How does one forge a personality as strong and unique as Sandra Bernhard’s?
It may have had something to do with her upbringing, first in Flint, Michigan, and later in Arizona. Or it may have had something to do with coming of age in the stormy ’70s. But really, who cares how Sandra Bernhard’s comic persona came into being — the fact is that life without her corrosive, ironic musing and sexual vagaries and blatancies would seem, well, a little too serene.
In the realm of movies, Bernhard’s greatest success remains 1983’s The King of Comedy, a dark tale of icon worship directed by Martin Scorsese and co-starring Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis, and for which she won a National Film Critic’s Award. (The film will have a 20th Anniversary DVD release next year, with Bernhard participating in the commentary). But Bernhard is more beloved, particularly among gay men, for her live appearances (“gay men make up at least fifty percent of my audiences — I think I’m too ironic for lesbians, though “), which blend societal rants with rock and roll and folk riffs.
The mother of a three-year-old daughter, the intensely-private Bernhard has been, on the one hand, vocal about her sexual freedom. On the other hand, she doesn’t publicly acknowledge her lesbian liaisons. She’s not out, at least not officially. She’s just out there.
Bernhard, who brings her latest show, Hero Worship, to GWU’s Lisner Auditorium on Saturday, March 9, is in a quiet, calm mode the morning of our interview. Calling from her home in New York, her voice is dulcet, tranquil, soothing and seductive. Only when President George W. Bush’s name is raised does she get riled.
It’s what you might call pure Bernhard.
MW: You burst onto the cultural scene in the mid-eighties with The King of Comedy, and almost immediately became a cultural icon. Some celebrities build up over time, but you were like a supernova. At least that’s how I perceive it. Surely it wasn’t like that from your perspective.
SANDRA BERNHARD: Everything always seems kind of spontaneous in the media, but there’s always a lot of work behind the scenes. I’d been performing since 1975 and built a little bit of a following. So I’d already been on the circuit for eight or nine years before doing King of Comedy. Certainly the King of Comedy changed my trajectory and doing David Letterman regularly catapulted me in front of people. But it really was a slow build.
MW: You shuttled back and forth between film and live performance, but your niche seems to remain the stage.
BERNHARD: I feel like I’m one of those performers blessed with a lot to say — a lot of insight and wisdom — and I like to put it to good use. And the best use is performing live because it’s completely unedited. One of my joys being a performer is reaching people, with messages that I think need to get out there.
MW: What messages are important to you these days?
BERNHARD: I think right now it’s to remain very much an individual and not be controlled by the propaganda of the government. I think it’s really ironic that the whole Bush administration was all about anti-government, and they’re now more involved in controlling the public than any administration in years. It’s a great irony. And I think it’s very dangerous. I just think it’s really wise to be informed and smart and not be swept up in this sort of crazy fake patriotism that’s just a deflection for the present government to send people off the track of their corruption — i.e., Enron and a lot of other things that are going on behind the scenes we don’t know about. I think it’s something that we should be really careful about. It’s layer upon layer. Something else could be going on that’s even deeper and more treacherous. It’s really a mess.
MW: Were you in New York on September 11?
BERNHARD: Yes. I took my little girl to school — it was her second day of preschool. On our way uptown, a friend of mine called me on my cell phone to tell me what had happened. So we came back downtown and spent the rest of the day having friends over and wrapping our minds around it.
MW: How has your artistic life changed since September?
BERNHARD: I’ve become more political. Those are sort of the big themes of my current show, Hero Worship. It’s really about where America’s at post-September 11. It’s done ironically, kind of exposing the government and their manipulations. It takes on a lot of those big themes, and a lot of other fun stuff, too. But mostly it’s about hero worship, which can take on many forms.
MW: Who are your heroes?
BERNHARD: People that I’ve respected and emulated over the years range from Lily Tomlin to Bette Midler to Barbara Streisand to Marianne Faithful to Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. People that I’ve gleaned from — Tina Turner, a lot of rock stars, Mick Jagger. I’ve taken a lot of moves from a lot of people.
MW: What happens when you meet one of your heroes face to face? How do you respond to them?
BERNHARD: Sometimes you end up being friends with them. I’m good friends with Marianne Faithful and Chrissy Hynde. And I know Joni Mitchell a little bit. I met Laura Nyro before she passed away. Those women I’m always a little bit in awe of, so I’m kind of respectful and keep my distance. I’ve met Stevie Nicks, whom I adore. And it’s like, you can’t always become friends with them but you can certainly let them know how you feel and then you kind of hang out and have conversations at parties and stuff. But certain people, I always like to give them room, you know?
MW: You were a hero to many when you broke ground on Roseanne by portraying one of the first openly lesbian characters on a television sitcom.
BERNHARD: I think there was somebody before me.
MW: There may have been a minor one, but not, to my knowledge, on a major television show with that kind of enormous visibility. How did it come about? BERNHARD: We just thought it would be fun. My character came on as Tom Arnold’s wife, we got married and then he turns out to be a creep — which was kind of true anyway. So we just said, “Let’s make her bisexual and do something really crazy and fun. ” I don’t think we were necessarily trying to make some big political statement — it was just a fun thing to do. It worked on both levels.
MW: And television is now filled with gay characters.
BERNHARD: Gay characters on Sex and the City. Will and Grace. Now they’re going to have the Gay Channel. It’s really cool.
MW: Now, I’m not sure when you yourself first came outÂ…
BERNHARD: I’ve never come out.
MW: But IÂ…
BERNHARD: I just am who I am. I’m a person who’s turned on by cool people, and that’s always been my moniker. I’ve never been into the “Ellen DeGeneres School of Big Proclamations. ” I like to keep my private life extremely private. Otherwise there’s no intrigue and excitement to your life. It’s like this big blob of shit for everybody to dissect and talk about. They talk about you anyway, so what difference does it make? Let people talk what they want to talk about, but I’m not going to make any big statements because it just takes away the fun for me.
MW: Do you get frustrated when people assume you’re a lesbian?
BERNHARD: I don’t care what they assume. Whatever, I don’t care. I’m totally comfortable in my skin and that’s the bottom line. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of any form of sexuality. I think people should be cool with everybody That’s my statement, period.
MW: But isn’t it helpful for a celebrity to be — well, role model seems such an overused term, but it’s the only one that applies here.
BERNHARD: I am a role model. I’m a role model of total independence and freedom and individuality — which is I think a much more important statement than just, “I’m gay and we’ve been victimized. ” Honey, we’re all individuals, we all have our own cocoon and path. Everybody can say they’re victimized. Of course there is a certain kind of prejudice and anger toward the gay community at times, and there’s violence and obviously that’s unfounded and horrible, but there’s negativity from all people toward all minorities. It’s just a matter of everybody having their own inner-strength and conviction and comfortability — and know how to handle it. That’s all I can say. I’m a little bit hardcore, I’m a little bit tough, I’m not somebody who has a lot of sympathy. I wouldn’t want sympathy so why should I give it? If somebody’s really happy and certain and confident about their sexuality, they should be able to handle any and all situations.
MW: It’s interesting that you mention the Ellen DeGeneres thing. At the time, what were your feelings about her coming out?
BERNHARD: I just knew it was going to end badly. Because any time you pay too much attention to something, the light burns out. And that’s another reason I keep private life private. I want to maintain my relationship with the person I love, and I want to deal with it under the best possible circumstances. The minute the public is in on it, you’re not going to have that distance. It’s too hard to have a relationship as it is.
MW: But how does a celebrity keep life private these days, with the swarm of paparazzi out there?
BERNHARD: I’m really friendly with most of the paparazzi. It’s very rare for them to intrude. I have an old standing relationship with them from the King of Comedy days because that’s kind of what the film was about. I’m kind of just an acceptable, cool person, and I don’t play the star trip, so they don’t treat me like a star. They love me, and I pose for them, and we laugh and that’s it.
MW: Reportedly Rosie O’Donnell is about to come out.
BERNHARD: Is she? Good for her. It’s always been a little absurd the way she’s fawned over some of her male guests, frankly. But, you know, it’s cool.
MW: Let me to intrude into the outskirts of your private life and ask you about motherhood. What has becoming a mother meant to you? Has it changed you as a person?
BERNHARD: It’s been an anchor for me. It’s been a wonderful experience to express love without any boundaries. My daughter’s amazing. And, of course, I have to discipline her and pull the rein in on her, because like all kids, she’ll push it. But she’s a beautiful soul. I adore her. So it’ s been a great experience.
MW: What’s the cutest thing your girl’s ever done?
BERNHARD: Oh, my God, there are so many things I can’t even begin to tell you. She’s constantly twirling her arms around and going “Mommy, I love you. ” She’s very mature and articulate — the stuff she says just blows me away. But I think the way she loves me is just the most unbelievable thing.
MW: Is your daughter showing signs of becoming another Sandra Bernhard?
BERNHARD: Oh, yeah, she’s very much a performer. I don’t know if she’ll actually end up doing it, but if she does I will definitely support her.
MW: I know you’re a student of the Kabbalah. Can you explain what that is?
BERNHARD: It’s the spiritual essence of Judaism, kind of the basis for a lot of spiritual disciplines. It’s very complex and beautiful and really explains so much of why we’re here. And it involves a lot of reincarnation and astrology and the ability to rise above limitations of the stars which is what Abraham the patriarch established when he looked up at the stars one night and said that there will be so many stars but they won’t control me. It demystifies all the big issues that we have in our life. Why we’re here, why there’s chaos, why we suffer, and also how to control chaos in our life every day and not be a victim of it.
MW: What does it do for you in your daily life?
BERNHARD: It helps me remove chaos. It brings an ease and simplicity to my life as opposed to walking around furious and angry. “Why is this happening to me? ” Well nothing’s happening to me, I’m usually creating most of the chaos myself. So it’s helped me learn how to treat people with love and dignity and respect, and also just take control of my emotions.
MW: Yet your comic persona seems chaos-based.
BERNHARD: No, it’s not based on chaos. It’s based on a certain amount of contempt for mediocrity and comes out of a place for concern, which most people immediately see as anger. I have a real concern about changing the mood and the mediocrity of our culture and trying to influence it back into something more positive. But in terms of the world I’m still pretty much a warrior because somebody’s got to get out there and fight the good fight. I do it with a little bit of love, so it’s definitely not coming from a place of cynicism and that’s the most important thing to me to get across to the audience.
MW: Do you have any words for our current president in the unlikely event that he reads this interview?
BERNHARD: Just steer clear of me. I’m not a fan. Sandra Bernhard is not a fan.
MW: I wasn’t a fan, either, but I think he’s done a better job than I expected him to do, what with September 11, and all.
BERNHARD: Who wouldn’t have handled things the way he handled them after September 11? I mean come on. It’s pretty cut and dry. Any president would have handled it the same way. I think he’s a treacherous motherfucker, frankly, and not to be trusted.
MW: Those are strong words.
BERNHARD: Well, he is. I don’t care for him, and certainly the gay community — or anyone who cares about human rights — shouldn’t care for him. He shouldn’t be there, he wasn’t elected by us — they stole the election. Start there. Everyone’s managed to just forget about that. They stole the election. That’s the seed level of this administration. They shouldn’t have been there from the beginning. So now we’ll just hold out for the next four years and hopefully find a suitable, intelligent Democrat to get back in there and turn things around again.