September 2012, somewhere south of Hell’s Kitchen and the end of my first night as a full-time citizen of New York City. I was crouched on a sidewalk corner cleaning up after my dog, Sofia, when that unmistakable voice rang out.
“What kind of dog is that?”
I looked up to see Sandra Bernhard standing above me. She drew her puffy red jacket tightly against the unseasonably cool weather.
“She’s a rescue mutt,” I replied.
“Rescue dogs are the best,” she said. “George is a rescue, too.”
At the end of her leash was a dog about the size of Sofia with a similar underbite.
“He’s very handsome,” I said.
“Thanks, Kitten,” she replied — with an air kiss — before strolling away into the night.
I had seen Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing, her off-Broadway one-woman tour de force in 1988, and it left me feeling completely disoriented. I could hardly process what I’d just seen and heard. Everything I thought I knew about what live performance could and should be had just been obliterated.
The ensuing decades of seeing her live shows — her annual run at Joe’s Pub leading up to New Year’s Eve is a big part of surviving the holidays for many New Yorkers — made dozens of indelible memories. My favorite is the night I was this close to the stage in Redondo Beach, Calif. in the early ’90s when, mid-performance, Bernhard announced that she was no longer in the mood for the clothing she was wearing. In a flash, she stripped down to panties and heels. She then shouted for her offstage assistant bring her something else to wear, “something Mizrahi and green.” It was perfectly Sandra — startling, vulnerable, courageous, intimate, and at the same time wildly theatrical.
Bernhard’s newest show, “A Spring Affair,” arrives at Provincetown Town Hall on Friday, July 28. It is a new collection, she told the Independent, of musings, music, and social commentary she’s been working on for the past year.
“Topical things are sprinkled throughout,” she said. “We’re in a terrible place politically, especially for women, people of color, and LGBTQ. We’re fighting again for rights we’ve already won. It’s exhausting, disheartening, and everyone is slightly unhinged by it.”
She’ll be hitting on some things on my wish list for any Bernhard cabaret show: consumerism, entitlement, celebrities, politicians, obsessiveness. I’m guessing that Joni Mitchell’s recent reemergence from seclusion will get a special moment.
Music has always been front and center at her shows. Bernhard is a woman of rock ’n’ roll and a balladeer. She has a way of interpreting a lyric that reveals a meaning you never considered. To take a classic song and make it feel socially relevant again is an impressive skill.
Bernhard is cognizant of the latest shifts in cultural sensibilities — that certain material that was once OK now just isn’t. In 2021, Bernhard told The Guardian that comedians need to change with societal shifts: “You adjust your material and approach. That’s part of evolving as an artist.”
Her artistic output includes several books of essays, a Broadway run of her show I’m Still Here Dammit, a long stretch on Roseanne, guest appearances on television shows as disparate as Highlander and The Sopranos, and innumerable appearances on talk shows. Her aggressive posturing combined with David Letterman’s faux awkwardness on Late Night were the most talked about television moments of the late ’80s.
Bernhard shone in a pair of recent dramatic roles on Pose and American Horror Story: NYC. Two new films are in post-production. Her interviews with celebrities and newsmakers on her weekly Sandyland Sirius radio talk show have brought her new audiences.
Given the breadth and influence of Bernhard’s nearly 50-year career — it’s been 40 years since she held her own against Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis in Martin Scorcese’s King of Comedy — it would be reasonable to see some cultural honors coming her way. Her omission from the list of recipients of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — given in honor of his “uncompromising perspective on social injustice and personal folly” — is particularly appalling.
At the end of one pre-pandemic performance at Joe’s Pub, Bernhard pitched the items that she would be selling and signing in the lobby after the show. She gently admonished the audience. “When you come up to the table, don’t bother the lady,” she said. “Don’t tell her how much she’s meant to you over the years. The lady is tired.”
When I asked her if she’d meant it, she laughed and said, “The people who know me and love me like me to be slightly critical. I’ve got great relationships with my audience. When people come up to me on the street, it’s great. It means a lot to them, and it means a lot to me.”
Thanks, Kitten. Mwah!
Rock ’n’ Roll Woman
The event: Sandra Bernhard presents ‘A Spring Affair’
The time: Friday, July 28, 8 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St.
The cost: $50 to $60 at tickets.payomet.org