Five to ten minutes with Sandra Bernhard — well, what would you talk about?
It’s not like there’s any shortage of conversation-starter fluid to fire up the briquettes of the chat-room charcoal pit — from broad-based backslides like the GOP War on Women and Defense of Marriage, to the more specific spillages out the mouths of Todd Aikin, Steve King, Paul Ryan, Colonel Chick-Fil-A or whatever his name was. Surely this would be fair game for the woman who famously interpolated a slam at “right wing Republican thin-lipped bitches” in the middle of a paid cosmetics commercial gig.
Then there are the celebrity feuds and foibles…Elton vs. Madonna; Snooki and Baby Snooks and whatever’s fodder for Chelsea Handler’s death panel this week; all par for the course from the acerbic observer whose comments on the likes of Sarah Palin have drawn incoming fire from both sides of the culture-war trenches.
And of course there’s her 40 year career — a thing incubated in the wild-west comedy clubs of 1970s LA, which has mastered most every mountainous molehill of media including music (a dozen or so albums of torchy songs and spoken word), cable standup, movies (including a breakthrough part in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy), books, talked-about talk show appearances (that 1988 Letterman guesting with former super super best friend Madge), on/off Broadway (Without You I’m Nothing and I’m Still Here…Damn It!) and sitcoms (TV’s first out lesbian character, don’t’cha know). An ongoing excursion through the minefields of modern celebrity that’s kept her timely and timeless and not at all timed-out in an era when many of her 70s/ 80s/ 90s contemporaries have flashed, flared and flipped out.
But, being that we got this conversation in on August 20, the subject was Phyllis Diller.
Bernhard has claimed the iconic shock-haired comedienne as both an inspiration and a friend — and when the “flinty” fave daughter of Flint, Michigan takes the stage of Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre this Labor Day Weekend Saturday, she’ll be carrying on the legacy with her own trademarked blend of torrid commentary and torchy cabaret — the latter through full-band musical interludes directed by pianist Mitch Kaplan. It’s a big-time show co-produced by Asbury’s own Aww Mama Productions, and followed up by the long-awaited return of the Crush party event to the Convention Hall complex (Steven Froias has “Aww the details” in a conversation with Jill Potter on his essential new website Asbury Pulp).
UpperWETside got our chat in (got our chat on?) with the divine Sandra, as part of a carefully parceled-out round robin of phoner interviews for the star. We’ve already told you what the primary topic was, but flip that pixelated page for more…
upperWETside: We’re here to advance your upcoming show at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey…but given the news of the day, I have to go immediately off-notes and quiz you as to some thoughts about the great Phyllis Diller…
SANDRA BERNHARD: I met Phyllis several times over the years, and got to work with her just last year in Hawaii (on a memorable “Grannies Night Out” episode of the Lifetime TV series Roseanne’s Nuts)…she came all the way out there at the age of 93 to do the show.
She was an amazing artist, an understated classical pianist, and then later in life a wonderful painter. She bridged so many generations, never lost her edge, and gave it right back where it belonged…she broke that glass ceiling, and allowed the rest of us to take advantage of the opportunity.
I’m so glad I got to know her…I visited her in June, and I have a little shrine devoted to her in my house.
It’s difficult to convey just how ubiquitous she was back during the year when I was a kid…she’d do things like Mad Monster Party, then turn around and take on the old Borscht Belt boys during one of their Friars Club roasts. This is a time when the whole women-in-comedy thing was pretty much just her, Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, maybe Rusty Warren…
I guess the question would relate to the fact that these were all performers with strong, forceful public personas…would you say that in the generation after Phyllis, especially during the so-called Comedy Explosion years, that there still remains some jagged shards of glass ceiling? Do women comics still need to amp it up several notches to compete with the shticky character guys, the “slob” comics and the guys who pretty much have no material other than just baiting the hell out of the audience?
A lot of women comedians felt they had to be edgier than they need to be. But you know, women are a different species…it’s easier to do male-derivative material, but you’ve got to be more of who you are; tap into what’s relevant to you and what resonates. The best of them, the Amy Poehlers and Kristen Wiigs, have the luxury to be funny, edgy and great.
You’ve gotta have a place to work it out, and when you do you’ve gotta be head and tails above the rest. You have to be super sharp, eclectic; you have to make your mark.
But enough about everyone else but you! What can we expect to see when you make it to Asbury Park on Labor Day weekend? Will it be more of a music show, stand-up comedy, a best of all worlds?
It’s one of my hybrids — rock and roll meets cabaret meets performance. I’ll be talking about contemporary, important things; everything that’s germane to me. I’ll be taking the world and hanging it upside down, with groovy music…everything from Neil Sedaka to REO Speedwagon. I cover the waterfront!
And a wonderful waterfront it is. I’m wondering if this is your first such theater-scale event in Asbury Park, or if you can recall playing anywhere in town at any point in your career…?
I thought that I had played Asbury Park at least once before, but now I’m not so sure…it really does get hard to keep track of all the places you’ve been on the road.
Just by way of illustrating the rich cultural panorama that is the greater Asbury Park area…the town next door recently welcomed a visit by TV’s Kirk Cameron; a Defense of Marriage rally that drew a bit of polite pushback from protestors who embrace the “growing pains” of an evolving society…
Well, if more than one or two people showed up for Kirk, I’d hope that he gave them a show for their money.
You know, I hate to make this all about stuff that’s been ripped screaming from today’s headlines, but I gotta ask your thoughts on the recent public brouhaha between Madonna and Elton John, a couple of people that have intersected with your life…
Those kind of dust-ups just don’t interest me, really. I have no idea of what the genesis of that quarrel was, so I can only say that I wish everybody well.
So the best course of action in this case is to do a Bugs Bunny; just kind of step outside the dust-cloud of flying fists and let ’em go at it while you lay back and munch on a carrot?
Anyway, in the broader context of our time and place, it seems it doesn’t take much these days to set off neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member, Facebook friend against Facebook friend…
People are just so super amped up right now…we’re really letting go of the patriarchy, and there are so many people who don’t want to let go of the old ways.
I’m looking at your recent show itinerary, and you’ve been playing some high-profile gigs in places like Fire Island, and at the San Diego Pridefest…but not so much in the way of NASCAR events, for whatever reason.
No, and you won’t be seeing me do too many of those in the future! I like to go where they’ll have me; stay in venues where the crowd gets it and appreciates it.
Well, I’m thinking that the Asbury crowd is gonna get and appreciate what you’re trafficking in. You’ll remember playing there, and you’ll make it a point to come back again.
Yeah, but if I’m doing material just to please the crowd, my crowd wouldn’t appreciate it! I just like to think that I’m bringing a little levity and sanity back to their lives.
Concert-only tickets for Saturday’s performance are priced from $15 to $90, and are available by calling (732)897-6500, or visiting Ticketmaster.
Aww Mama Productions — the Asbury-based entity that brought the legendary Crush Girl Party event to the Road Trip Weekend in seasons past — is also selling tickets pairing the Sandra Bernhard event with admission to Crush: The White Party, a special Labor Day weekend event (featuring DJ Kim Dazy) going on post-show at Aqua Bar. Combo tickets for the concert and party ($45-$85) can be purchased right here.