Sandra Bernhard’s one-woman show, I’m Still Here…Damn It!, reminds me of a comment a friend made about Nathan Lane after leaving Mizlansky/Zilinsky at intermission: “He’s like a spice, not a meal.”
Bernhard also has the character actor’s curse. Too funny-looking and sarcastic for mainstream domination, she’s made a career by positioning herself as the eternal wannabe, from her role in King of Comedy to the celebrity-chat/variety act she offers up now. She opens her Broadway show with a stand-up routine about recent celebrity deaths, and follows with a hilarious rendition of the disco tune she imagines Naomi Campbell would record in tribute to Versace. Bernhard has her talons stuck firmly inside the bicoastal fabu-world she lampoons—but that’s just because she’s clinging to it for dear life.
It’s always hard to figure out exactly what Bernhard’s selling, or where her talent lies. For a social critic, she picks very easy targets. Clinton’s exploits, celebrities, and the fashion industry are already enough of a tasteless joke. You could make a case for her as a feminist for a groundbreaking TV role or two, but feminism goes deeper than complaining about the advertising in women’s mags. As a singer, she chooses the right ’70s touchstones—Aerosmith’s “Dream On” for example. But her voice owes more to Broadway than to Bowery and Bleecker. She’s never awful enough to be amusing or good enough to be transcendent.
Bernhard tries to get over by playing both sides of the fence, like some other solo artists of her generation who have made good, including Ann Magnuson and John Fleck. They may have made their reputations railing against the establishment, but when the money people called, they sure didn’t turn off their ringers. Periodically these opportunists come back to tell the hardcore bohemians how awful it is on the other side. It’s a double bind that finds Bernhard dishing her friends onstage and then retooling her material in order to appease them, as she did by cutting the Lourdes joke that made Madonna walk out of this show.
Still more trouble arises from Bernhard’s extremely questionable and tired relationship to people of color. Where in the past she addressed her blue-eyed soul aspirations with a little bit of humor, here her encounters range from an altercation with an amorous Mexican housepainter to a portrayal of her Chinese herbalist and some “fierce” black divas. She goes on to fetishize Islam while recounting a trip to Morocco—”I had always feared the Muslim faith. The angry men, the veiled women. But when I heard those beautiful calls to prayer…” It’s as if she’s some Long Island matron shopping in the Ronkonkoma Mall of Faith. To add insult to injury, she appears onstage during the encore in a huge Angela Davis wig doing a cracked soul medley, proving once and for all that she stole those lips from Mick Jagger. I thought that kind of misguided homage died with Al Jolson.
My favorite moments from Bernhard’s career were always the ones in which she gummed up the works of popular culture. The first is that famous episode of Late Night where she called Madonna out of the audience and the two of them steered the show into a foul-mouthed, incoherent oblivion. The other, even earlier, also from Late Night: Sandra on a rowing machine, exhorting Letterman to assist her with some technical detail that involved bodily contact. Letterman: “So what are you here to promote tonight?” Sandra: “Not a thing, Dave. Not a thing.” It isn’t hard to make the slick surfaces of television collapse, but she used to do it with pizzazz and nonchalance. Now, as her title suggests, she just shows up.