Comedian dishes on southern ‘cuckoo birds,’ live performances, ‘Roseanne’
Comedian Sandra Bernhard has a career miles and miles long, including stand-up comedy, TV and music. She’s even written books. Of it all, she tells qnotes that performing live is her favorite. Come Sept. 7, she’ll get the chance to take the stage in Columbia, as SC Pride gears up for their annual festival and parade later that month. We spoke to Bernhard via phone before her trip down south. Check it out below.
You’re coming to Columbia soon. Have you ever performed there?
I don’t think I have. I think this may be the first time. I’ll be excited to see how the crowd responds. The world has changed so much, obviously with the gay visibility and things changing so quickly. My crowd is always where I need it to be and it’s not always exclusively gay. I feel really good about it. I’m excited to come down. I’ve always enjoyed the South. There’s a gentle flow to it. There’s a lot of interesting people who have come from there. And you can get away form the cuckoo birds, but they are everywhere.
We’ve got plenty of cuckoo birds in the South, too (laughs).
Some of them are interesting cuckoo birds! (laughs) You think about some of the great literature and culture that’s come out of the South. There’s some great people.
You identify as a member of the LGBT community, as bisexual, correct?
I don’t really identify by my sexuality in that sort of way at all. I just feel like my work as a performer and an artist has transcended all of that and I never thought it was necessarily important to define myself by my sexuality. I just cover all the bases. My message has always been to get in your particular groove and accept everyone else’s, roll with the punches and be universal and transcendent. Obviously, I’m a huge champion of the gay community and I am in a long-term relationship with my girlfriend. It just goes in a little bit of a different direction for me as an artist.
You’ve carried this message of equality throughout your entire career.
Yeah, I started performing when I was 19, so I’ve been in it for 39 years.
In that time, how have you seen the industry change — for the better or worse?
Obviously, the biggest revolution has been social media and the internet and reality TV — the advent of so many cable channels and trying to fill all that airtime has kind of watered it down a little bit. When I began, there were just three channels. It was more intimate. There were a lot less people performing back then. It wasn’t a free for all. I miss that time. The people who got into had a passion for it. More people had real talent.
Do you think platforms like YouTube make it easier for young comedians to make their break into the industry?
I think it gives them a leg down. How can anyone tell what you can really do on YouTube with a 10 or 15 minute spot. The longevity and care that go into making a long career can’t be achieved in that way. You’ve got to get up every night. You have to go to the clubs and get up there and hone your craft. A lot of people still do that, especially with improv groups. I don’t particularly enjoy watching people on YouTube. My daughter is 16, she watches stuff and says “You have to see this and that.” She watches it in a different way and relates to it in a different way, but for me it’s not something I enjoy watching.
Your comedy — where does your inspiration come from? Everyday experiences and life?
Yeah, I think a lot of it comes from my life and traveling, being a mother and being in a long-term relationship. I try to bring a fresher and more ironic twist to it.
How have you found your craft and comedy changing as the world as changed. Have you found it easier to be more outspoken, to push the boundary today than 30 years ago?
I think it was easier when I started out because you were pushing up against less. Everything wasn’t already on the table. You go on the internet now and everything is staring you in the face and almost anyone can weigh in on anything. The wonderful thing about when I was starting out was that you could be a real revolutionary like Woodie Allen and Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce — the people who were really forerunners in their field. Things were much easier to expose. Today it’s exposed, but is it really under the right cirucmstances? In a weird way, I miss the early days of my performing experience.
You’ve done all sorts of things in your career — stand-up, TV, movies, books. Of all of it, what do you enjoy most?
I think performing live is definitely my favorite because it’s always on my terms. If I decide in the middle of my show that I want to go off-book and do a piece that is coming from the moment, I get to do it. I do love doing TV and movies, too, because it supports my live performing and it is a break from the live performing. In terms of sheer pleasure and excitement, though, there’s nothing like performing live.
You gained a lot of fame with your time on “Roseanne.” What was it about that performance, looking back, that you really loved or didn’t particularly like about it?
There was nothing not to love about during “Roseanne.” It was one of the last, last great sitcoms of that type, where she broke all the new ground and talked about things in the sociological American way that nobody else had ever done before. She examined the working class family and really brought light to it and humor to it that nobody else had ever done. It was such a pleasure. And, it still holds up. The show is never not on TV. It is being shown constantly on a loop almost every day of the year. That speaks for itself, considering the show has been off the air for 10, 15 years now. : :