SANDRA BERNHARD does not take herself too seriously. Well, she thinks she has something to say, but she's never going to start talking about herself as an Artist. Three years ago, when I asked her to name a cinematic guilty pleasure, she chose the seminal Rob Lowe/Demi Moore '80s extravaganza About Last Night. You'd be surprised how many celebrities act as though, dammit, they just can't come up with something other than Fellini.
Bernhard's back in Seattle with Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part 2 (Moore Theatre, Sat., Feb. 14, 206-292-ARTS), another excuse for her to sing?she's accompanied by Mitch Kaplan on piano and Pamela Adams on guitar?and comment on whatever happens to be appalling her at the moment.
Seattle Weekly: Are you doing anything different onstage now?
Sandra Bernhard: It's a little more political, but my stuff has been since 9/11. Immediately after 9/11, I was out there telling it like it is . . .
. . . Calling people on their sanctimonious crap . . .
Yeah, and everything I said has come to pass, but, you know, I kind of kept it under the radar. I guess I could've gone on CNN and exploited it, but it's just not my style, you know? And I also don't want to be known as a political pundit?you know, that Dennis Miller kind of thing. How long can you talk about that and make a living out of it?
What subject for you is untouchable?
I just try to stay away from stuff that's just crappy and cheap. Like Michael Jackson?there's not much light to shed on the subject. If I can't bring anything new to [it], I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon. That's my policy.
You've always walked this razor's edge between skewering popular culture and embracing it. How do you keep from becoming the thing you mock?
I think day-to-day living just won't let you go there. I mean, unless you're like Marianne Faithfull or somebody, who is just out there and lives her illusion.
Do you think you've gotten enough respect for your influence on other performers?
There was stuff in the movie of Hedwig that was a direct rip-off from my film of Without You I'm Nothing that kind of bugged me a little bit. Like he had the audience sitting there not laughing. I thought that was a little funky. But other than that, I don't even think about it. I mean, Lily Tomlin is a huge influence on me?I don't think my work is anything like hers, but she was a huge influence. And so was Bette Midler?not the present Bette Midler. The crazy Bette Midler I saw at the Palace Theater in 1973 when I was 18 years old. That Bette Midler. But I always give it up, and acknowledge those influences.
OK, you have to forgive me, but every homosexual I know will kill me if I don't ask this: Do you and Madonna still talk?
Well, we actually speak again, because she comes to Kabbalah and studies. I see her there quite a bit. We don't hang out, but it's cool. It's easier that way, I think. Makes life easier.
Has Kabbalah changed the way you approach your work?
To a certain degree. I think I'm a little more conscious about things. And there is a subliminal kind of message that comes through without getting sentimental and too weird. Just that there are definitely some other forces working in the universe that need to be respected and that we need to respect each other.
Once you start thinking that way, is it hard to be funny at the expense of other people?
I think there are ways of telling the truth and not trashing people. But I don't think I've ever trashed people. I've never taken cheap shots. It's not like Joan Rivers: "She's ugly! She's fat!" I try to keep it intelligent and elevated. You don't want to rip somebody to shreds in a way that doesn't help anybody.
How do you start putting together a show?
I'll write ideas down. And then I'll just go up onstage and start riffing. I love improvising, and that's something that's always been a big part of my work.
Will you still be improvising here?
Oh, yeah. I did New Year's Eve here in New York, two shows back-to-back, and both shows were completely different. Either I'm in the mood to do it and I'm in that head space, or I'm not. I have material to fall back on. But when I'm on a roll, it's like it's something you can't even control, you're not even thinking about it. It just happens, and it's just magic.