Interview: Sandra Bernhard

The fiery feminist comedian says she has become less angry with age. Don’t you believe it

By Simon Round, February 3, 2011
Sandra Bernhard says she never misses a Shabbat service.

Sandra Bernhard says she never misses a Shabbat service.

Sandra Bernhard is a very serious comedian - in all senses of the word. She has been performing live for over 30 years now, in a career which has featured stand-up TV (notably on the Roseanne show), movies, music and a highly publicised friendship with Madonna. But she is not one to take comedy lightly. Her demeanour is severe, her body is thin and angular and her manner is all sharp edges. There are no flip comments, no asides, no jokes. These are clearly reserved for the stage.

Not that this was unexpected. When I mentioned I would be meeting Bernard, most people's reaction was "ooh, scary". In the event, she does not induce fear, and you would not be surprised to be on the receiving end of an outburst, of the kind directed at Sarah Palin's Christianity - "it's new goyish crappy shiksah funky bullshit".

Bernhard, in London ahead of her new West End show, is (probably much to Palin's relief) staying away from politics for the moment. She says: "I've given myself a holiday from that stuff since Obama finally got there. I don't like political comedy that much anyway. I don't find it that sexy. I do touch on it but it's not my forte." She does not want to go into specifics about what her forte is, but she does add: "I prefer things that are a bit sexier than that."

Although she is famously outspoken , Bernhard does not feel her comedy comes from anger. She would rather call it passion. "When you're concerned about injustice and aware of the survival of mankind, that fuels your work for sure, but I don't think it's just blind anger. I don't rage at things because it's fun to rage. But there are things that bother me, like people's stupidity, racism, sexism, homophobia, things like that. Just the normal top 10 list of idiocy."

She is keen to focus on the positive things in her life - like her 12-year-old daughter Cicely who she is bringing up with her partner Sara Witzer. And then there is her Judaism. Bernhard was brought up in a conservative Jewish household in Michigan and later Arizona. "I wouldn't say that we were a super religious household - we didn't keep kosher," she recalls.

But what she did have was a positive sense of her Jewish identity and in her late 30s she started to explore her spiritual side. These days - she is 55 now - she is a confirmed synagogue-goer. In fact, before our Friday morning interview, her PR man had rang the JC to inquire whether there was an early Shabbat service for Bernhard to attend before she flew home.

She says: "I'm going to shul tomorrow. I never miss a Torah reading, I kind of do my own thing. I'm not shomer Shabbat. It's not who I am. But I love to hear the Torah reading, I try to light the candles every Friday night and we do Shabbat dinner at home. My daughter had her batmitzvah last summer."

She feels increasingly connected to her Judaism. "I like it - it gives me a place for meditation and reflection and helps me to remain patient and compassionate. That's what I get from it."

I wonder whether she sees her herself as a naturally patient and compassionate person - these being qualities that seem at odds with her abrasive public persona and on-stage style. She replies: "I'm not instinctively like that. I'm very strong and opinionated and I have a belief in what I am talking about, but I'm also open and willing to see other people's point of view and treat them with respect. I've learned to be more compassionate for sure."

Her spiritual re-awakening came initially via the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre. So was the connection her erstwhile friend and famously keen kabbalist, Madonna, with whom she has had no contact for several years. "No, it was nothing to do with her. It was way before she went there," Bernhard retorts sharply. She ponders for a couple of second before adding. "of course, it's not a competition".

Her spirituality may be important to her but she does not feel that her comedy comes from the Jewish tradition. This does not stop her from being compared to other outspoken Jewish female comedians, notably Sarah Silverman. Suddenly the old, slightly less patient Bernhard makes an appearance. "No, I haven't been compared to her. She's been compared to me. I've been around for over 20 years. We all watch, observe and learn from the masters. And then we glean and make it our own. I've always liked Joan Rivers. She's crazy and funny and she's great at what she does."

However, although focused on her career, Bernhard does not see herself as driven and single-minded in the same way that Rivers is. "I'm not obsessive like she is, but I need to work and I love to work and I will always perform because that's what I love doing."

It is what Bernhard has always loved doing. She decided at the age of five that she wanted to be a performer and she has never wavered from her goal. She moved to Los Angeles at 18 in 1973 and began to perform there. It was not long before she was being noticed. Within a few years she was making guest appearances on the Richard Pryor Show and six years later, in 1983, she starred in Martin Scorcese's film, The King of Comedy. Meanwhile, her reputation as a stand-up continued to grow, as did her TV work. She was a regular guest on the David Letterman Show in the '80s and '90s, and played Nancy Bartlett, an openly lesbian character in Roseanne for six years in the '90s.

She was also offered, and turned down, a starring part in Sex and the City and does not regret the decision. "They didn't offer enough money and the pilot wasn't very good. I'd just finished doing Roseanne and making a lot of money and this wasn't in the same ball park. I'm glad I didn't do it. I really don't think it represents women in a good light. I don't think it did anything to help women or New York City. It gave people the idea that it was OK to spend all your money even if you didn't have a good job. And look where we are now with that philosophy."

Despite being perceived as an arch feminist, Bernhard feels that the hard work was done before she came along. "Of course I wasn't in the vanguard of the feminist movement - I'm not 75 years old. I always say that my generation is the one which gets to enjoy the hard work of the women who forged the road. But it's always under threat from the right wing and the evangelicals. So we have to continue to stand our ground."

Bernhard is clearly up for the fight. She may claim to have come over all compassionate but if she was to come up against Andy Gray or Richard Keys, I know who my money would be on.

Sandra Bernhard performs at the Leicester Square Theatre from February 9-13. Box office: 0844 847 2475

Last updated: 2:09pm, February 3 2011