NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of comedienne, actress, New Yorker Sandra Bernhard.
Comedians may be known for their ability to ad lib, but Sandra Bernhard has a plan, a 10-year plan, she says, with a clear goal.
“Making some major money, of translating all of my hard work and artistic integrity into some financial security,” she says. “I'm not crying the blues, but you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines."
I met with Bernhard as she was enjoying the last few weeks of her latest one-woman show, “Everything Bad and Beautiful."
Long before lampooning our celebrity culture became daily fare on television, there was Sandra Bernhard, who has been described as "a brilliant ironist/crank chanteuse."
The Times called her late-90's show “I'm Still here Dammit,” "an angst driven, foul mouthed, poison laced joyride." During the years we’ve seen her in television shows like “Roseanne,” “Ally McBeal” and “The L Word.”
She's 51 now, in a seven-year relationship with a woman, a relationship she calls "solid," and she's the mother of an 8-year-old girl. Dare we ask, has Sandra Bernhard mellowed?
"Of course I've changed,” she says. “Does that mean I've lost my point of view, or my inner strength or integrity? Absolutely not."
But now when the show's over, it's over. Time to go home.
“I don't think that makes you any less edgy or cool or rock and roll. It just means you want to get home to the people you love, as opposed to combing the streets for all the trollops and trash that I used to. I’m just kidding,” she says.
Bernhard lives with her partner in Chelsea, where she's just another New Yorker walking around the neighborhood.
"People stop me all the time, ÎHey, what's happening? Sandy, where are you?’” she says. “It's not this thing where I'm wearing my dark glasses being swooped around town.”
And then, as if on cue...
“It's not constant. People aren't harassing me,” she said as we walked around Manhattan. “I’m not Tom Cruise. Hi Shalom Harlow. Hi lady, how are you?”
But whether by design or not, it is a life that has occasionally been quite public, never more so than during a much publicized friendship with Madonna in the late 80’s and 90's.
Did it ever feel like things were spiraling out of control at all?
“The only time I felt like that was when I did hang out with Madonna, and that was fallout from her life,” she says. “Some of her stalky, rabid fans tried to get what they could out of me. I don't think of myself day to day as a celebrity, as somebody who needs to be protected, who has this precious life."
Sandra Bernhard's journey to a career in show business started in a rather un-showbizzy place, Flint, Michigan. She says the turning point came when she was eight, seeing Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly” in Detroit.
“The most vivid memory was driving back to Flint, Michigan, not having met Carol Channing and thinking my parents had totally let me down by not arranging an introduction,” she says. “Years later she has come to my shows."
The family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where Bernhard went to high school, a time she says that had its challenging moments of not feeling like part of the crowd.
"There was a certain kind of contempt of a lot of kids at my high school for the way I looked, especially my lips,” she says. “Which is sweet irony now that everyone wants the kind of lips I have and has to go through painful, expensive procedures to achieve them. A couple of times I've run across people who say, ÎOh, you know you missed the 10-year Sabre Cats reunion. You won the Most Successful Sabre Cat Award.’ Wow, I’m so sorry I missed that.”
Bernhard says she had visions of her success from the time she was 5-years-old. But after high school, she made one stop not often found on the show biz resume, visiting family and working on a kibbutz in Israel.
“For a while i worked in the slaughterhouse cleaning chickens, because they came down the assembly line. I cleaned out the lungs with a vacuum cleaner,” she says. “It was fun. I liked it."
Then it was on to Hollywood to try to make it as a performer. Her first steady gig? Beverly Hills manicurist.
“A lot of women in their 40’s and 50’s and housewives would come to me, and I would tell them I was an aspiring performer, and they would say, ÎOh, you're so cute,’” she says.
She played the comedy clubs, eventually going on “The Tonight Show” and David Letterman, and landing a role as an obsessed fan in "The King of Comedy," a movie Bernhard calls prescient about America's need to connect with their celebrities and to be a celebrity.
“The lines are so blurred with real television and ÎAmerican Idol’ and all of these shows where people go from maybe having some talent to being thrust into the limelight overnight without putting in all the years of work that old school performers have put in," she says.
As Bernhard's star rose, she became known as one of the first openly gay popular performers, long before celebrities were making such announcements on television and in magazines.
Back in the 80’s, did gay organizations come to her and say, “Hey, we need you?”
“No. Nobody ever came to me like that,” she says. “They wanted me to be something more vocal and obvious, and I always rebelled against that because it's not how I work.”
And Bernhard believes she's never lost any work because of her sexuality.
“I think it's more of a titillation on the business's end than anything. Now it's sort of like, whatever. I don’t think people really care," she says.
You might think her work is not for everyone. But Bernhard says she wants to bring in what she calls, "the other disenfranchised people from the red states and people who feel left out from the hipness."
“I looked out in the audience the other night and there was a woman there with her 11-year-old kid from Houston, Texas, and I was like, ÎAre you ok honey? This is a little intense,’" she says. “I think when people talk about people in the red states are so different and they are so frightened, I don't think they are. I think it's our government that's planted these seeds of paranoia and uncertainty, so I'd like to always try to do the best I can to draw people together."
She might be mellower than when she first arrived on the scene in the 80's, but Sandra Bernhard is still a performer who inspires passion among her following. Including her daughter.
“She likes it when I talk about her, and she encourages me to remember certain things that she said that I've talked about on stage,” she says. “She said, ÎRemember to do that piece when I said to you, ÎMom, you’ve got to get it together. You've got to calm down. You’ve got to relax.’"
Calm down and relax? Not a chance.
- Budd Mishkin