always go in a little bit of a different direction than their parents, and that always seems to hold true. I mean, my mom is also an artist, but she's a little more kind of out there, so I became highly organized and really together in response."

For the most part. Bernhard seems semi-frantic, as she apologies for taking another call just as she phones us. But she then quickly eases into her usual tell-all self: She's not interested in touching "Saturday Night Live" quipster Tina Fey's boob.

"I'm not attracted to Tina Fey. She's not my scene," she snickers, responding to the recent Vanity Fair cover where fellow "SNL"-er Amy Poehler's hand is resting, like a picture frame on a mantel, on Fey's breast. "She's real talented and a great writer, but I don't find her - I don't find any of those women particularly sexy."

Not Sarah Silverman. Nor Wanda Sykes. Not even Amy Sedaris. All of who pose as some celeb train wreck (except for Bernhard, who plays the documenting observer) for the "Who Says Women Aren't Funny?" cover story, which was shot by iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz. (Bernhard's partner, who's been with the comedienne for nine years, is a public relations executive and writer for the magazine.)

None of the 11 female comediennes featured have played the circuit for nearly as long as the 52-year-old Bernhard, who launched her career in the '70s when she became a regular at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood - and then scored a supporting player spot on "The Richard Pryor Show" in 1977. She performed her first one-woman show, "I'm Your Woman," in the mid-'80s before starring as Nancy Bartlett, one of the first recurring openly-lesbian roles on television, on "Roseanne" in the '90s.

"Every generation has people that forge the new territories," she says. "When I was younger, it was Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler. But it depends on how relevant you stay - and I feel like I'm right in there, still forging new territory.

"I'm just really happy that I've been one of the people who's been able to maintain my point of view throughout my entire career."

And she has. Not even "The View" retirees Star Jones or Elisabeth Hasselbeck could restrain the spitfire culture critic, who provoked their inner fire-breathing dragon with her race-and-politics commentary when she appeared on the daytime talk show in 2006. "My publicist got really pissed off and she really chewed everybody out," Bernhard recalls, "but had I been left to my own devices, I would've just left and been like, 'Fuck, I don't care.'"

That attitude is the battery of her schtick, which has exposed her in more ways than one - like with an in-the-buff Playboy pictorial in 1992. Now in her 50s, don't look for a sequel. Ever. But age, or even confidence, has nothing to do with it.

"It was like a highlight of my career in a certain way, and I think it was kind of a pre-porn-friendly kind of mentality that we have now ... . (Now) everybody feels like they can pose nude on the Internet. I don't know - I just feel like it was something special and it was done with a specific kind of point of view, and no, I wouldn't do it again, just because I don't think it would work now."

Instead, she'll use her naked comedic energy - and clothes - for late-night comedy talk show "Chelsea Lately" on E!, which she shot the day before our gabfest and is set to air on April 7. Once networks resuscitate strike-burdened, scripted television shows this month, Bernhard will shop sitcoms.

"Getting a pilot shot is one thing, and then getting it on the air and then getting them to stay - it's like a real crapshoot. I feel like something will come along, and I'm excited about that."

2008 Detroit Fringe Festival

2 p.m. April 5 until 4 a.m. April 6

Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, Detroit

http://www.detroitfringefestival.com

Chris Azzopardi is the entertainment editor of Between The Lines. To comment on this article, send an e-mail to chris@pridesource.com.

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