She’s locked lips with Madonna, upstaged Bobbie De Niro in his own movie and been Morgan Fairchild’s (fictional) lesbian lover, but Sandra Bernhard’s most surprising role may just be that of mother and devoted long-term girlfriend.
This may come as somewhat of a surprise to fans who have followed Bernhard’s career as it chewed through standup comedy, Broadway, film, television, political commentary and music like it was one big artistic smorgasbord. It can be tricky to reconcile this parent of a teenaged daughter and life partner of 10 years with the outspoken, outrageous writer and performer whose rock-and-roll persona is so evident in every snarl and shimmy.
“Honey, I live a clean life, and I always have,” Bernhard says in that deliciously husky drawl. “I was never out all night partying, and I certainly don’t do it now. I take excellent care of myself. I never drank, never smoked. I keep my shit together, and I live by example.”
At 57, Bernhard has mellowed a stage act that was once notorious for sending audience members scrambling for the back seats, lest they draw attention from their sardonic diva.
“Oh honey, you’ve got to evolve,” she says. “You keep changing as an artist. Your work changes, your emotional state, your whole vibe changes as you evolve. For me, it’s being a mother and the times we’re living in. It’s very easy to be snarky, but it’s not easy to be smart. I’m not a snarky person; there’s a better way to be.”
Of course, that’s not to say the razor tongue has been blunted completely. A quick glance at recent quotes reveals the acerbic social dissection that we’ve come to love and expect. There are her thoughts on Kathy Griffin (“willing to go out there and make a complete fool of herself”), kabbalah (“money corrupts everything, even spirituality”) and Lady Gaga (“makes Madonna look laconic”), as well as an especially apt plea regarding the Kardashian reality machine (“make this all go away”).
In fact, reality no-stars like Kardashian and Co are a particular bugaboo for someone like Bernhard, who spent years working her ass off on the road and in clubs to slowly build a solid career.
“Those of us who started before the mid-’90s were able to keep a career going,” she says. “We became entrenched in the world psyche because we kept working it, and I still work to build and maintain my audience.
“I was never the kind of artist who had some big marketing scheme. It all just felt kind of natural, and I think we just went along for the ride you got. Now everything’s so fractured and different. You can kick-start an entire career through social media without actually producing anything of value.”
Bernhard typically logs five to 10 performances a month but works continually at creating and honing new material. Her first comedy album in a decade became an instant hit on iTunes when it was released last year. Its title, I Love Being Me, Don’t You?, seems a natural fit for a woman whose blend of Zen observations and righteous rage epitomizes the best of other one-woman shows from people like Elaine Stritch and the late Bea Arthur. But family life still takes priority in Bernhard’s life, even if it means making some significant sacrifices.
“I like New York’s sophistication and intelligence, but I wish I could spend more time in LA,” she says. “I love the weather there, the sense of freedom I have there. But Cicely’s school is in New York, and that’s where we live.”
Speaking of the younger Bernhard, is there any chance she’ll be following in the trail blazed by her unstoppable mother?
“She’s her own person,” says a clearly proud mama. “She’s smart and funny, and she has her own ideas. But she’s not going to be a performer, and I couldn’t be happier about that.”
Toronto is always a favourite stop for Bernhard. Her brother and his family live here, and she loves being able to fly directly from New York to Toronto Island (“so fabulous”). She’s typically cagey about what Toronto audiences will see and hear at her upcoming gig for Canadian Music Week, but one can only hope it will include classic covers that have appeared in shows past, including “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and her blisteringly sexy rendition of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”
I ask Bernhard about other projects, including a few new entries on the industry site IMDb, which she dismisses with a laugh. “No, not real. I don’t know who puts up that stuff. But I am working on a new TV series for myself and another artist. I’m always writing down ideas, one-liners and funny conversations.
“I’m always working it. I’m like a shark, always moving forward. A shark who’s lost all of its teeth. I may gum you, but I won’t bite you.”