A minor constellation of A-list celebrities, including Naomi Campbell, Liza Minnelli, and Paulina Porizkova, turned out for the Broadway premiere of Sandra Bernhard's one-woman show, I'm Still Here...Damn It! In retrospect, they must have felt like lambs paying a cover charge for the slaughter. Perhaps they'd thought that a new baby daughter and a blooming interest in Jewish mysticism had softened Bernhard's tongue. But then professional beauties are not paid to think. Bernhard is always elusive, confessional, and solipsistic: Onstage she is an enigma wrapped in a bitch.
We caught up with Bernhard between gigs last week to chat about her new show, which will make its Midwest debut for a five-day run at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis beginning on April 20, as well as her new book May I Kiss You on the Lips, Miss Sandra? and her new little sweetheart Cicely Yasin. "I got the name from an abandoned baby orangutan from a documentary I saw on TV," she explains (facetiously?), in a low-volume version of her unmistakable downtown voice. "There's a piece about the baby in the show, but it's not like a nauseating homage to new motherhood."
If motherhood isn't diluting her caustic wit, the arrival of Cicely has changed Bernhard's perspective. "I really have to tap into happiness and certainty," she says. "Because that's what she's going to get. If she sees me having self-doubt, that's what she's going to have."
Seventeen years after storming the gates of Hollywood in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy, Bernhard certainly has a lot to be happy about. I'm Still Here...Damn It! inspired a flurry of adjective abuse as critics on both coasts struggled to capture the appeal of Bernhard's celebrity-skewering satire. As well as roasting Mariah Carey over an open flame, Bernhard blitzes the ladies of Lilith Fair and sends up models in mourning over the untimely death of Gianni Versace. ("It's been a terrible thing--for me," she says, in mocking facsimile of the grieving Naomi Campbell; somewhere in the audience, a supermodel begins frothing at the mouth.)
As always, however, there is more to Bernhard's comedy than cheap shots at easy targets. She also offers autobiographical anecdotes about everything from her "fabulous trip to Morocco" to her strange house painter Hermino. And she sings. The show's most unexpected pleasure is not a clever sneer at the vapidity of pop culture, but a gorgeous hymn called "God is Good," which Bernhard renders in a breathy soprano and which she ends with a benediction in Arabic. "It's an Arab blessing that everyone says in Morocco," she explains. "It means 'thank you' and 'go with the strength of God.'"
It's perhaps not what we expect from the Queen of Irony, but it does reflect Bernhard's growing interest in the kabala, a cryptic branch of Jewish study that seems to be displacing Buddhism as the spirituality of choice for Hollywood's elite. "Being raised Jewish, it was always something I was interested in," says Bernhard. "I was looking for something deeper. The kabala is all about creation and why we're here. It's the essence of Judaism."
Even when Bernhard is sneering at the absurdities of celebrity life and ersatz culture, she never shies away from exposing herself (when seven months pregnant, she performed I'm Still Here dressed in a mostly translucent evening gown). In addition to her show, she recently released her third book, which takes its odd title from an equally odd story about a proposition by Bernhard's house painter. "The book is a compilation of things I was working on for the past year," she explains. "Some of it came from the show, but writing for the page is a really personal thing for me." Indeed, Bernhard's collection of script ideas, anecdotes, short stories, and poetry is nothing if not personal. Insightful as she often is, her prose reads something like the diary of a slightly melancholy and extremely intelligent 16-year-old.
No doubt, Bernhard's best material comes from her own life. For all the celebrities skinned in the course of I'm Still Here, the funniest and most incisive bit involves a bizarre real-life encounter with singer Courtney Love, who made her own play for Bernhard's lips. "It's 95 percent true," says Bernhard. "People who know Courtney keep telling me it's right on." And what of Love's transformation from grunge icon to, as she once put it, fake so real she is beyond fake? "That's what she wanted. I begin to wonder about people like that, whether their intentions are genuine or whether they're posing. Am I going to judge them? No. Am I going to critique it and make fun of them? Yes."
Sandra Bernhard performs April 20-25 at the Woman's Club of Minneapolis Theatre; (612) 989-5151.