Sandra Bernhard Searches for the Soul of America in Sandra Monica Blvd

In anticipation of her show tomorrow evening, the famed comedian opines on Madonna, Mary Tyler Moore, and why women still capitulate to men.

Sandra Bernhard brings Sandra Monica Blvd to The Regency Ballroom on Thursday, Feb. 16 (Maro Hagopian)

With all the national turmoil today, travel has become less comfortable for comedian Sandra Bernhard.

“Now, the way that things are politically, I’d rather stick close to home or gather my family and leave the country completely,” she says, “and either go to Mexico or Canada where they have presidents who are good looking and seemingly sentient and able to run their countries quite nicely.”  

But before becoming the star of groundbreaking stand-up shows Without You I’m Nothing, I’m Still Here … Dammit! and I Love Being Me, Don’t You?, and appearing in scores of films and TV shows, including The King of Comedy, Roseanne and 2 Broke Girls, as well as launching her popular SiriusXM radio show, Sandyland, on Radio Andy, getting from one to the other was far easier.

In fact, she could get from her West Hollywood apartment to the Beverly Hills nail salon, Cia Coiffeurs — where she did manicures for celebrities like Jaclyn Smith, Tina Louise and Victoria Principal — in a matter of minutes. Just south of “Little Santa Monica Blvd,” the now-extinct salon is symbolic of a place and time that was far simpler for Bernhard and serves as inspiration for her current show.

In Sandra Monica Blvd: Coast to Coast, which comes to The Regency Ballroom on Thursday, Feb. 16, Bernhard drives across space and time, to locate an American essence that we have sadly left behind.

SF Weekly spoke to Bernhard about traveling through changing times, when even San Francisco was easier to visit, why some women just can’t ditch the patriarchy and how the late and great Mary Tyler Moore helped steer her toward the woman she’d become.

When I think of Santa Monica Blvd., I think of gay hustlers. Was that top of mind when you conceived your new show title, Sandra Monica Blvd: Coast to Coast

No, I was just trying to come up with funny, different ways of mixing my name into things. I came to L.A. when I was really young, to start my career and worked in Beverly Hills as a manicurist. So I was thinking of “Little Santa Monica Blvd.,” in Beverly Hills. Just the vibe of the ’70s and how easy it was to get from point A to point B. When I lived in West Hollywood, I could drive to work in seven minutes. It’s about the changing times.

But yes, I hung out in West Hollywood, so I probably had friends who were hustlers. They may not have admitted it, though. 

Your new show is about traveling across history and America. But now, with your new Sirius radio show, Sandyland, aren’t you staying put more?

Yeah, the radio show is my big gig, and I like being at home, so it’s great that I don’t have to travel as much. But it doesn’t really dictate where my life is headed. I’ve developed a great following, but at some point I’ll get cast back on a television show or get a big film, so I’ll do it for as long as it works for me.  When I stop doing it, I’ll be sad. But it doesn’t hinder my ability to travel. 

Your stand-up shows always incorporate musical numbers. What’s your song selection process?

I like a song you can tell a story through, even if it seems like the craziest, most off-the-wall song. I like to think I’m choosing songs that are seemingly superficial and bringing more meaning than was ever intended. I’m attracted to those anthemic songs because the things you’re listening to as you’re driving along, from high school or a trip, they’re the backdrops of an experience. I like songs I can bring something to, where there’s a certain emotion that I can mine from the song.

If your previous shows are any indication, then I imagine that politics will be discussed. What’s the single greatest issue in America today?

I think what surprises me the most is the misogyny. There’s a big fear on the part of the patriarchy of losing control. But everything is changing very quickly and that scares people, including a lot of women who capitulate to men. 

Sandra Bernhard takes a road trip across space and time, in Sandra Monica Blvd.
(Magnus Hastings)

Why do women still capitulate, in your opinion?

They grew up with the patriarchy where the man took care of things and the woman served the man. The man tells you what to do, and you sacrifice your ability to navigate through life the way you want to. That creates resentment toward women who are able to climb out of the norm and have support.

But change is not for everybody.

Women aren’t always supportive of each other. Cyndi Lauper’s recent criticism of Madonna’s fiery speech at the Women’s March comes to mind. 

Madonna wasn’t being literal, and she didn’t suggest that she wanted to band with terrorists and blow up the White House. She was in the moment and being off the cuff in the way she does. Who fucking cares? She certainly has the right take on it. 

You can’t expect Madonna to be Angela Davis or Gloria Steinem. Everybody has their level that they express themselves at, and not everyone’s a great thinker or an intellectual. Obviously, Madonna’s not an idiot. She’s a provocateur in her way, as I am in my way.

As a comedian and outspoken fan of Mary Tyler Moore’s, you were in my mind when I learned of her passing, last month. Can you describe what she meant to you?

She got me through high school. It was right at the precipice of the feminist movement, and she magnified it and brought it to life in a really great, funny way on her show. When you’re an impressionable 15- or 16-year-old woman, especially then, you were looking for role models, and there weren’t a lot of them. But Mary was a working girl, and her sense of style, her sense of independence, like being able to spend Saturday nights with Rhoda and not have to go on a date — that was an earth-shattering revelation for a lot of women. 

You first met her backstage, after a performance of Without You I’m Nothing at the Orpheum, in New York?

She knew what a huge fan I was, so she came backstage and was just so gracious and sweet. I was just so in awe and moved. She said, “What you do is so brave.” She was just so sweet and cool. I said, “Mary, thank you. Coming from you…” It was one of those amazing moments. 

Wasn’t a segment of Without You I’m Nothing based on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

There was a piece about becoming an executive secretary in San Francisco that was based on Mary because of her influence and the idea of moving to my favorite city in the world when I was growing up, which was San Francisco, and being a young, swinging lady in the working world there, which seemed endlessly glamorous.

How familiar were you with San Francisco back then?

My brother went to dental school there, so I was up there quite a bit, visiting him from LA. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there was always a great hotel to stay at. San Francisco was not the way it is now; you could afford to go there and hang out and see a play at the A.C.T. Now, you can’t afford to go there anymore. I go, because I’m going to work. It’s one extreme or the other: either you’re homeless or you have a billion dollars to live there. 

San Francisco is just a great city. Physically, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it just needs to go back to the way it was. Get all those tech people out of there, and let the freaks come back in. Let’s gear up the Castro and get people in leather. 

You’ve told a lot of funny jokes about San Francisco. Every Fleet Week, I repeat the bit about your stay at the Hotel Nikko, when your attempt at relaxation before a performance at The Rrazz Room was thwarted by noisy Blue Angels flying overhead.  You joked about how our government has no money for education, but we have money for this.

Yes, that’s right. It was Fleet Week, and it was crazy. They were flying all over the place, and I was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ It was insane. 

You’re not afraid to ride public figures about their shortcomings. What are you hardest on yourself about?

Just being somebody who’s easy to live with and a part of life in a way that makes me not be a diva. I don’t want people to expect that they have to wait on me hand and foot. That’s a real pitfall for people in the business. I think it’s important to stay connected to things that are seemingly mundane. You have to do them and have to be a part of your family and your life and take responsibility.

Sandra Bernhard, Feb. 16, at The Regency Ballroom, 1290 Sutter St, $52.50-$65, 415-673-5716 or theregencyballroom.com.

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