Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Burned Hard for Bernhard

I have had a long, strange, frustrating, moving, and very laugh-filled love affair for over 25 years with a woman who doesn't know I exist. That sounds like the words of obsessive stalkers, I grant you, but really, it's just how I express that I am more than a fan but obviously less than a realistic equal to one of my favorite entertainers. And since yesterday was her birthday, I guess it's okay to go into detail

I don't quite know what the turning point was that made my teenage self fall in love with Sandra Bernhard. I was too young to have seen her on Richard Pryor's short-lived variety show, and I did not remember her specifically from the dozens of comedians who worked their material on the late '70's incarnation of "MAKE ME LAUGH," so that can't come into play, though it has been fun to revisit those appearances years later. I definitely enjoyed her numerous visits to "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," where she was perfecting her unique style of reviling and reveling in celebrity culture, but I can't zero in on a certain episode where it went from "She's funny!" to "She's my ideal woman!" I know that from puberty onward as a Nice White Catholic Suburban Boy From Cincinnati, I was fervently attracted to girls who were outside of any or all of those adjectives, and Sandra was definitely penciled outside of the Scantron circle, so to speak. As such there may not be a firm date of origin, but midway through high school, I got infatuated - much to the eternal bewilderment of my father who could not see her beyond two lips and an attitude - and to this day, I still dig her.

In college, I had an eye-opening friendship with an older woman who also enjoyed Sandra a lot, and from her I received her first book, CONFESSIONS OF A PRETTY LADY, which made me an even bigger fan, with its combination of legitimate autobiographical details and saucy, teasing "did this happen/is this fiction" gossip. I felt a kinship with this girl from Detroit who drove to L.A. in a crummy car with a dream in her bag, whose parents had broken up and who liked to be funny in dark moments, who could alternately hate and love the excesses of show business, who could be tough and biting yet have a sweet and vulnerable soul. Much like the ethereal Kira from XANADU, Sandra straddled that fuzzy line between infatuation object and big sister to me, someone flying the freak flag with panache in advance while I slowly brought up the rear. From said friend I would also receive the cassette tape of Sandra's one-woman show WITHOUT YOU, I'M NOTHING, and I wore that tape out memorizing those great monologues, including this favorite one, which somewhat mirrored my eventual clumsy exploration of gender identity:

(since some of you are wondering now, to quote my friend Phil Porter,
"Marc is not gay. It just took him three tries." I'll let you ponder that a while...)

My attraction began to receive a little more acceptance from my friends in adulthood, primarily because of those few years at the end of the '80's/dawn of the '90's when she was palling around with Madonna; girls were interested in this otherwise cult figure she was hanging with, and the guys were wondering if they were doing it. Despite having a public friendship of really less than four years that ended 20 years ago, it is a linking that continues to this day to be discussed by press, columnists, and fans alike when they interview Bernhard. Oftentimes inquiries are in the quest for good dishy dirt (Did Madonna "steal" Sandra's girlfriend? Was she just looking to borrow a dream as it said on page 140?) But on a November 2010 appearance on "THE WENDY WILLIAMS SHOW," she encapsulated what made their time together so enticing to me and other fans, and recently repeated it today to another online interviewer:

"I see why people still link us. It's so rare that two really strong women become good friends and play it out the way we did on the public stage. I'm sorry that the friendship didn't flourish and continue but these things happen with showbiz people. But we really had fun.

Indeed. We do still live in a media environment where the press and the gossip vultures would rather report on (and often themselves incite) catfights and feuds between two female stars, rather than present them working together and mutually elevating themselves. And rewatching that Letterman appearance reminded me of what a great comic team they were, riffing and one-upping each other as David all but yields the floor to them. They could have been the MTV Generation's Martin & Lewis - Madge the smooth unflappable one, Sandra the manic loudmouth. Hollywood seriously screwed up by not putting them in a screwball comedy after this appearance! My first attempt at screenwriting was in fact a buddy movie intended for them.

Which leads to the "frustrating" part of this essay. I have come sooooooooooo tantalizingly close to having a significant encounter with my idol over these decades, but always missed it by that much! Shall I count the ways...

Sandra does a combination spoken word/Q&A at Ohio State around '92. I get my turn at the mic, and after I ask my primary question, I then ask if I can hand up the script I wrote for her. Since she's been making jokes during the show about not getting better roles, she says sure. Audience laughs at my audacity. [Note to craven young screenwriters: This was the early '90's, when this sort of tactic was rare and funny. If you do this today in any public event with your favorite star, you will be booed and castigated, and you will deserve it because this sort of tactic is not cool anymore. DON'T EVER DO THIS!] 20 minutes later, she gets bored with the questions...and begins to read the script out loud! AUDIENCE ROARS! She only gets a few pages in, none of which involve her character, sadly, but her guitarist knows the music cue I wrote in, and plays it underneath her reading. She claims to be intrigued from what she's read, but I never hear back from her despite having all my contact info on the title page.

In '96, a local gay newspaper is sponsoring another Bernhard appearance, and holding a contest for readers to describe what they would do in order to obtain a personal audience with her. I submit that because her words have been so influential to me, I would stand in front of the theatre and have one of her essays painted onto my body, Peter Greenaway/PILLOW BOOK-style. The newspaper declared me as one of the winners of the backstage passes...but the show was cancelled due to illness and never rescheduled.

2000, Sandra does a show at the now-shuttered Knitting Factory in Hollywood. It's a small enough venue I that could cross paths with her if I just find the right exit. But I don't. I do experience a nice moment during the performance, when I notice that standing next to me is her longtime friend and stand-up mentor Mr. Paul Mooney. Within a long audience applause break, I just lean over to him and whisper, "You must be very proud." He smiled and nodded.

Finally, on Halloween 2005, close friend and czarina of the L.A. underworld Lenora Claire gets me a last-minute invite as a costumed "party guest" during a live broadcast of "Queer Edge" with Jack E. Jett on the now-defunct pay-cable channel QTN, because the big prize is that she who smells like angels ought to smell, the goddess, the perfect woman...Sandra Bernhard is the special guest! This is going to be the closest I'd ever get to her. I throw together a makeshift Angus Young costume and race to the studio. As "party guests" we are supposed to be dancing it up during the house band's musical interludes, so I make sure that I throw around lots of energy to sell the concept. It gets a little comical in that every time I try to steal away from the set to hit craft service, the show is about to go back to "the party" and the floor is barren, so we get herded back to fill it up. But hey, them's the rules of being background, so I just start skanking again when the music starts. Sandra stays the whole three hours, and of course she was perfect. Unfortunately...I don't actually get to be that close to her. We are on the same set the whole time of course, but I am...here...and she is...there. And like a good background player, I am not going to overstep my bounds. When the show wraps, I manage to get a few words of admiration to her as she leaves the studio. I mention the Ohio State incident, hoping it will open the door to conversation, and while she laughs, she doesn't stop walking. So...foiled again. But I can't blame her for wanting to get out of Dodge: it was a long shoot, and she probably wanted to go back home to her daughter and share the holiday properly.

No, at this point I am more likely to catch scurvy from Andy Dick than I am to ever have a full, dinner-length conversation with Sandra Bernhard; it's been sufficiently proven that Elijah, Loki, or Yehudi will not stop jockblocking me. But at least nobody can say that I didn't do my damndest...whether or not I should have will be up to you, and hopefully not the Police department, to decide. And I'll always have my vinyl copy of I'M YOUR WOMAN.

So, wherever you've been on your special day - meditating at Kabbalah, cavorting with the kid, crying for Elaine's - thank you, Miss Sandra. You inspired a long-haired, big-nosed misfit kid to take chances and believe in himself. I've been kissed hundreds of times by your words, it's alright if I don't get one from those actual legendary lips.


  1. that sucks you never heard back from her after she read your script, but I bet that was such an amazing experience, having her read your script out loud onstage in front of the whole audience. Anyway I've never seen any of her standup routines so I don't really know anything about her comedy style.

  2. She's really not so much a stand-up as she is a raconteur and monologueist. If you read her books, much of the material is similar to what she would talk about in a show. That's what made her such a great talk show guest even when there was nothing to promote, because she'd be able to riff on current events or whatever the host wanted to throw at her.

  3. The first time I saw Sandra Bernhard in anything was as a guest on The Arsenio Hall Show. At that point, she was merely the villain from HUDSON HAWK and I knew nothing else about her, but based on all the awesome shit she talked that night, I made sure to look up more of her stuff. I'm not sure if it was a good thing to watch WITHOUT YOU, I'M NOTHING at the impressionable age of 12, but I don't regret it and I don't regret having that movie warp my fragile little mind.

    Anyway, it's never too late to hit up Scorsese with a screenplay spin-off/sequel to THE KING OF COMEDY, focusing on the older-but-not-wiser Masha character and her new infatuation with a particular movie geek on a certain Comedy Central game show (this is a period piece, by the way). Of course, DiCaprio would have to play the role of the movie geek, even though Daniel Day Lewis would be a better fit.

  4. Her turn on the BBC Radio program LOOSE ENDS was notable for her unwillingness to take shit from the host...and I would've expected nothing less. She was gracious up to the point where it was clear he was being a twerp.

    WITHOUT YOU I'M NOTHING makes a great double-feature with JESUS IS MAGIC, or so say I.