Arts: The bitch has backed off

New York Diary
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The Independent Culture
SANDRA BERNHARD stalks around SoHo's gargantuan make-up emporium Sephora after two hours of signing her book May I Kiss You On The Lips, Miss Sandra?. A blonde woman tells her to look around for anything she wants, dahling. So Bernhard passes through the crowds pressing Shiseido powder and Clarins lipliner to their wrists - as her new book's cover art emphasises, Bernhard's own lips are to lipstick as Stevie Nicks's eyes are to tasselled shawls.

Sandra goes over to the Naturopathica section aisle and has a moment with the concept of evening primrose cream in a tiny jar for $35. It's an expensive, natural, genteel product and, as such, bears resemblance to the new Sandra Bernhard. Once a lovably nasty, emaciated character actress (The King of Comedy and, more recently, her cult-favourite film and show Without You, I'm Nothing), Bernhard's odd fame arose from her dramatisations of desperation for fame. Now, a "centred" Bernhard closes her new Broadway show, I'm Still Here... Damn It!, with the refrain "God is good". She even bit her tongue on a talk showwhen the host asked imbecilic questions about her "anger".

What's changed? Is it her recent motherhood (in a classic New York scenario, l'enfant lives in its own studio upstairs from hers in the West Village)? While her 100-minute show is still the type of fare The New York Times finds outrageous (it seems New York's newspaper of record will call anything "edgy"), in truth Bernhard's latest act has as many edges as a stick of designer incense. The comedienne cracks jokes about telephones ("Isn't caller ID so passive-aggressive?") and makes hired help funnies about house painters and cab drivers. Bernard also throws some models and Gianni Versace jokes into the mix. Think 1997.

Maybe Bernhard's show is kinder and more tired because she's no longer jonesing for stardom. Now she's insulated by it. Still, she could riff forever on the new meaning of the phrase "retro". After serving as an honorific from the mid- Seventies until last month, "retro" is suddenly being used as a derogatory term. As in the phrases, "Ugh, how retro!" or "Betrayal of the American public is really retro".

But would Bernhard's Broadway audience of greyhairs (albeit dyed various festive reds and expensive blondes) have chuckled at anything more grating than the gentler stuff she served them in her latest act? After all, they didn't laugh at her show's best joke, one where she imagined if the perfume cK one were a person, it would be a throat-slashing, sodomising rapist.

All around New York, comedians are clamouring for the Bernhard mantle, Comedy's Razor's Edge, asking whether they are beautiful or monstrous and whether the audience is as virulently angry as they are. In dinky Off-Off Broadway clubs, the children of Bernhard practise her cruel craft: a liberal arts grad who lovingly, horribly imitates the Eighties band The Dream Academy; a "post-feminist" singer with harsh words for her model (she's the real thing while Sandra's the phony); a leather-clad, self- proclaimed "bitch" who digs around in her pants for articles she will sneer at during her evening's performance. One mean-spirited prankster even released a CD entitled Hanukkah with Monica.

Is the reconstructed Sandra composing any Lilith-like Hanukkah tunes this year? She's probably too busy lighting the last of the week's candles in a designer menorah, surrounded by her glammy pals, as you read this.

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