Sandra Bernhard is an intimidating interview subject. Anyone familiar with the comedian and actress knows that she’s unapologetically brash and outspoken, having made more than a few enemies as a result of her satirical take on the narcissistic qualities of American celebrity culture. A quick search on YouTube yields scores of old clips, a good number of them from Bernhard’s many appearances on Late Night With David Letterman in the Eighties, where she’d often derail the host’s attempts at an interview or do things like drag then-BFF Madonna to the taping (their friendship was tabloid-friendly and, apparently, short-lived); Bernhard recently admitted that she eventually stopped getting invited back. Or how about this: After critic Laurie Stone wrote that she was “petty and bilious” in a Village Voice review of Bernhard’s Off-Broadway hit, Without You I’m Nothing, the performer started to trash Stone in her act, even incorporating a message Stone left on her answering machine into the show, until Stone took legal action.
Then there’s the fact that Bernhard is a celebrity herself. She’s the best kind of celebrity: not mega-famous, not unreachable, but still the type who is easily recognized when she’s walking on the street in Chelsea, mixing with midtown businessmen while taking an elevator down from the SiriusXM offices (her show, Sandyland, airs daily on Andy Cohen’s Radio Andy channel), or riding the subway. Her acting career has featured some major highlights: a plum part in Martin Scorsese’s dark satire The King of Comedy, a regular role on Roseanne, and recent appearances on Switched at Birth, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and 2 Broke Girls.
But it’s her work as a comedian that is her most impressive. Without You I’m Nothing would go on to be produced as a feature film, while I’m Still Here…Damn It! took Bernhard to Broadway. The latter show was also filmed, concert-style, as an HBO special; Bernhard, at the time several months pregnant with her daughter, Cicely, wears a sheer, see-through dress. Of course, by that point, the comedian was used to baring a lot of herself in public. Without You I’m Nothing, a strange blend of monologues and songs, ends with the performer removing an American flag from her shoulders to reveal only pasties and a G-string. Then she dances to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”
As it turns out, the Sandra Bernhard on stage, on film, or on radio is a lot different from the Sandra Bernhard who’s off the mic. She’s softer in person, possessed of a relaxed sensibility that hails, she says, from the simple need to take a break from the act of performing. “As the years go on,” Bernhard, now sixty, says, “you don’t have time to stay in character. When you’re with friends or people you actually want to get to know, of course you’re going to drop the artifice and be more accessible.”
It’s a comfort to hear, especially given the bold-faced names in which she’s shown interest (and at whom she’s thrown shade) throughout her career. At the same time, you sort of hope to get some of the surly Bernhard you’ve seen on stage and screen; after all, to be poked by Sandra Bernhard almost means you’ve made it, too, that you’ve contributed something to the culture of fame she skewers from her perch just within its borders. And she knows her audience, even away from the spotlight. “Yeah, I still throw little bits of it when I’m meeting people and they want a little somethin’ special,” she says. “I don’t want to disappoint people.”
She claims that her own celebrity status is almost unquantifiable. “I think I’m established [enough] at this point that people expect me to be someone they can come to as a barometer for whatever madness happens to be happening in the world,” she says. “But it’s hard to know where you are in the pantheon, especially now because there are so many people doing similar things on the internet or onstage.”
Bernhard was a trendsetter. She didn’t invent the concept of blending stand-up comedy and cabaret, creating some new kind of performance style, but she most certainly brought it to the mainstream. The amalgamation is one she’s been exploiting ever since she got her start in Los Angeles in the Seventies. “Even when I was doing my rudimentary comedy club performances,” she says, “sometimes there would be a piano player and I would close with a song.” She always loved singing, and she took advantage of a freedom that allowed her to weave her wry, satirical observations and monologues in with thematic musical choices — something she describes now as “a strange, postmodern musical.”
That, perhaps inevitably, consigned her to the fringes of stand-up comedy: The attention she’d receive throughout the Eighties notwithstanding, here was a multihyphenate performer whose work was difficult to classify. Being a woman also resulted in a critical misunderstanding of her work, which was often described as “bitter.” “I don’t think they had seen a woman doing what I did back then,” Bernhard says. “I never thought of my work as ‘bitter.’ ” Instead, she offers a list of more appropriate adjectives: satirical, ironic, tough, combative. “No one had seen a woman be startling like that before.”
Still, that’s all just the beginning when it comes to defining her staunch and assertive performance style. Bernhard almost aggressively pokes at her audience, too, daring them not to like her. This is who I am, she seems to say. Deal with it or fuck off. It’s the kind of tenacity that confers iconic status (particularly within the gay community), but it also makes her stand out among female comedians. Indeed, Bernhard avoids self-deprecation at all costs and admits she doesn’t have much patience for the contemporary cohort of women in comedy. “Most of it’s about these single girls dating and, like, ‘I’m drunk and I just woke up and somebody came all over my face,’ ” she says. “I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. It’s not sophisticated, and I have disdain for it.” Her heroes, she says, were second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and rock icons like Janis Joplin and Ann and Nancy Wilson. “It was just a matter of fact,” she says. “That was who they were, and they just kept barreling through the roadblocks. That’s how I’ve always approached my work, my career, and my life.”
Bernhard tries to embody that fearlessness — and typically it pays off. Even when the conversation comes around to the current state of comedy in the second wave of political correctness, Bernhard brushes it all off. “I don’t spend that much time thinking about it, because I don’t want to rehash things that have already been discussed,” she says. “I don’t think that people are very smart, and they don’t have a sense of history. The times change; you change. The page of the calendar flips, and you’ve got to flip with it.”
The show on Radio Andy gives her the chance to stay fresh; it also means she’s performing daily, as both host and interviewer. On a recent episode, she had her former Roseanne co-star Laurie Metcalf on to chat about her role in the Broadway production of Misery. When the mics were turned off, the two hugged and caught each other up with stories of their kids. Once she was on air, Bernhard turned right back on: singing along to Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” and gushing over Metcalf’s broad and unstoppable acting talent. It felt like a throwback to older talk shows, when it was less about having a guest on to promote a new movie and more about two interesting people gabbing about whatever wacky notions popped into their minds.
“I want to be everything,” Bernhard says. “I want to be the diva, I want to be the sex symbol, I want to be the rock ‘n’ roller.” She’s all those things, plus casually glamorous and indomitable. And as a performer, she’s maintained the ability to bring joy and be freshly provocative at the same time. “I never set out to shock,” she says, reiterating that everything she does serves to suit herself first. “I set out to entertain. I set out to have fun.”
Sandra Bernhard: Feel the Bernhard runs at Joe’s Pub December 26–31. For ticket information, click here.