I’ve loved Sandra Bernhard my entire life, but I could never tell you exactly why. I have never watched any of her stand-up specials, and it wasn’t until recent adulthood viewings of Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Madonna’s Truth or Dare that I ever saw her in anything. Like with my lifelong admiration of fellow provocateuress Annie Sprinkle, I just appreciated Bernhard for being around. She was easy to latch onto as a counterculture media presence without ever directly engaging with her work. So, finally catching up with the 1990 movie adaptation of her “smash-hit” one-woman show Without You I’m Nothing was an education in all things Bernhard, completing the puzzle of what, exactly, she does and where her art fits into the larger puzzle of American pop culture. If I was looking for a provocateur in Bernhard all these years, I certainly found one. Consider me provoked.
My heart sank in the early minutes of Without You I’m Nothing, which starts with Bernhard performing a whitewashed caricature of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” intoning lines like “My skin is brown” and “My hair is wooly” in a nightclub cabaret act. The discomfort did not stop there. Throughout the show, Bernhard impersonates iconoclastic Black performers like Sylvester, Prince, and Diana Ross in a way that tests the boundaries of where cultural appreciation ends and outright minstrelsy begins. It’s an off-putting approach to comedy, especially if the film is your introduction to her work. However, every time she crosses the line into full-on offensive, the edit cuts away to an audience member rolling their eyes or yawning through her set. She’s performing these Black counterculture standards to a bored, Black audience who are perpetually on the verge of walking out the room in total disinterest. The joke, when there is one, is always on her.
Once I fought past my initial discomfort with Bernhard’s ironic racial caricature, I started to greatly appreciate the film on its own shaky terms. Without You I’m Nothing is absolutely fabulous as an Encyclopedia of American counterculture icons. It sketches out a roadmap of the queer, Jewish, and Black artists who have shaped this nation’s counterculture identity through a series of sincere impersonations and highly exaggerated in-character monologues. Bernard playfully mocks herself for carving out her own place in that lineage of legends, a hubris that’s constantly undercut by her audience’s aggressive disinterest. In a way, it has to wrestle with a white woman taking so much influence from such an inherently Black pop culture history as America’s, so there’s something daring about the way she crosses the political lines of good taste to make herself a target for well-deserved criticism. At the same time, I wouldn’t blame anyone who bails on the picture as early as that Nina Simone opener. The film is incredible, essential, and highly questionable.
I can’t think of many points of comparison for Without You I’m Nothing – concert film, stand-up special, or otherwise. The closest I can think of is Sara Silverman’s Jesus is Magic, which is likewise offensive-on-purpose, but never as sincere nor as politically purposeful. Bernhard throws a lot of punches in this film, from mocking the ladies who lunch in Upper Manhattan for their name-dropping, art-hag frivolity to repeatedly reducing her highly publicized frenemy Madonna into a dive bar stripper. Even when she’s lashing out, though, you get the sense that she loves all the American freaks & geeks she profiles here, especially herself. She was incredibly audacious to think she could get away with this much button-pushing in a show entirely about her place among her pop culture obsessions and, I don’t know, maybe she didn’t. It’s a complicated work about a complicated national history, so I’m not sure it matters whether it was entirely successful.