The American public was introduced to Sandra Bernhard in her award-winning portrayal of Masha, a crazed celebrity stalker in Martin Scorcese’s 1982 dark satire, “The King of Comedy.”
Acting, it turned out, was not her only, or even her first interest as a performing artist. The multi-talented singer and outspoken comedian brings her cabaret show, “Sandemonium,” to Blue Note Napa Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17.
On the phone from her home in New York City last month, Bernhard talked about her first love, singing. “My original intent was to pursue a career in music,” she said. “And then I got sidetracked into comedy, which I’m glad I did because I love the hybrid nature of what I do. The cabaret meets rock ‘n’ roll aspect of live performing is very rewarding because I do have a lot to say and I love to sing, so it’s the best of both worlds.
“I’ve been singing since I was little. I eventually took voice lessons, but singing is just something you either can do or you can’t. Then you just kind of perfect your instrument as much as possible and protect it and take care of it. I’ve never been a smoker, I’ve never been a drinker. I’ve managed to keep my throat in good shape. And you know, that’s all. You just gotta keep singing.”
“I sang in the best chorus in high school,” she said, “but they didn’t let me in the musicals because I didn’t look like all the blonde WASPy girls. I went to high school in Arizona and all the girls there were just sort of like the girl-next-door, cliché blondes. I didn’t really fit into that and I’m glad I didn’t. I just was kind of doing my own thing, forging my own way.”
Bernhard listed a long and broad array of singing influences, “…everybody from Broadway singers when I was really little—Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand—to Carole King and Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro and Tina Turner and Diana Ross, Janis Joplin. The list goes on and on and on. I just listened to tons and tons and tons of singers and music. Everybody who I loved had an effect on me.”
As for her comedy influences, she zeroed in on two artists. “I love Lily Tomlin and I love Bette Midler, especially in terms of bringing elements of comedy and music together. They were big influences on me when I first came to L.A. and started performing. Although I don’t think what I do is like Lily because Lily does characters, her observational style is something that really appealed to me.”
Bernhard’s stand-up comedy is personal and observational, her brand requiring a keen awareness of culture and politics. “I think it’s really important to keep yourself plugged in culturally and globally,” she said. “You’ve got to as a performer and an artist, you got to know what’s going on. You’ve gotta be able to reflect what’s happening in a unique way and not just be dead on.”
“And it has to be smart,” she added. “Being smart is sort of inherent to comedy, and either you’re smart or you’re not, like being able to sing. You know what I mean? It’s a jumping off place really.”
Bernhard has had a successful and varied acting career, appearing in 39 films and in dozens of television shows, most prominently in the recurring role of Nancy Bartlett in 33 episodes of “Roseanne.”
She describes her early appearance in “The King of Comedy” as “a really important turning point in my career and in my life. It opened many, many doors and introduced me to great people in the business and fans who came and discovered my live performances.”
Asked if it was intimidating to work with Martin Scorcese, Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis in her first major acting role, she said, “I wasn’t intimidated but I was respectful, and really excited to work with them because when you work with the best people you learn a lot. And that’s who you want to be with.”
At Blue Note, Bernhard will be accompanied by pianist Steve Scholz, guitarist Daniel Fabricant and drummer Daria Johnson.
Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17, 7 p.m. (doors open 5:30 p.m.) and 9 p.m. (doors open 8:30 p.m.). $42.50-$95. Blue Note Napa, 1030 Main St., Napa. 707-880-2300. BlueNoteNapa.com