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Actress-comedienne hasn't lost her edge

As much an activist for social reform as she is an artist, Sandra Bernhard's strong opinions about politics, sex, and the cut-throat industry she thrives in infiltrate her work.
/ Source: NBC News producer

Someone once said that all comedy has a victim. When a person gets a pie in the face, or slips on a banana peel, it’s pretty easy to tell who’s ‘taking it’ for a laugh. 

You’re not likely to see Sandra Bernhard in either scenario. For Bernhard’s performances are not about cheap laughs. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t funny.

As much an activist for social reform as she is an artist, her strong opinions about politics, sex, and even the cut-throat industry she thrives in infiltrate her work. Sometimes the result is satire — as in her wildly successful stage performances. Still other times it’s in the form of a powerful dramatic role on film or television. Whatever the setting, most of the time it manages to push peoples buttons. 

An aspiring performer since the age of five, at 19 she headed for Hollywood — spending her days as a manicurist and her nights breaking into the standup comedy scene. From early on, she brought with her a unique perspective, best encapsulated in a quote about her family background: “My mother’s an abstract artist, my father’s a proctologist... That’s how I view the world.” 

It’s a view that has gotten her both laughs — and work. 

By 1977 she got her break as a writer and performer on “The Richard Pryor Show.”  But ironically, her breakthrough role was less funny than it was chilling — in the 1983 Martin Scorcese film “The King Of Comedy,” in which she played a fan obsessed with a popular celebrity. 

Nearly 30 years later, she’s a popular celebrity herself, with a formidable resume that includes film and television roles, books, CDs, a successful Broadway run and status as a gay icon. 

But film and television roles aside, what has always captivated people most is the real Sandra. The one that comes across on stage. The one that unapologetically targets celebrities, religion, sex and politics. The one that can send a person into hilarity or fury. 

The fascination with the ‘real’ Sandra has led television casting directors and scriptwriters to make roles that suit her edgy, irreverent, no-holds barred style. This month she’ll make multiple appearances on both “Crossing Jordan,” NBC’s series about a Boston medical examiner, and Showtime’s “The L Word,” which follows a group of lesbians living in Los Angeles.

You’re appearing on two different shows right now — both shows have a completely different tone. Tell me about them.
First I’m going to be on NBC’s "Crossing Jordan". My first episode is February 13. I play a forensics detective. Kind of tough, but a little bit funny. The character plays to me and my own strengths. It’s really a kind of fun role. I’m also on five episodes of “The ‘L’ Word.”  I play an English professor who kind of whips the Mia Kirschner character Jenny into shape as she turns her into a writer. 

It seems a lot of roles are tailored around you — a little edgy and a little funny — do you like that?
I do. It’s really nice to be able to speak other people’s words — not to have to depend on my own writing all the time. That’s a little bit of a relief sometimes. It’s fun to just immerse myself in a character as well. 

In most of your television work you tend to lend a ‘realness’ and uniqueness to your characters. Even in your sitcom work. What’s your take on television now — does the current formula of ‘fat crazy funny leading man with sexy sensible leading lady wife’ make you crazy?
I think television should be completely revamped and started from scratch — with the exception of obviously a few great shows. Like “The Sopranos,” for example. And “The L Word” kind of takes the soap opera theme to its extreme. So at least it’s interesting. And of course it deals with gay women, which makes it different. It’s broken into a different world. There are a few good shows but I think in general everything is just a rehash. And now, every desperate performer, actor or actress wants to try and cash in on the reality thing and show her life or his life ... and it’s not really worthy of that kind of time or energy.  

One of the things you’re loved for is your ability to call people on their behavior in a very honest way. So turn the tables on me — what’s your opinion of people who interview celebrities?
I think in general the media has slipped into a very low-brow level of interaction, whether its political or entertainment. That's why when people like Johnny Carson go off the scene it’s so potent because we miss somebody who had that kind of class and dignity. He could draw out the best in somebody and still make it fun and crazy and interesting and sexy and sophisticated. And I think there’s a huge level of sophistication missing from entertainment right now. And that is something I always pride myself on maintaining throughout all my work. 

You’ve never been afraid to call celebrities in particular to task on something they’ve done or said. What reaction do you get from a celebrity you bust on during your act? Have you had anyone react to you uncomfortably?
Not so much lately — I have kind of backed away from that. I’ll still talk about something but it’s not really the main statement in my act anymore. It’s more for color than the black and white of my act. I think over the years maybe people have been a little intimidated ... but I don’t think I go for the jugular. I try to make it into something that’s more sophisticated and come around with an angle other than the obvious.

I’m curious... now that you have a daughter, has she ever called you on your own behavior?
It’s really funny actually, I was just interviewed on CNN the other night and afterwards she said to me,  “I never thought of you as an ‘Um’ girl before.” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well you know, when people say ‘umm...umm...’  I heard two ‘Um’s from you. I was rather surprised.” Oh my God! She totally busted me. Because they is nothing more irritating than a person who keeps going ‘like’ or ‘um.’ It’s so indicative of a lack of focus! And she picked up on that and I was just like, ‘Where did that come from?’ She’s a pretty smart kid. 

If you could erase one trend right now — whether it’s low rise jeans or Britney Spears — make it go away and never come back, what would it be?
I wish that stupidity would just go away and people would get back to great, sophisticated, fun humor and smart interaction. I think it’s so easy to be dumb. That’s easy. 

Given that you’re opinionated,  do people mistakenly think before meeting you that you’re going to be a mean person? Because you don’t strike me as mean.
I don’t think so much anymore. I think I’ve done enough that people see that other side of me. But there are always people that are going to be threatened and intimidated, and there’s really not a lot that you can do about that until you meet them yourself and make them feel comfortable. 

You’re opening another show in Los Angeles, right?
Yes, it opens March 9. It’s kind of a cross of political, a few of my old standards from different shows and some new pieces that are all going to be interwoven with really great music. I put together a new band ... it's very rock and roll oriented. It's kind of like “Me Now” with a little bit of old favorites. 

Okay, on a totally different note, I’ve seen you perform twice, and both times you’ve waxed poetic about Stevie Nicks. One time about visiting her house and finding scarves draped all over. So tell me — how well do you really know her?
I have a medium relationship with Steve Nicks. I’ve hung out with her. I interviewed her for MTV. I see her whenever she’s around. I love her and she knows I love her. I always throw something about Stevie in all my shows.

All the better we got her into this interview then. 

NBC’s “Crossing Jordan” airs Sundays on NBC. “The L Word” begins its second season February 20 on Showtime. Check local listings for showtimes.