Joe’s Pub, New York City (and on tour)

The Mouth is back. Ever since Sandra Bernhard’s first HBO special, hard-core fans have closely watched that pair of stretchy Mick Jagger lips to see what outrageousness will issue forth next. You can start quoting one of the routines from Without You I’m Nothing (her Off Broadway show that became a CD and a movie) in any crowd of fags, and chances are good that someone else will chime right in. Yeah, yeah, Roseanne, the short-lived talk show, bit parts in movies -- none of that really stacks up against the full-evening shows that Bernhard periodically creates and tours around to theaters, clubs, and concert halls. "I will go off on you," she’s been known to threaten, and we wait with delight for her to do so.

In Inshallah, following her 1999 Broadway show I’m Still Here… Dammit* and 2001's The Love Machine,, she comes out blazing to the tune of Bonnie Tyler’s "Holding Out for a Hero" and proceeds to lash into the sentimental self-congratulation that has gotten larded onto the post-September 11 patriotic sweep. She takes well-aimed shots at the "corrupt motherfuckers" behind the Enron collapse and their close personal friends in the White House. And she doesn’t hesitate to imagine the rude comments First Pets Barney and Spot might have made watching their master choke on a pretzel. 

Curiously, though, after exhorting her audience to "Be ballsy and brave" rather than complacent, Bernhard spends most of her show making fun of easy targets that don’t take much courage to rag, like Mariah Carey and Versace ads. Every comic has shtick to fall back on, and this is Bernhard’s, but she’s sometimes able to mix it with more substance than she does here. More distressing is her weirdly patronizing attitude toward the non-white members of her band, whom she introduces as if they were fashion accessories. And she makes the kind of stereotype-based jokes about Latinos as trendy boyfriends and curry-smelling Pakistani cabdrivers that you’d expect to hear at a WASP country club rather than a hip downtown nightclub. Uncensored humor is fun; unconscious racism is not.

Mixed bag that it is, the show spotlights Bernhard’s uncanny ability to bare her vulnerability. For her crowd-pleasing encore of Prince’s "Little Red Corvette," she strips to a camouflage bra and unbuttons her jeans to get right in your face. And in the show’s best moment, she abandons all sarcasm for a melancholy reverie about Madonna, motherhood, and her insistence on rejecting all labels (sexual and otherwise). Deep down inside, she says, "Nobody know who you’ve really loved."

The Advocate, March 5, 2002