Interview: Sandra Bernhard

Sandra Bernhard’s foul-mouthed attacks on Sarah Palin earned her the emnity of right-wing extremists, and the support of those who think it’s right to shock in a good cause.

By John Nathan, May 21, 2009
Photo: AP

Photo: AP

How about this for a headline? “Jew Sandra Bernhard Injects Ancient Kike Hate Into Goy Palin”. It is real and it comes from a website run by American white supremacists. But I am grateful to them. Theirs was the first site I found to have posted a clip of the American comedian — sorry, “American Jew comedian” — performing an on-stage tirade last year about the Republican, and no doubt to neo-Nazis everywhere, magnificently non-Jewish, vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

About Palin’s illiberal views on feminism, Bernhard said: “Sarah Palin points her finger at other women. Turncoat bitch!” And on Palin’s habit of bringing her Christian beliefs into politics: “Don’t you f*****g reference the Old Testament… You stay with your new goyisher, crappy, shiksah, funky bulls**t.”

The video was shot during a performance at Theatre J in Washington DC’s Jewish Community Centre. It remains to be seen how much, if any, of that material will be used in the 20th anniversary revival of Bernhard’s first successful solo show. Without You I’m Nothing, which arrives in London next week.

If you can judge a person by their enemies, then Bernhard, a Jewish, bisexual, feminist, liberal comes out pretty well. But even her friends might have balked at the way her verbal attack on Palin evolved into the stated hope that if the Republican campaign’s poster girl ever set foot in Bernhard’s home town of Manhattan, she would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers”. A big row ensued. Does Bernhard ever feel sorry for the people she attacks?

“I don’t think I attack anybody,” says the comedian speaking from her office early one New York morning. There is a surprisingly tender tone to her answer as if the question was as unfair as “how long have you been beating your wife?”

This is the woman who in 2006 used her famously big mouth (in both senses) to advertise MAC lipstick which she used for another political swipe at “thin-lipped Republicans”.

Causing offence, especially to Middle America, has never much scared the scary Bernhard. Perhaps because she knows well two very different types of the United States public. She was born and partly raised in the Midwest town of Flint, Michigan, an industrial city with a large African-American population. Then, when she was 10, the Bernhards — consisting of her proctologist father, artist mother and three brothers — moved to the much more conservative, and white, Pheonix, Arizona. At 19, she struck out to Los Angeles, where she gave manicures by day and did stand-up gigs by night.

The big break came in 1983 when Martin Scorsese put her in the film The King of Comedy, opposite Robert De Niro. It was a brilliant piece of casting by the director who saw in Bernhard the dangerous unhinged quality that continued to inform her controversial career during the ’80s and ’90s.

In the sitcom Roseanne she was the first openly gay performer to play a gay character. There was the famous, flirty friendship with Madonna, which is now an occasional subject of ridicule in Bernhard gigs. And the Playboy magazine cover photograph, featuring her in black bunny-girl outfit, was the sassy antithesis of the magazine’s normal come-hither picture.

How can she say she does not attack anyone? What about Sarah Palin? The hurt tone is dropped.

“Look. Let’s get real here,” she says. “Here’s a woman who was turning back the hands of time and everything that I believe in. I mean people have to get up and be outraged by the Republican’s cynical use of a woman who was ill equipped to be vice president. It was against everything we needed in this country to pull ourselves out of the maelstrom that we had gotten in over the last eight years.”

But Palin must have been a godsend for comedians like Bernhard and Tina Fey, who became famous for her spot-on impersonation during the election. In fact, during one of his cod news broadcasts, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart described Palin as the “Republican vice-presidential nominee — and gift from God.”

“Certainly it was fun to have someone like that,” admits Bernhard, who performed at the Holon Women’s Festival in Israel earlier this year. “The more outrageous people are, the easier it is to mine that field. But you know, I’ve also said I’d give up 15 minutes of good material for world peace. If you have the choice between someone providing you with hours of material or someone who is measured and smart and really out to put things back together like Obama, I’ll take Obama and a little less laughter.”

This sober take on politics seems a good distance from Bernhard’s on-stage loose-canon persona. But off-stage, Bernhard, who has a long-term relationship with Vanity Fair magazine PR executive Sara Switzer, has a daughter to raise. She has always been protective of Cicely, now 10. Motherhood rarely gets a mention in a Bernhard gig.

“I talk about it, but only generally — the things that affect me as a mother, rather than a mother in the Mid West. I’m raising my child in a rarefied atmosphere so that’s an interesting perspective.”

The core of Without You I’m Nothing are the old pieces which Bernhard first performed in LA in 1988 at the age of 33. “The are about my life 20 years ago, but they could have been written today. And then I’ll weave together stuff that’s improvised and more topical. And I sing, I have my band. It’s a whole performance extravaganza. But I won’t do so much of the political stuff in London because its not so relevant.”

But does she not worry the Jewish schtick might not go down as well here as it does with American audiences? The last time she was in London, Bernhard did a very funny riff about the Russian-themed wedding of Joan Rivers’s daughter. Bernhard’s take was that for authenticity the bride should have been chased down the street by Cossacks on horseback. It was one of the funniest parts of a set but it went over much of the London audience’s head.

“I do whatever moves me at the time and whatever I feel committed to,” she says fearlessly. “If I’m committed to what I’m talking about people will get it and laugh at it just because they see it means something to me.”

Sandra Bernhard performs at Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2 from May 26-June 5. Tel: 08448 472 475

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014