Sandra Bernhard on Her Illustrious Career, Unwavering Self Confidence, and the Upcoming Election

Sandra Bernhard on Her Illustrious Career, Unwavering Self Confidence, and the Upcoming Election

Sandra Bernhard lives by her own rules. It was her biting and groundbreaking stand-up that rose her from relative obscurity to international levels of acclaim, pioneering her way through the late 1970s and 80s. Before searing performances and numerous iconic late-night appearances, she was cast by Martin Scorcese in 1983 to appear in his black comedy drama flick, The King of Comedy. I’m Your Woman, Bernhard’s one-woman show, then premiered in 1985, cementing her status as an independent, fearless female icon. In 1991, she took on the role of Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne, becoming one of the first actresses to openly portray a bisexual woman on mainstream television. Since then, Bernhard has commandeered everything from Playboy to Broadway, and landed a star role as Nurse Judy on Ryan Murphy’s Pose. Our Associate Editor, Emma Reese, spoke to Sandra earlier this summer about her career, self possession, and supporting Joe Biden.

E: How are you holding up in New York? Are you in the city right now?

SB: Yeah. My partner and I’ve just stayed here in our apartment and our daughter is up in Vermont getting ready to graduate from Middlebury College this Sunday. And she’s fortunately living off-campus, so she can stay up there. We’re going to go visit her in late June and celebrate her graduation virtually this Sunday. And it’s not the way we wanted it to be, but the most important thing is that she’s really hanging in there and being very creative and I’m just so proud of her for that. And that’s one of our main focuses right now… just making sure that she’s good and she seems to be okay. So, that’s great news.

E: Absolutely. So many graduates have had that milestone taken away from them, but it’s also a really amazing time to be graduating from college. It’s great to hear that she’s being creative. Some students seem to be really angry that they’re not getting some of the more traditional college elements, but –

SB: Yeah. She’s not really been plugged into that side of things anyway. Of course she wanted that… we all wanted that, because it’s just a beautiful thing.

E: Absolutely.

SB: But she’s not a rah, rah person at all. She’s a little revolutionary in her own way, and so, that’s exciting. Me, my girlfriend, and our dog, we’re just hunkering down here in Chelsea. I do my radio show on Sirius once a week, so that’s a great outlet. And I’ve been doing some other virtual performances and interviews with people, and of course reading a lot and just staying very in tune with what’s going on. And to also be engaged with Joe Biden’s campaign even though it may not be the most exciting person we wanted. I would have loved to have a woman running for president again, but we’re obviously just not in that headspace again. Hopefully we’ll get there.

But the good news is that he will pick a woman for his running mate, which I think is the next step. so I’m just trying to get everybody on board just to say, “Hey, whatever your thoughts were, whatever your desires and your fantasies were, this is what we’re working with right now.” It’s so important to be sure and support Joe Biden and all of the people who are around him and get the Senate flipped. Because without the Senate, we’re never going to get anything done anyway, and then no matter how progressive, whether Bernie Sanders, whoever, Elizabeth Warren, no matter who would’ve won, if we don’t have that Senate, they’ll just shit all over us.

Sandra Bernhard on Her Illustrious Career, Unwavering Self Confidence, and the Upcoming Election

“The American idea of beauty and the blonde next door with the little tiny nose, I don't find that appealing. I like somebody who's got features and curves and has a bravado about them. Those were the women that I found more inspiring, and I kind of modeled myself after all of them.”

E: There’s not much we can do if we don’t have that.

SB: No, we’ve got to get behind all of these incredible candidates around the country who are right on the verge of unseating all these horrible, racist, ugly people. So it’s important to keep us engaged. I’m just thankful for our position and respectful of everybody else’s. We’re just keeping it low-key and supportive of the people that we can help out. So that’s kind of where we’re at.

E: It seems like there’s some worry that maybe everything that’s going on with the pandemic and the crisis that we’re in… and New York, of course, has been really hit the hardest. Some are worried that people aren’t going to get out and vote. But in some ways, maybe what’s going on will encourage people to get out there even more ferociously than they would have during a normal election time. Do you think that’s true?

SB: Oh, 1000%. People will be voting, trust me. They went out in Wisconsin just to make sure that judge didn’t get elected. That was in the middle of the pandemic. And there’ll be a lot of voting by mail. I think that will all be in order, no matter how much the corruption of the Trump administration will try to write people off. We will persevere and prevail.

E: Absolutely.

SB: This will be an indictment and a reckoning for so many hateful, racist, terrible people.

E: Absolutely. While I was prepping for your interview, I went back and I watched a lot of your David Letterman interviews from the 80s. And there’s one in particular, you come out on the stage and immediately you went into that iconic Grace Jones pose from her 1985 album, Island Life. I think it was released right around the same time.

SB: Yeah.

E: And I was talking to someone else about women who are provocateurs… obviously you are, and Grace Jones is as well. So, at that time, what did it mean for a woman to be a provocateur? And how has that changed today, is it different now?

SB: Well, I think in a lot of ways, when I started performing in the mid-70s, and then leading into the 80s and 90s, you could kind of write your own ticket, because there were no sort of definitions to who you could be or what you could say. Because nobody – especially in comedy – had really done it before. I looked up to people like Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, and before that, Carol Channing, Carol Burnett, and Mary Tyler Moore. Everybody had that stripe of rebellion in their own way. But to be able to be absolutely sort of full throttle with it was something new that nobody had ever seen. And I guess that was just in me innately.

My mother was an artist, my dad was a doctor, and my dad sort of controlled my mother. And I just think I just was like, “This isn’t how it’s going to be for me; I’m going to be an independent woman and call the shots.”

And marriage was never a thing for me, however I was thinking about sexuality… it was more fun and fluid and just kind of in a way that people didn’t think of it back then. So everything that I did, I set my own terms for.

E: Yeah.

SB: I was totally self-supporting; I made a living being a manicurist in Beverly Hills. I never had to take money from anybody. I’ve always been efficient in being able to support myself. And I think that that in itself was a big reflection of the feminist movement. And it had a big influence on me as a teenager. I was like, “I’m not just going to talk about it, I’m going to do it. I’m going to support myself. I’m going to live on my own. I’m going to live by my own rules.”

I just think that all of that was the jumping off place for me, as the performer, to do what I did, which was just say, “Hey, here I am, and I’m going to just take it down to the studs and rebuild it all.” Which is kind of what I did, and kind of broke all the rules of what comedy was, what a woman was… what sexy meant, what beautiful meant, all those kinds of preconceived notions of what women were supposed to be. I kind of shattered them without even trying to do it, per se.

E: You have empowered yourself to be fully yourself.

SB: That’s right.

E: You could have the full complexity of who you were.

SB: Exactly.

“So why don't we just work with what we have so that we can help formulate what a person like Joe Biden will be able to accomplish? Everybody should get on board and weigh in and have a conversation instead of stomping our feet and going, "That's not what I wanted." Well, that's too fucking bad, that's what you've got.”

E: You said in that interview… well, he actually made a comment about your weight. And you popped back and made a comment about his capped teeth, but you also stated, “I’m thinking about maybe getting braces.” But then you quickly followed it up with, “You know, someone has to go out there and be themselves. And I know you do it for the guys, I want to do it for the gals.” And when you said that, what struck me is that part of being a provocateur is being unapologetically yourself, being real, being complex, being contradictory.

SB: Right, exactly. So, I think those are all things that were just inherent to who I am and also, I grew up in the era where you got a nose job, or you had your teeth straightened. And I was just like, “This is who I am.” I kind of model myself after European-looking women, who are more vivid. The American idea of beauty and the blonde next door with the little tiny nose, I don’t find that appealing. I like somebody who’s got features and curves and has a bravado about them. Those were the women that I found more inspiring, and I kind of modeled myself after all of them.

E: It seems like today, there’s kind of this assimilation happening of women becoming carbon copies now more than ever. Everyone is getting lip injections, or having plastic surgery to acquire a certain type of body. It seems like now it’s more rampant than it ever has been. And in a lot of ways, I think it’s easier for women to be unapologetic about who they are, because there’s a lot of spheres in social media that promote body positivity and things like that. But there’s also a back surge of conformity and changing who you are.

SB: Right, that’s all true. Also there’s more accessibility with all of the injectables and the artificial body parts that you can go and purchase. And there’s just this template of what you’re supposed to look like. And again, the women that shine are the women who just go with what they’ve got and feel comfortable. Because if it’s not even your own skin you’re comfortable in, that’s really a weird statement to make. Your skin becomes artificial, so who are you on the outside and who are you on the inside at that point?

E: There’s a wall between the two.

SB: Oh yeah, for sure.

E: You’re not an integrated person.

SB: That’s right, exactly. But I have to think that it’s so much of reality television and what goes on on the internet that is… I don’t know, I don’t follow a lot of stuff. I choose to just stay on my path. But the idea of influencers and people who think they have some sort of idea of what life is or what should be, that doesn’t really speak to me. I just kind of stick by my old school rules and keep charging ahead.

E: When we’re talking about being real and complex, do you think that that’s why a one-woman show was, and is, such a great medium for you, because you don’t have to settle on one specific thing? You can do stand-up, you can do music… it’s performance art. You’re doing characters, there’s improv, you’re interacting with a different audience every night, things are changing. Do you think that it’s one of the reasons why that’s such a great art form for you?

SB: Oh yeah, because so many things influenced me when I was growing up. My mom was an artist, an abstract artist… there’s a lot of influence from that. My three older brothers, the music that they were influenced by, when they were young and what I heard through their closed doors. And then just the whole era of comedy in the 60s and 70s. An amalgam of all of that informs my work. It’s just a great opportunity to get up on stage and kind of be able to do it all, and it keeps changing and shifting and evolving, as I do. And also, the sort of looking back, and the nostalgia, and who I was growing up always gets sort of sewn into the fabric. And it’s cool because everything is up for grabs.

E: Versus a movie or playing a role on a television show, that kind of performance space is really alive in a way that nothing else is.

SB: Yeah. Everybody who wants to tell their story can tell their story in that medium, without being challenged or questioned or repressed.

E: Like Joe’s Pub, for instance. People have been working and doing shows there for years – and some of them are getting more mainstream success now – but the kind of work that they’re creating in the mainstream is so wildly different than what we would’ve seen. I’m thinking about Cole Escola and Amy Sedaris; it seems like it’s really great. Shows like that, one-woman shows or anything in that kind of environment, are this great bastion for incubating ideas and pushing the limit of what’s accepted in the mainstream, because eventually, it makes it there.

SB: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And there are so many more outlets now for all of those revolutionary shows. And with streaming and cable, there’s a lot more room than when I started out. Then, there was just network television.

E: Yeah. Or to put out a video in 1990, right? You had to have a video released. You couldn’t just upload something to YouTube or Instagram.

SB: No, no, that’s all so recent. So it was a much different experience. In many ways, I liked it a lot better, because you had time and it took a while to work on your craft and evolve in, I think, a more authentic way. But it is what it is now… you kind of roll with the punches and take advantage of it.

E: When I was going back and I was watching these interviews, because you did so many, you were really on late-night a lot.

SB: Yeah.

E: And there’s this very smart, passionate, but almost angry, wit in those interviews. It seems like you were kind of challenging what it meant to play by the rules in what was a very male-dominated industry, or even how a woman was supposed to act on a talk show.

SB: Right, right. Well, I used it as a place to come and perform and to do what I was doing on stage, because I was like… once you say, “Oh yeah, my movies coming out or I’m on this TV show,” how much do you really want to talk about it? And how many anecdotal stories do you want to tell that are supposed to be funny and cute?

And so I would go out and blow the whole thing up. We always had to do a pre-interview that lasts for almost a half hour, because you had to set up your story so that he could ask the questions that would lead into the story. But then 90% of the time, I would just blow it up and go out there and kind of start doing whatever I wanted to do, because that’s just the improvisational part of my character.

And also, I’ve always been the kind of person, literally, when I walk off the street and onto the stage, so much has happened. You can do a whole show about what just happened. You can always fall back on that. But the fun thing is to capture that moment and the feeling of it, because once you’re done with that moment, you’re onto the next one. So, if you have an outlet, talk about it. And why not talk about it? Because it’s so fun. And then you just kind of go onto the next thing.

E: I was watching a more recent interview you did with Seth Meyers. And you were talking about your role on Pose, where you play an HIV and AIDS nurse and activist. It didn’t seem like the interviews had the same charge. So I was wondering if you think that it’s due to more of a professional and personal change? Or is it because women and LGBTQ people have a bigger seat at the table than they did before, that there isn’t the need for the same kind of provocation?

SB: Well, I hadn’t been on a late-night show in a really long time, because they don’t let you on unless you have something new coming out. There’s just too many people that they can choose from. So, because I am on Pose, and I’m in this important role for me and keeps me out there, I really wanted to push it and talk about it. And also, there’s a lot of options in late-night. And people don’t really watch late-night the way they used to.

E: They don’t, it’s totally different. It’s a totally different environment.

SB: Yeah, I couldn’t go out there and make it my own because, at that time, it was… well, people stayed up and watched late-night. That’s what they did. There were no other options. And the next day, people would talk about it. It was a big thing. And now, nobody talks about it. Do you talk about who you watched on Jimmy Kimmel last night?

E: No.

SB: No, nobody watches it, nobody cares.

E: It’s not a provocative space anymore.

SB: No, no, no.

E: Do you think that’s a good thing?

SB: I think it’s just a matter of what’s available, and there were just too many options. You can sit and watch ten hours of YouTube channels or listen to a thousand podcasts; everybody has an outlet. So, of course it doesn’t have the impact that it used to. But for me to be on with Seth was smart and I was going to take advantage of promoting myself because that’s what I needed to do at that time. That’s not the venue anymore, to go on and be free-wheeling. It just isn’t.

E: Yeah, absolutely. So, women and queer people have always had to push the margins of what’s acceptable in culture. And a lot of times they’ve had to do that just to be able to be who they are safely, in a very physical sense. But even now, there’s so much violence against trans men and women that’s being perpetrated. You came out as Nancy on Roseanne, three years before Ellen came out on her show. And I know that you’ve talked about it before as it kind of not being this huge statement. It was really unapologetic. The character was from the Midwest, she was a working class woman, and she happened to be gay. It was handled in this way of just letting her be fully who she was, but it wasn’t all of who she was.

SB: Roseanne liked to go into spaces and places that nobody had ever gone before. And if they were going to keep me on the show, they had to have some reason to keep me on because originally I was just there to get married off to Tom Arnold’s character and then just ended up being repulsed by him. So it was just a funny idea that Nancy became gay after being with this gross man.

There were some subliminal messages, but it was more about being just a really bold, really funny, crazy character, who happened to decide that she was with a woman now. To me, it had more impact than just to come out and beat people over the head with a gay character.

That’s just always been who I am, anyway. I want to be an entertaining, fun, smart, groovy person. And whatever comes behind it is what you leave when you exit the room. It makes people think and look at things differently, but you don’t need to beat people over the head with it and force it down their throats. I’ve never found that to be appealing or successful. So that’s why, I suppose, I have opened up a lot of people’s ideas in a way that other people just seem to lose in the room.

I don’t know… there’s a place to be didactic, and then there’s a place to leave your mark and impact by being entertaining, in fact, by being what you are… which is an entertainer.

E: Yeah. I think when Ellen came out on her show, there was something very apologetic about it. And in a way, she was becoming more palatable to mainstream audiences. But I feel like maybe there’s a cost to be paid for that; people have to take you or leave you.

SB: That’s right.

E: But, if you are trying to be palatable, and you’re trying to minimize who you are in order to do that, I think that you lose a lot of your power in a way. You may be accepted, but not all of who you actually are will be accepted.

SB: Yeah. Also, I don’t really care how people feel about me on that level anyway, so it’s not like I’m trying to win anybody over. And I’m also not a maudlin person. To me it’s like, “Ah, get on with it, kids. Get on with it.” That’s always sort of been my motto and my take on life and whatever’s sort of in my way, or perceived to be in my way. Sometimes, other people will say to me, “Oh, that must’ve been hard.” I’d say, “No, not really.” I was always charging ahead and having a really fun time.

E: Yeah.

SB: Sometimes professionally, things can be frustrating, because I felt like I could do roles that other people got that I wish I’d gotten, but that’s a professional thing. That’s not based on being a woman who looks a certain way or my sexuality, or anything that can be construed as an excuse. Things happen… you don’t always get the role. So you just got to kind of keep moving.

But in terms of my life and my choices and all that stuff, I don’t know, I feel like I’ve just sort of… it’s been kind of not the main event in my life.

E: Yeah, absolutely. I was also watching a clip of you in The King of Comedy. And it’s specifically the one where Jerry Lewis is taped, and you’re singing “Come Rain or Come Shine.” And I thought it was very confronting because you have this man who’s taped up, and he really has to fully deal with the unbridled desire of the woman who’s in front of him. And the tables are kind of turned in this way where sometimes, women are the ones who can’t really get away.

SB: Yeah. And also the fact that it was Jerry Lewis, who was always a notorious sexist and misogynist. So that was like a double layer of irony and sort of perfect. So yeah, that was really a very groundbreaking concept for this kind of crazy girl to have control of everything because she had money and she had confidence. That was a great experience. And it still resonates today in many ways.

E: Absolutely. It’s a total turning of the tables, because when we think about, especially with the Me Too movement, it seems like there’s far less acceptance for the idea that a man’s desire should be tolerated because he’s in a position of power or because he’s just being a man.

SB: Right.

E: Do you find that to be true?

SB: Yeah. I think in so many situations, women capitulate. They just think that if they don’t give in, they’re not going to get where they want to be in their careers and their lives. So it’s your choice now; maybe you’re not going to get what you want from that person, but you can get it somewhere else. So I think that now more than ever, it’s up to the woman. You have to say, “I’m walking out of this situation.” I’m talking specifically about the entertainment business, because obviously if you’re working somewhere, in any kind of other job, you might be in an optimized situation. I’m not diminishing that, but I think that because of where we are, it’s easier for a young woman to walk away and just say, “Fuck you.” There’s a lot more guardrails in place.

E: So something that’s kind of gained a lot of momentum alongside the Me Too movement is a very pervasive cancel culture. And it seems that it’s fueled by the quickness of social media. Sometimes it seems like there’s no due process anymore… there’s no incubation period between someone saying something problematic, or maybe even something that’s just provocative, and then the swift cancellation of their career at great professional and personal cost. Do you think that that kind of zero-tolerance approach is progressive, or in some ways, is it also regressive?

SB: Well, I guess it’s just reactionary. People have felt repressed for all these decades, and we still don’t have total control. We certainly don’t have control over our reproductive rights. I guess that’s just the way it is. It’s easier just to slam the door and say, “Okay, we’re completely done with you.” But then, you’re still left holding all of the fallout from it. And I think that you have to deal with the fact that you’ve got to be political and you’ve got to work within the confines of where politics currently are. That’s what I was saying at the top of the conversation, that we’re not necessarily jazzed or excited or at the place where we have some groovy young woman who’s going to run the country, which would be amazing.

So why don’t we just work with what we have so that we can help formulate what a person like Joe Biden will be able to accomplish? Everybody should get on board and weigh in and have a conversation instead of stomping our feet and going, “That’s not what I wanted.” Well, that’s too fucking bad, that’s what you’ve got. And if you don’t work with him and work with the people around him, then we’re not going to get anything accomplished, and we’ll most likely end up with another four years of this fascist, racist monster. And in which case, there will be no turning back. There will be no going back to any semblance of normalcy in this country.

I can’t even imagine what this country or the world will look like if we don’t get him out of the White House, so I think that’s my number one concern right now. Everything, from social reckoning to the politically correct and all the rest of it, is kind of on the back burner until we can just get back our equilibrium. That’s my final message right now. It’s hard to look back and talk too much about the way things are when you’re in the middle of an emergency.