Anyone who fancies themselves a self-respecting pop-culture enthusiast - especially one with a yen for the campier side of things - spent the 1980s wondering about Sandra Bernhard.
Where on earth did she come from, with her flippant, dismissively antagonistic public persona so fully formed?
She was obviously a brilliantly bizarre and breathlessly unique standup comic in a sea of hopeless yuksters.
But was she a daring and provocative performance artist masquerading as a comedian? Was she for real with her seemingly unselfconscious and unconventional approach to singing/deconstructing well-known rock and pop songs?
Although Bernhard had made quite a name for herself in the Los Angeles comedy scene of the late 1970s (where the Flint, Mich., native relocated at the age of 19 after stints in Scottsdale, Ariz., and an Israeli Kibbutz), most folks outside of the Hollywood intelligentsia first became aware of her presence through her regular mid-'80s appearances on David Letterman's original "Late Night" show on NBC.
Hilarious, semi-improvised, absurdly extended non sequiturs disguised as traditional guest interviews, these unforgettable blasts of hip urban snark and risque gender-role-challenging humor (her public image has always been rooted in sexual ambiguity, as this non-traditional beauty self-consciously - and gleefully - straddles the line between appearing forcefully feminine and casually androgynous) were quite unlike anything on U.S. TV back then, no matter what time of day.
Despite a breakout part in 1983's criminally unknown Martin Scorsese gem "The King of Comedy" (for which she received the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress), she is perhaps best known for her six-year stint on the groundbreaking sitcom "Roseanne," where she was one of the first actresses ever to play a recurring lesbian role on American TV.
At 4 p.m. Sept. 8, she'll bring her new one-woman production "Sandyland" to the Bay Street Theater above Club One for a rare matinee in a venue much smaller than other stops on this East coast tour.
DO: Did you set your sights on a comedy career long before you first walked on stage?
Bernhard: I came out to L.A. to pursue my career. I had planned since I was 5 years old to be a musical comedy performing actress - a chanteuse singer - because singing was my first love. After being there for a year and hanging out with funny people, someone said, "You should do standup, and eventually you can sing, as well."
So I started putting material together. Unless you're Meryl Streep and went to Yale Drama School, the rest of us all came to this through improvisation, and we never know how far it will go.
DO: How difficult was it to make a dent in a male-dominated scene? Did the fact that far fewer women were trying to break into that industry act as a hindrance or work in your favor?
Bernhard: I think it ultimately did (work in my favor), 'cause I was doing something really unique. Not just standup, but a hybrid of so many different styles. I was really breaking new ground (in that) there were not many women doing postmodern performing - as so many do now. I was a pioneer in that direction. People noticed me and it grew into my career as it is now.
DO: Is your "Sandyland" show all-new material?
Bernhard: It's really a stylistic hybrid ranging from rock 'n' roll to cabaret and burlesque to Broadway. There's some social commentary and personal anecdotes. My style is free-flowing stream-of-consciousness, yet there's a common thread that holds it all together.
It's just my take on the world and life and where I'm at right now. I'll have a multi-talented keyboard player with me who'll bring a lot of different moods and vibes.
DO: How much of the show is written in advance?
Bernhard: Well, I always have my set material to fall back on.
Some nights, if I get into the groove, it can be 50 percent improvised, but other nights, if the crowd isn't really with me and I just have to get down to business, I can do my set show with just a few spontaneous moments added. It's very different from night to night.
DO: The venue you're playing here is the top floor of an iconic gay bar and dance club that traditionally hosts drag shows. Do you often play gay clubs in the smaller markets?
Bernhard: I didn't know what the venue was, but it sounds perfect for me. Like a safe place for me to cater to my audience.
I just played P-Town (Provincetown, Mass.) at the Crown & Anchor, which sounds similar. It's always better to have a jam-packed small room, so I'm excited and glad to hear it.
I'm not sure if I've been to Savannah before. I'm looking forward to it, though, because it has such a reputation as a great, groovy, iconoclastic American city.
DO: Your concert here takes place at 4 p.m., which seems unusually early.
Bernhard: (Laughs) Honestly, I didn't know that. Maybe they're trying to attract a "tea dance" crowd? I don't know.
It sounds like a funky and fun afternoon in the South.
Maybe it will be the same crowd from the night before, and they just never left! That could be better.
IF YOU GO
What: Sandra Bernhard
When: 4 p.m. Sept. 8
Where: Bay Street Theater, 1 Jefferson St.