Actress/comic Sandra Bernhard made a big splash in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) as Masha, a rich young groupie of a late-night TV host (Jerry Lewis) who teams up with a would-be comic (Robert De Niro) to kidnap him. Bernhard improvised a lot of her pivotal scenes especially the funny but unsettling sequence in which stripped down to her pants and bra, she tries to seduce the kidnapped host who is wrapped in yards of tape.
The New York Times’ Vincent Canby declared that the gangly, tall and curly-haired Bernhard “maybe one of the decade’s comedic finds.” She even won the prestigious National Society of Film Critics award for her performance. No sooner did The King of Comedy open in New York Bernhard made her first of many appearances on NBC’s The Late Show with David Letterman where her in-your-face comedy not only terrified but also seem to excite the host. She even showed up on the series with a padded stomach declaring she was carrying Letterman’s love child.
Bernhard was one of many young comics of the era changing the face of funny. Instead of relying on the rat-a-tat-tat of one-liners, Bernhard, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilda Radner and even Steve Martin were turning comedy into something akin to performance art in their shows. She made the leap from stand-up clubs to one-woman shows in 1988 with Without You I’m Nothing, co-written and directed by her friend, the late conceptual artist John Boskovich. The comedy show with music ran seven months off-Broadway.
AP’s Michael Kuchwara, who referred to her as the “pouty priestess of pop culture” described the 90-minute show as not “only off-the-wall but occasionally beyond it. With her new theater performance piece, Bernard offers a string of unconventional, often very funny observations about show business and the people who are consumed by it.” The LGBTQ icon and activist, best known to younger audiences as AIDs/HIV Nurse Judy on FX’s Pose, won a Grammy in 1989 for Best Comedy Recording of the hit show. A year later, what was described as an “elevated” movie version co-written and directed by Boskovich was given a limited release by New Line.
Shot on location at the legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel, Without You I’m Nothing finds Bernhard performing at an African American night club in Los Angeles. Her manager (Lu Leonard) tells the audience Bernhard is performing at this small club because her ego has swelled with the success of the off-Broadway show and wants to regroup.Her friend Steve Antin, who would later direct the infamous 2010 Burlesque, informs us about her sexual relationship with a Black hairdresser played by Djimon Hounsou in his film debut. A stoned emcee keeps referring to her as Sarah. John Doe joins her for a musical number. Singers, go-go dancers and ballet dancers provide backup. The audience seems non-plussed by Bernhard, though, they look askance at her when she dresses in an African dashiki and turban to sing Nina Simone’s Four Women or transforms herself into a Diana Ross-style singer.
In between musical sequences, Bernhard offers stories, one-liners and takes no prisoners. “My father’s a proctologist. My mother’s an abstract artist. That’s how I view the world. [Barbra Streisand] went down the Stoney End. She never wanted to go down the Stoney End, but somebody forced her down the Stoney End. We miss you, Barbra. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Barbra Streisand, Barbra Streisand.” Bernhard ends the film doffing an American flag wrap to reveal that she’s nearly nude in pasties and the tiniest of G-strings as she breaks into a bump and grind to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” Throughout the film, a beautiful woman (Cynthia Bailey) keeps weaving in and out of the proceedings. Bernhard explained the woman was a metaphor for “being on the outside.” The woman is the only one left in the audience, but she writes on the tablecloth what she thinks of Bernhard.
“The wit, costumes and fancy trapping may seem like an encumbrance, but they ultimately serve Bernhard’s Brechtian plan to reach an audience through alienation,” said Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. “The impulse behind Bernhard’s humor is clear; to make us laugh, think and squirm.” The late, influential critic Roger Ebert squirmed a bit too much admitting he felt watching the film was “an uneasy experience…Parts of it are funny, parts of it are moving, parts of it are uncomfortable and off-putting. It’s not a jolly night out at the movies.”
Though traditional comedy concert films like Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) and Eddie Murphy Raw (1987) were box-office hits, the eclectic Without You I’m Nothing was not a success earning around $1.2 million. The film found an audience on home video and has transformed into a cult favorite over the decades.