As 2016 draws to a close, Sandra Bernhard has returned to Joe’s Pub—the intimate performance venue attached to New York’s Public Theater—for her annual year-ending series of shows, and she is defiantly upbeat.
In SANDRA MONICA BOULEVARD: Coast to Coast, her opening number—a jangly, energetic cover of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”—aims to project the stoic closure of its lyrics to the past year, a theme she picked up in her ensuing monologue.
The road trip that inspired its title can also double as a metaphor for taking stock on where you’ve come from and what comes next.
In a year—and week!—seemingly dominated by celebrity deaths, in which it seems the outpouring of appreciation for the deceased may not have been adequately reflected while we still had the person in question with us, the show makes one wonder what to make of Bernhard’s distinctive place in the entertainment firmament.
She is a show business stalwart of over three decades, a longevity that Bernhard lampoons when slyly referring to having met her longtime accompanying pianist, Mitch Kaplan, in 1885, as opposed to the actual 1985.
Having made her mark in a standout role as the memorably erratic Masha in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy a few years prior, Bernhard has evolved into a pop culture fixture, a jack-of-all-trades performer as actress, singer, comedian, and, more recently, a radio show host of SiriusXM’s Sandyland.
As with the Scorsese role, and then a landmark recurring role on the hit sitcom Roseanne as wisecracking lesbian sidekick Nancy Bartlett, and innumerable appearances on David Letterman’s sofa, including a notable one in which she and then-pal Madonna left Letterman and his audience on the edge of their seats with their unpredictable banter, as well as not one but two droll guest spots as her brash, profane self on Will & Grace, Bernhard seems to be the perennial supporting act.
While she often steals the scene along the way, what is refreshing about her lounge act is that she is the sole focus, and she does not disappoint.
Bernhard incorporates her roots as a stand-up comic in Los Angeles into a collage of rapid-fire observations and vignettes, whimsical anecdotes, and astute commentary, bordered by eclectic covers that showcase her sensibilities and which she delivers with a full-voiced show(wo)manship that flirts with, but never entirely crosses over, into campiness.
Her iconic 1988 solo show, Without You I’m Nothing, made into a fan-favorite film the following year, inaugurated this special blend of Bernhard’s style, and she has worked within that mold ever since. Unlike last year’s Feel the Bernhard, which reprised the “Me and Mrs. Jones” classic take from the former, this year Bernhard boasted of presenting “99 percent” of new material.
Perhaps the most successful of this crop was her uncharacteristically understated take on Tom Waits’s “Downtown Train,” preceded by a tale of encountering colorful characters on the subway, including a group of Orthodox Jewish women whose wardrobe she admiringly describes—so much goes on “between the top of the head and Hashem!”
While giving her the opportunity for her latest pun-fully eponymous show title, “Sandra Monica Boulevard” recounts a cross-country trip from the West Coast she recently took on a northerly, and leisurely, route—“we stopped to talk to people, and they ran back into their cars and fled from us”—as well as the many places Bernhard herself has lived.
She begins in her native Flint, Michigan, where she continues to advocate for those affected by the lead-tainted water crisis in that city. Then we head to Arizona, which she admits she is glad to have left given its conservative bent, and to L.A., where she came up through the showbiz ranks; and finally to New York City, where she resides along with her long-term girlfriend, Sara Switzer, and newly college-aged daughter Cicely. (With typical irreverence, Bernhard explains how she refuses to refer to Switzer as her partner because it sounds like “unsexy” legal-speak.)
Bernhard takes her own celebrity with a grain of salt, relating a tale of how her legendary agent, Sue Mengers, took pride in her sparking other performers’ careers and aggressively sought a pay raise for Bernhard’s role in the Bruce Willis vehicle Hudson Hawk—a paycheck amount she notes wryly she has never matched since.
She worried aloud, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, that the audience felt she was maybe “a little TOO casual” in her performance, having lost her place among her notes, and taking too long to find an ad in a catalog from which she wanted to read sardonically.
Fondly calling us “the guests who stayed too late,” at her second of two-per-evening gigs, Bernhard managed to make her slapdash, improv-rooted style a strength rather than a liability.
Although an outspoken political voice for progressive causes, and not shy about waxing editorial on her radio show and elsewhere, Bernhard only noted, almost in passing, the chagrin—shared by many in the audience—she felt on Trump’s November election.
But she sounded a note of renewed boldness rather than resignation. In that spirit, she closed with a forceful performance of Patti Smith’s “Power from the People” (along with a clever interpolation of her near-namesake Patty Smyth’s “Warrior”) and a subsequent medley that included the Beatles’ philosophical classic “Let It Be.”
The indefatigable and irascible Sandra Bernhard declared “I’m still here, damn it,” on her 1998 tour of the same name. Now, after a dispiriting 2016 for many, she reminds us to adopt that same message as we greet 2017.
SANDRA MONICA BOULEVARD: Coast to Coast is at Joe’s Pub, NYC, until Dec 31. Details here.