Sandra Bernhard doesn’t have an idea where she is.
Figuratively, she’s lost in this world, like many of us, trying to figure out what’s up and where’s down. Politics, ecology, the economy, Hillary Clinton’s hair – it’s all a mess. (A good mess, you know. The kind of mess you love. The kind of mess endorsed by the cynical and sarcastic).
Rest assured, when this sometimes-actress, usual-activist, often-singer, always-comedian gets her whistle wet about whatever’s ticking her off, she’s doused. From where Bernhard’s sitting, sometimes between coasts but mainly in swanky Manhattan, the world is upside down and not heading right side up anytime soon. So let’s hang for a while and sing a few.
Literally, Friday night, she was in North Tonawanda, at the historic and not-quite-illustrious-enough Riviera Theatre. Anyone familiar, and in love with, Bernhard’s vicious tone could have predicted the rants of disbelief that, sure enough, introduced her set. That this brand of sophisticated art-house celebrity-hanging-on celebrity would be caught dead on this strip – well, she couldn’t believe it any more than we could.
Of course, she was joking. A little. She praised the beautiful house, as did the crowd, for its former-and-restored glory. The shine and luster it once lit up a vaudevillian act with, the hoofing and crowd-working that once kept its lights on – she loves this kind of house, even if it’s a few miles away from the glimmer of the nearest downtown. Because, really, downtown is where she belongs.
If you know Bernhard for something, you might not know what exactly, but you’ve seen her somewhere. Maybe in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 forgotten comedy, “The King of Comedy,” where she held her own with Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis. Maybe in Madonna’s 1990 documentary “Truth or Dare,” where she shone brightly as she could in the biggest shadow on Earth.
Either way, you know Bernhard for being unapologetically mad, unforgivably brash and unashamedly unimpressed.
Her stage act picks up where all that left off, which of late has been on Twitter, Howard Stern and in guest spots on season finales-turned-series finales. Girl can’t catch a break.
So what does she joke about? You know, the thing about 14th Street … you know. And, you know, when Arizona just gets on your nerves so much that you can’t weekend there anymore … you know. And, you know, when Jane Fonda invites you to her 75th birthday party and Barbra and Bette turn up their prodigious noses at you. You know.
Sure, Bernhard, who has always brought her more famous friends down to pedestrian level by extracting the prefame giggles out of them, has elevated. But while her humor skewering the nation’s celebrity machine and materialism addiction is not without political, academic perspective, it also oddly floats above us just a little. Not all her “you knows” read so ironically, a sure sign she might not be so out of place in this historic, comparatively faded, venue.
This occasional deviance from form wasn’t enough to sway herv audience, though. Notwithstanding a few rants that failed to land so effortlessly, Bernhard worked the room that she knew came for her.
Her take on Lady Gaga’s pageantry of a Thanksgiving special last year was her biting, most bitter best. All she did, all she had to do, was mock Gaga’s delivery of a lavish turkey dinner while simultaneously singing her piano-rock anthem, “Edge of Glory.” The song, a fervently over-sung, over-emphasized riff on fleeting authenticity – Bernhard’s natural, cynical stance on most things in our shared, street-level world – winds its way into a frenzy of repeated nonsense.
“I’m on the edge of glory/And I’m hanging on a moment with you,” she repeats, over and over, as if it becomes somehow poetic and poignant the more times she repeats it. She’s mocking and paying homage to Gaga at the same time, and she leaves the fun for us to figure out which one she means more.
It would appear, 30 years into an unconventional and yet still working career, that she’s fine not knowing, either. Then, at least, she’d be just as at home here in North Tonawanda as wherever else she’d rather be.