Performer Sandra Bernhard will roast pop culture and politics in P-Town
The phone rings. It’s Sandra Bernhard, and we’re going to talk about her one-woman show coming to Provincetown’s Crown & Anchor on Monday, July 8 and Tuesday, July 9. (For tickets and additional tour dates, visit sandrabernhard.com.) But right now, everyone’s head is in DC: earlier in the day, the Supreme Court returned with its decision to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. And as with everything, the woman has a strong opinion on it.
“It’s fantastic!” says Bernhard. Maybe it’s the good news, but her demeanor is much more amiable than the acerbic, caustic public persona with which she’s often associated. (Actually, I sense she’s just impatient with stupidity.) “It’s a huge stepping stone to the next level. We’ve come a long way!”
Bernhard has marched that long way alongside the LGBT community, but always to her own beat. She has raised gay visibility in mainstream media: from the hit sitcom Roseanne, where she portrayed the first series-regular lesbian character in TV history, to her famous former friendship with Madonna, a two-person media tornado that set headlines afire with are-they-or-aren’t-they speculation. (They weren’t, she says now. But it still instigated water cooler conversation around bisexuality.) And in her private life, Bernhard raises her daughter with her longtime girlfriend.
But Bernhard’s attitudes toward sexuality are, mercifully, more nuanced than the rah-rah cheerleading that characterizes a lot of popular entertainers. She exudes a raw, honest sexuality that escapes easy categorization, and has blazed trails with a candid, brazen honesty about celebrity, pop culture and politics. She covers all these areas in her live show (I Love Being Me, Don’t You?), which she says has evolved into a totally different performance than when she first gave it the title. “I kept adding on to it, like a seven-layer cake,” says Bernhard. “It’s an entirely different show. I really need to change the title.”
Never change, Sandra. Just keep talking.
Your show comments on how events in pop culture and politics impact your life. So, how does something like the repeal of DOMA affect it?
I think it’s just a more global issue for me. I’m in a different position than the person on the street. As a performer people accept me as I am. I don’t have to fight the way most people fight. I put myself out of the equation and just say it’s a huge win for humanity: for people who need assurance and insurance, for people who want to protect their children or adopt, for people who live in the margins or in small towns where they have to hide their sexuality. It’s a great time for people to come out and relax, enjoy their lives.
You’ve been with your girlfriend for many years. Any plans to marry?
That’s not really in our realm. We could have done it already. It’s an easy, simple thing to make a commitment to each other, and I don’t really feel the need to get married. But marriage is not something that would matter to me whether I was gay or straight. I think marriage is sort of antiquated. The only good thing about it is that people have those kinds of protections. I don’t think we are going to get married.
On Roseanne you played the first series-regular lesbian character in TV history. Is it interesting to you how much more accepted it is to have gay representation in the media now?
I think it’s definitely more accepted. It’s also more exploited. It hasn’t been fully realized in a way that makes sense, that shows people in functioning relationships and not just hit you over the head: gay, gay, gay! I don’t think that’s happened yet. I certainly think, being the kind of person that I am as a performer, I have contributed in my own small way. I’ve always been that kind of way with my sexuality: it plays into my life but I’m not defined by it. Let’s be able to get past that. The average straight person isn’t running around, “I’m straight!” It’s not like that. I’m sexual. I’m sexual like I’m Jewish, like I’m smart, like I’m crazy, like I’m a mother: like I’m all these things that define who I am. … I just think the conversation should be off the table. The great thing about being gay is that there are so many ways to express your creativity. You can be an over-the-top drag queen, fabulous and insane! But even that should not limit who you are.
Once upon a time, it also took bravery to align oneself with LGBT audiences. Now it seems like there are performers that are consciously marketing to them.
And also pandering to them, which I find so nauseating. “My gays! My gays!” Like, fuck you. Why should I talk down to my audience? Like my audience isn’t sophisticated enough to be part of the collective? I love my gay audiences because they get the subtleties and the nuances. In many ways they’re more worldly. But I also don’t want to acknowledge them with, “You’re special. You’re different.” Look, if a crowd of people comes to see me, wherever I go there’s a pretty good chance everyone there is going to be accepting of other people. I’d rather go for that than single people out. I think it’s pandering and unsophisticated and regressive. I don’t play that game.
You don’t need to pat them over the head and tell they’re “born this way”?
Let’s get past it! Let’s climb up the ladder of intelligence, open new doors and explore new things. As an entertainer and a person, it’s tired.
I’ve noticed interviewers still ask you about your former friendship with Madonna. Why do you think, years later, people are still so fascinated by that relationship?
Because it was two women who are very outspoken, and it’s unusual to see two women entertainers who are being crazy and stirring it up. It was just fun and inspiring. I understand why people respond to it. It was a positive and fun time for us. I think it was a great thing.
I know you’re not in touch anymore – but are you still a fan?
I’ve always been intrigued by her. I think she’s a compelling person. And even if it’s not always based on her talent, she is definitely someone you can’t ignore. She’s fun to watch. Yeah, I still listen and watch and disseminate and pull out the parts. She’s a force to contend with. I’m glad we were friends at the time that we were friends.
Your breakout role in Scorsese film The King of Comedy was thirty years ago this year. As a performer, are there new obstacles in the industry now that weren’t there when you started?
It’s not obstacles, but the Internet and social media have created a certain kind of celebrity that is hard to get over. So many people now feel they can try out their wings and fly on the Internet. They don’t understand the amount of work and finessing it takes to perform and to become a great artist. Liza Minnelli didn’t decide one day to just show up and sing. You look at all the great performers, and they got up every night at clubs. They went to auditions and had small roles. There’s no other way around it. If you don’t pay your dues, you can’t become a great artist. I think that’s pretty clear. Look at Julianne Moore! She started off doing a soap opera and her talent was eventually revealed. She didn’t wake up one morning and star in a film. It takes discipline and hard work.
Looking back on the past thirty years, any directions that your life or career has taken that you never would have expected?
Definitely. Thirty years ago I could never imagine being a mother. That was not something I saw in my life. But we all have these important events at some point where we say: I really want to do this, this second act of my life. Plus, I’m a smart person and we need more smart people having children. My daughter is a naturally more evolved person than I was when I was a kid, because of the world we live in and the things that I’ve been able to expose her to.
Your performance, particularly as a comedian, was considered pioneering. Few women were doing comedy that people described as “edgy,” “raw,” and candidly sexual. Now it’s much more common. Are there female performers now that you look at and really like? And any that you find…
… Derivative? I think a lot of people are. But that’s not intentional. It’s hard to avoid emulating women who have come before. I emulated Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, and then I found my footing in my own style. It’s harder now because there are so many voices on the Internet and people are all trying to be funny and cynical and off-the-cuff. I think that’s an easy, one-note way to be. But there are some very talented people: for instance, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and all the girls from Bridesmaids are incredibly talented girls.
Yet after a movie like Bridesmaids, you often hear such movies pigeonholed as “female” comedies. Does that bother you?
Well, there is a difference between men and women. I think women have a wider scope, emotionally, than a lot of men. So I don’t think it’s an insulting thing. I think it is a way of differentiating, of trying to say something is more female-driven. And now that there are many more funny women out there, I think it’s something that comes with the territory.