Sandra Bernhard Still Speaks Her Mind—With Some Exceptions

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Netflix
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Netflix

In the 2022 Netflix special Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration, Lily Tomlin introduces Sandra Bernhard as “indescribable.” That’s a pretty good way of putting it: Bernhard, who identifies as bisexual, has been a transgressive, queer force in comedy since she broke out in stand-up in the 1970s. Soon after, she launched to stardom in Martin Scorsese’s 1981 dark comedy The King of Comedy; since then, her career has taken her to everything from a recurring role on Roseanne to a stint on Broadway, multiple music albums, and beyond.

“Not only do I love what I do as a performer and artist, but I’m really interested in the world,” Bernhard tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed over Zoom, in a recent interview. The comic is reflecting on her career in light of the June 22 release of Netflix’s Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution, which traces stand-up’s queer history through some of its most iconic faces. “It’s very easy for me to just sit down in any situation and put myself second, and focus on who I’m with, and try to draw the best out of those people.”

This sense of belief and investment in others has been Bernhard’s prerogative for the entirety of her career. It stems from her childhood, when the comic—who was born in Flint, Michigan—moved to Arizona with her family when she was 10.

“I was plunged into a very white world,” she said. “Comedy helped me learn how to be quick on my feet. And that’s innate to some people—you’re kind of born with it.“ She continued, “I learned how to assuage people’s confusion by somebody like me being funny and disarming them. I’ve used that as a tool, and it’s something that’s kept me a bit outside the normal squares of humanity.”

As an entertainer who merges the worlds of music and traditional stand-up together, Bernhard’s work is particularly idiosyncratic. But it took time for her to establish this rhythm, just as comedy’s relationship to female performers have changed, she says.

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“We can talk about anything now. When I started out, it was the Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Totie Fields mode of self-deprecating comedy. That was how women had to approach comedy then,” Bernhard said. “Having grown up through the feminist movement, I was able to break through and start to do kinds of comedy nobody’s seen before. I could say ‘I’m cool. I’m sexy. I’m groovy. I feel good.’”

Part of Bernhard’s appeal has always been her self-confidence, especially coming up in a scene where that was seen as unseemly for women to have. “I like looking in the mirror. I don’t need a man to define me—I don’t need anybody to define me. I sort of set that tone for people to jump off of. What isn’t being talked about now?” Bernhard asked. While she wouldn’t go as far to say she’s solely responsible for this shift, she certainly recognizes her influence. “From women in comedy to rap, to influencers, everybody feels like they can talk about anything now. I can’t hold myself responsible, but I feel like I’m somebody who definitely added to that.”

Bernhard has always spoken her mind unapologetically, though she’s somewhat more apprehensive to do so these days. “I wouldn’t critique other performers as I would 10-15 years ago, because people now automatically say, ‘You’re racist, or you’re this, or you’re that.’ I’m so definitively not any of those things,” she explained.

Sandra Bernhard performs during the Lilith Fair in 1999.

Sandra Bernhard performs during the Lilith Fair in 1999.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

The one thing Bernhard will never back down from discussing, however, is politics. The upcoming election weighs heavily on her mind, and she’s more than happy to throw her support behind President Biden.

“The bottom line is, we’re at a tipping point and it’s not about hope. It's a matter of getting people to realize how much is at stake,” she said. “And the things you don’t love about Joe Biden, that’s neither here nor there. He’s definitively the person who will protect all of our rights and not only that but expand them. And anybody who hesitates or argues is shooting themselves in the foot.”

Despite decades in the entertainment industry—and such a strong interest in politics, which she said dominates her social media feed—Bernhard has no interest in retiring from comedy. Alongside her weekly Sirius XM show Sandyland, she continues acting and performing stand-up; she was most recently seen in Babes alongside Ilana Glazer and Michelle Buteau.

And while Bernhard has worked with a seemingly endless array of icons, it’s the younger class—Glazer and Buteau’s peers—that she is currently curious about. She was unfamiliar with some of the other comedians featured in Outstanding, she said, but she walked away impressed with their work. That’s because her metric for great comedy has always remained the same, she said, and it has nothing to do with people’s identities—sexual, gender, or otherwise.

“I just think what’s more important than anything [is]: ‘Is somebody talented? Do they have a lot to say? Are they just using the queer thing or can they step over that?’” Bernard said. “Because, to me, it’s got to be more than just queer, or your race, or being a woman. What are you doing in the scope of your work? That’s what I judge performers on.”

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Tapping into something deeper and beyond how you identify is what really connects us to people, Bernhard explained. Exemplifying that truth is what Outstanding does especially well. “It explores the way we leapt forward before being pulled back again,” she said. Bernhard is happy to be able to celebrate that important achievement: to be part of “a marginalized group and to make such big strides.” And after 40-plus years, she’s one of the best people to ask what making big strides looks like.

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