Exclusive Interview: The Queen of Comedy Sandra Bernhard returns to Joe’s Pub for her annual holiday shows

A downtown New York tradition that’s as cherished as uptown’s The Rockettes and the Rockefeller tree returns this holiday season with Sandra Bernhard’s run at the intimate Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. The Chelsea-dwelling legendary actor, comedian, singer, author, radio host, and fashionista brings her all-new show of musings and music, Bern It Down, to the iconic venue from December 26th to 31st 2021 at 8pm nightly, with a second late show at 11pm on New Year’s Eve, so you can ring in 2022 with Sandy, honey.

Bernhard, who has ushered in over a decade’s worth of new years on stage at Joe’s Pub, has been performing live since the mid-70s, including hit solo shows like Without You I’m Nothing, With You I’m Not Much Better, which ran Off-Broadway in 1988 before being adapted for the screen and released as an album, and 1998’s I’m Still Here . . . Damn It! on Broadway. She’s given unforgettable performances in movies like Hudson Hawk and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, for which she won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress, while on television she had a long running stint as Nancy on Roseanne, has appeared on shows like Difficult People, Broad City, The L Word, and Will & Grace, and most recently all three seasons of Pose opposite Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez as nurse Judy Kubrak.

Sandra Bernhard. Photo by: Brian Ziegler.

You can tune in live to her weekly Gracie Award-winning Sandyland on SiriusXM’s Radio Andy channel 102 Thursdays at 1pm ET (repeated throughout the week at various times, and available on demand), which she’s currently recording from home, so you might even catch her dog George barking in the background.

Ahead of her live dates next month, Sandra Bernhard spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about the evolution of her unique brand of comedy, why she likes performing over the holidays, her decades-long collaboration with her musical director, and auditioning for a production of Funny Girl on Broadway that was never staged.

***As you get towards the end of this article and spot a photograph of trailblazing disco diva Sylvester, take that as your cue to start playing his classic track You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)—nice and loud so your neighbours can enjoy it too—as you finish reading. Let that voice lift your spirits, then get booking your tickets to see his fellow queer icon Sandra at Joe’s Pub.***

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I’ve noticed when you’re doing interviews or taking calls on Sandyland that you’re great at receiving a compliment about your work, there’s pride and appreciation in your voice, is that something that you’ve learned to do over the years?

Sandra Bernhard: “I think to a certain degree we all get a little more humble and appreciative of people’s generosity of spirit as we get older, so I think that’s part of it. But also, it’s just nice when people are fans and they are generous and cool and they reach out and they listen and they’re engaged, especially in this crazy world we’re living in where everything is so traumatic and everybody is at each other’s throats. It means a lot.”

Sandra Bernhard. Courtesy of SandraBerhard.com.

Speaking of fans, there are those three great Instagram accounts that are always posting archive material from your career that you frequently reshare: @WhichSandraBernhardAreYou, @AdoringSandraBernhard, and @SandraBernahrdFan.

“Yeah, they’re really wonderful!”

Could you take us back to when you first realized that you had the ability to make people laugh, how that manifested and how you got hooked on it?

“It was sort of second nature to me. I grew up with three older brothers so I got a lot of attention from my family. I was always a natural in terms of picking up on what was happening and running with it. That’s what I do best, being in the moment and being able to absorb it and then throw it back out in a funny way. I think that’s something that I honed naturally without thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this professionally someday.’ I just developed it on my own, in my own little funny way and in my own time.”

Sandra Bernhard. Courtesy of SandraBerhard.com.

In recent years, particularly listening to you on Sandyland, I’ve noticed that your humour has made the move into the quotidian. Although you’ve always been able to make any subject funny, were you taken by surprise by just how funny and engaging you can make talking about a trip to Whole Foods for instance?

“Yeah I am, I’m amazed by it. It was kind of forced upon me by the nature of the political dialogue that’s going on and the cultural battleground. I was just like, ‘Do I really want to wade into this?’ When I used to talk about celebrity and critique celebrity and kind of tear it apart and put myself in the middle of it, it was a completely different time. I think people enjoyed my sort of insidery-outsidery perspective on it. Then with the advent of social media and everybody suddenly being able to do their own commentary, it took the air out of it for me.”

“So I was like, ‘I’ve got to shift gears here. Where am I going? What is going to become my next open field of funny and observational without being dull?'”So I shifted to talking about the things that just kind of move me day to day and and it worked, and nobody can really be offended by it and nobody can steal it and nobody can critique it because it’s my life. It’s my world and I can make it as small or as big as I want to. Of course there are still times like if I’m going to a premiere or an awards show when I will talk about that stuff in the way that I’ve always talked about these things, but certainly during the pandemic that’s just not the nature of what we’re all doing. Although I had already taken a turn into a different direction before the pandemic and I enjoy it, I’m happy with it. It’s like weaving a tapestry from simpler yarn I guess is the best way to describe it.”

Sandra Bernhard. Photo by: Brian Ziegler.

On Sandyland you share aspects of your home life that you feel comfortable talking about, so we get to know a few things about your daughter Cicely, and your girlfriend Sara, and your dog George. When I was listening recently you told a story about one of your neighbors knocking on your door and you were worried that you might get into trouble with Sara after telling it.

“Yes, exactly! Well, I haven’t got any blow back from that yet so I think that’s passed. If a week goes by after one of my shows and nobody has said anything that’s usually a good sign that I won’t be hearing anything about it. Then I don’t have to explain or break it down to anybody and that’s a happy time because I don’t want to get into defending or explaining anything.”

Sandra Bernhard. Courtesy of SandraBerhard.com.

Recently you’ve done your first live shows since last February, what was it like to be performing in front of an audience again?

“It was it was very emotional. I’ve done eight shows in the past couple of months and there were different levels of emotional response for me and for the audience. It feels different, it’s more palpable. People are like, ‘Oh my God, we’re together again.’ It’s such a communal experience and nothing equals performing live and having that unique experience night to night. I always say it’s like a snowflake or a diamond, you can’t recreate the same shape or size of an audience or that night’s performance. So it’s an incredible feeling and I’m so glad to be back to it.”

“It’s not like it’s endless and I’m not on some huge tour, not that I ever am, and it has to be in venues that adhere to COVID protocol and where everybody’s careful, because I’m not just going show up somewhere where nobody’s been vaccinated, it’s just not worth it. So I think there’s that commonality to it too, that it’s people that were like, ‘Oh my God, I’m sticking my toe in the water here and I feel safe with my fellow audience, I feel safe with my performer, and the musicians.’ It’s a very uplifting experience.”

When it comes to your annual holiday show at Joe’s Pub, why do you like performing at that time of year, the run up to New Year’s Eve and then on New Year’s itself?

“That time of year has always depressed me. The industry closes down and show business is shut down and there’s nothing going on. It’s not the time of year when I would like to travel, because obviously it’s stupid, who wants to be around a million other people?! So I end up being home and I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I’m not doing anything!’ People want to go out and they want to be entertained.”

“I have always performed on New Year’s Eve because it’s sort of my superstition that if I perform on the last night of the year then I’ll work the rest of the following year. So that was where that came from and then the Joe’s Pub event expanded over the years. To start with I would just do a couple of nights, then it was three nights, and then suddenly it was four or five, and then it was six nights. It just make sense for me. I’m happy being there. I love that there are a lot of people in the city from out of town and people who are here who might feel a little bit down and lonely, it’s a place for them to go and be part of that wonderful community that I create in that fabulous venue.”

Sandra Bernhard. Photo by: Brian Ziegler.

I’ve spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with you at Joe’s Pub and always had a really memorable evening. One of the lines that I still think about is when you were talking about people walking around the city and even crossing the street staring down at their cellphones, and so when I see people doing that I often have your voice in my head saying, ‘Look up, look around you, this is New York, is this not enough for you?!’

“Exactly! I know it’s crazy isn’t it?! Although, happily, I think there’s been a bit of a backlash to that and people are finally going, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to be a little bit more in the moment.’ I see swaths of people that are more present, and I don’t know if that’s a result of the pandemic and people wanting to see other people and not just be lost in their devices, but I’m hoping that that’s shifting a little bit.”

Especially now that we’re all so Zoomed out.

“Exactly!”

Because of the timing of your show it has a bit of a review of the year vibe to it. How are you reflecting on 2021 right now and what kind of tone do you want to strike as we go into 2022?

“Well, I always try to be optimistic and upbeat, while of course still being simultaneously a critic of the obvious things that we’re all trying to break through. But really I think the mood is more about community and being together and the fun and craziness of it and trying to bring back a little bit of sophistication and celebration. I think that’s the vibe I’m heading for. I don’t really think there’s a lot to ruminate about that hasn’t already been done so completely with the news cycles, and magazines, and blogs, and podcasts. I think I just try to get away from the obvious and go into something that’s more surprising and more fun and in the moment.”

Sandra Bernhard. Courtesy of SandraBerhard.com.

There will be songs too of course.

“Oh, yeah. All the songs are going to be brand new at Joe’s, songs that I’ve never done before. Mitch Kaplan, my musical director, and I have been working on those for a few months now. I’m always excited to be able to do the songs and sometimes they fit into the pieces and sometimes there’s a little connector to what I’m talking about, but it’s really more about the mood than anything and I think these songs cover a wide swath of musical stylings.”

You’ve been working with Mitch since 1985, why has your collaboration with him lasted so long?

“I think because it’s a luxury having somebody who understands you and knows what you do and can jump in at any moment and fill in a space or improvise with you. It’s just second nature between us now, it’s like he’s my left hand. He knows where I’m going when I go somewhere and it’s unsaid and it’s fabulous. It’s just great to have that person on stage with you. I can talk to him and we share the same sense of humor and he’s funny and he’s dry and he’s like my brother and my best friend. So why mess around? I mean, there are all kinds of interesting musicians out there and maybe I would get something different if I worked with someone else, but nobody else would really be able to keep up with me in terms of knowing what I do.”

Sandra Bernhard. (Courtesy Jordan Graham)

I love listening to Sandyland. What do you enjoy about that show, which is weekly now?

“Five days a week was just too much. I guess it’s different if you have a whole team around you and a sidekick, and you break for commercials and they’re paying you a million dollars. I wasn’t being paid enough and I can’t generate that much material, nobody can, it’s impossible without somebody handing you stuff. So I was like, ‘Oh great, once a week, that’s perfect.’ Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh I can’t wait to get on Sandyland, there’s so much to talk about’, and then I run out of time and I’d rather be in that situation. Also, I pick the music every week and there are only so many great songs to play.”

“I love it because it’s a place to kind of capsulize the whole week and just reflect on where I’m at. Sometimes it will be right up to the last minute and I’ll be like, ‘I’m not even going to talk about what I thought I was going to talk about’, and I just go off on a whole different flight of fancy. I know that there are certain people who are listening that have called in, and then there’s that unknown factor too, so I wonder who might be listening for the first time or how long it’s been since a certain person listened and now they’re back. You just don’t know. It’s an emotional journey that you’re taking with people week after week, month after month, year after year, and I love that continuity in my life.”

Sandra Bernhard. Courtesy of SandraBerhard.com.

You have some really great conversations on there too. I loved the interview you did with k.d. lang recently when she just suddenly said she’d given up on music.

“I didn’t really know how that was going to go because I knew her a little bit over the years. We were never close and she wasn’t always my cup of tea, but I thought, ‘k.d. lang, I’d like to talk to her now.’ I was so moved by her and she was so real and she’s so present. She’s been through the whole experience and come out the other side. I was really glad that we talked and I loved everything she had to say.”

When you were talking to one of your regular listeners on Sandyland recently, Charles from Atlanta, he mentioned that Funny Girl is coming to Broadway next spring starring Beanie Feldstein and you said you’d actually auditioned for a production a few decades ago, so that was something that almost happened?

“Yeah, I did an audition for Funny Girl at a Broadway house. I rocked up, I sang People. It was probably in 1989 or 1990. I don’t remember who was involved with putting it together. They seemed to like me, but it never happened. I don’t know whether they just decided they didn’t want to do it because it was still too soon. It was fun doing that audition though. I remember it very clearly and it was a cool experience.”

Sandra Bernhard. Courtesy of SandraBerhard.com.

As far as you see it, was there ever a specific moment of you publicly coming out?

“No, that’s what I’ve always prided myself on, no pun intended. To me, my work has spoken for the kind of person I am, which is all-encompassing and somebody who urges people to be genuine, authentic, and true to themselves and accepting of others. That’s really what my underlying message has always been through my work. It’s never been like, I’ve suffered or I’ve been through this or I’ve been traumatized, because I haven’t been traumatized. My life has not been traumatic, thank God, and so therefore I’ve had the luxury of being able to be free-spirited and that to me was more interesting than saying, ‘And now I’m out and I’m gay.” That approach doesn’t interest me.”

One of the reasons that I called this website The Queer Review is that increasingly it’s a term that is pretty all-encompassing, and keeps evolving, and a lot of people will use it interchangeably with LGBTQ+. Is there a word like pansexual or queer or bisexual that sort of fits with you? Or would you prefer not to label yourself at all?

“Yeah, it’s just never interested me. I think free spirit is the best description of Sandy. I’m fascinated by all kinds of people, as long as they’re smart and good and not right-wing fascists. Even then, I guess if I peeked in on them I’d be interested to see how they really lived and how they really felt. But that’s okay, I won’t go out of my way to have that experience. I just really encourage people to be open and ready to have new experiences all the time.”

Billy Porter, Mj Rodriguez, and Sandra Bernhard in Pose. Courtesy of FX.

You brought so much authenticity to your role in Pose and it felt like you were channeling what it was like to be there in New York at that time during the AIDS crisis.

“I did, but I also had to play a specific role of somebody who I didn’t really know back then. I didn’t know a nurse and I didn’t really hang out at hospitals that much. Even when my friends were sick they weren’t in the hospital for that long, so I had to imbue the character with the emotions and feelings of what I experienced at the time and those people who were around me without being didactic. So that was a great outlet for all of that time and seeing what people were going through.”

It also felt to me like a real tribute to those nurses, especially the lesbian nurses, who stood by gay men in the midst of the crisis.

“Yes, they were really like soldiers on the front line. It’s unbelievable what people are willing to do and how much they’re willing to sacrifice. I mean, I can’t imagine, I can’t wrap my mind around it. It’s just so impressive and inspiring. So it was really exciting to play that role and to pay tribute to all of those people.”

Thinking of that 1980s and early 90s era in New York, someone who was around then was RuPaul and I wondered if you have ever got into watching RuPauls’ Drag Race because I think you’d be a great guest judge?

“I’m absolutely flabbergasted that he’s never had me on. I used to do his VH1 show and I’ve known him for years and I would have thought that I would have been one of the first people who he had on, but no. It’s really weird. I don’t know what happened. I guess I’m just not on RuPaul’s radar.”

We need you on it.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, honey. I mean, you can suggest it. I always thought we got along great and had fun and then suddenly it’s just like, no. I got shaded baby, I got super shaded!”

Sylvester and Two Tons o’ Fun in 1979. Photo credit: Max Redfern

One final question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or person; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“I would say without a doubt—and it’s somebody who I’ve paid tribute to in many of my shows—Sylvester. To me, he was the prototype for everybody now, from Billy Porter to anybody who wants to be that sort of intense diva. He wore beautiful caftans and makeup and had fabulous hair. He was a trailblazer and just a really fabulous spirit. Talk about lifting people up! He did that in a way that was a gospel, beautiful, truly religious, spiritual experience. When you look back at the AIDS crisis we lost so many great people, but I think Sylvester encompasses all the greatness and the beauty of that time. Sylvester is one of my big inspirations.”

If we were on radio we could play a Sylvester track right now couldn’t we?

“That’s what I love about doing the show, the music is always so important. So tell people to put on Mighty Real as they’re finishing reading this article.”

Did you ever get to meet Sylvester?

“I did, I got to meet Sylvester up in San Francisco. He was just enchanting.”

By James Kleinmann

Sandra Bernhard plays Joe’s Pub, with opener Unitard, December 26th – 31st 2021. Purchase tickets at PublicTheater.org.

Visit her official website and follow her on Instagram @SandraGBernard, Twitter @SanrdaBernhard, and Spotify.

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