The stage persona of Sandra Bernhard has always been a force to be reckoned with. The comedian and singer hasn’t softened a bit since her early days at LA’s Comedy Store in the ’70s. After her fantastic breakout performance in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Bernhard became known for her brash and bold sensibility on screen and off, particularly in her frequent appearances as a guest on Late Night With David Letterman in the ’80s. Her wildly popular one-woman off-Broadway show was turned into a film in 1989, and throughout the ’90s Bernhard toured with a variety of performance pieces. She is perhaps best known, though, for her recurring role as Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne. To put it simply: Bernhard has been a cultural icon for years, offering a witty and sometimes shocking perspective on celebrity culture, American politics, and her personal life.
For the last decade, Bernhard has performed an annual run of shows at New York’s venerable Joe’s Pub. This year’s event, Sandyland, comes on the heels of an intense year of political and pop-cultural moments, and Bernhard is fully prepared to give her cheeky and smart take on all of it. I talked to the performer about what goes into building one of her shows, the filming of her cult-favorite 1990 VHS release Without You I’m Nothing, and her classic role on one of modern TV’s most beloved sit-coms.
Flavorwire: I’ve seen your New Year’s show at Joe’s Pub for the last two years. It’s become one of my own holiday traditions.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, fantastic!
Can you tell me a little bit about anything special you’re planning for this year’s show?
Well, really the show every year is a year-end overview and wrap-up, as you know, and it always involves my travels, my take on things — politically, sociologically, culturally. It’s just sort of a fun, crazy ride through the past year.
Which big stories this year really affected you and what you’re bringing on stage?
I’m delighted that we [in New York] have a new mayor that’s left leaning and hopefully will bring in some sort of a new vibrancy to the city. I’m excited about healthcare; I think it’s a fabulous thing for working-class people, for everybody. Students who just haven’t been able to take care of themselves. I think Obama has done a lot of great things under duress. I’m happy about that. There’s been some great TV shows and interesting films. In general, things are in decent shape. Politically, things in Iran have cooled down. When you take away all the chatter from social media and blogs and just calmly look at everything, I think it’s been a pretty decent year.
In terms of putting together a show, obviously you look at current events and things that are going on politically and culturally, but how do you pick the songs that you sing? I know you’ve done some original songs, as well as the covers.
They’re songs that I can bring a certain kind of emotion to. It’s like a certain pathos and sensibility that I have musically. I need a song that I can tell my story through and that’s not some kind of hackneyed song that’s been done, and done, and done. I try to not to reinterpret songs that are up for too much reinterpretation. That’s why big hair bands from the ’80s have been done to death. I was one of the first people to do it. You got to keep moving on and find the new, interesting wells of product and just keep unwinding it and making it interesting. My criteria is to take something that’s unexpected and bring my stamp of originality to it.
You’ve been doing stuff at Joe’s Pub for a long time now.
Ten years now.
And this is the 15th anniversary for the venue. I’ve been in New York about three years now and have seen tons of stuff there and tons of different artists who are doing interesting things. And I think what is so interesting about the scene that surrounds Joe’s Pub — which is described as a downtown performance scene — is that it’s combining a comedy, stand-up, storytelling, and music, which is something you’ve done for decades now. I was talking to Bridget Everett a couple months ago about that, and she was saying she’s never been able to put herself into one box because she’s a funny person and she’s a singer, but she feels at home at Joe’s Pub because it’s one of the only places where you can really do all that and not be expected to call yourself one or the other. Have you ever felt the push to label yourself one way or another?
Well, no, because early on I made a decision that I was doing a hybrid of all the different things that I loved and influenced me. And I kind of put it together as a postmodern musical. I kept recreating the narratives and music. I never felt the need to identify myself as an artist or as a person. I felt like my work and who I am and what I stand for is all out on the table.
Your film, Without You I’m Nothing, will be presented at BAM this weekend. Looking back at your performance history, was that the first show where you became known for this particular, hybrid style?
Yes, yes. Up until that point, my early years doing the comedy circuit and post-King of Comedy and then when I started collaborating with John Boskovich on the show, that’s when it all sort of came together as a much bigger idea.
I haven’t seen it in a while, but I think it’s such an interesting movie, and it’s the sort of thing that I can’t imagine getting made today.
Just because it’s not a filmed one-woman show. It’s filmed like a movie, really. Sort of a documentary, sort of a mockumentary.
Yeah, all of that. John was the conceptual artist, so he saw things in pictures. He had that artistic view in a way that I don’t. I’m much more of a performer who is raw and puts it out there. He was able to put it into these pictures. We just happened to have people willing to give us money to do it, and we shot it in eight days.
We were shooting through three pieces a day, and then the extra stuff that was running through it. We just did it. We didn’t mess around. We didn’t play around. It was thought out, and we had a great DP. And everything was just ready to roll. And some of it, of course, comes together by chance. It was definitely very plotted out and sketched out.
I’d also love to talk to you about your work on Roseanne. The character you played was one of the first openly gay characters on television. And this is something that I think about a lot in terms of representation of queer identity and how, even today, there aren’t a lot of shows that last very long with major characters that are openly gay. Have you thought about how your character influenced the representation on television now?
I think the thing that is most important about Roseanne was that she took people, everyday people, and put you into their lives and situations as a person would be. You know what I mean? People who are gay don’t spend all day thinking about being gay.
They’ve got to go to work, they’ve got families, and now a lot of them have children and marriages. The only people who really think about being gay are the people who feel victimized by it. That wasn’t the approach that Roseanne took, nor was it the collaborative idea. It was fun and crazy and a little bit titillating. And, you know, the whole point was that [Nancy] had run from her brief marriage to Arnie on the show and he drove her crazy, until she decided she’d rather be gay. It was to challenge and to open people up, but it wasn’t this sort of beat-you-over-the-head-with-it, you know, “We’re gay and this is how gay people live!” She was part of the fabric of the little town, as were the gay men on the show. Roseanne just took it and made it another layer to life in America.
Do you think that that’s changed in the last few decades, in terms of gay characters like that in film and television? That now there has to be an agenda attached to create the character?
Yeah, I just haven’t seen anything really that’s blown my mind. I think that’s what I love about my own work is that it’s a here-I-am, it’s a matter-of-fact thing. When I talk about my girlfriend, my partner, it’s not precious or “we’ve suffered and we fought for this.” No, we have a rocking life. We’re pro-butch, fabulous, groovy, it’s all happening. You know what I mean? It’s all in your approach to life. It’s just how you look at it. It’s the prism that you look at life through. And a lot of people play the victim card, frankly, in the gay community. It’s just an easy way to get attention and try to exploit it.
I think about that all the time. It’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation with creating characters like that. You either create them to make a point or you create them to continue a story. And the reaction just depends on who’s watching and what they expect. It’s really up to the viewer.
Yeah, well, I just think it’s about being a sophisticated viewer. You either get the nuances or you don’t. If you have to be spoon-fed the pablum you’re going to be out of luck eventually. It’s just, like, pull it together!