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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

'Optimistic' Sandra Bernhard readies annual year-end Joe's Pub shows

Excerpt from Sandra Bernhard's recent appearance on Andy Cohen's "Watch What Happens: Live"

Another year, another upcoming year-end run of Sandra Bernhard shows at New York’s Joe’s Pub.

This year she’s calling it Quick Sand—sensible in that she’s always fast on her feet on stage, rarely in danger of getting stuck.

At least it seems that way.

“It’s always the same thing for me this time of year!” Bernhard says with a mix of resignation and indignation underscored by an incredulous “What the f***?”

By which she refers maybe to the current state of the union, definitely to the intense preparation for the whirlwind Joe’s Pub engagement commencing, as usual, Dec. 26 and running through New Year’s Eve.

“I just did five shows in Los Angeles—the culmination of the last two years of material since the last time I played there—along with some new improvised stuff that I’ll use here in New York,” says Bernhard, a longtime New York resident who has also lived in Los Angeles.

But virtually everything else in the New York shows will be new.

“They’re always so crazy--like being in the room with neutrons bouncing all over the place,” says Bernhard, and it’s a pretty accurate description. Mixing monologue with music, she does come well-prepared, but is so spontaneous anyway that anything can happen, and always does.

“It’s a matter of clearing your mind,” she continues. “All year long I keep notes and over-write material—because some of it ends up being stale or not worth talking about, while some of it is great and still holds up by the end of the year. Then some stuff is written at the last minute! That’s my process for the Joe’s Pub shows: It’s a little looser than if I was doing a theater show for six months, but people expect it to be a little rough around the edges, with content that I might never do again.”

It remains high pressure, though, and Bernhard says she wasn’t sure about returning to Joe’s Pub this time at all.

“I’m always a little nervous at the start, but once I settle into the set list and just go with it, it’s okay,” she says. “I’m glad I’m doing it.”

As ever, she’s reluctant to divulge any of the new material—especially the songs, which she knows the rabid Bernhard fans who come year after year will find out about soon enough anyway.

“There is a bit of a surprise musically—I have a trumpet player!” she reveals of her Sandyland Squad Band, which takes its name from her Sandyland Sirius XM radio show. “It breaks it open a bit and makes it fun.”

Gabe Medd on trumpet now joins guitarist Ben Eunson, drummer John Badamo and her longtime music director/pianist Mitch Kaplan in filling out the Squad.

“We’ve really worked on the songs,” Bernhard continues. “I always try to find my way into songs with stories—and always wonder how many more stories I have to tell! But somehow I manage to find more stories.”

And while she always comes up with new repertoire—both originals and choice covers—she will dust off an old Bernhard show standard for next week.

“People want to hear the old things that still resonate, so I’ve refurbished one of my songs,” she says.

Looking back over 2018, Bernhard observes that “last year I felt more optimistic politically, whereas this year we’ve been in the doldrums. But after this constant purging of everything we believed and knew—and flipping the House blue—I’m optimistic again at the end of the year. And I’m glad because I hate to have to be heavy and hit people over the head with what they hear every day. I just want to be able to entertain people and have an upbeat state of mind.”

So Bernhard is optimistic going into next week’s Joe’s Pub shows.

“The show’s fun again--as it was last year,” she says. “I don’t have to go into a funky downer place.”

Meanwhile, Bernhard is coming off of a busy acting year—with more to come in 2019.

“I just did an episode of American Horror Story, and I was on the first season of Pose—which [like American Horror Story] is another Ryan Murphy creation,” she says, the latter series being about the voguing scene of the 1980s. “Ryan stepped forward and anointed me and now my acting is back in the groove again!”

Indeed, Bernhard will be a Pose series regular next year. She has also shot an episode of the Starz series Sweetbitter (where she plays a restaurant owner), and because of her acting commitments is cutting back on Sandyland to one day a week.

“Next year it’s pedal to the metal, balls to the walls,” concludes Bernhard. “It’s going to be a big, big year!”



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