YOU MIGHT SAY THAT Sandra Bernhard’s one-woman show Without You I’m Nothing, a lacerating, exhilarating dissection of popular culture told in monologue and song that opened Off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theater in the spring of 1988, had been in rehearsals since 1983. That year, she not only terrified and turned on David Letterman in her first of several appearances on his late-night TV show but also tied up Jerry Lewis in her role as rabid stalker Masha in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. “I wish I was Tina Turner,” she coos at one point to Lewis’s Johnny Carson–inspired character, his mouth sealed with duct tape. Largely improvised by Bernhard, this scene illuminates two key aspects of her 1988 show, if not all her work in general: her aggressive volubility and her brilliant tweaking of boundaries between insider and outsider, narcissism and abjection.
In the film adaptation of Without You I’m Nothing (1990), which Bernhard co-wrote with John Boskovich, director of both stage and screen versions, she performs her act in an “upscale supper-club” in Los Angeles in front of a simulated audience. Bernhard re-creates many of the original’s hilarious bits—such as her take on Prince (“the little man who sits all alone under a cherry moon”), equal parts tribute and lampoon—but also adds a new target of ridicule: herself. Bernhard’s extreme self-regard has often had more than a touch of self-mockery in it: “I’m so glad you can see how truly beautiful I am. Right now,” she says slowly and emphatically, turning away from her dressing-room mirror to directly address the camera in the movie’s opening minutes. But throughout the film, she explores more uncomfortable scenarios, spotlighting the absurdity that results when white performers take too much license in appropriating African American touchstones—a crime that she preempts by declaring herself already guilty. Dressed in a voluminous print dress and head wrap—as if she were cluelessly auditioning for Sweet Honey in the Rock—Bernhard launches into Nina Simone’s anthemic “Four Women”; this deliberately risible display elicits looks of horror, disbelief, and boredom from the boîte’s mostly black patrons. By the end, there will be only one audience member left, an African American woman who has drifted throughout the film in a handful of its cutaway vignettes—and who delivers the ultimate dismissal.
This conceit of the indifferent or hostile audience, though, never interferes with the film’s greatest pleasure: Bernhard’s renditions of top-40 hits, from the LBJ era on, in her piquant sketches about sexual revolution or devolution. “Imagine it’s 1978… and you’re straight,” she begins one segment before segueing into Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”; in another, pegged to a then-notorious Newsweek cover story about women’s chances of marrying after thirty-five, she, with her backup singers, performs a Burt Bacharach medley while assuming the persona of an executive secretary determined to snare the boss. While some of Bernhard’s once highly salient references may be completely forgotten now (it took me a few minutes to remember who Martika was), Without You I’m Nothing clearly left its mark on two performers who also peerlessly anatomized, to a pop beat, the incongruities of the 1990s and ’00s: Kiki and Herb.
Without You I’m Nothing screens December 14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of “Migrating Forms.”