AT 27, Sandra Bernhard arrived with a bang when she and Robert deNiro played Jerry Lewis's paranoid stalkers in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The King of Comedy (1982).
“Lots of people say it’s the highlight of their career to work with deNiro and I agree,” she said at deNiro’s AFI tribute. "Unfortunately, it was my first film. So for me it’s been downhill ever since.”
She’s been on a roll for 32 years.
Outspoken, outrageous and out. The rumours flew (did she have an affair with Madonna?) and she did little to rein them in (“I slept with Sean – you were much better!” she told Madonna on Letterman, referring to Madonna’s then-husband, Sean Penn).
“No, we were just friends,” she later told the press. But people preferred the rumours.
She’s bringing her latest standup show, Sandyland, to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane during Sydney’s Mardi Gras season. She’s booked to play Melbourne on the night of the parade in Sydney so won’t be available to take to a float as Lily Tomlin did four years ago.
She was on the line from her home in New York.
Sandyland sounds like a great place. Tell us, is everything there “satisfying and delicious” . . . ?
Yes it is and you get a little gold stamp to go on an international journey with me. In your mind, at least.
Lily Tomlin was here for Mardi Gras in 2011.
Oh, was she? Oh, that’s great. She’s the best. I know Lily and I love Lily. She has remained true to herself throughout her career and not only is she a great comedian she is also a very talented actress and she’s just a great person. Whenever I’m in her presence I’m just so inspired. I adore her.
In the parade she was an understated butterfly (pictured) with wings fluttering 30 metres behind her.
That’s so funny! I love that! She’s great. She’s the best.
Lily has remained true to herself throughout her career; a great comedian, a talented actress, a great person. I'm so inspired whenever I’m in her presence. I adore her.
When you were here last . . .
Almost 10 years ago!
. . . you said you hoped your performance would change some minds, specifically about Iraq – and Paris Hilton. We could still do with a jolt in both those directions!
Yeah, well, we can all use a jolt, everywhere. The great thing about bringing humour to any situation is, indeed, to change people’s viewpoint on a day-to-day basis and also to lift you out of the doldrums, take it to another place, hopefully funny and intellectual at the same time.
Trailer for Sandyland . . .
I’ve been able to even get a laugh, well, not about ebola specifically but generally.
Given the world situation, there’s so much to fear. As much as we need a good laugh can we laugh at what’s going on?
Yeah! I think it’s possible to laugh at almost everything. Or at least find irony and humour in everything. I mean, you have to be smart about it and not cynical and one-note but, yeah, to be creative and have a good sort of approach to it.
I’ve been able to even get a laugh, well, not about ebola specifically but generally – sometimes the irony and somebody being so freaked out, you know, it could be worse, you know? [light laugh]
What do you want to challenge in Australian minds this time?
It’s the same wherever I perform. You just wanna open people up to varying views of life, whether it’s sexuality or politics or the environment. I mean, there are all the big issues you want people to get on board with.
But I think also to be intimate and personal and tell your own story is equally important because that’s what opens people up and they see how you are and how you’ve changed and evolved. It’s another way to bring up the things you’re trying to say.
Australians have a reputation for being pretty laidback audiences, at least not responsive in the same way American audiences can be . . .
Ahhh, no. I’ve got a few Aussie friends, most of them are creative people and we’ve always had a great exchange of ideas, and support, and fun, and good times and love.
It’s like any place. You connect with the people you have something in common with and you forge friendships and relationships. I try never to judge an entire country.
To be intimate and personal and tell your own story is important because that’s what opens people up and they see how you are and how you’ve changed and evolved.
We can be pretty conservative, especially when it comes to same-sex marriage.
Hasn’t that been legalised over there yet?
We’re dragging our heels.
Woah. Well, you guys have been bouncing back and forth for a while now [sigh]. Yeah, it’s a big country but there’s not a lot of people, so, you know, it’s not easy.
You haven’t married? [Bernhard and writer-producer Sara Switzer have been together for 15 years.]
No, but of course I think it’s important. It’s essential. I mean it’s gotta happen, everywhere. It’s a non-starter. It just has to happen, and everybody else will just sort of settle into it, you know?
The same way that women vote and you know people of colour have equal rights. I don’t think it’s anything to be debating at this point.
Some would agree, some would not.
Yeah, there are still racists and bigots. That’s how it will always be, to a certain extent. Unfortunately. But I think that the people who matter, the essential people, will agree and want this to happen.
There are still racists and bigots. That’s how it will always be, to a certain extent.
Is there pressure to be funny when you don’t feel like it?
No. It comes natural to me, you know. Conversationally, humour just comes out. It’s sort of second nature so it’s not really an issue. It’s not like “oh, now I have to be funny ’cos I’m such a depressive person”. I’m always ready to laugh and certainly always ready to make people laugh. I like to banter with people so, no, it’s never an issue.
When you had your daughter [Cicely, now 16] you said she changed your life. It’s a few years down the track now; what’s it like being the parent of a teenager?
Oh, of course, day-to-day there are challenges no matter who’s in your life but overall having a child has been the most exciting and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. And watching your child evolve and grow, giving them the love and the support, there’s kinda nothing better.
How has it changed your life?
It anchors you. In a different kind of way. Before, I maybe went out almost every night to see friends perform or hang out. Now I’m very satisfied being at home and being with family. To me it’s not boring, it’s so freeing because you don’t have this pressure to constantly run around and entertain yourself. You’re entertained at home.
Has having a famous mother affected your daughter?
She’s totally her own person. She does her own thing and she has people she likes in terms of performers. I don’t really impose who I am in the house, you know what I mean? She knows what I do and we talk about it and we have fun but I don’t lord that over the household, so I don’t think it’s become an issue.
She’s totally her own person. She’s the star of the house, not me. She’s seen many of my shows but I think she’s probably a little bored by them. She’s very funny and loves writing but I don’t necessarily think she’ll go in my direction, no.
The King of Comedy with deNiro must have opened doors?
It did! You know, I’m not like your girl-next-door, and comedic roles and parts for women were harder to come by back then. But certainly this opened television situations for me, and live performing. Once you’re sort of established these things kind of ebb and flow. A lot of good things are happening. I’m doing Brooklyn Nine-Nine on television. There are people who are perennials, like Lily. Sometimes you’re more in demand and sometimes you’re not but it’s always there.
Sandra's tribute to deNiro . . .
You broke ground back in the ’90s playing lesbian Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne. Would it be easier today?
Roseanne was so unique because it was so well written and so smart. But today? On network television, no. There’s a lot of great things happening on cable and online, like Transparent [made by Amazon Prime, with Jeffrey Tambor].
There are just so many great non-network shows. Things are getting better and better.
Why aren’t those things happening on network television?
The networks cater to a certain kind of audience, they try to second-guess them but they don’t take chances, they just don’t go for that.
Is there still resistance from viewers to gay TV characters?
I just think it’s resistance to smart characters! I don’t care if they’re gay, straight or whatever, I think network television’s not the place normally for things that are really challenging and thoughtful.
When Ellen came out during the run of her sitcom she got a backlash, especially from advertisers who pulled out and ultimately killed the show. Have you ever experienced that sort of prejudice?
No. My work has always been so much more cutting edge and I’ve never really gone down the mainstream road so therefore I haven’t had that kind of quote-unquote backlash in my career.
Sandra and Madonna and their infamous Letterman appearance . . .
You’re famous for having no filter on stage. Have you mellowed as the years go by?
There are certain things you won’t fight about as much to get your point across. I do approach things differently to how I might have done 10, 20 years ago. But there are different issues. As the world turns, as I change and evolve as a person, your work changes and your approach to it changes and that makes it easier and more fun in many ways. But when there’s something important to say, I say it.
How has your work changed over the last few years?
I can’t put my finger on it. You get better as an artist, you get closer to your centre, you get more comfortable with yourself and I think you reflect a deeper sense of yourself to the audience.
Am I less inhibited these days? I don’t think that’s ever been an issue for me!
Are you less inhibited?
I don’t think that’s ever been an issue for me! [raucous laughter] I think I’m more honest, in a different kind of way. That’s just part of the evolution of performing for years and years and years.
Any particular material for Australia?
There will be by the time I get there, believe me! I’m so thrilled to be coming back to Sydney and for Mardi Gras, I really am.
What sort of things will you look out for?
People’s strange habits [laughs] and the vibe of what’s happening at the moment. That’s always the most interesting for people.
Examples of our strange habits?
There’s always the tall-poppy syndrome, where people are jealous of each other. It’s always being talked about in Australia. But I’m sure by now you’ve all gotten over that . . . ?
As if. ❏
■ Buy Sandyland tickets here. Sandra will sign merchandise and pose for selfies after the show.
■ Read Ian's other interviews and reviews:
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