Performing her One-Woman Show, “Lady Of The Canyon” at Oscar’s in Palm Springs, 2 nights, October 16 & 17
By Eleni P. Austin
Sandra Bernhard has been making people laugh for more than 40 years now. Something of a polymath, she has earned her keep as a stand-up comedienne, actress, singer and author. Best known for her cutting wit and trenchant observations, her first major film role was opposite Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s King Of Comedy. Countless appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, cemented her reputation as an outrageous and wickedly funny raconteur. In the decades since, she has performed one-woman shows, written books and recorded albums. Although she occasionally appeared in film, she has truly made her mark on the small screen. She’s made indelible impressions guesting on series like Will & Grace, Sopranos, The L-Word, Family Guy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 2 Broke Girls and Broad City. She’s probably best known for her recurring roles on Rosanne (portraying one of the first openly bisexual characters on American television), as well as Judy, the compassionate Nurse on Pose. These days, she hosts a radio show on Sirius XM’s Radio Andy. Currently on tour with her latest one-woman show, Lady Of The Canyon, she’ll be performing at Oscar’s in Palm Springs on October 16th and 17th..
She was kind enough to answer a few burning questions.
ELENI: Ever since I discovered you in the early ‘80s, I have always thought you would be the ideal guest for my perfect dinner party. Because you are such a witty and a gifted storyteller. (For the record, other guests would include Fran Lebowitz, John Waters and Liza Minelli. Old Hollywood glamour is very important to me). Do you have a similar list, or have you ever thrown a dinner party, or attended one like that?
SANDRA: I think your guest list is perfection. I would, of course, add Andre Leon Talley, Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell and Isaac Mizrahi. I like people who have history, understand the value of it, synthesize it into their work and know how to have fun.
ELENI: The title of your new show, Lady Of The Canyon, seems like a bit of an homage to Laurel Canyon doyenne, Joni Mitchell. I know that Carole King and Laura Nyro were early inspirations is Joni part of that pantheon?
SANDRA: Yes, but more importantly, in all the years I lived in L.A., I would drive over Laurel Canyon on my way to the Valley, songs, thoughts, ideas for pieces would pop into my head. So, I would rush home to put them down in writing. At night, when traffic is light, back in the day, you could channel the energy of the poets. It was there for the taking, maybe they have receded in these frantic times. I’ll have to try again sometime.
ELENI: I’ve always loved how you effortlessly mix topicality with Pop Culture and music. Can you tell me what we can expect from your new show?
SANDRA: In broad strokes, it may be more evergreen, quotidian, closer to the vest, we are all slightly beat up by the rights and the wrongs of modern culture. So, we tend to lean into safer spaces withing our own imagination and thoughts. I might not blurt out something madcap these days as much as I once did, but I haven’t lost my sense of whimsy. The music is handpicked when ripe, but I can’t give that away.
ELENI: Some of your earliest Show Biz inspiration came from from the TV Variety series that dotted the airwaves up until the early the early 1970s. Did you have one particular favorite then? Or were any performers on those shows you wanted to emulate?
SANDRA: The greats have inspired me since childhood, Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbra Streisand, Sonny & Cher, Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler. They all had specials that you would get to stay up late, soaking in the sophistication, and a sense of style that just doesn’t exist today. Fashion was a big part of it, but it wasn’t talked about the way it is now. It was just there, the talent, the music, the writing, and incredible performances.
ELENI: You seemingly burst out of nowhere and landed in King Of Comedy, a film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert DeNiro. But you truly held your own with these giants. How much of your character, “Masha,” was there on the page, and how much was your own improv? I always felt like that stuff about “feeling like Tina Turner dancing across the room” was purely your invention.
SANDRA: There was a template for Masha, but they wanted someone who could bring that madcap energy and improvisational skills to the role. I was doing my Tina Turner homage at the time in my shows, and Marty loved all of that. So, it informed the character in a way no writer could have imbued her with.
ELENI: In the last couple of decades, thanks to the proliferation of televised talent contests, it seems as though everyone thinks they have some special talent that the world can’t live without. I guess Tik-Tok has taken that a step further. As someone who kind of worked her way up through the ranks, what do you think of this kind of “instant gratification” stardom?
SANDRA: It depends on what motivates you. It must be very hard for a truly talented young person now to have the discipline it takes to do the hard work and I’m sure a lot of people figure why bother? I can’t imagine having done it any other way, and there were no short-cuts then. I consider myself lucky that it worked out like it has.
ELENI: From your earliest days as a performer, you aspired to incorporate both comedy and music into your act, which must have felt like a risky move in those days. How did audiences react back then?
SANDRA: At the comedy clubs, not so great, but I persevered, and eventually people came to know that’s what I did, and they started to like it.
ELENI: The late comedian and writer, Paul Mooney was an early and lifelong mentor to you. What did it feel to have that sort of positive validation at such a young age? Additionally, have you ever mentored someone like that yourself?
SANDRA: Mooney discovered me the first time I got up at the Open Mic Night at The Ye Little Club. He was already a legend. So, to have his validation, love and support made all the difference in the world. He believed in me completely, and pushed me along the road to success with insights and bravado. I miss him terribly. I try and give some of that back, but these are different times, as discussed.
ELENI: You came of age in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In retrospect, it feels as though that hopeful time was this country’s most progressive era. America seemed like it was on a more inclusive, accepting path. These days, with conservative legislators eager to impose their views and their will on the people, it’s like we’re having to re-fight battles we’ve already won. A woman’s right to choose is in danger of being completely eradicated. Additionally, these same legislators have decided the new “Boogie Man” is the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. How does that make you feel?
SANDRA: Like I have to keep on fighting, and at the same time remain upbeat, believing we will come through this torrent of ignorance once again. The planet, however, might not be inclined to put up with our shenanigans.
ELENI: You spent several decades in Los Angeles before moving to New York about 20 years ago. What was the impetus behind that change in geography?
SANDRA: A combination of meeting my lady, Sara, who lives and works in New York City, and us deciding it was a better choice to raise our daughter, Cicely there. As it turns out, it was.
ELENI: After a childhood in Michigan, you spent your adolescence in the desert. First, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and then on a Kibbutz in Israel. What did it feel like coming from a dense, urban metropolis to the arid, wide-open spaces? How quickly did you acclimate? Did you make friends, or just bide your time, counting the days until you could escape? Additionally, how do you feel about this desert, the Palm Springs area? These days, do you see the desert through different eyes?
SANDRA: I love the desert, the smells, stars, terrain, it’s rough and tumble. Michigan had its own magic, and I made some very important friendships out west. I don’t think I’d be who I am without all the vistas I’ve observed in my childhood. It was very liberating and gave me the ability to adjust to all kinds of unique situations.
ELENI: You have always struck me as a cutting-edge kind of person, fashion-forward, Pop Culture savvy, etc. How do you consume entertainment and media these days? Do you still acquire books, music, movies and magazines in physical formats? Or have you completely embraced technology and everything is up in “the cloud?”
SANDRA: I watch everything on the TV, preferably cable! I read hard copy newspapers, books and magazines. I like to listen to the radio in the car, I am completely analog.
ELENI: You have written a few books (Confessions Of A Pretty Lady, Love, Love And Love and May I Kiss You On The Lips, Miss Sandra?). Are there any plans for a new one? Would you ever consider writing a straightforward memoir or autobiography? Aside from your own life being compelling, I’m sure you have seen and heard a lot in your 40+ years in Show Biz.
SANDRA: I might. It could be in the works now. I hope my stories are worthy. I believe my life continues to be exciting, so let’s see how it all plays out!
ELENI: Finally, what inspires you these days? Are there any books, movies or musicians (or anything else) that you are currently passionate about?
SANDRA: Above all else, nature inspires me. Trees, mountains, rivers and oceans. I love my dog, George, more than anything on the planet. He is the most complete being I’ve ever known.
(Sandra Bernhard “Lady Of The Canyon” Monday, October 16 and Tuesday, October 17, 2023. Oscar’s in Palm Springs Courtyard. $79.95-$199.95. Dinner seating 5:30pm. Show at 7pm ticket information at oscarspalmsprings.com)