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Sandra Bernhard brings gentler touch to her shows these days

For Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2013

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She's made a career out of being caustic and confrontational, outspoken and opinionated -- and enormously entertaining.

But these days Sandra Bernhard is a bit -- although not entirely -- kindler and gentler, and not as apt to get in people's faces when it comes to her live act.

"That's not so much anymore," acknowledges the Flint-born actress, comedian -- one of Comedy Central's 100 greatest stand-ups of all time -- singer and writer. "I don't really try to engage the audience too much. That's something I did more at the beginning of my career, coming out of the comedy clubs. As I've evolved over the years as a performer, there's more of flow to my show. There's peaks and valleys. If I start yapping with somebody, it can ruin a really great piece.

"Of course, if somebody does something or says something that's worthy of responding to, I will. But very few people come and try to engage the way they used to. People are just burned out." Or maybe they're scared of Bernhard?

"Nah, I don't think so. I just think they want to be entertained and spoken to now and not be part of the show like they used to."

Fortunately, Bernhard -- who still has family in southeastern Michigan, mostly around Detroit and in Ann Arbor -- has plenty to offer even without the interaction. Her show is a cabaret-style mix of spoken word and music, jokes, monologues and song selections that range from the Great American songbook to 80s pop hits and beyond. "It's a whole evening of entertainment, not just a sad little person on stage wtih a microphone and a stool," explains Bernhard, 57, who resides in New York with her longtime partner Sara Switzer and her 14-year-old daughter Cicely. "It's passionate and fabulous and improvisational and sexy and groovy.

"That's what I try to give my audience now."

She has plenty to draw from, of course. Bernhard, who was 10 when her family moved from Flint to Arizona but still has relatives in Michigan, has been a show biz pro since she was 19 and came to Los Angeles, working as a manicurist while making her breaks at The Comedy Store and on "The Richard Pryor Show" during 1977. An award-winning role in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film "The King of Comedy" blasted Bernhard into the big-time, leading to her first solo show, "I'm Your Woman" in 1985. Her film work included a appearances in the documentaries "Heavy Petting" and "Madonna: Truth or Dare," as well as her own "Sandra Bernhard: Confessions of a Pretty Lady" in 1994. She was also a regular on the sitcom "Roseanne" between 1991-97, playing one of the first openly lesbian recurring characters in U.S. TV history. Last year she appeared in episodes of "Hot in Cleveland" and "GCB."

Bernhard -- who's also published three books and released 13 albums -- says she expects to "weave some stuff in about growing up in Michigan" into this weekend's shows, while the rest of her material will come from "all over the place," inspired partly by her daughter. The music, meanwhile, "is very eclectic, from rock 'n' roll ballads to a little bit of jazz. I'm always kind of in the popular music realm; that's what I like to do best. When I write a song, it also has that point of view to it -- emotional, storytelling."

Bernhard started filming her show during the spring of 2012 and will finish it in the coming months, with hopes of making another documentary for theaters or TV. In the meantime she says she's "up for a lot of television stuff;" she appears in an upcoming episode of ABC's "Neighbors" and has an indie film on the schedule for fall.

"I'm just kind of balancing it all out," Bernhard says. "I'd like to land on a TV series in some regular capacity over the next six months or a year. They're always trying to push me into these one-note, tough-girl roles, which gets a little boring. It would be nice to play a more multi-dimensional character, so I hope that happens.

"In the meantime, I'm just keeping it moving, as I always do."

Sandra Bernhard performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1-2, at the Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $35. Call 734-761-1451 or visit www.theark.org.

Web Site: www.theark.org

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