The Rumpus Interview with Sandra Bernhard

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I met Sandra Bernhard at brunch. I had just entered a Women Filmmakers’ Brunch hosted by the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film I co-wrote and produced, Farah Goes Bang, recently premiered. My business partner and dear friend Meera Menon and I were nervously drinking our coffee when I realized I was standing a few feet away from one of my comedy idols, Sandra herself. I couldn’t resist introducing myself, and soon we were engaged in easy conversation, trading tidbits about her upcoming San Francisco shows, our Midwestern upbringings, and why the hell Meera and I hadn’t cast her in FGB.

A few minutes later, I found myself standing next to Sandra again as the attendees gathered to learn the winner of Tribeca’s inaugural $25,000 Nora Ephron Prize for a woman filmmaker of distinction. Suddenly, Meera’s name echoed around the room. While Meera struggled to keep her jaw off the floor, I burst into happy tears, and Sandra put her arms around me, squeezed me, and whispered in my ear, “Guess I picked exactly the right moment to kiss your ass.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to continue a conversation with Sandra, and in it, have been endeared by the coexistence of her fearless, provocative public persona and the warm, generous woman who emerged to me. She’s the kind of woman who makes you want to ask her just tell me how. After our interview, I wrote to her, “I thought of one follow-up question that won’t leave me alone. Your days as a manicurist in L.A. were mine as a bartender in N.Y.C., and I find that part of me still identifies as that girl behind the bar in a way that’s hard to shake. I guess my question is—where is manicurist Sandy now? Do you ever still feel like that girl painting nails?”

She wrote back in a typically poetic, immediate flourish:

“good question

it comes to me in my dreams

where i am back manicuring at 351 n canon at Cia hair salon

with the macrame hanging baskets and a dark woodsy vibe

when i wake up i think that i might have actually never left

and am so relieved to know i have.

i don’t miss it, and although i get my nails done

i don’t like going it doesn’t feel like a luxury to me at all.

but i am a very good tipper.”

***

I. On San Francisco

The Rumpus: So you have these shows coming up in San Francisco that I want to talk about. But first, I want to hear about the first time you ever visited San Francisco, what are your best memories of San Francisco—what is San Francisco, as a city, to you?

Sandra Bernhard: It’s like this amazing, iconic city that I actually first visited in 1965 or 1966—my mom and one of my brothers and I drove up the coast from Arizona and stopped in Carmel to visit my mom’s friends, who were very, very talented artists. My mom was an artist, a very eclectic artist. So we spent the night there and then moved up to San Francisco. It was like, wow, it was like a revelation—going to Ghirardelli Square, down to Fisherman’s Wharf for a shrimp cocktail, it was like, that was living.  For me, all my dreams and fantasies about leaving home all took place in San Francisco. It was the city that you wanted to be in—I mean, who didn’t want to be there in the ’60s?

Rumpus: So this is a bit more of a personal question, but I wanted to ask you what the best thing that happened to you when you came out, or what was your favorite reaction, or rather, what advice or words of support would you offer to a newly outed adorable baby queer?

Bernhard: You know something funny? I never came out. I feel like who I am spoke for itself, and I never wanted my sexuality to be my defining moment, and it isn’t, so I feel like to me, the most important thing is that you’re comfortable in your own skin. I mean, yes, everyone knows that I’m with a woman, but…

Rumpus: But “coming out” wasn’t an important thing for you.

Bernhard: I think coming out as a fully-formed human being for me was more important than coming out as a sexual human being. It’s definitely part of who I am, but so often I feel like I’m much more on my own and a singular person no matter who I’m involved with.

Sandra Bernhard 1 Rumpus: Sure, yet you have such a loyal and largely San Francisco-based gay following, so how do you—I don’t know if this is something to “negotiate”—I was going to ask how you negotiate being someone who doesn’t place a particular premium on coming out when a large swath of your audience are people who’ve gone through that process.

Bernhard: They’re mutually exclusive. What I do and how I embrace my audience are two different things. I feel like my arms are wide around all the people who come to see me, and they’re usually people who have that element of being off-kilter, whether they’re gay, or straight, or whatever they are—that little part of them that needs the extra love. I embrace my gay audience, they’re great, I embrace my straight audience, because I feel like they can all coexist. I demand that people who are my fans coexist, because it’s essential to having a peaceful and evolving culture.

Rumpus: Right, and what greater unifier is there than laughter, too?

Bernhard: Yeah, exactly, and what greater place to be whatever you want to be in the world than San Francisco, because that’s what it’s always been about.

Rumpus: So tell me about the material you’re working on for your San Francisco trip. Are you working on new material, are you working on old material? What’s cycling through your head right now that we’re going to hear in San Francisco?

Bernhard: Well, my show is new. I don’t think anything I’m doing in San Francisco is old or from my last show, which was two years ago. It’s all new, and I’m sure that being on the road, and the road experience, will bring something new to it between now and next week. A plane trip out to San Francisco, and a walk around the Embarcadero, and I’m sure I’ll have something new to talk about.

***

II. On Her Twenties

Bernhard: I just came from a screening of The King of Comedy—it was kind of emotional for me!

Rumpus: Can you tell me a little about any of the memories that flooded back as you were watching?  How old were you when you made The King of Comedy?

Bernhard: I actually turned twenty-six [during that shoot]. It was great. There really wasn’t a moment of that experience that wasn’t close to perfection. People still identify me with that film. It was something that doesn’t really grow old because it was so ahead of its time. It’s not something I look back at and say, oh, that’s so embarrassing, because it’s not embarrassing—it was really a great film.

Rumpus: I think of it as a very male comedy, and you are a very female person, so I was just curious what the gender-based aspects of that experience were—what you remember of that side of things.

Bernhard: Since I was the strongest character in the whole movie, I never really worried about it. I seemed to be the only one who had the mendacity to just, like, tear into Jerry, and at the same time seduce him, so it was a very crazy, wacky combo that I think really struck fear into his heart.

Rumpus: So you’re twenty-six. At that point you’ve been in L.A. for what, like two years?

Bernhard: No, no, I moved to L.A. when I was eighteen—it was actually Cinco de Mayo, 1974.

Rumpus: Okay, yeah, I wanted to ask you about this particular moment. You write on your Facebook feed, “we drove through a desert storm on #cincodemayo 1974 arriving in l a with a pitted windshield a big dream listening to benny & the jets.” Which I love, just the poetry of that image. It’s a very kind of American Dream positing of going West that you’re writing in that moment, so I’m just curious—what was that moment to you, how did it feel to you, what did that represent to you?

Sandra Bernhard 4Bernhard: Well, I graduated high school a half-year early, so I had already left, but it was nice to go someplace West where there was an ocean. It was just a matter of fact—that just happened to be the place I was at, where I was ready to start my manicuring course that following week, because I was a manicurist to support myself. So it was just a matter of fact, something I had known since I was five years old that I was going to do, and that was it. I had arrived to start my education, like it was my first day of college. Of course, it was exciting and nervewracking to be there, but never was it weird, or like, Am I ever gonna make it? I don’t know if I thought about it in those terms, but in my mind I was already successful. So for me it was just like, Okay, I’m going to go do this professionally.

Rumpus: I think there’s a special arrogance that one is capable of feeling at age eighteen that you almost can never feel again—you almost know more at age eighteen, because what you think you know is so disproportionate to what you actually know, that that never happens again.

Bernhard: Exactly. It does not ever happen again, it’s like wow, you’re indomitable. It’s the best feeling in the world. To just pursue your dream and not even think about it. Of course, looking back at the very late nights I would come home from a comedy club by myself, in my apartment—if I thought my daughter was doing that, I would freak out. It was a different time, it was a different world back then.

Rumpus: You mentioned that performing was something you’d wanted to do since you were five. Was that the point at which you were like, Okay, this is something I’m going to have to do or it’s going to kill me? I always say that I write because I have no other choice—what was the point at which you knew you had no other choice?

Bernhard: I had traveled for six or eight months after high school, I worked on a kibbutz in Israel, then I came back and lived at home for a few months, and I was like, Okay, I’ve just got to go do this. I can’t postpone it any longer. I’m ready to go do it. And then I just went and did it.

Rumpus: This is a sidebar, but this is the thing that drives me nuts about the mythology surrounding Hollywood and the entertainment industry—this kind of myth of “making it.” Nobody makes it. You just make it fucking happen.

Bernhard: Exactly.

Rumpus: Like, implicit within the idea of “making it” is this sort of passivity of just waiting to be discovered at the ice cream counter, and nobody who’s actually successful does that, right? You just decide to do it.

Bernhard: Exactly. If that ever did happen, I’m sure that it was always a fluke. And you can be sure that there was somebody sitting next to them—it’s as you said, it’s never been a passive thing. Everybody sitting at that counter was there for a reason.

Rumpus: There’s this columnist for The Rumpus who’s become quite famous—her name on The Rumpus is Dear Sugar, and her name in life is Cheryl Strayed. One of my favorite columns of hers, that was eventually turned into a book, is called “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and in it, a reader writes to her and says, “What advice would you go back and give your twentysomething self?” So I would pose that question to you: if there was something you wish you had known in your twenties, what would it be?

Bernhard: Hire a good publicist.

Rumpus: Seriously, though. Right?! No fucking shit.

Bernhard: But other than that, I wouldn’t say anything, because I don’t think you can go back and give somebody a look into the future—it would sort of intimidate them out of doing what they do. I think in your twenties, you’ve got to make those mistakes and you’ve got to fall. Fortunately, I never fell. I stumbled a couple times, but because I was really on my path and knew what I was doing and what I wanted to do, I was able to forge ahead. I had good, strong Russian genes.

***

III. On Mothers

Rumpus: You brought up your mother, who you have often described as an abstract artist. I’m curious to know more about her art in particular, but also what the designation “abstract artist” means to you—what is an abstract versus, let’s say, a mainstream artist to you, and how do you consider yourself?

Sandra Bernhard 3Bernhard: She was a painter, she worked in kind of all the mediums—sketches, she worked in charcoal and oil and watercolors, and she did sculpture, and she just did what she did. It wasn’t like, now I see a flower and now I see a person—they were abstract pieces. My mother always thought in a very abstract way, so to me, that was someone who was a little bit out there and kind of kooky and not very grounded. Even though my work is still very out there, it’s coming from a grounded place. It comes from a place of some emotion—I’m not saying her work wasn’t emotional, but hers was a little more detached emotionally. Mine is very, very grounded in emotion. So I think that’s where we kind of differ in our approaches.

Rumpus: What would you say her art has contributed to yours? How are you influenced by her?

Bernhard: I think the most important thing was that my mother, she pursued her impulses.

Rumpus: She was an artist.

Bernhard: She was an artist! And she did it her whole life. I mean, she never really made a living at it, and she didn’t have to, but my father never stood in her way—he didn’t demand that she give anything up for him, although she did in many other ways. Her work was something she did throughout her life, and that was, of course, very inspiring to me. Being a young woman, to hear Mom doing her thing, it was kind of amazing.

Rumpus: Especially in that era, too.

Bernhard: Exactly! Absolutely. From the Depression, World War II era, and she got married when she was twenty-four—I mean, she just kept doing it, and that was incredibly liberating for me as a kid.

Rumpus: I was recently watching a Gloria Steinem documentary on HBO called Gloria: In Her Own Words, which is totally fabulous. And in it, she’s talking about her mother’s mental illness—I guess her mother had a complete nervous collapse when she was, like, five, and so Gloria spent most of her childhood caring for her sort of mentally ailing mother…

Bernhard: Wow.

Rumpus: Yeah, which is really powerful, and she has this really poignant quote about feminism, and about herself, and she says, “So many of us are living out the unlived lives of our mothers.”

Bernhard: Uh-huh.

Rumpus: Right?!  How do you feel about that statement?

Bernhard: Well, I think left to her own devices, my mother never would have married or had kids. I think she would have just pursued her art and gone off and traveled—she had friends in South America and places like that. She was always very vague about it. But it was not her first choice to get married—my grandmother sort of coerced her into it. I don’t know—I don’t think my mother was a particularly happy person in her life, until my father divorced her when she was like sixty-two or sixty-three, and I think it was the first time in her life that she really had a good time and traveled and hung out with her friends. It was all on her terms, and it was nice to see her get to experience that.

Rumpus: Wow. So she had a divorce later in life, later in her marriage.

Bernhard: Yeah, I mean, [she and my dad] were totally mismatched, ill-suited, so it wasn’t like any big surprise, yet when you stay in a marriage for thirty-eight years, and suddenly you decide—I mean, it was my dad’s choice, but it was the best thing that ever happened to my mother.  It was much better for her than it even was for him, ultimately. So I’m happy about that.

***

IV. On Genre, Music, and The One-Woman Show

Rumpus: So there are two things I want to talk about that are in the origins of your career, and still very present. One is music, and one is the specific form of the one-woman show. I’m obsessed with the one-woman show, I think it’s a fascinating genre, and I love yours. You might be considered as a pioneer of the one-woman show, and I want to know what’s particular about that genre to you. Because it’s similar to stand-up, obviously, it’s the same format of a comedian standing alone with a microphone on a stage, but what’s different, or singular, or important about a one-woman show to you? What’s compelling about it to you?

Bernhard: For me, I was never in stand-up comedy, per se. I find it very, very dry and redundant and sort of oppressive, because you’re desperately trying to get laughs. And that’s not something that was foremost in my desire; my desire was to engage the audience, to get their rapt attention, and to also pose ideas and concepts about feminism, about sexuality, about pop culture, about music, that forced them to remain engaged for up to two hours and not fade away. And I just think there’s no way to stand on stage for two hours telling one-dimensional jokes and keep people interested.

There’s so many things that interest me—acting, writing, singing, being dramatic, being all these characters, being funny, being thoughtful, being introspective, being operatic, being rock and roll. All these things are interesting to me. So I thought, Where else could you do that but a one-person show? Why not just take advantage of all those talents and abilities and blend them in and just do a real mash-up of all these stylistic things that excited and inspired me?

Rumpus: It’s interesting, because as you’re talking, what I’m hearing from what you’re saying is that the difference between that and stand-up is that a one-woman show is more than a punchline. Right?  It’s not just one-dimensional jokes, like you’re saying—you have to create a much wider, broader arc than that to compel people for two hours.

Sandra Bernhard 2Bernhard: Yeah, and also, it’s a platform for improvisation, which is something that I love. You can actually take an experience you might have had two hours earlier and transform it into something that’s engaging and fun and transformative. I think that’s so amazing, and it’s something that I get to do, and I’m good at it, so I never get stuck doing the same thing night after night. Although I always have stories that I can fall back on.

I mean, you can talk about anything that’s been talked about a million times, but if it’s your experience and your point of view, you can always bring something new to it, because there’s really not that many new stories to tell, to me, personally. But I think I’ve always thought the key to being successful is telling your story and being committed to it, and also having a point of view and knowing what you need to say to push the world along. Because if you’re not there to also influence culture and make a change, this isn’t important enough for you to be doing.

Rumpus: What do you think the change that you personally—you, Sandra—are here to make, is?

Bernhard: I think the change that I’ve been making—of course, when you’re really young, you’re not completely sure of it, because [you’re drawing from] so many different influences: I drew from Carole King, I drew from Laura Nyro. So when you first start off, you’re a little bit of a sponge—you’re also emulating. And then you start to know yourself as a woman, and you become clearer about who you are and your context in which your femininity and your womanliness matters in the world. And so you become more of a full person.

I think for me, over the years, I’ve just gotten better at shedding my skin and getting closer and closer to my essence. And I think because of that, you become a much better performer. I’m still in it, and solid, and I know what I want to do and say, and I haven’t lost interest in it because every day is kind of an evolution, emotionally, for me.

Rumpus: It’s also very clear to me in the way that you tell your stories, in the way that you speak, and even in the vocabulary you use, choosing words like “operatic,” that music is a huge influence for you. So I’m interested in that, because I think that, as you’re saying, in the sort of composite form of the one-woman show, there’s a lot of different subgenera. And I think, particularly, the boundary between music and comedy for you seems to be very permeable. I’m thinking of that famous scene from Without You I’m Nothing, With You I’m Not Much Better, where you’re singing that you’re in the mood for a little bit of Burt, and it transitions very seamlessly between telling jokes, and this sort of lounge singer shtick, and then actually singing. Talk to me about that—what’s musical about your comedy? What is the musicality of your comedy? How does your education as a musician inform the way you speak and the way you construct those performances?

Bernhard: For me, music is kind of everything. I think that, you know, nothing has the impact and the memory of music. It just permeates everyday life, and you can go back to a song that you heard thirty years ago, and it just takes you back to that moment. I think that no matter how hokey or corny the song may be, there’s just something so visceral about it. That’s my favorite thing to do: take a seemingly-banal rock and roll ballad and transform it into some bittersweet, beautiful, heartbreaking moment—one that we’ve all been there.

***

V. On Gender and Feminism

Rumpus: My next question comes from the oracle, Beyoncé. Agree or disagree: a diva is the female version of a hustler.

Bernhard: A diva is the female version of a hustler?

Rumpus: Yes. This is what Beyoncé tells us.

Bernhard: I don’t even know what that means. I saw Beyoncé’s special, and I was like, Honey, you know what, you can’t force interesting.

Rumpus: So, like, all I ever really want to talk about in the world, especially with you, is feminism and women and gender politics.

Bernhard: Yes!

Rumpus: I’d love to hear the ways in which you think that things have changed for women in comedy since the beginning of your career, and the things that haven’t changed. So what change have you observed, and what do you think still needs to change?

Bernhard: I don’t think anything needs to change. I think it’s always been a struggle to do original work, no matter who you are. It’s always harder for women—it’s brutal. You’ve got to have a certain inner-strength and physical strength to get up and do this every night, so I think if you’re just not mentally or physically prepared, you can’t do it.

Rumpus: A friend who saw my film Farah Goes Bang recently sent me this article from The American Reader called “The Lack of Female Road Narratives And Why It Matters“. There was this one quote from this article that I wanted to hear your thoughts on:

Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, potentially adventurous, or potentially hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.

Bernhard: Oh, wow.

Rumpus: As a woman who’s about to be on tour, so on the proverbial road, how do you feel about that statement, and what do you think happens when women go on the road?

Bernhard: Well, for me personally, the road is kind of endless. I keep loving it more and experiencing more things, and it just opens my mind and my heart to everything that makes life interesting. I love traveling, I love being on the road, and I love what the road means. We’re born on the road. That’s what a performer’s about, that’s what an entertainer’s about.

Rumpus: Last question—I just want to talk about what you have in the works right now. I’ve seen you talk on Twitter with Lizz Winstead, and I’m super psyched about any possible collaboration there, because she, like me, is from Minneapolis. What’s in the works for you? What are you working on, what’s next?

Bernhard: We’re actually trying to do some sort of a talk show, for lack of a better description, and we got together and sat down and wrote out some ideas. Lizz has a paperback coming out, so she’s kind of distracted, though. We want to do something together where it would be like, we have you as a guest, and talk about all the things that you’re doing in your book and your movie.

Rumpus: Sign me up.

Bernhard: So you’re in, of course you’re in.

Rumpus: Hustling all the time, is what you’re doing.

Bernhard: Yeah, I’m hustling all the fucking time.

Sandra and Laura

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Sandra Bernhard is going on tour and will be in San Francisco this week, on May 16th and 17th. Find tickets here.

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Photographs of Sandra Bernhard © by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

Photograph of Sandra Bernhard and Laura Goode © by Meera Menon.


Laura Goode is a novelist, essayist, poet, and screenwriter living in San Francisco. Her first novel for young adults, SISTER MISCHIEF, was released by Candlewick Press in 2011, and called a “Best Book You Haven’t Read of 2011” by Vanity Fair online, as well as “a provocative, authentic coming-of-age story…full of big ideas, big heart, and big poetry” by Booklist in its starred review, and a 2012 Best of the Bay pick by the SF Bay Guardian. She is the producer of the feature film FARAH GOES BANG, which she wrote with Meera Menon. Her poems and essays have appeared in New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, The Rumpus, The Faster Times, Boston Review, Racialicious, Feministing, The New Inquiry, IndieWire, Denver Quarterly, Dossier, Fawlt, and other publications, and she is represented by Ted Malawer of Upstart Crow Literary. Laura was raised outside Minneapolis, where she was a spelling bee kid, and received her BA and MFA from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @lauragoode and visit her at www.lauragoode.com. More from this author →