Until now, the strength of Sandra Bernhard's reputation has rested on her role in "The King of Comedy." The 1983 film came at a time when the television and movie industries were desperately seeking new faces to satisfy the vogue of women as images of power (a time that has now passed). Relatively few knew Bernhard's nightclub comedy act, in which she was plaintive, passive, sexually hostile and ponderously self-absorbed. She was as thin as a slash, with a lurid De Kooning smear of a mouth and a mop of red hair, and her act was a trial.
But there was something reactionary in her comedy, a cool frankness inside that surly languor, that led a lot of people to hold on to the spark of her promise. And on Saturday at the Beverly Theatre, it appeared that her fans' faith was beginning to pay off.
Bernhard, dressed in a white blouse, dark gray slacks and a black jacket--which made her appear less anorexic than in the past--came out to describe "Mighty Real, Part One" (the title of her act) as " . . . a deeper, more personal, self-reflective show--like 'Miami Vice.' " And instantly she struck the keynote that held her act together in a way she hadn't managed before: She touched on the illusion of seriousness and meaning which, in most of our forms of pop media exchange, conceals the reality of schlock.
The true comedian shares with the fine artist the willingness to plug one's nervous system into the Zeitgeist, to absorb the imagery and impulses of one's time and come up with a coherence that makes us see things a bit differently. Some of Bernhard's act fizzles, but the best of it brilliantly scans the surface of contemporary social life, where everything is defined by advertising and show business.
She has notes, for example, on the "We Are the World" bandwagon, where the cause of the dying is taken up by any celebrity or mini-celebrity who says, "If it can make you famous, I'll be there." "Joni Mitchell is crying about Ethiopia," Bernhard quips, "but she hasn't been out of the Malibu Colony in 10 years." How real is the show-biz friendship everyone gushes about on talk shows or in interviews? Try asking your celebrity friend of many years to pick up some chicken soup for you because you're down with a cold and hear her say she doesn't want your germs to jeopardize her appearance on "Solid Gold."
Show business is not as much the target, however, as is our catatonia under advertising's onslaught. Whether it's a real quote or the parody of a quote, it sounds familiar to hear a perfume ad trumpet "opulent, uninhibited decadence" (to which Bernhard adds, "Whee! I'm buying a dozen bottles and sending them to my enemies"). Something named Key Flamingo is sure to call to you with images of escape to Aruba "at this time of year, when you're starting to feel unfaithful to your brown tweeds." And why shouldn't Diane Von Furstenberg design paper towels? "Who knows more about cleaning than Diane Von Furstenberg?"
The establishment of an Esprit shop in Nicaragua, somewhere between the contras and the Sandinistas, and an interview in Esprit's magazine with an 18-year-old receptionist discussing her fashion values, is one of numerous instances where Bernhard touches on the collapse of social perspectives. (Esprit isn't real, or really real. It's almost real. If you read about it quickly because you were in a hurry, you'd think "Well, why not?")
Bernhard isn't a didact, except in moments when she breaks through with indignation over a phony discussing modern art ("Isn't that a beautiful portrait of the Flintstones? . . . So knowledgeably thought out. . . . "), or a film technician reading to her from the Book of Revelations ("Hollywood is not only white trash, it's apocalyptic white trash"). She came into comedy long after public misinformation and absurdly exaggerated media claims and depictions had blurred the line between parody and substance. She had the instinct to sense the difference, but she didn't have the self-knowledge to clarify it. Now she's gained a foothold so that we can see what her comedy is dramatizing--human trivialization.
Her delivery is brighter now too, and better timed. Gone are those stoned pauses punctuated by boring put-downs. The theater's fourth wall has put her back on herself and the need to come up with a show. She sang seven songs (Mitch Kaplan was accompanist on keyboards and synthesizer), and they were all skillfully integrated with her material (there wasn't any, "And now I'd like to sing this lovely ballad by . . . "). Her voice is a little sharp on top (or at least overmiked at the Beverly) and breathy at the bottom, but it has a lyrical center--not unlike that of Diana Ross--and her rhythmic sense is solid.
Her concluding number, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," summed up the variety of levels she works simultaneously. She emphasized its kitschiness by playing maracas, and under the melodic line she ran a rap about urban violence, sexual confusion and diagnosis of terminal illness--none of which had anything to do with the banality of the song but went on under its sticky surface, just like our own private lives, tyrannized by the inane. Bernhard is a restorative.