Friday October 19, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Outrageous is the adjective most often attached to the proper noun Sandra Bernhard.

Displaying a bit more imagination, a New York Times critic once employed the phrase "living, breathing bonfire" to describe this celebrated comedian and actress, hailing one of her shows as "an angst-driven, foul-mouthed, poison-laced joy ride that banks and careens frenetically through the worlds of fashion, celebrity, rock and religion."

This appraisal might very well serve to summarize Bernhard’s performance persona and circle of interests. And it is one that might possibly intimidate someone meeting the off-stage Bernhard for the first time, but never fear. The Sandra Bernhard that rang up our phone one afternoon last week proved to be one of the brightest and most level-headed -- if not always the calmest -- of new acquaintances in memory.

On that particular day, speaking from her home downtown on the west side of Manhattan, she said she was preparing to join her friend, Jane Fonda, at a fund-raising event later that evening for G-CAPP -- Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy.

"It raises money for women’s reproductive rights," she said, noting her vigorous support for the current petitions circulating across the country for a women’s Bill of Reproductive Rights.

"Yes, I’m involved," she said, "in two or three different things. Every woman worth their salt should be out there on the frontlines -- over the next four years, don’t destroy the forward progress we’ve made over the last four years."

And here, the Bernhard crusader became more specific as she scrolled momentarily into the pithily assertive Sandra Bernhard stage figure so lovingly embraced in certain circles: "Okay, Mitt Romney," she exclaimed. "Take my ovaries, take my vagina!"

When it was suggested that perhaps some of that language might be too strong for a general-circulation newspaper, she snorted, "Oh, come on," noting her perceived notion that Berkshires people are sophisticated -- "I assume you know what a vagina is!"

Bernhard said she is looking forward to her first trip to the Berkshires, and her gig Saturday evening at 8 on the stage of the Colonial Theatre, for an encounter with this sophisticated reputation that we have -- and that persona she has developed no doubt will be on full throttle: The show is called "I Love Being Me, Don’t You?"

Her live performances delight her fans as a hybrid of stand-up comedy and music, including rock and roll -- a raucous mixture of political satire, pop culture and other commentary, far from idle -- a cabaret, it would seem, seasoned with red hot chili peppers.

Although Bernhard’s routine enjoys a title, it clearly is not routine, she says. "The show has evolved over the year-and-a-half that I’ve been doing it. I change the songs, night to night. It’s very different each time. And now before the electionĊ " she added, seeming to grin audibly in anticipation of another opportunity to assail and conquer.

Born in Flint, Mich., in 1955, to Jeanette and Jerome Bernhard, young Sandra moved with her family to Scottsdale, Ariz., when she was 9. But the serenity of a place like Scottsdale was not for her. The budding comedic flair -- a weird kind -- already was bubbling within her. Of her Jewish family, she once observed, "My father was a proctologist and my mother was an abstract artist, so that’s how I view the world."

"I graduated high school a half-year early and went to manicuring school, to support myself," she recalled.

Then she went west, to Los Angeles, discovering The Comedy Store, a hot spot for stand-up comedians, located in the building that once housed Ciro’s night club in a different era of night life.

She became a staple there, and as her popularity grew she was discovered in the old Hollywood fashion, and cast as a supporting player on "The Richard Pryor Show." Guest appearances on evening talk shows followed, and Martin Scorsese saw her and selected her to be Masha, the stalker and kidnapper in the film "King of Comedy," which brought her the Best Supporting Actress award from the National Society of Film Critics.

Unlike Sarah Palin, Bernard has regular reading habits, and they inform her comedic turns. She said she reads the New York Times, New York magazine, and much on the internet -- politico, the daily kos, the Huffington Post, and a lot of blogs.

And she tweets. "I have 194,000 Twitter friends," she said with obvious pride, and she spends about 15 or 20 minutes a day propelling such missives as "the creator said cut the crap mitt this is so maudlin your freakin me out!" Or, when she discovered the website declaration of a certain doctor and Republican congressman, "All life should be cherished and protected. We are pro-life," and learned that the lawmaker had surreptitiously tried to persuade his mistress to get an abortion: Bernhard tweeted indignantly: "do you get it now freaks!"

In our interview, Bernhard was more sympathetic than some progressives to President Obama’s first debate mishaps: "Obama was blown out, exhausted," she said. "It’s very hard for a very intelligent person, a well-read person, to stand there and watch somebody lie."

Thursday, following the second debate, she tweeted eagerly and succinctly: "two winners tonight my [Detroit] tigers and Barack Obama and I love it!’

Doubtlessly she’ll have more to say about the latter Saturday night, and perhaps the former, as well, depending on how things fall for the hapless Yankees, who clearly receive no sympathy from Sandra Bernhard.