Sandra Bernhard has always been an acquired taste, and a difficult talent to pigeonhole and often hit-and-miss in her projects. She was superb, for example, in her supporting role in King of Comedy, her various one-woman shows, and her occasional appearances on Late Night with David Letterman (she seems to be one of the few quests who are not intimidated by him). But at other times, she can be just dull, as she was throughout her stint as Nancy, on Roseanne. Even Bernhard’s stand-up work can be head-scratch-inducing, partly because, for better or worse, she doesn’t do traditional stand-up shtick. Instead, she crafts long, carefully written monologues that mix pop culture references with scathing social commentary, before bursting into song, be it a ‘40s standard, a ‘60s show tune or a recent top-40 hit.
With such take-it-or-leave-it performances, Bernhard carries on Andy Kaufman’s legacy, constantly pushing the envelope of stand-up and always challenging her audience to wonder, “Is this supposed to be funny? What exactly am I laughing at?” Also like Kaufman, she seems to enjoy her antagonistic, I-don’t-give-a-shit style, practically taunting audiences to reject her. I’ve always been a fan of Bernhard’s unique view and her stand-up-cum-theatre stylings. When Bernhard’s good, she’s very good, but when she’s bad (rude, in-your-face, and taking to task Mariah Carey and Fiona Apple and other self-conscious divas), she’s so much better.
Now A&E has boldly gone where few basic cable channels have gone before, daring to showcase this eccentric, take-no-prisoners talent on her own nightly talk show. (The show started with a Monday through Friday schedule, but will soon air just once a week, and perhaps this change is for the better.) The show is certainly a quantum leap for A&E, known for its PBS-lite, slightly stodgy programming, like its cross-sectionally-appealing Biography series. The station’s promotional ads pimp the Experience as “new,” “raw,” “hip,” “edgy,” and “intimate.” But that’s not exactly true. Like her former gal-pal Madonna, Bernhard is now a 40-something working mom: just how “hip” and “edgy” she is in the world of Eminem and the Insane Clown Posse is open to debate.
Besides, Bernhard’s talk show, by her own on-air admission, tries to recall the days of Tom Snyder, David Susskind, and Dick Cavett, with their erudite guest lists and relatively low-budget production values. As with these earlier talk shows, the Experience has little going on, save for Sandra and her guests. there’s no rowdy studio audience (Arsenio, this ain’t!), and no out-of-studio trips or Stupid Pet Tricks. Bernhard doesn’t even try that hard for laughs, there’s no traditional opening monologue consisting of jokes based on the day’s headlines (this would be hard to manage without a studio audience). Instead, Bernhard opens each show with a self-reflexive soliloquy, from which she usually eases into a song.
Obviously, Bernhard wants to offer up something rather mellow (odd for a self-proclaimed “rock chick”) and introspective for her late night audience, focused on conversation rather than skits and tricks. Unfortunately, previous attempts to bring back that style haven’t been successful. Anyone remember the talk shows hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, Lauren Hutton, or Pat Sajak? I didn’t think so. In the end, Bernhard’s program is hampered by this attempt to be the anti-Leno. Her low-energy format, minimalist set, and equally thin interviewing style make the whole endeavor look a little lazy, a little like public access.
And yet, the show adheres to some popular talk show traditions. For instance, Bernhard has a sidekick, former journalist Sara Switzer, who seems as confused by her role as I am. Apparently, she’s supposed to interview the guests along with Sandy, but so far, she has even less to do than Ed McMahon did all those years on The Tonight Show. Worse, unlike Ed, who at least had the good sense to laugh at everything Johnny Carson said, Switzer comes across as dead weight, looking like she’s terrified to speak up. After a while, one wonders if her discomfort might be part of some larger joke—as when Dame Edna featured a co-host—an elderly silent slug—on her specials.
Sandra also features a “band” or, more appropriately for this low-rent universe, a piano player. His name is Mitch Kaplan, and Sandra calls him “Mitchy.” He’s around for Sandra’s opening and closing singing numbers. If you are familiar with Sandra Bernhard, then you know that she fancies herself a singer and has put out a couple of “straight” music CDs. But, as with Andy Kaufman, one never knows quite when Bernhard is being serious and when she is sending up the cliched warblings of the overwrought pop star. The results are often far too perplexing to be funny or entertaining.
And this leads to another problem. Ultimately, all talk shows live or die according to how well the hosts interact with their guests. Bernhard, of course, has built her stage persona on her utter superficiality. In the past, she has sung songs about Isaac Mizrahi with a fervor most people save for the national anthem, joked about her utter worship of Stevie Nicks, and said she wants to nominate Jill St. John as assistant to the secretary of health and human services. This performative shallowness—which can be comical, even charming, in small doses—doesn’t fit so well into the talk show format. Her guests can barely get a word in edgewise and can never quite figure how whether Sandra is being serious. When Bernhard actually does get around to letting her guests speak, her “questions” are often pointless. She recently asked Boy George, “What’s going on in England these days? Are they still swinging?” Such forced coolness, rather than coming across as interesting or amusing, is just plain boring.
Finally, it is to The Sandra Bernhard Experience‘s detriment that it premiered only a few weeks after Martin Short’s in-joke show, Primetime Glick (Comedy Central). With their self-involved, overly chatty hosts, and frequently confused guests, the two programs are mirror images of each other, except that Short’s is obviously a parody, and Bernhard’s… well, I’m not sure if we should laugh at it or just shake our heads in shame and disbelief. And Miss Sandra is not giving us any hints.