America under Donald Trump, said Sandra Bernhard, taking a bite of grilled fish, has become “a cheap soap opera.”
We met just after Robert Mueller’s brief press conference, which didn’t clarify anything and seemed to upset all sides even more.
“Mueller is not the person to pursue,” said Bernhard sitting in Cookshop, one of her favorite restaurants near to the Chelsea home she shares with longtime partner, Sara Switzer. (Her 20-year-old daughter, Cicely, is in her junior year of college.) “Now it’s up to Congress. We just need to get that man out of the White House.”
If you are a Bernhard fan, be assured that off-stage the voice is still that low, ambiguously toned growl of mischief, if quieter. Bernhard is “concerned, frustrated, and fed up, but I’m also activated and doing everything to put the word out, like supporting Planned Parenthood, and women’s reproductive rights.”
In the second, just-underway season of Pose, set in 1990, Nurse Judy is both taking care of Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter), and is also an avatar of the passionate activists of the time who fought governmental indifference and ignorance to the decimating AIDS pandemic in a time long before HIV-as-a-treatable-condition and PrEP.
In 1990, in her real life, Bernhard was entering the public consciousness because of the movie of her one-woman show, Without You I’m Nothing. A much bigger audience awaited her in 1991, when she began appearing as the lesbian and later bisexual Nancy on Roseanne.
She and Madonna notoriously appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in 1988 in matching white T-shirts and denim shorts. Subsequent appearances by Bernhard on Letterman’s show were unpredictable hurricanes of chat show insurrection, self-promotion, flights of bizarre verbal fancy, diva-ishness, and diva parody, which Letterman looked happily flummoxed by.
Bernhard and Trump’s worlds didn’t cross in the 1980s. “He was a sideshow,” Bernhard recalled. “No sentient New Yorker would vote for him.”
Trump’s presidency has turned out exactly how she thought it would. “He’s an idiot, a thoughtless, narcissistic jackass. A lot of different elements came into play: Russian interference, the racist backlash to Obama’s presidency, and people bouncing all over the place for ‘someone who tells it like it is,’ whatever that means.”
Bernhard only wants to see impeachment “if it moves the needle in getting him out of the White House. He needs to be prosecuted. I don’t know if that means once he’s out of the White House or now.”
Bernhard said she likes all the Democratic presidential candidates, but one in particular. “I love Kamala Harris. Beto [O’Rourke] I’m not so excited about, but I feel like he’s rebounding. I like Pete [Buttigieg]. There’s a lot of great people.”
“A woman is the last person to become president of this country because it’s a misogynistic, woman-hating society. It’s reflected in our harsh abortion laws, lack of equal pay, and so many battles against women.”
“Elizabeth Warren is amazing, and she should be president,” Bernhard added. “Her policies are there. She is staying focused on what to do for education, health care, equal pay, and the environment. She is rolling out plans for everything. This isn’t a sideshow. She would be my choice, but it’s not going to happen. I don’t think this country’s ready for a woman.
“You can be gay, black, you can be anything under the sun. A woman is the last person to become president of this country because it’s a misogynistic, woman-hating society. It’s reflected in our harsh abortion laws, lack of equal pay, and so many battles against women.”
Bernhard is specifically referring to Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama who signed that state’s near-total abortion ban into law late last month.
“Right now this misogyny is the No. 1 most insidious part of our culture. There is an absolute disregard and resentment of women in this culture, an outrageous misogyny and bad treatment of women by white men in this country, and some Republican women who have jumped on the bandwagon, which is shocking and disgusting.”
“We’ve got to pry the government free of these people,” Bernhard said. “We can’t allow one more Supreme Court candidate to be appointed by these assholes. The 2020 election is the end of the line.”
So who would she vote for?
“I don’t give a shit what anybody’s sexual orientation is, or their color or religion. All I’m interested in right now is someone who is committed to changing the narrative in this country, and reaching people who are afraid of change.”
“As it stands right now, Joe Biden. I feel fine enough about that. What are you going to do if he’s the one to get Trump out? I do believe he’ll bring a woman on to the ticket as his vice president. That would be a good step. And we’ve got to flip the Senate.”
Of the possibility of Buttigieg becoming president, Bernhard said, “I don’t give a shit what anybody’s sexual orientation is, or their color or religion. All I’m interested in right now is someone who is committed to changing the narrative in this country, and reaching people who are afraid of change.
“It’s time for people in this country to go, ‘Yeah, this is how it’s got to be if we are all going to live on the planet, and if this planet is going to sustain itself with us on it, then everything has to change itself drastically.’ If it doesn’t, we’ll see how long it all lasts.”
“De Blasio? No. Not in the least. I don’t like him at all. He’s a do-nothing guy.”
When it comes to political campaigning, Bernhard will share her voice on her Radio Andy/SiriusXM radio show, Sandyland, and social media. “But if somebody I supported called me asking for my support, and if I felt comfortable about it, I’d do it—although I hate to be in that situation of a ‘politician with a celebrity,’ as it diminishes the message.”
One Dem candidate is already guaranteed not to have Bernhard’s support: Bill de Blasio gets brutal short-shrift. “No. Not in the least. I don’t like him at all. He’s a do-nothing guy. I’m excited about the idea of Corey Johnson as mayor of New York. I like him as a person and how he has evolved and how comfortable he is. He’s a really smart, kind guy. He’s a person, a real populist, and really cool. I have a lot of faith in him.”
De Blasio’s presidential bid is “terrible timing, a waste of everybody’s time, and he will go nowhere. I don’t even think he will make the debates.”
Her anger for these present times is not just reserved for politics. “There’s too much opinion in journalism and not enough reporting,” she said. Also: “There are too many fucking people on the planet. Everybody’s got to stop having 40 kids. We need free access to birth control and health care for women.”
“I can’t and don’t just worry about my own child. I am worried about the rest of women across the country who don’t have access to insurance or access to safe abortions.”
What explained Trump’s enduring support? I asked Bernhard.
“Racism, misogyny, and xenophobia,” she shot back. “The presence of Obama kept misogyny on a low simmer. Trump made it a genie out of the bottle. These white men have been waiting to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s terrifying. People like me have the money to ensure our daughters are protected, but I can’t and don’t just worry about my own child. I am worried about the rest of the women across the country who don’t have access to insurance or access to safe abortions. As each state chips away at women’s rights, it becomes more and more apparent we are in dire straits.”
Bernhard grew up in Flint, Michigan, and later Scottsdale, Arizona. “I always wanted to be a performer since I was very little. I knew instinctively that I had that as part of my DNA. My family knew it. Friends of my family knew it. I was singing at 5 years old. I might not have been telling bawdy stories just yet, but that came soon enough.”
Growing up, she wanted to be a singer and was influenced “by everything from Carole King to Joni Mitchell to the Rolling Stones.”
“I think I am a diva as part of my act. But I don’t think it is who I am as a performer. I think I’m much more gritty, real, and authentic, strong and iconoclastic. I appreciate camp, but I don’t think I am camp.”
Her mother was an artist, working on paintings and sculptures. Her great-grandmother wanted to be a performer. She was inspired by personalities like Carol Channing, Carol Burnett, and Mary Tyler Moore. She saw Channing in Hello, Dolly! when she was 8 years old. “She seemed bigger than life, and I found that very exciting.”
Is there anything of the diva in Bernhard? “I think I am a diva as part of my act. But I don’t think it is who I am as a performer. I think I’m much more gritty, real, and authentic, strong, and iconoclastic. I appreciate camp, but I don’t think I am camp.”
She applied to a couple of colleges, “but that didn’t work out,” so she moved to Los Angeles. “In the mid-1970s you could pull off things you couldn’t do now. You could afford to live there. I was a manicurist in Beverly Hills. I started going to open mic nights at 19, and it all came together.”
One part of her breakthrough came through appearing on The Richard Pryor Show, another through Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). Bernhard knew it would make her name. “Everyone I know auditioned for that role. It was a very coveted part for any actress.”
She also appeared in the Bruce Willis-helmed action movie Hudson Hawk (1991), but a film career didn’t take off. “Of course I wanted to do more work, but for some reason things didn’t come together. Some of it may have been my doing.”
Sue Mengers, her agent at the time, wanted to try and secure her a massive fee for Hudson Hawk, but Bernhard—out of nerves—forbade it.
TV fame came with Roseanne. Roseanne Barr and her then-husband, Tom Arnold, asked Bernhard to be on the show after meeting at a house party held by Mengers.
The initial idea was that Bernhard’s character, Nancy Bartlett, would be married to Arnie Thomas (Arnold himself) and—said Bernhard—be so repulsed by him that she turned to women.
“That’s how it happened,” said Bernhard. “It was meant to be funny. It was never meant to be some big statement about coming out. It was meant to be a funny reaction to being with someone hideous and obnoxious. It wasn’t trying to be lecturing. It was meant to be, ‘Oh, here’s a funny, kooky character from a small town who is now bisexual and with a woman.’”
“My character was going to have a kiss under the mistletoe with my girlfriend. But because of censorship, just as we got close to kissing, they cut it. It was absurd, but it wasn’t me making that decision. It wasn’t Roseanne. It was ABC. It wasn’t very sophisticated of them. We weren’t there yet.”
Bernhard’s presence as a lesbian character in a hit show, alongside Barr’s kiss with Mariel Hemingway, caused headlines at the time—and nerves on the part of ABC.
“My character was going to have a kiss under the mistletoe with my girlfriend,” Bernhard told The Daily Beast. “But because of censorship, just as we got close to kissing, they cut it. It was absurd, but it wasn’t me making that decision. It wasn’t Roseanne. It was ABC. It wasn’t very sophisticated of them. We weren’t there yet.”
As for Bernhard’s own sexuality, she said, “I never really came out, honestly. I was always someone who said, ‘Be who you are. I am who I am.’ I was talking more about sexual fluidity than coming out. I never wanted to make big statements like that because I am more interested in being who I want to be with and comfortable, and expecting everyone to do the same.”
On the LGBTQ spectrum, would she say she was bisexual?
“I guess, if we have to get into these didactic conversations,” Bernhard said.
How would she define herself?
“Yeah, I’ve been with my girlfriend for 20 years, so it’s really not even up for discussion. But for my own feelings and emotions, I mean I find find certain men, like certain women, attractive. But I’m with my partner. And we have been together for a long time and we’re happy, and that’s where that’s at.”
Bernhard does not like labeling, “but if somebody wants to be fluid—they, them, she, gay—that’s always been core of my work: find out who you are and be it, and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks.”
Bernhard “always hated” the pressure to label herself. “I wasn’t suggesting anyone should be closeted, but I didn’t think anyone had to define themselves unless it was something they wanted to do. I feel the same now. You should stand shoulder to shoulder with all equality: whether that’s gay rights, religious rights, or women’s rights. You have to stand shoulder to shoulder with people who want to be who they are.”
“I don’t really care about marriage. If it was about something important for our civil liberties, maybe we would,”
Although “religious liberty” is being used against LGBT people and equality.
“I know, that’s something different. I mean you should be free to be religious, just don’t impose your views on anybody else. Everybody should figure that shit out.”
Will she and Switzer marry? “No. I don’t really care about marriage. If it was about something important for our civil liberties, maybe we would. Right now, we’re good the way it is.”
Fame has never overwhelmed Bernhard; in those early Letterman appearances she doesn’t do anything as conventional as hiding her hunger for it. “I’ve always been the kind of person able to separate fame and success from day-to-day life. I’m a very in-the-world person. I do my own laundry, go to the grocery store. I like doing the mundane things in life. I try to make my life grounded.”
But there was the time when she ran wilder, especially on television, when she and Madonna caused global headlines by cavorting on Letterman’s show.
When I asked if she and Madonna were still in touch, Bernhard looked down and said, “No, I haven’t been in touch with her for years. This is a very overly examined relationship at this point.”
Was it a real romantic relationship at the time?
“No.” So, they were both playing with David Letterman and the public? “Yeah, we were just having fun.”
“I haven’t talked to Roseanne in over a year. I don’t know what’s going on with her. I don’t know what she’s really thinking.”
There is similar no-speaking distance between her and Roseanne Barr.
When I asked about the cancellation of Barr’s show by ABC, and her various controversies (like her tweet comparing Valerie Jarrett to an ape, described at the time as “abhorrent” by ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey, Barr’s boss), Bernhard shrugged. “I don’t know. We haven’t spoken. I don’t know where her head is at.”
I asked if Bernhard and Barr were close, or remained friends. “We were. I haven’t talked to her in over a year. I don’t know what’s going on with her. I don’t know what she’s really thinking.”
I asked if Bernhard was supportive of Barr and her public pronouncements. “No, of course not. But I don’t want to get into talking about it because it’s really neither here nor there.”
Having a child—Cicely will soon do an internship with a film production company—changed Bernhard, she said. “It makes you very aware of other people’s needs. It takes you out of your own realm. It’s a wonderful, amazing experience.”
Like Bernhard’s mother, Cicely daughter is a visual artist. “Cicely is terrific. She loves the world and her friends. They don’t seem to get rattled by things. She’s a feminist. She cares about what is going on in the world, but I don’t think she is obsessed, frustrated, or freaked out by it.”
For Bernhard, the #MeToo movement came at a very important time. “It shook things up, for women to say, ‘We’re not to take this shit anymore,’ and a wake-up call for men. It’s a work in progress, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back again.” Bernhard said she had encountered misogyny throughout her career, but not anything more physically traumatic and abusive.
Bernhard has had therapy but does not suffer from depression. “I have had thoughtful moments when I’m worried, or have anxiety, like anybody else, especially with the world how it is. You’d have to be a machine if you didn’t have those moments.”
She still crafts one-woman shows, most notably every Christmas at the Public Theater. Since 2015, Bernhard has developed “a whole new audience” with Sandyland, which has been very fulfilling. “He’s terrific,” Bernhard said of her boss and friend Andy Cohen becoming a father. “He seems very calm and relaxed. It’s adorable, very cute. It’s something he’s wanted to do for a long time. I think he will be a great father.”
She has written several TV projects (with co-writer Robert Horn, who won a Tony Award on Sunday for his book of Tootsie) and recently pitched another that didn’t get picked up. She is working on another filmed performance special in the vein of Without You I’m Nothing.
“I’m the least bitter person in the world. I’m anti-bitter. I love life, new experiences, meeting people, and new friends. I’m incredibly open.”
Pose has proven “a second jumping-off place for my career,” so Bernhard is also looking for more acting work. “It’s nice to be back on TV, of course it is. I only want to work with great people. Start with the bar high.”
Her sardonic delivery may lead some to think she is bitter. “What? I’m the least bitter person in the world,” she said emphatically. “I’m anti-bitter. I love life, new experiences, meeting people, and new friends. I’m incredibly open. I love everything that has happened in my career. I feel the same way now as I did when I was 20. I’m always ready for a new, wonderful experience to come my way.”
If “the right show came along,” she would love to perform on Broadway in a musical, as long as it wasn’t “tired and played out. That was my original direction, to be a Broadway star, but then I got sidetracked doing comedy and a more rock and roll sensibility.”
Aging means nothing to her, apart from the gratification of every new birthday rolling around. She only thinks of her mortality “in practical terms. I try not go to there existentially. It gets in the way of living my life as a mother, partner, and friend.”
Plates cleared, Bernhard gathered up her things to leave for her next appointment. “Like my sexuality, my age has never really defined who I am,” she said. “I try to defy all that stuff and continue to be fresh in the moment. I take care of myself and have fun, and try to be open to new experiences. It’s easy to fall into the clichés of our culture—‘Oh, you’re this age now, you should do this.’ I have never done that to myself.”
And this is the real Sandra Bernhard—as David Letterman found out all those years ago, she is ultimately, defiantly, definable only to herself.