Without Her We're Nothing

By Job Brother

Originally published on Advocate.com November 18 2008 12:00 AM ET

In 1988
performance artist, actress, comedian, and woman-about-town
Sandra Bernhard premiered her tour de force one-woman show
Without You I’m Nothing in Los Angeles. In
1990 she turned the piece into a film, directed by
John Boskovich, in which she did everything from sing
Burt Bacharach in front of go-go boys to don
oversize African robes and headdress to sing Nina Simone's
famous song about race, "Four Women." Of all of
Bernhard's shows, none spanned so many cultural,
poetic, and popular movements as Without You I Am
Nothing,
 proving that Bernhard was not just a
comic but an inspired and insightful medium of modern
America. Twenty years later she returns to Los Angeles in a
one-night-only performance of Without You I'm
Nothing
at the Orpheum Theater on Friday, November
21, giving fans, old and new, a chance to
laugh and love the show all over again; with its sharp wit,
brassy musical numbers, and insights -- all served up
with a healthy helping of chutzpah as can only be
dished by simply Bernhard.

Advocate.com:Why have you decided to bring back
Without You I’m Nothing?
Sandra Bernhard: It’s the 20th anniversary.
It’s a seminal piece of work for me and put me on the
map as a live performer. You know, it’s
interesting how our lives go in these cycles; I think
there’s a lot of material that fits into where
we’re at culturally right now. And
there’s so much new material that’s in the
show that it’s really not the Without You
I’m Nothing
it was then. The beautiful
thing about the show is it was always very fluid
depending on what was happening that night. The major key
pieces that people recognize are there too, so
it’s a fun trip down memory lane. 

How much of your show is improvised? Well, if I’m doing a show that’s
brand-new, the entire show could be improvised -- I
could do 100% improvisation. But this show is probably
25% improv.

Do you get a lot of roadies following the show around? You mean groupies?

Groupies! What did I say? Roadies? I meant groupies. Roadies are people who work for you. Groupies
are people who come and stare at you and love you.
[Laughs] I’ve had some groupies over the
years. Unfortunately, not too many anymore -- it’s
too much work. But of course there’s my die-hard
fans, but they’re usually a little smarter than
a groupie.

Was there any material that now feels like an
awkward fit or no longer suits your state of mind or heart?
No. So much of what the show’s about,
with its impressionistic personas, still works for me.
It still holds up.

Is there a typical scenario wherein which you write
your material?
I write in notebooks. I’ve got a stack of
notebooks I’ve kept over the years. Whenever an
idea percolates I jot it down. When I travel I keep my
notebook handy, but I don’t do a daily thing -- I
don’t try to force writing. Ideas come, and
they come so often, especially with the political
scene -- there’s just so much constantly coming at
you.

On the original album to the show, Tori Amos played piano. It was before she “hit it.” I had
actually known her as a waitress in some restaurant.
She came in and did overdubs and backgrounds on that
particular version of “Little Red Corvette.”

So she wasn’t involved in the live show at all? No, no. That would’ve been fun.

It’s been a while since your last book. Any plans
for a new one?
I’ve been writing material for a book
since the last one [May I Kiss You on the Lips, Miss
Sandra?
]. The book market is very tenuous,
especially right now, and there are so many
people blogging and ... I don’t know why, but
psychically I’m not connecting into that
particular outlet of writing. I don’t know --
It’s not that important to me because
I’m out there so much performing; I’m
writing some stuff for television that I’m trying to
get off the ground -- you can only spread yourself so
thin. But there’ll be another book. Eventually.

You pay tribute to many icons in your show. Is
there anyone new on the scene that you find worthy or
respect or find intriguing?
Yes. I really love Rachel Maddow. That’s
the high. And I love Rachel Zoe. That’s the
low. The highs and lows of Rachels. I mean, culturally,
they’re extremes. Rachel Maddow is obviously this
incredible intellectual, and Rachel Zoe is a
spontaneous combustion of energy and pop culture, but
I like them both. I wish Rachel Zoe was on every night,
frankly. She’s totally endearing and entertaining.

You were against Proposition 8 [which rescinded
same-sex marriage rights in California]. What was your
response when it passed?
Well, honestly, I think it’s the best
thing that could happen to the gay community.
It’s really gonna galvanize the community in a way
that we need it to. We haven’t really been in
that state of mind since Stonewall, and then of course
the AIDS crisis. I think that people get complacent --
we all do, culturally. I think this is forcing everybody to
really band together and make this happen in a real
way and also to fully appreciate and respect being
represented as full citizens. [It’s] taxation without
representation! I mean, we all pay our taxes, and as the gay
community we make a lot of money and we pay a lot of
taxes and we should be completely protected. I mean,
this is absurd! I find it completely despicable that
the Mormons and the religious outlets have garnered all of
this hatred and resentment considering ... I mean, if
you really break it down, if you wanna play dirty, the
Mormons and their whole polygamy stance -- I
don’t find that particularly wonderful. We’re
a responsible community and we want our rights and
everyone wants us to have our rights -- supposedly, on
paper -- so then, it’s time for us to go out and grab
them, which we’re doing. I think, over the next year,
things will start to roll out across the country.
We’re just at that tipping point and I think
it’ll work out. But we’ve gotta do the work.
That’s all there is to it.

There’s been a lot of emphasis by opponents of gay
marriage on a need for a child to be raised by both a
woman and a man ...
Well, I can tell you, undeniably, that’s
not the case. I think that when you have one loving
parent, it’s enough, with a community of support. But
when you have two loving parents of any combination who are
in agreement with how to raise the child and agreement
on the philosophy of the household and a real, deep
commitment to the child, then the child will flourish.
What’s in our DNA, what’s in our observations
as we evolve as people has little or nothing to do
with the sexuality of our parents, and I think
it’s time for people to really look at that and step
up to the next level of thinking about it. I’m
raising my daughter with my girlfriend and it’s
a delightful experience. My daughter takes in the
world in the most wonderful way. She is who she is --
we’re simply guiding her. We all come in with
our own imprint as people, and as parents we’re
guides, to keep our kids on the right path. Being
compassionate, being understanding, protecting them --
that’s really the bottom line. You can’t
force your kid to be anything.

What kind of conversations have you had with your
daughter about sexuality and the circumstances
she’s being raised in?
We’ve never had a definitive conversation
about it. We’re living in New York and L.A.,
fortunately, and she’s surrounded by all kinds of
amazing people, and she goes to a fabulous school --
it’s never been an issue. But she gets it. She
understands the struggle of other people. She’s
aware of what’s been happening politically, and
she’s very interested and involved with it.

Has your daughter seen the film version of this show? Bits and pieces. I don’t think
it’s necessary to expose her to all of my work
at this point. There’s a time and a place for her to
fully understand what I do as a performer.
She’s come to my live shows and loves being
around the musicians, but I don’t think she’s
interested in pursuing it herself. I’m glad
about that. [Laughs]

If you could give advice to the Sandra of 20 years
ago, what would it be?
Oh, there’s no way I would! Without the
Sandra of 20 years ago I wouldn’t be who I am
today. Would I repeat some of those things now? No, of
course not, but I think everything I’ve gone
through and allowed myself to experience has led me to
the next level of maturity and spiritual awareness. I
don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life.
I’ve certainly never hurt anybody or been
malicious. I try to keep everything on the up-and-up.
I’m pretty happy with the different experiences
I’ve had along the way.

Well, that’s it. We’re done! Thank you. You
know, I saw the film version of Without You
I’m Nothing
when it first came out,
and it had a profound impact on me and ... well,
I’ve been a roadie for you ever since.
[Laughs] Well, good. Come and lift some
equipment!

For information or to order tickets go toSandra Bernhard.com.