During nearly five decades in showbiz, Sandra Bernhard has racked up title after title – comedian, actor, singer, author, radio host – and a reputation for controversy. She has worked with a long list of superstars, from Richard Pryor and Robin Williams to Robert De Niro and Cyndi Lauper. But she has never been overshadowed; her force of personality has guaranteed that. Even 30 years ago, the Los Angeles Times was paying homage to her “acid-tongued, antagonistic persona”.
But there are no cutting remarks today. On this sunny morning in LA, she appears relaxed, in a pink-striped shirt and trousers, reminiscent of the early 80s outfits she wore for her many appearances on Late Night With David Letterman.
It is almost a year since she finished filming the final series of Pose, the much-praised TV drama exploring the ball scene in 80s New York and the gay and transgender artists who built it. Bernhard plays Judy Kubrak, a nurse caring for people dying with Aids. Judy has an activist streak, bringing other characters into the fight against neglectful politicians and cruel pharmaceutical companies.
It feels like the perfect role for Bernhard, who has always laced her shows with political commentary, has been open about her own bisexuality and was embedded in New York’s cultural underground during the ball era. She remembers that time fondly: “There were events and art openings, fashion shows and parties. For sure, there was a gay scene, but everything sort of melded together.”
It was there she met her longtime musical director, Mitch Kaplan, and the conceptual artist John Boskovich. Together, they developed her breakthrough one-woman show, Without You I’m Nothing, With You, I’m Not Much Better, which she performed off-Broadway in 1988. “Almost every night, we went out afterwards, dancing, or hung out on Second Avenue. There were a lot more people on the street. It was just a more accessible, affordable situation back then.”
‘We clicked’ … on stage with Madonna in 1989. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Yet the era was tinged with tragedy as Aids took hold. “I lost many, many good friends. We were all terrified and sad,” Bernhard says. It was particularly tough for trans people. “Back then, if you were trans, chances are you lived on the street, you hustled and you probably contracted Aids,” she says. “Nobody took trans people seriously. The underlying theme of Pose was to really honour that community’s work and artistry.
“When I got the role on Pose, it was kind of full circle. I had been part of it, seen my friends in hospital and known what people went through: the degradation, loneliness and alienation. There was a lot to inform my performance.”
One relationship from this time still trails Bernhard from interview to interview: her friendship with Madonna. “We’d met many times, but she didn’t seem that interested in being friends until she came to see my show in New York,” she says. “We kind of clicked then.”
The pair began hanging out, going to parties and plays. In July 1988, Bernhard was on Letterman again and brought a surprise: Madonna. The pair, dressed in matching denim shorts, white T-shirts and ankle socks, wrested control from the helpless host.
Rumours of an affair followed them. “Two women hanging out? Of course it’s going to be sexual,” Bernhard says with perfect sarcasm. “I mean, we kind of flirted with that purposefully. We left it ambiguous and crazy; it was almost like an ongoing performance piece.”
Bernhard, 66, has never made a secret of her bisexuality. She has been with her partner, Sara Switzer, formerly an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, for more than two decades. They met in the late 90s, not long after Bernhard gave birth to her daughter Cicely, whom they raised in New York. She has never named Cicely’s father.
Nobody took trans people seriously. The underlying theme of Pose was to honour that community’s work and artistry
Despite her protestations (“I never tried to be revolutionary with my sexuality”), this is a big deal, given how few high-profile LGBTQ+ women there were until recently. Even Ellen DeGeneres’s “coming out” episode didn’t air until 1997 and was treated as scandalous by some corners of the media. Bernhard says: “I didn’t feel like I was trying to make any big statement. That’s just who I was and what I was comfortable being. I always thought: just get over it and be who you are. When you’re not hiding, that’s the inspiration for people.”
In 1991, she joined the cast of Roseanne, playing Nancy Bartlett, who started out in a straight marriage, but after a year began dating a woman. Nancy was the first recurring bisexual US sitcom character. Still, TV executives were far from open-minded. During a Christmas episode, Nancy and her girlfriend were shown beneath the mistletoe, but they were not allowed to kiss. “I thought it was completely unsophisticated and stupid,” Bernhard says. “But we set the tone for people who, when things loosened up, got to do something more.”
Despite being nonchalant about its significance at the time, she knows now what it meant to many viewers. “People who maybe lived in repressed households were like: ‘You were my lifeline – that character made me feel so confident,’” she says. “When you’re not thinking about the impact and people years later tell you that, you’re like: ‘Wow, I’m so glad.’”
Elsewhere, she has been more intentional in tackling big issues: “I wanted to say important things when the time was right.” In September, she will perform at a night to raise funds for Abortion Access Front, at a time when reproductive rights are facing legal challenges across the US. Recently, she has shared her disdain for anti-vaxxers and drawn attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, her home town.
Her politics have not changed since the 70s, she says: “I want things to keep moving to the left. I want equality. I’ve been thinking and fighting about the same things since I was a teenager, because nothing has been really, truly resolved. My No 1 obsession is abortion rights – I can’t believe we’re back fighting this again. It’s infuriating. I will always be a proponent of women having exactly what they need to control their destinies.”
Born into a “liberal Jewish household”, the youngest of four children and the only daughter of Jeanette (an artist) and Jerome (a doctor), Bernhard has been performing since the age of five. “I loved singing, I loved making people laugh,” she says. “I was a bit of a mimic – very interested in people, hyperfocused on funny little habits.”
She was often taken to the theatre, where “bigger-than-life” acts such as Carol Channing caught her attention. When her parents hosted dinners, Bernhard mingled with guests, soaking up the glamour: “I was always interested in older people and what they had to say. I aspired to be such a sophisticated person.” By the time the family moved to Arizona, 10-year-old Bernhard was taking opera lessons.
In 1974, a teenaged Bernhard, fresh from vacuuming hearts out of kosher chickens on a kibbutz, decided to follow her dreams to LA. But there were bills to pay, so she enrolled at beauty school, qualified as a manicurist and began five years working at a salon in Beverly Hills. Some of her regulars were stars – Dyan Cannon, Victoria Principal, Jaclyn Smith. While the women sat under big, old-school hairdryers, Bernhard painted their nails – “mostly classic red”.
‘I had been part of it’ … with Danielle Cooper (left) and Billy Porter in Pose. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy
She made friends easily (“really groovy kids that I met in line at The Rocky Horror Show”) and started developing “a little routine” for stage. A cabaret singer she had met at beauty school took her to an open-mic night at Ye Little Club to try it out. “I’d put together this safari outfit: shorts and jacket, lace-up espadrilles, a cute little hat,” Bernhard says. “My first joke, I looked at the audience and said: ‘I’m a medium. [Pointing] I hear you’re a small and you’re an extra-large.’” She followed up with a Mary Tyler Moore impression and “funny, observational, weird stuff”, she says. “I was right in my milieu. I loved it.”
That night, she met two important mentors – the comedians Paul Mooney and Lotus Weinstock. Mooney connected Bernhard with the Comedy Store in West Hollywood – where she became a regular – and Richard Pryor, on whose sketch show she appeared in 1977 as an unhinged flight attendant and a glam-rock fan, as well as in improv scenes.
Every night, she went to a different comedy club, sometimes waiting three hours for a few minutes on stage. “My whole life was dedicated to that. I’d work during the day, come home and nap, then go to the comedy places,” she says. “I never drank, never did drugs; I was laser-focused.” She learned how to control a crowd and deal with heckles, “taking the piss out of people in a funny, cute way”.
My No 1 obsession is abortion rights – I can’t believe we’re back fighting this again
In 1978, the Comedy Store opened the Belly Room, a dedicated space for female performers. There wasn’t always an audience, but there were upsides: “Things flowed a lot easier, because men comics weren’t standing at the back judging you and you weren’t worried about following a man who was doing really sexist, misogynistic material. I gained a lot of confidence in that realm.”
Whatever room she played, she asserted her sexuality, sometimes using it to embarrass men in the audience. “No woman had really done that before,” Bernhard says. “I didn’t want men to think they controlled me. I’m in control of my life and you couldn’t invade it if you tried.”
This bold facade served her well. The #MeToo movement unearthed dark behaviour from many men in entertainment. In comedy in the 70s and 80s, she says, “men were entitled in a way that you can’t even imagine now. We’ve all been sexually harassed – it’s a given. But, for me personally, I was never a victim of anything I would look at and go: ‘Oh my God, I survived that.’ Developing my armour as a performer kept people at bay.” She also had Mooney: “He was my buffer in a lot of situations. He was a really great ally. I was lucky.”
Singing become a central part of her live act. She released studio albums, too. In her breakthrough film role, as the celebrity-stalker Masha in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 movie The King of Comedy, her vocal talents added another layer to her most captivating scene. Masha had kidnapped Jerry Lewis’s character and taped him to a chair, ready for a tense, one-sided dinner date. She told him she was feeling “completely impulsive … anything could happen”, before sweeping the table’s contents to the floor and breaking into song.
Bernhard was also given freedom to use her LA-honed improv skills: “To have Jerry Lewis as the foil was brilliant, because he was a renowned misogynist, so him being tied up and unable to do anything about it worked on a lot of different levels.”
Becoming this erratic character was surprisingly easy. “I didn’t have to prepare much,” she says. “That frenetic energy, craziness and intensity was who I was in my live performances.”
The film earned her the best supporting actress award from the National Society of Film Critics and raised her profile hugely. Did it result in any Masha-like superfans of her own? “There were a few people who would come to my shows over and over, who were a little bit of a nuisance. In New York, people would follow you around, but I never thought of it in a menacing way.”
‘That frenetic energy, craziness and intensity was who I was’ … with Robert De Niro in 1982’s The King of Comedy. Photograph: Snap/Rex Features
Social media, despite offering direct access, has made it easier to deal with admirers, Bernhard says: “Everybody thinks they’re a star, so nobody has time to bother with the people that actually are stars.”
The internet has undoubtedly created new challenges, though – especially for comedians, with the threat of old material surfacing at any time. Last year, Naomi Campbell criticised Bernhard’s use of the N-word during a joke about Mariah Carey in a 90s comedy special, saying: “It was so rude and disrespectful … completely racist.”
Does Bernhard regret any of the jokes she has made? No, she says, because they aligned with what she felt was acceptable “social commentary” at the time. But she adds that comedians must evolve with societal shifts: “It forces you to constantly renew how you write and how you think.” Rather than doubling down on the norms of past decades, “you adjust your material and approach. That’s part of evolving as an artist.”
She hopes that evolution involves “continuing to discover myself as a person and a performer”. She wasn’t entirely idle during the pandemic: she continued her radio show, Sandyland, interviewing everyone from abortion access campaigners and trans-rights activists to stars such as Mena Suvari and Billy Porter. But she found a quieter side: “It was a relief not to have to run around all the time. There was something very meditative about the experience. I’ll carry that on into the rest of my life.”
Now she is back in LA to work on her first live show since the world went into lockdown. We have to wrap up as Kaplan arrives for rehearsals. “We’ve been working together since 1985,” she says. “It’s crazy.”
She can’t wait to get back on stage. “Now more than ever, it’s the only place you can really say what you want,” she says. “It’s one thing to turn on a TV show, but if you’re buying a ticket and showing up to a live venue, you really want to hear what that person has to say.”
All three series of Pose are available now on BBC iPlayer