“Ellen or Rosie and I have nothing in common; they’re old-school joke tellers,” says Sandra Bernhard. “My act is more akin to burlesque-rock ‘n’ roll-cabaret. If I don’t get my audience turned on, then I’m not doing my job as a great artist. I look up to Mick Jagger, Chrissie Hynde, Dusty Springfield, Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner and Prince,” Bernhard says. And after seeing her strutting around the stage, red hair piled dramatically atop her head as she belts out Heart’s “These Dreams,” you gotta admit—Rosie never got anyone this hot.
When she first appeared on the scene, Sandra Bernhard was an impetuous flirt whose svelte figure and pronounced expressions brazenly attracted the glitterati, for better or for worse. But despite detours and sensationalism, she’s not only managed to grow as a human being and performer, she’s still able to make a 20-year-old show reverberate with timeliness. That’s right, the longtime Kabbalah-loving comedienne is back on the comedy circuit, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her original off-Broadway debut, Without You, I’m Nothing. And, even at 53, Bernhard still knows how to shock and be raw.
Bernhard’s career—spanning film, stage and countless TV appearances—has been anything but mainstream. And she’d probably tell you that she couldn’t give a shit either way. A self-proclaimed lighting rod of honesty and entertainment, the comedienne knows she sometimes scares people: “On stage, I’m fearless, sexy, crazy, drunk and veer from one extreme to another.” And when faced with the inevitable criticism that such a stage persona evokes, she takes it in stride: “I don’t ever regret saying anything. I will always stand up, rant and rave through my work and talent. People that criticize me aren’t interested in entertainment and don’t fully get it.”
Like the rock stars she counts as her contemporaries, Bernhard is no stranger to controversy. She became a YouTube darling in 2006 for sparring with The View‘s resident conservative, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, after Bernhard called the first lady “heavily medicated.” “I bet [Hasselbeck] doesn’t even masturbate, just saves her wad for her old man, the failed football player,” Bernhard says of the straight-laced religious host. Just this past year, the media got all hot and bothered over Bernhard’s impassioned criticism of Sarah Palin (punctuated by the assertion that Palin would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers” if she visited New York). Bernhard told the Daily News that the comment was taken out of context—it was part of a larger commentary on racism, sexism and a woman’s right to choose. “We are in a revolution,” Bernhard says. “When a woman [like Palin] can come along to set us back to the dark ages it’s absurd that we shouldn’t protect ourselves.”
Despite her swaggering stage persona, Bernhard says she’s more sedate in real life.The actress, who began studying Kabbalah in 1995 in order to “make some big changes” for the best, has never been much of a swinger. “I kept my dignity,” she says, and abstains from drugs, claiming, “[they're] the downfall of Western Civilization.” And while she knows she can be impatient and bitchy, “Having a daughter and girlfriend taught me to edit that, which I wasn’t expecting,” she explains. “Sure, I give [fans] a little stage vibe when I meet someone if they want it, but I’m real too.” And from all of us who prefer rock â€˜n’ roll attitude and did-she-just-say-that?! riffs to straight-up stand-up: Thank you, Ms. Bernhard. We are officially turned on.