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ATMOSPHERE FOR OUTRAGE

The salty, sarcasm-spewing, severe-looking Sandra Bernhard _ who can turn talk show on its ear with her ribald antics, who might strip to near-buck-nakedness on stage if the mood strikes _ happens to be in a low-key, reflective mood this particular weekday morning for her phone interview. Maybe because it's 9 a.m., and she explains that her time is tight, but Bernhard does not respond expansively to questions. She bristles at one query about how people seem to either love her or hate her. Her answers come in measured, matter-of-fact sentences. Tightly edited little sound bites.

So Sandra, you made such an impression with your role in King of Comedy (opposite Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis in 1983), I thought you'd see plenty of film roles coming your way. Why do you think it hasn't worked out?

"There aren't that many good roles around that need the kind of dimension I can bring, unfortunately. The timing wasn't right for some reason. Things look to be happening now."

Would you give David Letterman's show a fair amount of credit for the rise in your career?

"It certainly kept me out there when I wasn't doing films. It was one of the few places (in the mass media) where I could do what I do. It was a great thing for me."

And so it goes. Bernhard obviously prefers to save her outrageous side for stage and/or screen. (Look for her dishing with Madonna in Truth or Dare and taking the role of a society matron with a Marie Antoinette attitude in Hudson Hawk.) Through the years she's been plenty outrageous. The lithe redhead is one of the women comics from whom vulgar words roll off the tongue. She discourses openly about sex, pokes fun at other performers. She knows how to attract attention. Bernard is a fearless second-tier star whose celebrity surpasses her accomplishments.

Many of her regular appearances on Letterman through the '80s were memorable affairs. Bernhard would taunt the acid-tongued host, often matching him barb for barb. She'd play touchy-feely, make Dave blush. Once she brought Madonna on the show unannounced. They were dressed in the same androgynous get-up.

She says Letterman never got angry and no one from the talk show ranks ever asked her to tone it down. "They would encourage me," Bernhard says. "I would liven up these shows that were a lot of the time really boring. I was one of the few people who could come on and make it an event, especially in the case of Letterman. But in general, those shows are just too tired and full of cliches."

About occasionally stripping down to pasties on stage? "It's just another commentary," she says flatly. "About all kinds of manipulative cultural stuff that happens to women. It's a satire, a parody of how women are exploited."

AT A GLANCE

Sandra Bernhard at the Tampa Theater at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $22.50 (plus service charge), available through Ticketmaster or the Tampa Theater box office.

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