“No need to be frightened.”
That’s comedian/songstress Sandra Bernhard, reassuring me that everything is going fine in the middle of a phone interview in advance of her upcoming Tuesday performance at the Zach Theatre.
You can hardly blame me for being a bit in awe. I first saw Bernhard onscreen in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” She played Masha, an unhinged fan of Jerry Lewis’ talk show host character Jerry Langford, who helped Robert De Niro’s equally demented fan, Rupert Pupkin, stalk and kidnap the TV star.
The image of her slinking around Lewis, snarling and attempting to seduce him while he’s tied to a chair, dug deep grooves into my 20-year-old brain.
Too much information?
There was also her (real-life?) public flirtation with Madonna and her pioneering role as lesbian Nancy Bartlett on “Roseanne.”
“I’m flattered,” Bernhard tells me when I confess that I find her a bit intimidating. “But we’re having a wonderful conversation.”
These days Bernhard spends a lot of time at home with her high-school-aged daughter and tours to performing arts centers with a cabaret show that includes music and comedy.
“It’s really fun and compelling,” she says. “It’s kind of a whole landscape of my life, from the personal stories to my take on the world and celebrity and travel and relationships and being a mother and emotions and funny weird asides and where we’ve come from and the food we eat.”
“And a lot of it is improvisational,” she adds.
That would put it in the same basket as “I Love Being Me. Don’t You?”, a recording of a very funny 2010 festival appearance she made in San Francisco.
“I went out on stage at the Castro Theatre and I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” she remembers. “But I was in my zone and almost that entire recording was improvised. It’s something that I’m always excited that I get to do. Not very many people can stand onstage and just start wailing. It’s something that I’ve kind of honed over the years.”
One of the most impressive things about Bernhard’s performances is that she can get cuttingly political yet — unlike many other comics — continue to be hysterically funny. She admits that she enjoys going off on ridiculous politicians, but she’s wary of putting her audience to sleep.
“You can watch a myriad of shows on TV that pull apart politics and go underneath it. I don’t want to be all dry and boring,” she says.
It helps that she knows her audience.
“I just figure that most people that come to see me, we’re all preaching the same message, whether it’s women’s reproductive rights or gay rights — racial issues — we’re all talking the same language,” she explains.
So how does Bernhard feel about the various tags — “outrageous,” “intimidating,” “dangerous” — that are frequently used to describe her?
“Now more than ever I hope that’s true,” she says. “I think it’s harder and harder to do material that has that kind of impact. Because everybody on social media, the Internet, the bloggers — everybody’s trying to out-shock each other.”
Bernhard claims that she never sets out to shock people, only to entertain them.
“I am a little bit crazy and over the top and I like it to be right to the edge,” she says. “But I also know when to pull back.”
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Zach Theatre, 1510 Toomey Road
Information: 512-476-0541, www.zachtheatre.org