She’s Still Here. . . Damn It!

Rhonda Lieberman at Sandra Bernhard’s holiday show

Left and right: Sandra Bernhard at Joe’s Pub. (Photos: Julian Ross)

LAST WEDNESDAY, I attended the first of an “unprecedented eight” back-to-back holiday shows by Sandra Bernhard at Joe’s Pub. “So great to be back again and again and again,” the sassy celeb quipped of her return to the downtown venue. “I wasn’t going anywhere—literally or figuratively.” Festive!

The space, newly renovated to squeeze in more bodies, was packed with fans. My friend and I took our places and were dismayed to be seated across from a glum tween. She was there with her mother to see her piano teacher play with Bernhard, who scanned the room from her little perch: “Looking out at you all from this big stage, it feels like Carnegie Hall. But I always feel like that—I’m delusory.” (“She has the same plastic surgeon as Nicole Kidman,” I heard behind me.)

In a sparkly black A-line sheath, russett curls, and oozing JAP-py glamour, La Bernhard opened with a vigorous rendition of “Laughter in the Rain.” She was sellin’ it. Then, mercifully, she switched to the patter, which seemed to be a work in progress. Stuff about her condo board; cleaning out her daughter’s closet and donating the clothes she outgrew to the needy—like Taylor Momsen; “rough sexual fantasies” about an old plumber of hers she looked up on the Internet (“I hope this gets ugly,” I overheard); Bristol Palin’s purchase of a $350,000 house and her confusing role as spokesmodel for both abstinence and Candies shoes. Riffing on all manner of celebrity kitsch (from royal weddings to Cindy Crawford’s JCPenney sheets and “Meaningful Beauty” products, “full of parabens,” SB sniffed, that her WASP girlfriend uses nevertheless) with the trio of musicians installed behind her like potted plants. (“This is the easiest gig these musicians have ever had.”) She usually has a lady drummer, she explained, for sisterhood and solidarity—and then the backstabbing, the bitchiness, and competition . . .

There were only five songs, but the audience wasn’t there for music or even witticisms—they were there for personality and attitude, which they received in spades. For the intimacy of Bernhard’s exhibitionism in full throttle (and her superpower: managing to be entitled and needy at once). She was both arch and eager to please with that archness safely diverted toward others: Tyra Banks and her “alien forehead” (“You’re no Linda Evangelista!”); Kim Jong-il “in a swing coat and a pair of Chanel glasses”; and Gwyneth Paltrow (“Are you the macrobiotic chef or are you the arbiter of everything European?” Make up your mind, Gwyneth!). My favorite was her riff on Lady Gaga always reaching out to “my gays,” protecting “my little monsters, my gays” (faux-weeps in sympathy). “The gays are fine!” said Bernhard to hoots of applause from the gay-filled room. “They have taste! They do everything better. It’s the straights—with their ill-fitting pants—who need help!” (I paraphrase.) There were existential moments, too, when she paused to ponder: “Why does the fingerless lace glove make a comeback every few years?”

She sang with the gusto and imperfection of a karaoke singer living the dream (that people actually paid fifty dollars to see). Her song choices were a nostalgic mix of 1970s radio hits, vintage Prince, and the poignant “When the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly!, which Bernhard saw as a child in Flint, Michigan, starring Carol Channing. (She was surprised, she recalled, that her parents hadn’t arranged for the young Bernhard to go backstage to meet the star. Always entitled!)

After regaling us thusly, she disappeared for the one costume change of the night, reemerging in black fishnets (sans pants, à la Elaine Stritch), a white V-neck T, and a saucy black hat for her finale, belting out “Sex Shooter” (by Apollonia 6, of Prince’s “Purple Rain” era) and gyrating with unsettling sincerity.

“It’s like she dares you to say she’s bad.”

Indeed, it was an “intimate” evening as advertised with the hard-working performer. And oy, she’s doing it seven more times before New Year’s. Near the exit, sporting a comfy flannel shirt against the draft, Bernhard was installed behind a table signing merch: a tote bag that read MAMA’S GOT A BRAND NEW BAG! SANDRABERNHARD.COM, T-shirts, DVDs, and glamour shot posters of herself. Fans clustered around the table while another line formed for the 9:30 show.

“It’s a factory here,” said my friend.

Happy holidays!