Sandra Bernhard uses the phrase “balls out” a lot. It’s a fitting idiom for the oft-controversial comedian and actress, who has unapologetically pulled no punches over the course of her 44-year career, skewering everything from politicians to pop culture.
She’s been a staple at The Comedy Store in Hollywood, worked with Richard Pryor and David Letterman, had a rumored sexy fling with Madonna, and portrayed the first openly bisexual character on U.S. television (Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne from 1991 to 1997). Currently, she’s playing Nurse Judy on the FX show POSE (about queer and trans ball culture in Manhattan), and she hosts her own radio show, Sandyland, on Sirius XM.
And still, she has found time to book a handful of live performances along the West Coast, including a stop at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, October 2.
Speaking via phone from New York, Bernhard describes the content of her show as “notes from the shutdown, like my life over the past year and a half and anecdotally not so much about me, but about things around me,” she says. “I always try to find a funny, kind of abstract way into things that make it more interesting and unique than just kind of repeating the news. That’s not what I’m there for.”
Bernard also sings and has released several albums blending comedy and music. Her upcoming performance includes a lot of songs, backed by her Los Angeles-based band.
“It kind of takes you on a journey. It’s almost like a mini musical,” she says. “I love everything from R&B to soul music to straight-ahead rock and jazz. There’s all those influences musically in my show, and it’s bookended by all the songs and people and things that have influenced me growing up.”
Her Valley visit will also be a sort of homecoming for Bernhard, who graduated from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale (class of 1973). “Our era was a real mix of jocks and cowboys and hippies, and I kind of fit into the artsy crew,” she recalls. “And I think people looked at me as kind of exotic. There were only two black kids in the entire high school at that time, and I looked ethnic, and people would say rude remarks to me. And so I got used to what it must feel like to be attacked by white people, even though I was white. I still didn’t fit into the definition of the classic girl next door.”
In 1968, radio station 93.3 KDKB hit Valley airwaves, playing freeform progressive rock. Bernhard was an avid listener. “The music scene was amazing when I was in high school,” she says. “I went to see Cat Stevens at Grady Grammage Auditorium with my best friends, and there was a flood that night. My dad had to come pick us up in our Chevy van to get us back out to Scottsdale. Arizona is just very evocative and visceral. It’s probably a little less now, because it’s so built up.”
Now, Bernhard is on the radio herself, chatting with such guests as Bette Midler, Rachel Maddow, Susan Sarandon, and Debbie Harry of Blondie on her Sandyland show. The celebrity interviews are always fun, she says, but it’s the everyday that really connects her with listeners.
“I like to talk about the pedestrian things in life – going to the grocery store and walking around the city and encountering people, and some of the successes and frustrations,” Bernhard says. “I think that it’s an equalizer to talk about the day-to-day, instead of things that are always blown out, like fashion and parties and movie premiers and all that.”
“I’m going to talk about that stuff, too,” she continues, “but I think what people love about me is just like, ‘Sandy’s so sophisticated and glamorous. And yet she does things that we all do. She goes to the drug store and buys toothpaste and cooks dinner.’ I love talking about all of that stuff.”
Bernhard says she’s “thrilled” to be performing live again after pandemic shutdowns, but she still practices caution. “Of course, everybody gets tested every few days for COVID and I keep my circle very small and I’m super careful. I’ve really been adamant about health and people getting vaccinated,” Bernhard says. “And I don’t understand why people won’t do it. I just don’t get the selfishness and the stubbornness of our culture and our society at this point. It’s very frustrating for me. The good news is, you must be vaccinated to come to my show.”
Sandra Bernhard. A Decade of Madness and Mayhem. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 2, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 East Second Street, Scottsdale. Tickets cost $45 to $65. Visit scottsdaleperformingarts.org.