It’s not a solution to the current state of world pandemonium, but “Sandemonium,” the latest one-woman show from the irrepressible Sandra Bernhard, promises to at least be an entertaining reaction. It plays the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center on Dec. 12.
In the show, Bernhard, 63, weaves her biting comedy around musical numbers she sings with a backing band. A broadwayworld.com review of the New York premiere stated: “Keeping the show lively without abandoning who she is and being honest about the state of the world without wallowing it in was something of a high-wire act … (but) she never bailed on her promise to remain upbeat.”
Phoning the Light from her Manhattan apartment, Bernhard called the show “a real roller-coaster ride.”
“Some of it is stand-up, some of it is more storytelling, some is rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness,” she said. “It kind of wraps in and out of songs and dramatic moments. I go all over the map.”
Bernhard is in the midst of a resurgence in her acting career. Known primarily for starring on the hit sitcom “Roseanne” from 1991 through 1997, she drew more recent raves for portraying a Satanic high priestess on this past season’s “American Horror Story.” She has also logged well-reviewed guest appearances on the Hulu’s “Difficult People” and another cameo, on “Sweetbitter,” just got fleshed into a recurring role for the Starz series’ upcoming second season.
“I do as much as I can get my hands on that’s really good,” Bernhard said. “I’m keeping myself out there and really appreciating it in a way I might not have 20 or more years ago. There’s a lot more stuff out there to do, but it’s not all good. As an actress, you want to keep doing stuff that stretches your ability.”
Bernhard has been a pop-cultural fixture since “The King of Comedy,” Martin Scorsese’s 1982 black comedy in which she and Robert DeNiro played the unstable kidnappers of a narcissistic talk-show host embodied by Jerry Lewis.
According to Bernhard, the role was not a stretch for Lewis, whom she described as “never very nice” to her. (The comedy legend, who died last year at age 91, famously frowned on all female comedians, saying in 2000 that he found their material unfunny because a female to him was “a producing machine that brings babies in the world.”)
“It was obvious that he didn’t appreciate my sensibilities, which was fine,” Bernhard said, recalling that Lewis asked her to shoot a scene in which he strikes her, she spins around in high heels and a bra and panties and then falls into a glass table. Bernhard proudly recalled exactly how she worded her refusal: “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on Percocet, like you, because I hurt my back.”
Such willingness to dish about celebrities, living or dead, made Bernhard among David Letterman’s favorite bookings for his early-’80s late-night TV talk show. It also made Letterman very uncomfortable, because Bernhard appeared to use the spots to come onto him.
“Oh, I definitely was attracted to David Letterman back in the day,” Bernhard said. “It probably would not have panned out. I think it really did make him uncomfortable, although part was a little bit of shtick — ‘Oh, look at this crazy dame.’ I was at the peak of my most intense and kooky.”
Bernhard staged her first one-woman show, “I’m Your Woman,” in 1985. She followed it up with 1988’s “Without You I’m Nothing, With You I’m Not Much Better,” which played off-Broadway and spawned an album and film.
In the face of the increasing political correctness demanded by woke millennials, bitterly skewering celebrity culture and political figures in an unfiltered way in front of a live audience can seem more like a minefield than a job. But Bernhard knows her new show will probably not appeal to college-age audiences, and she’s fine with that.
“When I started off, all bets were off,” she said. “You could talk about anything and people wanted you to. I performed a lot on college campuses, they all loved it, and it was fun. But I can’t imagine how college kids would take me now.”
IF YOU GO: Sandra Bernhard’s “Sandemonium” show plays the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12. Tickets, $48-$68, at lfjcc.org