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By BRIAN WALMER
It’s a busy Monday afternoon for actress/comedian Sandra Bernhard when we talk.
“I’m dealing with lots of business stuff, tons and tons of stuff,” 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. 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, who’s been out for years, is not a typical comedian. She doesn’t just stand there telling joke after joke, waiting for the audience’s reaction. 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, “I Love Being Me, Don’t You?,” debuted in 2011 and has evolved dramatically since then, a trend she credits to her constant wave of new ideas and her own boredom.
“Events occur and my life changes, things happen and I fold it in because I’m excited about telling a new story.”
Bernhard was here in 2008 for a three-week engagement at The Jewish Community Center for the 20th anniversary of “Without You I’m Nothing,” a show that helped put her on the map in the late ‘80s.
“It’s always interesting to look back and have a different perspective on what was going on at the time. Bring it into modern day. You of course have to alter it for what’s going on. A lot of it still holds up so I think that’s a great thing.”
She says D.C. audiences are more open minded than other markets.
“Actually I think they’re more informed, that makes them more open minded,” she says. “The last time I played D.C. was that long run at The JCC, so I assume that was sort of the general audience. They were relatively informed and smart as one would expect in D.C. They seemed to be into it. At the same time longing for entertainment, because I’m sure it’s tedious being in that city with all the politics and stuff. I really enjoyed performing there.”
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.
“It’s always a song that has a great story, lyric that resonates even if it at first it seems kinda hokey or over the top,” she says. “Like a hair metal song. It’s just like a song that I can tap into the emotion and turn it into something sorta different and that’s kinda the criteria for what I do.”
And, as one might expect, with Bernhard, it’s about much more than simply singing a song. One thinks of her recent take on Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” which elicits an “exactly” from the comedian.
“You gotta really give the audience what they came to see and what they pay for,” she says. “And never make fun of a song. I don’t like making fun of songs even if they’re sort of laced with irony and I’m bringing something very different to them.”
Later this month, Bernhard will be at Carnegie Hall for a Prince tribute.
“As you know, ‘Little Red Corvette’ is kinda my signature song and when I read about it I called my manager and said, ‘You gotta get me on this, I mean this is insane, this is like my signature song, nobody else can do this,’ so when it all came together I was very excited.”
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 she’d love to do another studio album and would “love to collaborate with a great producer. But you know you need money and need support and I don’t really have that right now, but I hope I do again. In the meantime at least when people come see me perform, they know I’m in the pocket.”
The day of our phone chat is the Monday after the Grammys, which Bernhard said she watched just enough of “to know it was really depressing.”
“The music business is so [pauses] it’ll never be what it was,” she says. “[The Grammys] tries to keep this illusion alive and it just doesn’t work anymore.”
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 Joe’s Pub in New York last year “soon,” she says.
Since Bernhard gets asked constantly about Madonna — everyone remembers her famous cameo in “Truth or Dare” — we took a different route. Of Cyndi Lauper, whom Bernhard joined for a few dates on the singer’s 2006 “Body Acoustic Tour,” she waxes nostalgic with no apparent subtext.
“She’s a great talent and it was fun and interesting,” Bernhard says. “I didn’t do that many shows; it was just the right amount. 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 ‘Yeah, you know, sure.’”
Bernhard has seen a few episodes of Lauper’s new reality show.
“I think it’s sort of entertaining in a way you know? It’s yeah [pause], I don’t know if she’s happy with it. I’m sure it was sort of a real compromise on her part.”
Is there nobility in the willingness of Lauper — or any star — to put him- or herself out there to that degree?
“I don’t think that’s necessarily enchanting for people,” she says.
And yes, Bernhard considered the idea herself, perhaps to a further degree than many fans may realize. She says her idea for “A Day in the Life of Sandra Bernhard,” she calls a “lightly scripted version of my life” she pitched 18 years ago to HBO, failed to secure a green light.
“They didn’t understand what I was talking about. It was kind of the first and the last of it all.”
A more recent delve into similar terrain — her web show “Comedians Walking and Getting Mani-Pedis,” intended as an answer of sorts, to Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” ended up being “kind of an experiment” that “I wasn’t really happy with.”
Despite guests like Lizz Winstead, Rosie Perez and Wendy Williams, Bernhard says it “didn’t go where I wanted it to go.”
“I 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,” she says.”
It’s 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 she’s sometimes mentioned in the act.
“I think sometimes now more than before it’s starting to irritate her,” Bernhard says. “When she’s at the shows, I try not to do certain pieces that I would do when she’s not there. She doesn’t follow me that closely either. Like if I came home with a CD, she’d never sit down and listen to it so I’m not too worried about her staring into the material per se.”
Because so much of her material is autobiographical, she has no plans to write a memoir. She says she’s been frank enough, though she confesses to “semi truthful, semi made up” story telling in her act, to keep her name largely out of tabloids.
Other celebs, she surmises, want it.
“You look at Rihanna and Chris Brown. Obviously they want the publicity. They’re willing to sacrifice their personal happiness, especially her. They got that whole thing going and I think it’s depressing, especially for a woman. I don’t think it’s necessary to put myself out there in that way.”
Her trademark openness, she says, made her own coming out nearly moot.
“My work always spoke for itself which was all about personal expression, independence and freedom, no matter who or what you are,” Bernhard says. “That’s really where I stand on all of that. What do I need to do that for? I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin.”
Celebs who make their coming out a proclamation or acceptance speech event — Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes is fresh on everyone’s mind — strike Bernhard as excessive.
“I don’t need approval of my peers or my supposed group. You know, I’m not a group kind of person. I find that very self-serving. Who fucking cares anyway?”
Pressed for her comedic successors, she cites the cast of “Bridesmaids” and name checks Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler.
“All that kind of grouping of girls who kinda came from the imrpov world are just really smart and funny and talented.”
She calls the late Phyllis Diller, whom she appeared with on Roseanne Barr’s “Roseanne’s Nuts,” “amazing and incredible — I just love her for who she was and all the years she kept at it and was so brilliant. She’s a fabulous person. I’m so glad I got to know her. She was really a cool lady.”
A new book — it would be her fourth — is “on the back burner.” Bernhard says she would need a “bigger platform” than she currently has to make it worth the effort.
There’s only one topic that comes up for which Bernhard is tight lipped.
Though vague, she does admit to a writer friend who “just came up with an idea for me and another actress that’s under development right now,” she says.
Could it be? Brash, outspoken Bernhard declining to elaborate?
For once, mystery prevails and she sounds almost coy.
“I’m really excited about it but I’m not gonna talk about it until it’s really happening.”