Throughout her long and varied career, Sandra Bernhard has served as both a pure product of the mass media and one of its most trenchant critics. During her are-they-or-aren't-they friendship with Madonna, she seemed to wallow in the follies of tabloid curiosity. In her unforgettable role as Masha in the 1983 Martin Scorsese movie The King of Comedy, she embodied crazed fandom. And in her previous acclaimed one-woman shows Without You I'm Nothing and I'm Still Here ... Damn It!, she turboed through topics, songs, rants and confessions like a woman in charge of her inner remote control.
So how did Bernhard, a transplanted New Yorker originally from Flint, Mich., react during the national immersion in media following the attacks of Sept. 11?
She ignored it. "I was never glued to the television," she says during a recent telephone interview. "I have a 4-year-old kid. I didn't want her seeing those images, and I knew there wasn't going to be anything I was going to gain from it, except the negativity of what happened. I mean, there weren't going to be any answers in it, so why look at it?"
The search for answers has led Bernhard, who last week celebrated her 47th birthday, to her new show Hero Worship. Immediately following 9/11, she says, she began reconsidering her past work that explored Arabic music and culture, which included a show-closing prayer song blended into "Midnight Train to Georgia," in I'm Still Here.
"I wanted to do something that sort of invoked the whole Arabic vibe," she says of her new work. "There's an openness about the Arab culture, but now suddenly, there's this whole 'everybody's horrible from the Arab world.'"
As she began staging the show, it transformed into a comic-musical meditation on the national obsession with heroes. She still dons a typical panoply of subjects -- fashion, the cult of celebrity, sexual mores -- but she acknowledges that Hero Worship is her most political work yet.
"Absolutely," she says. "I didn't choose it; it chose me. When something really touches me and sets off a spark, I ignite in a certain way, whether it's cultural, sociological, spiritual or political."
Specifically, Bernhard sees a downward flush in the culture following 9/11:
· On the president: "That's what the show was about from the get-go, that I don't believe the Bush administration. I think they're manipulative and I think he's uneducated."
· On Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's much-publicized pronouncement (and less-publicized partial retraction) that 9/11 brought about the end of the age of irony: "Everybody just got so stupid and smushy and f--ked up. Irony to me is being able to walk that fine line between being respectful and at the same time exposing the underside, the stupidity of people and their fears, and their insecurities. Cynicism is when you have no emotion or compassion."
· On frequent comic foil David Letterman's emotional return to television following the attacks: "Well, it's always disturbing to see Dave crying. It's not a pretty sight."
Bernhard's blend of political and personal material is in the tradition of one of her primary influences, Richard Pryor (Bernhard got her start on Pryor's short-lived network TV show). She says her less-than-lockstep approach to national politics hasn't garnered negative publicity, a la Bill Maher -- she only censors herself when she thinks the topic is played out, and audiences are thanking her for "coming out and saying the truth about all this."
Still, she's not ignoring her favorite celebrity targets, leaving some time in Hero Worship for a riff on Britney Spears. "I think a girl like Britney couldn't have existed any time except now," she says. "I mean, you look at her face and you look at any face from the turn of the last century, and Britney Spears is not something that could have existed then."
Despite her commitment to irony -- which she sees a core value, right up there with honesty and truth -- Bernhard says matter-of-factly that she's not implying in the title of her new show that there weren't real heroes to come out of 9/11 and its aftermath. Still, she seems reluctant, in an age of hero obsession, to join the chorus of praise.
"Of course there are heroes," she says. "I think everybody who was involved in the rescue, firemen and policemen who threw themselves into the situation, that's just their instinct, you know? That's what they dig doing, that's their job, just like being a doctor and rushing into surgery, or being a performer, and rushing on stage. Everybody has a certain level of danger they're willing to put themselves into, and that's what these guys do. Ultimately, yeah, I guess they're heroes."
- 'Everybody just got so stupid and smushy and f--ked up,' says Sandra Bernhard of the post-9/11 national mood.