Art

Iconic Comedian Sandra Bernhard Is Coming to Gothic Theatre

Sandra Bernhard
Sandra Bernhard Brett Erickson
The first time Sandra Bernhard ate sushi was in 1965, and she was in one of the last places you'd want to order it back then: Denver. "We were moving from Flint, Michigan, to Arizona, and we drove cross-country and we stopped in Denver. My mother was obsessed with everything Japanese at the time, so we had sushi for the first time there," she recalls with a laugh. "We were staying in the Brown Palace Hotel — very grand ol' dame."

Thankfully, her experience with landlocked ’60s sushi didn't keep her from coming back. "It's so evocative, Colorado," she continues. "We'd take some summer trips through there, and it may have had more impact forty years ago than it does now, because these places were so much more wide open, you know? Now every place has craft beers and farm-to-table restaurants and boutique hotels — yeah, the world has changed. And of course, that's great. But when I was little, it was like the Old West — miles and miles and miles of open space, and that big sky."

The New York-based comedian is returning to Denver on Saturday, January 21, to perform her Soul'd Out show at the Gothic Theatre, where you'll hear her life stories as well as her political and social commentary that's both hilarious and visceral. "I think we've always been a conservative country," she remarks, after just offering performances in Texas and South Carolina. "I think people have always leaned toward the fearful. But now it's just more on the table than it ever was. That bums me out."

The brazen Bernhard has witnessed a lot of changes during her four-decade career, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community. Bernhard was already openly bisexual when she played the first openly bi character on American TV as Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne from 1991 to 2007. "We've had a revolution with the whole gay community and the trans community. People have finally realized that everybody knows somebody who's gay — whether it's your child, your brother or your father," she says with a laugh. "And you can't pretend that you don't know them, and you can't dislike them because you love them, and then you go, 'Well, then, I'm going to accept them and I'm going to be open, and then I'm gonna meet their partner or their husband or wife or whatever they are,' and you're gonna go, 'I liked this person, too.' Then it becomes normalized, and yet we're still, as a community, interesting people.

"But if you're not an interesting person, your sexuality isn't going to suddenly make you compelling," she adds. "To me, I don't care about your sexuality. Are you an interesting, deep, original person? That's what matters to me more than anything. A non-judgmental person. But the world has accelerated, society has elevated, and that's a wonderful thing."

Although some complain that "woke" movements have gotten in the way of comedy, Bernhard sees it as an opportunity to toss stale content and be more creative. "I know for myself, I've had to trim certain amounts of fat off of my main course," she says, "because there were things I used to say, or voices I would use or people I'd reference, and that's just not cool. It's not acceptable. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes people of different origins feel like you're taking advantage. And you know what? I don't want to be one of those people. So I approach things from a different perspective now, and that makes me work a little harder. And that's all that we can expect of ourselves: to keep evolving as artists and reflecting the culture at large. Not try to fight it, but try to find good, unique ways into it, to make it still interesting and compelling."

Bernhard has always been interesting. Taking cues from comedians and performers she admired growing up, such as Carol Burnett and Carol Channing, she's never held back on voicing her opinion, punctuated by her signature storytelling songs and brash charm. While Bernhard is the definition of a multi-hyphenate, she says that word wasn't even in Hollywood vocabulary when she was starting out in Los Angeles at nineteen.

"That's not how you described things! It was just, 'You're an entertainer,' and that was sort of all-encompassing," she says, citing Burnett and Barbra Streisand as examples. "The people that I grew up watching just were entertainers, and they were really good at everything, because they worked really hard and they had natural talent. And I had natural talent. I just grew up being entertaining and funny and being able to sing and just do my funny little stories."

That natural talent, coupled with her unabashed self-confidence and incredible work ethic, made her a star. Bernhard was a regular at the famed Comedy Store in West Hollywood for years before she landed her big break in Martin Scorsese's 1982 dark comedy The King of Comedy, for which she won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress.

"I started performing at nineteen, and I got King of Comedy by 26. So that's pretty fast, I think, for those days, and for being who I was, which was a bit 'offbeat' — that was a term that was popular back in the ’70s," she explains. "And then I just sort of kept getting my sea legs. The more you perform, the more you understand who you are, and then the deeper you can go in terms of your resources and your ability as an actor and a storyteller and a singer. Because everything comes from that place of authenticity — like, when you sing, you're singing because there's something in you that connects to the lyrics to the music and moves you. Then you, in turn, move the audience. The same goes with your stories. You know, there are stories that are rooted in something that have meaning, and then suddenly, everybody's connecting and you're at one with an audience. And people all walk away, including me, after a great show and feel fulfilled. It's like another level of the intimacy and love that we're all looking for."

Bernhard's work ethic and goals are somewhat lost in today's Hollywood, which is brimming with a new type of celebrity: social media influencers. "Having been in this business since I was nineteen, and going into it with a real love of entertaining and wanting to make people feel good — it's just so foreign to me," she says of social media's impact on celebrity. "It's just so abstract, and it bums me out and kind of goes hand in hand with everything else we've talked about — the bigness and the beauty and the austerity. I think we've just bitten ourselves in the ass over and over again with things that are just not worthy. ... Everybody looks the same and talks the same and has the same sort of desire, and it's not for anything that has an endgame to me."

It's no wonder that's an abstract life for Bernhard, who simply can't shed her industrious nature and unstoppable talent. Aside from her SiriusXM show Sandyland, in which she interviews other interesting celebrities such as Jane Fonda, she's acting in films, including Ryan Murphy's Pose and American Horror Story NYC. In Pose, she played a nurse who cared for AIDs patients, a role that resonated for her. "In 1988, I was based in L.A., but I did my first one-woman show, Without You, I'm Nothing, in New York for six months. And I shot King of Comedy there, so I was always in and out of New York," she reflects. "It was happening on all the coasts and everywhere in between — people were getting AIDS. My friends, several of my friends who were very, very close to me, got AIDS and died. It was very traumatic time. So to be able to turn those experiences into my work was very fulfilling, and there was so much to draw on."

And there's a lot to draw on for her stage shows, too, including her upcoming performance at the Gothic. "I sort of address Americana in one way, but then, of course, it's all very personal with anecdotal stories," she says of her current comedy show. "We have songs in and out; it's not always obvious why the songs are there. I also address the COVID experience to a certain degree, but not beating you over the head with it. And there's glamorous stories and there's showbiz stories. It really covers snapshots of my life. You sort of just walk away going, 'Oh, I feel I know Sandy better than I ever did before.' That's always been sort of the motivation behind my shows. It's like giving you a glimpse into my life, and welcoming people in."

Sandra Bernhard Soul'd Out, 8 p.m. Saturday, January 21, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood. Tickets are $55-$85.
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Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson

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