Sandra Bernhard: ‘I Love Being Me, Don’t You?’ LGBT Weekly’s complete Q&ATop Highlights, Feature Story, Section 4A, Entertainment News Thursday, March 8th, 2012
San Diego LGBT Weekly spoke with actress, comedian, singer and all-around performer, Sandra Bernhard in advance of her performance next week at La Jolla Playhouse, and learned a lot about one of the entertainment world’s most enigmatic celebrities.
San Diego LGBT Weekly: I won’t say I’ve been a huge fan since I was a little boy, because I’m not that much younger than you are. But I will say I’m a huge fan of your humor and style.
Sandra Bernhard: Thank you.
Where do you live, New York?
Yes; I’m based in New York.
I always think of New York as a gigantic San Francisco.
Yeah; it’s really different than San Francisco. I mean I love San Francisco, but San Francisco is still a West Coast town.
What’s the difference between a West Coast town and a big East Coast city like New York?
New York is like six or seven hours from Europe and there’s just a different vibe that you feel in New York. It’s a much more international city. I mean I’m not saying San Francisco is not international. It actually is, but it’s not New York.
I’ve never heard Manhattan put in that exact frame – as being so much closer to Europe than large West Coast cities like San Francisco, or Los Angeles or San Diego.
It’s just different. People buy their apartments here; they come from all over the world. There’s just a flow that never stops here.
Have you heard of San Diego?
Ha! Yes; I love San Diego. I love La Jolla.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Flynt, Michigan and Scottsdale, Arizona.
Crazy. I grew up in Scottsdale until eighth grade; I went to Hohokam Elementary.
I went to Cocopah. Crazy.
Growing up in Flynt, then Scottsdale and now living in New York; why aren’t you schizophrenic?
(Laughs) Because I took everything and put it into a creative outlet. Being from the family I’m from and having a creative bent, it didn’t affect me that way.
Can you talk a little bit about the family you’re from?
My mom was an abstract artist; my dad was a doctor. And my brothers; my three older brothers are all very creative. But we were not some weird family that moved out (to Scottsdale, Arizona) on the lamb. We just always stayed in touch with the creative experience.
But your dad was a scientist.
No I wouldn’t say that. My dad was kind of old school. You know, the kind of doctor who would give you your diagnosis with a cigarette in his hand. I don’t think my dad thought of himself as a scientist. Being a doctor was more of an egotistical outlet for him.
Did anybody follow him into the business?
Yes. One of my brothers is a doctor, another one is a dentist, and the other one is … I don’t really know what he does (laughs). He works for some weird water company or something. Jesus; I don’t know what he does!
Was your mom a stay-at-home mom?
She was a stay-at-home mom, but she was also an artist. She had her own thing going on.
What kind of art did she do?
She did painting, drawing and sculpture and dabbled in lots of different media. I think it was all good; she was very talented.
Are your parents both gone?
No, they’re both still living. They were divorced years ago; and my mom doesn’t do that particular thing anymore. And my dad is remarried and doing his thing.
Who were you in school? Were you the class clown?
Yeah, I was more like the class commentator. I always liked to comment on what was happening in the world and I would always get in trouble for that.
Did the teachers know how to handle you?
No. Certainly not in Scottsdale, Arizona, they didn’t. They weren’t into people being, like, outspoken.
When I think of Sandra Bernhard, I think of sophistication. When I think of Scottsdale, Arizona; I don’t necessarily think of that word.
I found my own little enclave of friends and I had a great imagination. I watched the public TV station where, back in the old days, they used to have the European films and I got inspired by all that stuff. I left there when I was 18.
Where did you first perform?
In L.A., at open-mic nights at some of the various clubs around town.
At the Comedy Store?
I started at the Comedy Store and then, but before that at places that were so small you probably wouldn’t even know them. They were like small, funky little places. You’ve got to kind of step up one step at a time.
How many times did you perform on stage before you discovered the Sandra Bernhard that we know?
The first time I got up I was very confident and thought that that was who I was. And then, the longer it takes to really get underneath to who you really are (laughs); and then that’s where the really hard work comes in – the year-after-year, night-after-night big triumphs and failures. You’ve just got to get up there every night until you finally blow everyone away.
Did you have the experience of not knowing where the money was going to come from to pay the electric bill or the rent?
I was a manicurist during the day. I always paid my bills and I never got into debt or had to go to my parents for money.
Where did you learn that kind of self-sufficiency at such a young age? Were you just instinctively that way or did you learn responsibility from your parents?
Well, I wanted to be on my own. I wanted to be independent and I didn’t want to rely on my parents. You know, it was nice to have a day job and have a connection to people outside of comedy. Of course, that’s where I got some of my material. It was great!
In what part of town were doing nails? Were you doing the Beverly Hills lunch-club ladies, or the budding actresses in West Hollywood-Hollywood?
I was a manicurist on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, and I lived on – oh my God, what street did I live on; it was in West Hollywood. Norton. That’s right, Norton Avenue.
Norton was a very active gay cruising zone before the Internet.
I know. I lived in a building right behind the car wash – the Apollo Carwash.
I don’t think that car wash has had a paint job since it opened.
No they haven’t. And it’s not called the Apollo anymore.
How would you describe your relationship with the LGB T community? Did you recognize something in your gay following that was on the same plane you were on?
When I moved to L.A., all my friends were gay guys – hair dressers that I went to school with and that I met in the salons. Also, I had a lot of drag queen friends. You know, I was part of that scene. I was like a fag hag. I would go out to Studio One with all my gay friends before any other girl was there; I loved the attention. And even before I started performing, I would perform for them at parties and stuff; and that’s how I got my start. You know, that kind of unconditional campy love that you only get from your gay friends.
How would you feel if your daughter went to L.A. to –
(Interjects): I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen.
That’s not her?
Oh no – huh-uh. She’s a much cozier little lady than I was.
Do you think the Millennials, kids like your daughter, are a better, smarter and kinder generation than Gen-Xers like us, when we were that age, and, of course, the Baby Boomers?
Oh yeah, definitely. But my daughter’s not a group-thinker. She’s got a mind of her own and I’m really proud of her about that.
It really sounds like you are.
(With a vivid-sounding smile in her voice): Yeah.
So what’s your material like these days?
It really covers a really wide swath of topics, from my life and family to politics and pop culture – and funny asides. I mean, I hit on fragrances (laughs); and it’s all interwoven with my music. I have my band with me and I move very quickly from topic to topic. It’s all over the place; that’s just always been my style.
So that hasn’t changed? You still have that rapid-fire delivery.
Yeah, for sure.
Still smooth as butter?
Exactly, it’s not jarring – just fast-tempo and interconnecting.
You’re known for pretty intimate performances.
Well, you know it’s just my style! I expect to give to people what I want from my own performance, which is a real sense of honesty and genuine emotion. When you see somebody live you have a certain level of trust with that audience that you wouldn’t necessarily have if you were doing a television show or something. It’s like one-on-one. They’ve made that conscious decision – to come see you. That’s what makes it intimate.
How does that kind of closeness create an ebb and flow with your audience? How does it impact your performance? Does it have an impact on content at all – or just delivery?
More in terms of deliver, because if you have a great crowd you’re more likely to improvise and open up in different ways. But you might have a night that you just want to get through because the crowd isn’t really with you. But when it is with you, it really makes a difference.
Have you ever cried on stage?
Umm … no. No.
What’s the most unexpected or funniest thing that’s happened to you on stage.
You know, that’s an almost impossible question to answer. And I don’t mean to avoid it, but it’s just been so many years and so many things have happened, with different audiences and different people showing up.
Can you give me a couple of instances?
(Demurely): Honestly, I can’t. It’s just – you know. I guess when different people came to see me. Carol Channing came to see me one night; Dustin Hoffman came. It’s kind of after the show when some of the funniest things happen.
What did Carol Channing say to you?
(In a thick Brooklyn brogue): She said, “You’re my spiritual granddaughter.”
Were you expecting Dustin Hoffman to be in your audience the night he came?
No! I was not! I mean, he came backstage and we talked for such a long time. He’s such a lovely person.
Is he a smart person?
Did you take some time off to raise your daughter? I mean I know she’s still very young …
No, I never really stopped working. When she was little, she was with me all the time. And now, she comes with me when she’s off school. She runs around backstage and takes care of things for me. So it all works out kind of nicely.
Are you married?
No, but I’m in a very committed, long-term relationship.
And you two are in love and you have a daughter together?
Yeah and I’m very happy and blessed, I might add.
Can I throw out a two or three names out there and you tell me what you think when you hear them?
I think he’s been a great champion for the LGBT community. I think in the next four years we’ll have a real strong chance of getting where we want to go.
Andrew Breitbart, who died today.
A very polarizing figure. I didn’t know a lot about him, but I know he wasn’t a champion of the things we believe in. And, it’s kind of a shock that he died, but I really didn’t have any kind of emotional connection to him. Of course, you don’t want to see anyone drop dead. He was young. Apparently, when he was younger, he was a much more sentient person. It’s sad that he chose a more divisive path.
You mean in terms of her being pregnant, or just in general?
Just in general.
I honestly don’t follow her. I’m completely disinterested in her. I mean, as a human being, I wish nothing but the best for her. But I wish there were less and less of those people around taking work away and attention away from people who are really creative and work very hard at their craft. I don’t think it’s very necessary for us to be sidetracked like that.
The Queen of England.
Hey, she’s hangin’ in there. You gotta give her credit.
Lastly, do you have any comments about fast-moving pace of change in LGBT civil rights?
I mean we have to keep looking at the next marginalized group of people and remember where we’ve come from and never feel that we’re the only ones that are on the line. For instance, women’s reproduction rights are under fire right now. That’s the number-one concern for me right now.
I think there’s a connection between LGBT rights and women’s reproductive rights.
I think there is.
So you’re probably not a big fan of Darrel Issa (who has been heading the charge against contraception in the House of Representatives). He’s one of our congressional representatives in San Diego.
That’s nice (nervous laugh). Wonderful. I know how it is from Orange County on down. It can get pretty conservative there. I’m sure you didn’t vote for him. Let’s get real.
We do have a very supportive mayor you though, and he’s a Republican.
That’s wonderful. I mean really wonderful.
And, we do have two major mayoral candidates who are a gay man and a lesbian – both Republicans.
I don’t know that’s like somebody black hanging out with the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t know how they justify it. It’s patently absurd – embarrassing.
One of our publisher’s recent messages to our readers was entitled “Would a Chicken Vote for Colonel Sanders?”
Yeah! Thank you! Tell him thank you for that. I like that.
Is there anything you want to say about the show to encourage people to show up?
Of course people should come to see me. I mean I’m really putting it out there for them. I’ve been at this a long time; I have years of experience and (laughs) I’m a consummate performer. I don’t want to say much more of that. I’ll sound like an idiot, but I love what I do and I always make sure the audience always gets the best from me.
I’ll be there.
Thanks. It takes a lot to put one of these things together and you can’t keep running back every five minutes.
I think I get the meaning of what you’re telling us with that.
Yes, and I won’t settle for less than a completely sold-out show. And I support the gay community in a big way and I expect them to support me also. I don’t want people to say “oh, I didn’t know she was in town; I would have gone to see her.” I mean, pull your head out of your ass and buy tickets and come and let me entertain the hell out of you. Then, you can say you were one of the people who was there with me talking about important things with me in an entertaining way.
Sandra Bernhard will be at La Jolla Playhouse March 14-17. Call 858.550.1010 or visit lajollaplayhouse.org for ticket information.
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