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Buckle Up, Christmas Crowds: Sandra Bernhard Still Has Plenty to Say

Sandra Bernhard was early for a midmorning Chelsea coffee date, already perched at the cafe with a hefty cup. She sat not inside at the reserved table, but outdoors in a street shed, in full view of passers-by. She waved at neighbors and greeted her dog walker in a barrage of “honeys” and blown kisses, trilling a song to one of her charges — “Regiiiina” — that stopped the puggle (and some other pooches) in their tracks.

The comedian, actor and singer has lived in Chelsea for more than two decades, raising her daughter, Cicely, now 25 and a Brooklynite, there with her partner, Sara Switzer, a writer. Since the ’80s, she has been an emblem of the city’s downtown cool, a spiky transgressive with enough cultural currency to set Broadway aflame with a one-woman show. She sold a Los Angeles home around 2010, and now, unlike most celebrities of her vintage, has only the one local address. (“I don’t need three country houses,” she said.)

It’s only natural, then, that Bernhard’s year-end shows at Joe’s Pub, which she started performing in 2005, are as much a part of the city’s holiday season as Midtown gridlock and glittery department store displays — which Bernhard has a stake in too. This year, Cicely, an artist, worked on the windows at Bergdorf Goodman, her mother said with pride.

Her daughter also inspired a musical choice in “Easy Listening,” the latest Joe’s Pub series: a Lana Del Rey song; Cicely had been a fan in high school. “She would apply the winged liquid eyeliner, and it got everywhere, so that drove us crazy,” Bernhard said. “But now I’m really into Lana, and I do really get it.”

That cover was all Bernhard, 68, would reveal about “Easy Listening,” which runs Dec. 26 through New Year’s Eve. It’s billed as a tour of her musical inspirations, including the Supremes, Tina Turner and Joni Mitchell, and will also include all new material and comedic riffs (which she wouldn’t share either). Bernhard likes to keep it fresh for her many returning fans. “There’s been so much to write about — not all of it pleasant,” she said. “But the trick is to find a way into it that makes it sort of ironic, or madcap.”

Politics get only sidelong attention. Focusing directly on the state of the world, she said, “becomes very intense and melancholy and a little bit depressing. That’s just not my thing at all.” Even in her recent roles on “Pose” and “American Horror Story: NYC” — both set in the 1980s New York demimonde she inhabited — she brought a righteous earthiness, with some joie de vivre.

“You had to have a little bit of an edge,” Bernhard said of her early days, “otherwise I would have been crushed.”Credit…Caroline Tompkins for The New York Times

Andy Cohen, the Bravo executive, is a longtime friend, a fan — he’s hardly ever missed a Joe’s Pub gig, he said — and an enabler, featuring Bernhard frequently on his late-night show “Watch What Happens Live” and giving her a home on his Sirius radio channel. “The things that go through her filter are so specific and unique,” he said, whether she’s reminiscing about her starter job as a manicurist in 1970s Beverly Hills, or taking on the series “Yellowstone” — “which is a show I don’t watch,” Cohen said, “but I still want to hear her riff on it.”

“She has her own rhythm, she has her own language — I think she’s something of a poet,” he added. And as a cultural figure, “I don’t think she gets enough credit.”

Bernhard has clocked a lot of cutting-edge moments: A generation before Ali Wong earned acclaim for doing raunchy comedy while pregnant, Bernhard was blazing the theater world, including on Broadway with her solo show “I’m Still Here … Damn It!” — foul-mouthed with a sheer dress and a baby bump, that she pointedly never addressed.

“First of all, being pregnant is so, sort of, pedestrian,” she said. “There’s a billion people having babies all the time, so why talk about it? It wasn’t my jam. And I loved it. I had so much fun being pregnant, being onstage, performing, and not just sitting around waiting to have a baby.” (The show also drew criticism for a bit about Mariah Carey that the singer found racist; Bernhard has said her language was socially acceptable commentary at the time, but also acknowledged that comedy standards have changed.)

She hosted a 10 p.m. talk show for A&E long before the chatter about women taking the helm in late night. And years before Ellen DeGeneres came out, Bernhard played one of the first openly queer characters on TV, as Nancy, a friend on “Roseanne,” in the ’90s; she was also an outspoken presence during the peak of the AIDS epidemic.

“She was one of the people who taught us — who taught me — how to activate, how to be present and show up,” said Billy Porter, her co-star on “Pose,” the FX series about underground ball culture, whose characters are haunted by the disease.

For Bernhard, it was a chance to mine her real-life emotions — she lost many friends to AIDS, she said — in a character, a nurse, who was, as she put it, unglamourously “in the trenches.”

She and Porter were the two cast members who had personally experienced the first wave of the AIDS crisis. “We really connected on that — the other people were acting a history lesson, but we had actually lived it,” he said. “We were telling stories of intense trauma, and it was great to have her there to help me.”

In a marigold sweatshirt, mom jeans and high-tops, her auburn curls still effortlessly springy, Bernhard cuts a youthful, relaxed figure. Her vibe is surprisingly calm. “I’m not a frantic person,” she said. “I don’t need to run from one thing to the next to feel fulfilled.” Over coffee, we talked about parenting, schools, real estate; she is blissfully domestic, and loves doing dishes and laundry. “It’s very meditative,” she said.

Where once she was known for tearing up the town with her onetime pal Madonna, now you might find her glued to TV sports. “I adore bowling, it’s my favorite thing to do on Sunday, watch bowling on ESPN,” she posted on Instagram a couple of years ago. A Michigan native, she also loves the Detroit Lions. From age 10, she was raised by her artist mother and proctologist father in Scottsdale, Ariz., the youngest of four siblings and the only daughter. “I knew when I was 4 or 5 that I would be a performer,” she said.

Bernhard, left, onstage with Madonna at a 1989 benefit. These days, Bernhard spends her free time closer to home.Credit…Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

Early in her career she was known for tearing down celebrity culture with more than a little bite. Being tough was something of a persona — starting out in the ’70s, as a woman performing, “You had to have a little bit of an edge,” she said, “otherwise I would have been crushed.”

Now she doesn’t have the zeal to skewer the social media-influencer-industrial complex; it doesn’t interest her, and anyway, she has evolved. “It takes a lot of energy to stay with your dukes up, right?” she said. “But I do like it when certain people are a little intimidated by me. It’s better that way.”

Though she was too demure to name names, she has influenced a younger generation of performers.

“She was so out there and wild with her style and the tone of her material,” said the comic Cameron Esposito, whose conservative Catholic family forbade her from watching Bernhard on “Roseanne” or in her many ribald appearances on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” (She did anyway.) “Everything about her was outside the television landscape that I was being fed, her mannerisms, how brash she was,” Esposito said.

For the actor and comedian John Early, who like Bernhard uses music in his act, she was a path-setter — “a real hero,” he said.

“The way she unapologetically drops into covers and sings them with total abandon and sincerity gave me permission to do the same,” he said. “She’s like a psychedelic cabaret artist.”

Her off-kilter delivery and flair — “her grooviness,” he called it — also inspired him. “One time I sat right at the edge of the stage of her holiday show and she roasted me for ordering the pizza popcorn,” he added. “It was an honor.”

Her fan base is devoted, flying in from out of town, Bernhard said; one night, she did five encores. But she doesn’t rehearse the storytelling in advance — she’s still mainlining the spontaneity she had starting out. “She’s very much in the moment,” said Mitch Kaplan, her musical director, who has worked with her since 1985. “When she’s singing songs, too, she’ll never sing them the same way. One of the thrills in performing for her is you really have to listen to her, and follow her.”

For die-hards like Cohen, the holiday show is Bernhard at her best. “It’s celebratory; it’s funny; it’s raw; it feels underground, like everything she does. I find it really inspiring,” he said.

“I ran into her at the gym the other day,” Cohen added, “and I said, Please tell me you’re going to be talking about Barbra Streisand’s audiobook at the Joe’s Pub show! I said, I need this into my veins. She was like, I’m still figuring it out, honey. She always surprises me.”

Requests from famous fans aside, Bernhard said her normal life offstage has helped her endure. “I’m always happy doing dishes,” she said. “And I’m also happy when I get onstage and the band is playing and I walk out and I see people who are having fun and connecting. I love that moment. That has all the meaning that I need.”

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