The first time I saw Sandra Bernhard was in 1998 when I’m Still Here…Dammit was on Broadway. Playbill’s description was “an evening of song and comedy, with devastating observations on celebrity and culture.”
Sitting in the row in front of me was a married couple from out of town. The husband turned to his wife and said, “Who is she again?”
“She’s on TV!” said the wife, referring to Bernhard’s six-year stint as bisexual Nancy Bartlett on the hit sitcom Roseanne.
Twenty-something years later Bernhard is still on TV, this time as the caring, commanding AIDS-era nurse Judy Kubrak. But if you aren’t familiar with her other work — books, films, albums, standup routines, radio shows, and a couple of controversies — you might like to Google her. Interestingly, her Wikipedia page has a disambiguation note pointing to the fact that many people confuse Sandra Bernhard with 19th Century French actress Sarah Bernhardt — perhaps because they share a commanding stage presence and a dash of notoriety. But that’s where the similarity ends. Our Sandra is thoroughly contemporary, thoroughly queer, and proudly American.
I caught up with Sandra ahead of her performance at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
Do you consider yourself an Arizona native?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, I'm second round. I was actually born in Michigan and moved to Arizona when I was 10. But it was a very influential time for sure, in my life, you know, into my adolescence and just that difference in culture and terrain and the whole landscape, and of how people live in the West as opposed to the Midwest. So it definitely had a huge impact and I was really glad that I had that experience in my life.
Flint, Michigan was a small town but nonetheless, you can kind of walk around and there was a community and people that had known each other their whole lives and then out in Arizona it was like sort of people that had left behind their lives for a number of reasons so it was a little bit transient, too. It’s a whole different mentality out there. But in the sense of the mountains and the sky and nature just sort of unfolding — it was inspiring and beautiful. And it was way before it was built up and you could drive for 25, 30 miles out into the desert and there was just beautiful cactus and rocks and empty spaces and I really love that about it.
I think of you as such a New Yorker now.
Sandra: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean that's where my my compass was pointing toward, you know — cities and being around a lot of exciting people. I really started my career in L.A., not New York. I mean, for the first 10 years, I was based mainly in L.A. and then I would always go back and forth and now I’m based in New York.
But I really like the West a lot and of course I love New York. To me, New York is easier, I was just out now running errands. It's just an easier city to navigate in many ways.
When people talk about loving America, I don’t think they really understand America very much. It’s easy to say you love this country but until you kind of roll up your sleeves and travel and see some of the underbelly and the dark side, you don’t really understand what you love or what really moves you. It’s a strange country. The conflict and disparity. It's just getting harder and harder for people to negotiate those kinds of limitations of what they can get and what they can achieve.
The last couple of years have been shocking to see how many divisions we have and how we are defining ourselves by our divisions rather than what brings us together.
Sandra: Right, exactly.
Between Trump, the riots, the pandemic, how did you stay sane as a performer?
Sandra: I am lucky because I continued to do my weekly radio show that I do on Sirius XM, Sandyland, and so I could do that from home and remote equipment. So I did have an outlet and I continued to interview people and that kept me in touch with my day-to-day observations so that really kept me going more than anything.
What are some of your observations during that time?
Sandra: I just think people are resentful. They're frustrated. They're also looking for people and things to blame for what they don't have and take very little responsibility for what they can contribute to changing society. And I think that now more than ever, with social media and misrepresentation of facts and also the fact that people are not interested in educating themselves or reading well, it's just become kind of a cesspool of misinformation.
Naomi Campbell and Mariah Carey recently brought up one of your comedy bits from 1998 saying that it is racist… How has cancel culture changed comedy?
Sandra: It certainly makes you adjust how you approach it, that’s for sure. It's lost its spontaneity and its freewheeling approach. I mean, obviously, I am completely and 100 percent not a racist person. But, you know, when you're critiquing culture, you critique a lot of things that you see hypocrisy in, or people behaving in a way that's sort of laughable. So you're going to comment on it but if it's going to be misconstrued as racist or whatever topic we're talking about, then it’s not even going to be worth talking about. I'm not that interested in having fun with celebrity in the way I did most of my career. It simply doesn’t work for me anymore.
And who is a celebrity? Who are these people, talking about Tik Tok stars and people on Twitter and Instagram who have their armies of people who go after you. They're not performers. They're not artists. They’re not writers, they’re not actors or singers. They’re just people that sit in their bedroom and dream about having a lot of money and fame and just do idiotic, basic stupid human tricks. And that seems to be what catches on now. I'm like, okay, well, I just have to stay in my lane and keep doing what I've done my whole career, which is to evolve and address things that I find that can be funny, crazy, kooky, important, political, emotional. I mean, that's just what I do as a writer and as a performer. So that's all I can keep doing. You’ve got to put blinders on and just keep doing what you do.
And if you do it long enough, something amazing happens, like Pose where you are part of another (r)evolution. It must be so meta to have the memories of being there in the ‘80s and ‘90s culture and then to be making a show about it.
Sandra: Yeah, exactly. And also portraying a frontline worker, people that were just putting their whole life on the line for those who had absolutely no way out. I mean, you know, if somebody got AIDS there was a 99 percent chance they weren't going to pull through. That included many of my good friends. So, it was such a full circle and also to see the people who would have — at that time — never been elevated and never would have survived are now stars like Mj [Rodriguez] and all the trans actors…it’s really cool. And yet when you go back to what it really was, it wasn't anything like what's really portrayed on Pose. It's a bit of a fantasy, which is what people want to see. This is something in the rearview mirror that, you know, people wanted to bring a sense of joy and celebration. And I understand that. I think that's totally legitimate.
It’s like we want our culture to not reflect how things were but how we want them to be now. And that's why, in a way, comedy can't do its job. What comedy used to do was to force us to look at how we secretly thought, by articulating taboos. But now we're only allowed to say how we want things to be.
Sandra: Right. That's very accurate and right on. I mean, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Include that in the interview, please, and make it sound like I said it because it’s absolutely spot on. [Laughs]
I loved going to see you and thinking, What the f*ck is she going to say now, but whatever it is, I'm sure I needed to hear it, you know.
Sandra: Well, hopefully I’m doing that in the way I can now, and of course it's different and it's not exactly the way I'd like it to be. But it certainly has forced me to stay really creative in the way I approach my work.
I go every year to see your end-of-year New Year’s Eve show at Joe’s Pub in New York — it’s the ritual that tells me next year is going to be good. There'll be more performance. But what is it about live performing that you love most?
Sandra: I did my first show [since the pandemic] at City Winery here in New York, it was the first time in over a year and a half that I had performed. And I walked on stage and I was really emotional and I really was so connected to that moment. But once you get back into your groove again it's like you never stopped and then that feeling kind of goes away. It's weird. I wanted it to stay longer, but it didn't. And then you're back into it. And I'd written all new material and, you know, a lot of stuff about what happened during the pandemic without being didactic, you know — anecdotal, funny, which is what this show will be now for a while.
I’ve never seen you perform the same show twice. You are the most ‘in the moment person’.
Sandra: I’m not going by rote. I'm going by emotion. And that's what keeps the material fresh, you know, because every night you never know what’s happened five minutes before you walk on stage and suddenly you can just turn on a dime and like take something that maybe you've done a hundred times and bring something else to it that surprises even you or me, the person doing it. And that's what I love about it. I love being present. And I think that's what's missing most in our culture because of social media, because of this very disruptive way of communicating. I think that people have lost the ability to just be in the moment.
I hope after the last two years we can appreciate that more and connect with each other.
Sandra: I agree. It's my dream, my God, my ambition as a performer is to be at one with my audience and have that connection. And that's the real beauty of live performing that can’t be recreated anywhere else. To be a performer who stands on stage for an hour and a half, two hours, and holds the audience. And there's a give and a take and an emotional exchange. That is what entertainment and performing is. That's the essence of it.
Sandra Bernhard: A Decade of Madness and Mayhem at the Virginia G. Piper Theater, Saturday, Oct. 2, 8pm.