Sandra Bernhard, known for campy self-indulgence and an attitude as prominent and blunt as her proboscis, isn’t so much a talent as a personality. That makes her a worthy entrant into the talkshow-hosting biz. Free-flowing and casual — sans studio audience — “The Sandra Bernhard Experience” can be so mellow that it flirts with the soporific, but debut effort also shows sporadic signs of being amusing, candid and sharp. Aside from Bernhard’s following and her ability to draw some name guests from among her friends, the show, receiving an experimental weeklong run, has a few other things going for it: It’s different from its latenight competish; A&E seems, as Bernhard notes, to want to “hip” itself up; and latenight cable shows can survive on small numbers.
As she informs us in her opening, Bernhard had an Internet show, and “The Sandra Bernhard Experience” derives from that, as well as her one-woman show. Her first two guests, Edie Falco and Steve Van Zandt, immediately reveal Bernhard’s obsession with “The Sopranos,” although the conversations range from politics to fame to music history.
It’s not until the Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde comes on in the second half, though, that we really see Bernhard as a conversationalist par excellence. It’s not just that what they talk about is interesting and different — why are there so few great women guitarists? — but that you get the sense they could talk forever and never be dull.
Co-host Sara Switzer sits next to Sandra, in silence so complete that we would forget she’s there if the camera didn’t cut to her once in a while, smiling and nodding. Switzer was an editor at Harper’s when Bernhard wrote a piece on the millennium, and Bernhard took to her.
Switzer’s also the head writer for the show, and Bernhard insists she’s young and smart and “fresh,” but in this first TV outing the co-host comes off like Ed McMahon without the guffaw and with, apparently, even less to say. She just sits innocuously and shakes hands with the guests when they leave.
Bernhard also has music director Mitch Kaplan onstage — whom she calls “Mitchy” and feels free to make fun of when she needs to — so with Switzer there, too, Bernhard has over-accessorized.
The set consists of three chairs, a grand piano and a background composed of triangles and hexagons that looks like a wall of Stars of David –intentionally or not. The clothing of the regulars is all black, with Bernhard wearing a leather jacket zipped down to reveal her cleavage.
And speaking of cleavage, Bernhard says “tits” a lot — in the first episode alone, both Britney Spears and Sara MacLachlan have their breasts discussed, although in very different contexts.
Spears seems to personify Bernhard’s greatest pet peeve, the pre-packaged fakeness of popular entertainment. “The Sandra Bernhard Experience” certainly isn’t pre-packaged — it’s not genuinely surprising or provocative either, at least not yet.
Bernhard can be intellectual or, especially when she sings, just plain silly in an offbeat manner — giving it her all, regardless of whether she’s any good. She ends her first hour in a duet of “I’ll Stand By You” with Chrissy Hynde. Then they express their love for each other. As the show closes, and the camera looks at them from afar, we hear their last bit of dialogue: “This is corny,” Bernhard says. “But it works,” Hynde says. At moments, at least, it does.