Sandra Bernhard: Our favorite button pusher

By | September 29, 2010 at 1:48 pm | No comments | Features | Tags: , , ,

Sandra BernhardComedy icon Sandra Bernhard headlines Rooftop Comedy’s Out Loud Comedy and Arts Festival — running Oct. 7 – 10 — in San Francisco. In in an interview with Punchline Magazine, the versatile force of nature tells all!

Sandra Bernhard – actress, comedian, musican, pusher of societal buttons – has been a major league hitter in the entertainment game since the late ‘70s. Her career has spanned the administrations of presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and… well, you get the idea. Some would even say that her multi-range talents have included a trip into the much-traveled panties of the Material Girl, but it all depends on who you ask, and how drunk they are. (Bernhard herself has since refuted this long-nourished tale.)

Regardless, controversy and the endlessly churning celebrity rumor mill have always taken a backseat to the intricate craft of Bernhard’s comedy, and her staying power speaks as an undeniable testament to the driving force that is Ms. Sandra B.

And with appearances in more than 60 movies and TV shows, coupled with the kind of stand-up stamina that would send a million wannabe open mic stars weeping into their cheap beers, who’s going to successfully argue that her eventual tombstone should make any reference at all to Madonna?

Performing at Rooftop Comedy’s Out Loud Comedy Festival Oct. 7–10 in San Francisco, our favorite Roseanne guest star caught up with Punchline Magazine to rap about the gay community, Richard Pryor, and why she loves to sing the blues.

You’ve been performing since the late ‘70s. When you first started out, did you ever expect your career to maintain this level of longevity? Did you set out for that?
Oh, well, I thought I’d be a much bigger star than I am. [Laughs]. But I think I’ve been able to maintain my integrity and do my work and really enjoy it. I was just kidding about being a bigger star.

Everything kind of comes in a wave. You do a project, and you get a lot of attention, or you can keep doing what you’re doing and sometimes people won’t notice it. Being a perennial, that’s the most rewarding part – being able to do my career the way I’ve done it.

Do you feel like it gives you a lot of creative leeway, because you’re not, as you said, living under a certain set of expectations?
Yeah. I don’t care for that. It’s just too much. You can end up saying the wrong thing, and people will ask you to backtrack and explain it. It’s like, that happens once in a while; I’ll say things that are controversial, and people will want to know if I meant it, but in general, when I perform, I get to do what I want to do and say it the way I want to say it. That makes me happy.

That’s interesting that they’d ask you if you really meant it. Would you say something you didn’t mean, as a comedian?
Um, no, of course not. But I think sometimes comedians say things under the ironic banner, and people may misunderstand what they’re trying to say.

Are you happy with the arc your body of work has taken? How do you see your comedic voice as having developed over the years?
Oh yeah. I think the thing that is most fun for me, as an artist getting up every night to perform, I think I’ve evolved every year. I get better at what I do – I get more comfortable, and I understand myself on many levels, and in a more complete way. It reflects in my work.

Since you’re a music performer as well, do you see a lot of connection between the mindset of a musician and the mindset of a comedian?
You know, I think I have both; an equal amount in equal measure. I’ve always been very outspoken, and I’ve always been very musical. I’ve always punctuated my thoughts with music, and music’s pretty much the backdrop to my thoughts. But I feel like they’re integrated in a very balanced way.

Did you grow up in a musical household?
Yeah. My mom played piano, and we always listened to classical music, theater and Broadway. I have three older brothers, and my oldest brother was very into Bob Dylan; my second brother was incredibly into jazz; and my other brother plays the drums. We listened to kind of everything. I was exposed to music at an early age, and really had a great reference to all kinds of music.

I was reading that you do a lot of blues and jazz standards – very down-tempo. Do you see that as counterbalancing your comedy, since your stand-up tends to edge on the angry and the political?
Well, that’s part of what I do, but the whole show is kind of rock ‘n’ roll meets cabaret meets burlesque meets old school entertainment. I try to pull elements from all those in a different sense of performing that I find most engaging, and throw ‘em together in a big melting pot.

Did your early work with Richard Pryor inform your comedy at all? Did he act as an influence?
Well actually, Paul Mooney, who was the writer and kind of the person that discovered me, he was more of an influence on me than Pryor. I went on the road with Paul Mooney, and he was there almost every night I performed when I started off. He guided me and helped me kind of create my persona. Of course, I’m a huge fan of Pryor, but Mooney was really my mentor.

Changing gears a bit here, do you generally perceive the comedy community as being more or less hospitable to LGBTQ performers?
I think that entertainers in general are [more hospitable]. I don’t think there’s like a big chasm between the straight and gay entertainment communities. I think it’s the one place where people just kind of accept you, and you just do what you do.

What about the so-called “boys club” atmosphere that purportedly exists in the comedy community? Has that been a factor?
Yeah. That’s one of the reasons I stopped performing at comedy clubs. I think if I probably did comedy clubs at this point, I’m the only person there. I can’t stand waiting around all night to go on at one in the morning, at the Comedy Store or the Improv, following a night of misogynistic comedy. Everyone’s burn-down drunk, and I get up and try to do my sort of crazy, postmodern performance. I’ve moved on to more theatrical kinds of runs and stuff. At this point, it’s not like I’d go back for a night of comedy with like 20 other people, unless I was the headliner. [Laughs]. It’s just a different situation.

Do you have any advice for young women or LGBTQ comedians coming up in the scene now?
You know, for any women who are coming up, it’s like you really have to toughen up. It’s a lot of big long nights of having to be around that environment. It’s not easy. You’ve got to be really hardy, and have a really strong point of view, and be really clear about what your intention is.

Tell me a little about the Out Loud Comedy Festival. How did you get involved?
I don’t know how I got involved. My manager – he either called them or they called him. They booked me, but it seems like kind of a natural fit.

Do you have any specific goals with your performance in it?
Just, as always, to engage and entertain, and to be the best version of myself that I always try to be when I get up and perform. I think it’s nice to have someone who’s been doing it for a while to be in that setting. It’s comforting to other people to have someone who feels confident. I like to think of myself as someone who people can come to and talk to and lean on. That seems like a nice idea.

Would you say the mood of the festival is more geared toward the experience of being an LGBTQ person, especially with the ongoing political struggles in this country, or is it simply a comedy festival that happens to feature gay and lesbian performers?
Since I haven’t done this, I don’t really know. I don’t know what everybody else is going to do, but I know for myself, I think my work is inherently gay-friendly, because it’s ironic, it’s camp, it’s all the things that gay people appreciate. I would never try to pander to a gay audience by necessarily talking about gay issues, anymore than I would pander to a women crowd, or a Jewish crowd. Gay people are smart; gay people get nuances. That’s what my work is about, so I would assume that that’ll be appealing to the gay crowd.

Is there anything in particular you’re most looking forward to about the festival?
It’s just fun to be around like-minded people – people that embrace what you do and are excited about it. I don’t have to feel like, ugh, I’m gonna go hide in my dressing room. It’s nice to have the camaraderie.

I’m sure that most comedians – especially ones of your caliber – are as pleased with the developments in the political scape of this country right now as they are repulsed by it. Just curious to hear your take on it.
Well yeah, there’s certainly been a lot of fodder from the past administration, and the continual idiocy of the right wing. Of course, it’s hard not to comment on it when it’s so chaotic in its own right. It’s inherently comedic.

What at this point keeps driving you to do comedy? What continues to motivate you?
Well, I mean, I’m a performer and an artist. Once you do it, and that’s your life and your inspiration, that’s something you’ll always do. There’s no big mystery – I just can’t imagine ever not performing.

How do you see your work and your voice continuing to evolve over the next few years?
As I evolve. My daughter’s 12-years-old, and I’ve been in an 11-year relationship. I meet new people, I’m exposed to life in the world. It’s kind of a reflection and an interpretation of all the different levels in my life and experiences. All great artists put their life into their work.

For more info on Sandra, visit sandrabernhard.com. To get tickets for the Out Loud Comedy and Arts Festival, go here.

To purchase her latest album, Whatever It Takes, just click the image below!

About the Author

Emma Kat Richardson

Emma Kat Richardson is a Detroit native who received her BA in professional writing and women and gender studies from Elizabethtown College in 2008. Her journalism and feature writing has been published in Alternative Press, Bitch, Punchline Magazine, Bookslut, and Real Detroit Weekly.