She describes herself as something "between an entertainer and part of the populace"; a fellow commentator has called her "the insider's outsider". Sandra Bernhard's dichotomy is plain for me to see as soon as I arrive at our meeting point, a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, in her New York neighbourhood. The grand dame of spoken-word cabaret and the matriarch of the bitchy remark ("the theatre amateurs have once again interrupted a great artiste," is her rebuke to latecomers on Everything Bad and Beautiful, the recording of show she is bringing to the UK) is sat eating soup.
She's there early as I am. For my part I want to be ready for a woman who hasn't mellowed with time – she's now 52 with a career spanning more than 30 years. From her point of view, she's early in order to polish off the interview, like her soup, with aplomb, pushing to the side anything surplus to requirements.
I start with her role in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy in 1983. This was her breakthrough moment after moving from Flint, Michigan, to Los Angeles, working as a manicurist and schlepping round the comedy clubs. Her character in the film (Masha, the crazed stalker of the Johnny Carson figure Jerry Langford), she says represented everything that she was herself at the time: "androgynous, hung up and looking for love".
She explains: "I have always liked who I am but I've gone through periods where I haven't felt secure – that's part of growing up, to have experience to force you through the meat grinder and come out fully formed. When I was 20, 25, even 30, I wouldn't think twice about the consequences of what I said and now I think I'm much more measured."
But despite her nine-year-old daughter, Cicely, and an eight-year-old relationship with the writer and Vanity Fair publicist Sara Switzer, Bernhard doesn't seem to have toned it down any. She has never hesitated to give her take on the celebrities around her. A famous example was on the Letterman show in 1988, where Bernhard said that Madonna – appearing on the show with her – was much better than Sean Penn in bed, thus alluding to Bernhard's then bisexual status and fuelling speculation about her relationship with the singer.
"She [Madonna] came to see my show and wanted to hang out – it was mutually beneficial," Bernhard recalls with a practised, casual air. "Sometimes people give people a sense of cool and the photographers are there to catch it. It was fun, you know? Your ego is always involved in hanging out with famous people, but there was genuine friendship there, too."
Rather than revisit past lives in her latest show, however, Bernhard has her sights firmly fixed on other women, primarily ones she deems to be underperforming. That means Laura Bush and the US president's daughters. As she says in Everything Bad and Beautiful: "I can't believe that this woman is as stupid as she pretends to be... We have a first lady who goes to Africa and tells the people 'to practice abstinence', that 'Aids is an affliction'. Honey, please. Those two daughters – are they practising abstinence? I want to see their gynaecological records, because if they're not they don't get any birth control, they don't get any morning-after pill, and if they contract an STD, too bad. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword you show-ponies..."
"It was hands off the Bush girls for the past seven years," rationalises Bernhard now. "Nobody could say a word about them, they've stood for nothing, they've said nothing, they are flatliners. Their mother is a flatliner – Laura Bush has done nothing to define this country, she's done nothing as a woman."
Strong stuff. But Bernhard feels there's a point to her straight-talking, unlike other comedians. "People who are seemingly out there on the edge don't have anything to say, it's just shock value. I just saw some promo for an HBO comedy special last night, and one of the guy's jokes was about burns victims and how 'they always have a look of surprise on their face.' This is unacceptable, this is crap, where are we going with this one, honey?"
It's all about the choice of target for Bernhard, picking on stars who can generally defend themselves. Often the targets, appropriately enough for her style of performance, which fuses cabaret songs and monologues, are singing icons and divas. Courtney Love ("what plastic surgeon is going to fix all the scars in your heart?" she asked in her 2000 show I'm Still Here Damn It!), Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and, more affectionately, Bob Dylan and Marianne Faithfull, have all figured in her last few shows.
Certainly it's musicians rather than comedians who occupy a special place in Bernhard's heart. She has little interest in the latest generation of comics, though she pays tribute to her contemporaries Larry David, Paul Mooney and Roseanne Barr. However, it's the likes of Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde ("a friend of mine") whom she feels the need to namecheck in her capacity as "a representative of the talented, sane, smart, passionate people".
Her talented tribe is, one assumes, diametrically opposed to the "star-maker" reality-show machine that churns out "poseurs", as Bernhard puts it. "I don't know what the hell these people want but I don't worry about showbiz. It's not in great shape – there are not many places to go and do what I do – but my concern is making a living. I'm just thankful that I established myself as an artist 30 years ago and continued to stay on that path."
As Bernhard recognises, making a living isn't as easy as it used to be. Opening a tour at Huddersfield Town Hall does nothing to dispel the idea that things have slipped somewhat. Her film output has been undistinguished of late, and TV pilots have remained shelved. Her purple patch is now way back in the Nineties, with appearances on Ally McBeal and Roseanne. Her on-off seven year stint on Roseanne was an ensemble situation that Bernhard would like to return to, and an experience that she describes as "one of most incredible experiences of my career, it was crazy and so real. Roseanne is just one of the most real hardcore funny and outspoken insane people I know and I adore and love her."
All the way through the interview, whether it be mocking Bush or canonising Hynde, Bernhard has underlined her concern about the status of women. It's ironic, then, that filming for the "post-feminist" Sex and the City movie is going on around the corner: Bernhard is flatly disapproving of the city's most famous female quartet.
"Any time that you are not going as deep as you can as a human being, if you are not taking it out of the realm of the superficial, it's not a good thing. I have managed to have as much, or more, fun as many people ever get to have in their life but I never forget the deeper levels of being a woman. You can't live your life twisting yourself into a pretzel in this perpetual, 'ooh, have I got the right dress, shoes, purse?' That message to me is very damaging to the psyche."
Reclining on the restaurant banquette, Bernhard embellishes her argument by reminding me of an oft-forgotten fact: "I was supposed to play the role of Miranda originally. I can't imagine that showing up every week to play a character who is bitter, bitchy, eating cake out of trash cans, could have been in any way satisfying. I've never seen women relate to each other the way these four women talk to each other. It's absurd and the number one problem is that those ladies are all too old to be running around doing what they are doing."
Of course, you're never too old to get up on stage, and that's what Bernhard intends to keep doing – getting the right targets in her sights and, as she puts it, engendering in her audience the ability to be "free-spirited, free of dogma". Most importantly, she says, "it's the responsibility of every person to figure their shit out." If you can't do that, as the Bush family know, then Bernhard is on hand to help.
Sandra Bernhard tours to 29 October (www.sandrabernhard.com)Reuse content