Sandra, Queen of the Jungle

Her timing was exquisite, and the suspense was killing me. Sandra Bernhard, queen of irony and attitude, was heading to New York, a city that had of late been declared an irony-free zone by certain cultural commissars.

She’d been here on Sept. 11, racing to pick up her daughter from school when she heard the news, but she’s a true bicoastal, dividing her time between a bungalow in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley and a place in Chelsea. She’s been on the road since 9/11, and now she was heading back to New York with the latest version of her idiosyncratic, ever-evolving one-woman comic-monologue cabaret act. A show that dared to raise all sorts of difficult, even dangerous questions about post-9/11 culture, just at a moment when events were conspiring to make the solidarity and certainties of the past five months seem a little more uncertain.

Suddenly there are all these questions about flags and heroes and patriotism. Has what was once heartfelt and meaningful in the immediate aftermath become schlockily sentimentalized and commodified to the point of self-parody? As in the manic, shameless exploitation of heroism and patriotism that was Fox’s three-and-a-half- hour Super Bowl pregame “Tribute to Heroes”–a tribute that climaxed in that amazing moment when Mariah Carey was introduced to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” by an announcer who felt compelled (by Mariah) to remind us that she was “the biggest-selling female recording artist in history.” Thus putting all of it–9/11, heroic rescue workers, brave soldiers in Afghanistan, the war against the “axis of evil”–in the larger perspective of Mariah Carey’s recording career. That’s history.

And now there are all these questions about flags. There was the International Olympic Committee’s idiotic attempt to ban a Ground Zero flag from the “non-political” purity of Olympic competition (an obscene joke from the folks who brought you Hitler’s Olympics and kept the sacred games going while athletes were being slaughtered by terrorists at the 1972 games in Munich). And then there’s the controversy over just who should be allowed to sell (and who should be encouraged to wear) all that FDNY and NYPD paraphernalia sold by vendors at Ground Zero: Are they true tributes, or heroism by proxy? And should Ground Zero–still an open grave–become a tourist attraction for rubes to gawk at in order to help the economic redevelopment of lower Manhattan? What’s the right thing to do, to feel?

It was a moment as well when the country’s love affair with New York and New Yorkers and the victims of 9/11 came crashing back to earth with a vengeance, when Bush budget director Mitch Daniels used a fairly blatant anti-Semitic, anti-New York slur (New Yorkers are “money-grubbing”) to try to cheat the city out of $5 billion of rebuilding funds.

So anyway, here is Sandra Bernhard, heading back to New York at precisely the moment we need her comic, analytic intelligence the most, with a new show she was calling Inshallah (ironically? attitudinally? in all seriousness? all of the above?), and whose opening number was a grand schlock-rock anthem that’s been in the air since 9/11, “Holding Out for a Hero” (you know, the one by Bonnie Tyler, who did that other killer schlock-rock ballad, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”). And here’s Sandra looking just as hot and snarly and sneering and sexy as she did when she first tormented Jerry Lewis in her underwear in King of Comedy , bursting onto the stage at Joe’s Pub backed by a kick-ass guitar band and belting out “Holding Out for a Hero” straight ahead, without a wink or a nudge, but nonetheless managing–precisely because of the apparent urgent sincerity of her delivery–to call into question (ironically? attitudinally? in all seriousness?) the whole post-9/11 cult of hunky heroism. Just at the moment when it began to curdle and somehow be about Mariah Carey’s career or Bono jogging around the Super Bowl half-time stage whipping up rock-star frenzy for himself while a vertical crawl of Twin Towers victims faded out to one of those fabulously “innovative” Super Bowl ads.

See, you start talking about Sandra Bernhard and her attitude and you start putting quotes around everything–you start seeing quotes around everything–although I would argue that Ms. Bernhard’s innovation from the beginning was really not putting quotes around everything but to put quotes around the quotes , to ironize all-too-easy irony. So “Holding Out for a Hero” could be satirizing the cult of heroism, the commodification of “heroism.” But, on the other hand, it could be putting quotes around the quotes around heroism–””heroism””–in a way that ultimately transcends irony and affirms genuine heroism. Or maybe she was doing both at the same time.

I knew I’d never really get an answer to these questions by talking to her; she doesn’t like to explain herself (and who can blame her? Who does?), but I loved seeing her show so much–I found her attitude or “attitude” or “”attitude”” so smart and provocative–that I made an effort to arrange an interview. Which took place about 10 days after the show, at a place called the Bus Stop Cafe on Hudson Street, near where she used to live in the West Village.

One of the first things I asked her when we met was about what seemed like some real anger behind one of the ostensibly comic riffs in her show: about the celebrity hijacking of 9/11 for “benefits” that mainly benefited the celebrities.

“We’ve had so many wonderful benefits,” she’d said at Joe’s Pub, “and we’re not gonna stop seeing benefits until every single performer who’s ever graced the stage anywhere in this country has had their moment to let you know how much they love you, and to let you know how much they want to be there for you . Honey, Billy Joel’s in a ‘New York State of Mind’? You better believe it: His fucking career was in the shitter until 9/11.”

Then she went off on a tear over the fact that so little of the celebrity-benefit money seems to actually have reached the victims’ families. She’s not alone in this suspicion: Bill O’Reilly has been on the case of all these celebs who were so pious in their concern but now, like George Clooney, seem busy to see what happened to the funds they supposedly raised.

“I want to investigate it personally ,” Sandra said at Joe’s Pub. “I think some smarmy rip-off motherfucker in Hollywood is having some fabulous Bel Air moment with the money. You know what I would prefer: to get the phone numbers of the families and send them thank-you checks. I don’t need any middlemen–just give me a big list of addresses and I’ll give to whoever I fucking choose to give to. Don’t you be giving me any middle shit : ‘Oh, but they are benefiting,’” she said, mocking the piety of the celeb benefactors. “No, you’re benefiting . You’re out there tap-dancing: ‘I’ve given my all, I’m so exhausted! ‘ No, I just want to call them [the families] up and say, ‘Hey, this is Sandra, I’m sending you a check.’ Fuck this shit with the phonies that are out there. ‘My career has been resurrected! Everybody died, I’m happy!’”

That’s harsh, but it gets harsher and more personal: “And then we gotta suffer through Tom Cruise’s speech about how the world is so poetic and beautiful. Not when you’re here. All the poetry is evaporated when you walked in the fuckin’ room, short boy–smiling short boy. And leave the Spanish girl [i.e., Penélope Cruz] alone . Let her go home! Let the chick go! Don’t fuck her up with your mind-bending scientific science-fiction shit.”

So that’s Sandra onstage; she takes the crimes of celebrities–the crime of celebrity–personally. Or so it seems, unless she’s being ironic. (Does she really care about Penélope Cruz?) But her anger about celebrity benefits and who really benefits seems pretty real.

“Well, this whole genre that’s been created post-tragedy,” she’s telling me while sipping mint tea in a window booth at the Bus Stop Cafe, “I think it’s cynical. It’s great to raise money, but there are other, more creative ways of doing it. It’s too self-serving; it can’t help but being a benefit for themselves . And then you read about the families who haven’t gotten anything but $15,000 to tide them over–and to me, if you’re gonna do something like that, there should be immediate turnover. No bureaucracy. A check written proportionally to each family depending on the outcome of these benefits. End of discussion ! What is it with them? Where does the money go? That’s what I’m furious about. I’m furious about that aspect.”

She’s furious, she’s often angry, she’s almost always ironic. But she’s not cynical, she insists, and it’s an important distinction to her, one that has often been lost in the post-9/11 fatwa against irony (see my own thoughts about the important distinctions that are lost by those who attack irony in my Oct. 1, 2001, column). Irony is what we should be fighting for ; irony is the difference between a theocracy and a democracy. But cynicism is something else, Sandra says, and she defines herself and her role models against it.

“Lenny Bruce wasn’t a cynic,” she says. “Lenny Bruce had a huge amount of passion and compassion and humanity. But the way he did it, one could easily assume he was a cynic. A cynic to me is someone who is tired of living, who doesn’t really care.” She does care, she insists. There’s love in her ridicule; there’s concern .

“I’m just a Concerned Citizen of Where We’re Headed culturally and creatively,” she says, not entirely ironically.

And let me go on record as saying that I’ve long thought of Sandra Bernhard not just as a Concerned Citizen of Where We’re Heading, but the First Citizen of Where We’re Heading–one of our most brilliant and prescient (and underappreciated) cultural critics.

She is the supreme analyst of Attitude, with an exquisitely attuned ear for the seismic tremors in the collective unconscious that Attitude registers and reflects. She is the most perceptive practitioner and diagnostician of irony in all its forms and flavors, a connoisseur of the subtle distinctions between sentiment and sentimentality, sincerity and schlock. And ever since her star turn as a terrorist fan who kidnaps a celebrity in King of Comedy , she’s been the most incisive critic of the terror of celebrity, offering a critique so much more smart and knowing than all those cultural-studies academics who commodify their critique of commodification to advance their careers.

I’ve felt this way ever since the first time I saw her live, about a year after the King of Comedy came out, and she opened her idiosyncratic, comic cabaret act by belting out a full-tilt version of that great schlock-rock anthem by Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And you watched and you asked yourself all the eternal, unanswerable Sandra Bernhard questions: Is she doing this Journey song tongue-in-cheek? Is she doing it ironically? Or both? Or is she saying something about our conflicted, twisted love/hate relationship to pop-schlock anthems: the way we love them and hate ourselves for loving them but can’t get enough of them. Is she negotiating the divide, mapping the permeable boundary between heartfelt sentimentality and air-quote irony, interrogating “the potency of cheap music” (as Noël Coward put it), embracing it or sending it up–or all of the above?

Like Andy Kaufman with his wrestling thing, she never really lets on; she never gives you a wink or a nudge to indicate how you ought to respond, which liberates a series of resonant multiple simultaneous responses that somehow let you have it both ways, as they say.

And then she’d segue into a long, “heartfelt” (or “”heartfelt””) riff in which she seemed to be reading from a letter she sent to Stevie Nicks (later it would be Madonna and then Courtney Love as iconic celebrity “friends,” or “”friends””)–just Sandra talking about her hopes and dreams and how she loved to share them with Stevie or Courtney, loved hanging out with Madonna (which, of course, she actually did for a while). In her latest show it’s a ballad “celebrating” to Angie Harmon. She wasn’t just sending up celebrity delusions: She was sending herself up as well, as a victim of celebrity delusions just like the rest of us–the delusion that celebrity “love” was somehow real.

Most of the time she wouldn’t make any of this explicit, but every once in a while she’d come out and say something about celebrity culture that stopped you dead in your tracks. Like this thing she said about terrorism and celebrity way back in 1985 that sounds rather prophetic now.

“I think that one reason there is so much terrorism is that people are constantly having it [celebrity] jammed down their throat. That there’s a very exciting world they will never get to be a part of, and they get fed up with thinking they have nothing–no fame, no moment in the sun, and no resources.”

Terrorism and celebrity: She was onto something, when you think of the way suicide bombers on the West Bank now make terror-celeb videotapes before they blow themselves up to insure their posthumous celebrity. The way the heavenly rewards promised to the Sept. 11 hijackers (the 72 virgins and the open bar in heaven) so much resemble the life of a celebrity rock star on earth. The way the fame of the targets (the Twin Towers, the Pentagon) was what made them targets: They were buildings that offered celebrity to their destroyers. The best literary evocation of the celebrity-terror connection can be found in Don DeLillo’s brilliant 1991 novel, Mao II , but Sandra was there first.

When I read her 1985 remark on, “why there’s so much terrorism” (which I’d found on LexisNexis), she disclaimed any prophetic acuity. “It was more about the domestic terrorism around back then,” she says, mentioning Oklahoma City (although that was 10 years after her remark).

But a case could be made that the one insight that runs like a glittering thread throughout Sandra Bernhard’s work is the way that celebrities are domestic terrorists. The way celebrity terrorizes the citizenry, hijacks the media, invades and ravages our minds and souls, tragically, savagely diminishing the value of non-celeb life.

But she doesn’t just condemn it: She sees its seductiveness; she succumbs to its seductiveness and satirizes herself for doing so. She knows she’s vulnerable, a victim as much as the rest of us.

That’s what was so great about her performance in King of Comedy : She captured the erotic ecstasy of celebrity worship, the worship that drove her character to kidnap a celeb and terrorize him with her love. When she strips to her lingerie and croons to a trussed-up Jerry Lewis, “I’m gonna love ya, like nobody’s loved ya,” she captures the ecstasy of being in the presence of the celeb as secular god; she suggests the religious roots of celebrity worship, the way it substitutes for the God or the gods who seem to have abandoned us.

She’s a victim like us, but a knowing victim–one who knows how to turn the tables and take revenge through ridicule, which she’s been doing ever since, doing better on this particular subject than just about anyone else.

It’s there in the very titles of her shows: Without You I’m Nothing and Giving Till It Hurts and I’m Still Here, Dammit . Titles which capture what the real terror of celebrity conceals: the terror of becoming nothing (without celebs–I’m nothing). The terror of being nowhere, of being not here, dammit, without celebrity to give our lives meaning with its reflected glare.

But what I also love about Sandra Bernhard is that she can condemn celebrity but still believes there are some things worth celebrating . She expresses that beautifully in the pitch-perfect pop-music choices she makes for her show.

At the Bus Stop Cafe, we talked about some of the ostensibly schlocky songs she both sends up and celebrates in her act. Perhaps her most daring and most tongue-in-cheek was “To Sir With Love.” Think about it: Sandra Bernhard doing “To Sir with Love.” But it’s not camp, she insists. “Camp has a certain shelf life, a certain one-dimensionality. It’s difficult to be camp and also to be real, and that’s why camp has never appealed to me … it’s too easy; you don’t want to take it too deep.”

And it’s not sarcasm (we were going through definitions of the various flavors of irony and attitude). “Even when I appear to be sarcastic, there’s something deeper going on, or at least I’m aware of what I’m doing. Even with Mariah Carey. There’s nobody I talk about in my show I don’t empathize and have some sympathy and understanding for,” she said.

We talked about some songs that do seem to tend toward the sarcastic edge of the pop-schlock spectrum. “Like during the dot-com boom, when I did ‘Salt of the Earth’” (the Rolling Stones tribute to all “the hard-workin’ people”).

We talked about some songs she does that we both love with a pure, burning love (she believes redheads “burn at a higher temperature”). Like Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” to my mind the most perfect New York City love song (although we argued over the Rod Stewart cover, which I like and she doesn’t). And then there’s her and my perennial favorite: Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” (in a sly way, a song about a redheaded girl). She always used to strip down to her lingerie while singing “Little Red Corvette” to close her shows. At Joe’s Pub, she took off her shirt and unbuttoned her jeans to reveal a filmy bra-and-thong ensemble, but didn’t remove her jeans–probably due to the new post-9/11 solemnity of things. (I hope that doesn’t mean the terrorists have won.)

And then we went back to that Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” her original, emblematic schlock-rock fave, the one about the “small town girl” who comes to L.A. to seek stardom.

“When I sing a Journey song, you may say it’s a mediocre song, but it isn’t . There’s something that goes deeper than that.”

O.K., and what about “Holding Out for a Hero”? Clearly it goes “deeper than that.” What does it tell us about heroism and celebrity and the celebrity hijacking of heroism–the celebrification of heroism post-9/11?

She’s just a little evasive:

“I just like the boldness of the song. It’s a Jim Steinman song; you know, he writes a lot of stuff for Meatloaf. It’s an epic song which I adore; I like anything which has that build to it. It’s got a lot of power, a lot of strength, and then it’s just an outrageous song–it’s crazy ! But I think it’s rather applicable to what people are going through right now.”

“It’s got a lot of layers to it. Right?” I ask.

“Fer sure,” she says, mocking me (I think) with a Valley Girl response.

She won’t say much more, and you almost don’t want her to reduce the full range of resonances in the power-schlock ballad (“I’m holding out for a hero,” the song goes, and “He’s gotta be sure and it’s gotta be soon / And he’s gotta be larger than life”). One question her rendition of “Holding Out for a Hero” asks: What does it mean that we make celebrities–people who are famous for being famous–our “larger then life” heroes?

This is her genius: her ability to love a song like this on all levels and to hate herself for loving it and to transcend the whole love/hate thing to arrive at some synthesis that captures the moment in a profound and perfect way.

Sandra Bernhard: She’s my hero. In a way, she’s exactly the kind of heroic rescue worker the city needs now.