08.09.11

Sandra Bernhard Mouths Off

With a new show and album, Bernhard talks to Tricia Romano about Obama, making lesbian culture cool, plastic surgery, and Madonna.

She’s been called “a true original” by The New York Times. It’s a description Sandra Bernhard has earned over her 30-plus years in showbiz. From her first major one-woman hit, Without You I’m Nothing; to her stint on Roseanne as an out lesbian in 1991, then a groundbreaking character; and her public, maybe-they-are-more-than-just friends-relationship with Madonna in the late 80s, Bernhard has always had a knack for getting people talking. She’s now a more mellow Sandra—she’s been in a long-term relationship with her girlfriend and raising a 13-year old daughter—but she’s no less caustic or connected to pop culture. Her latest album, I Love Being Me, Don’t You? touches on Twitter, celebrities and plastic surgery, Barbara Boxer, and Kabbalah. Bernhard comes to L.A. for a two-week run at the REDCAT Theater starting Thursday. We asked her about President Obama, her daughter, Madonna, and why politicians can’t stop tweeting pictures of their penises.

The Daily Beast: What’s your process for developing a show like this?

Sandra Bernhard: There’s no formulaic way I put my shows together. It’s always a work in progress. I mean, it kind of comes from a lot of different directions, day-to-day kind of living and wandering around and writing things down in a notebook, and then actually performing in places and improvising conversations with my girlfriend who sometimes comes up with ideas for me. But my shows have always come together in this sort of very, very organic, living life kind of way, and then I’ll hang stuff around a song and fill it out and night-to-night it’ll take on a different shape. The audience informs how far I can go with it in terms of their response.

The Daily Beast: It’s like listening to a girlfriend talk—a very, very funny one.

Bernhard: Thank you. I really tap into some kind of source. I don’t think anybody who’s a performer can really ever identify what it is. It’s just you kind of either have it or you don’t.

The Daily Beast: When you go from a place like New York to L.A., how do you find that your show changes?

Bernhard: Actually, L.A. is kind of like anything goes. It’s kind of like there’s no real one point of view in Los Angeles as opposed to New York, which is like get it together, make it perfect, move it fast, and always be on your toes. Whereas L.A. is like, hey, man, I’m dropping by. I’m going to the beach. I’ll see you in the Valley. I’m going downtown and having sushi. I’m wearing a knit cap on an 80 degree day. It’s kind of like anything goes in L.A., and I’ve kind of always loved that about L.A. and I miss it. But day to day, New York is a better fit for me.

The Daily Beast: I’ve been reading you on Twitter, and you’re very prolific.

Bernhard: Yes, it’s been a nice outlet for me. I feel like it’s a place, when I’m wandering around in New York or wherever I am, and I see something crazy or something comes over me, where I used to, maybe, write it down in a diary and it just languished there for 10 years, now it’s out in the world. It may not be something that I’m protecting in terms of doing it in my show, but I could end up doing it in my show as well.

The Daily Beast: It seems to be a very good fit for comedians especially.

Bernhard: I think in short spurts like that, so it’s very fulfilling.

The Daily Beast: I read your tweet that Arnold Schwarzenegger hit on you in the ‘70’s. Do you have any advice for the politicians like Anthony Weiner who seem compelled to post pictures of their penises online?

Bernhard: Well, I guess politicians have always been prone to being hypersexual, but when John Kennedy did it, there was just nobody there to take pictures and exploit it. But now, people seem to do it to themselves. I guess it’s just kind of classic psychology. People just get into these positions of power and go crazy.

The Daily Beast: Right. But Weiner did everything wrong, and then somebody like David Letterman actually did cheat on his wife and got off because he was . . .

Bernhard: Honest about it. There’s a big payoff in honesty these days because it’s so rare.

The Daily Beast: What do you think of how Obama is doing so far?

Bernhard: I think, in spite of the fact that he’s been squelched by the Tea Party element and all of these types of people, that he does what he does every day. He gets up, he’s the president. He’s a smart man, an intellectual and a thoughtful person. He doesn’t just go running on his emotional responses, and I think America is used to that. They’re used to people just reacting, and he isn’t that kind of a person. To a lot of people that means that he’s not doing what he should be doing or he hasn’t accomplished enough. But I think he very quietly goes about turning things over and unearthing things that need patience and a little bit of restraint. I think he’s doing a relatively good job at that.

There’s a big payoff in honesty these days because it’s so rare.

The Daily Beast: Do you think the Republicans blew their chance to redeem themselves with the debt ceiling fiasco?

Bernhard: I think they had already blown their chance because they don’t have anybody credible to run for president. One person is loonier than the next.

The Daily Beast: So: Palin or Bachmann?

Bernhard: I don’t even give them any play. I don’t talk about them. I don’t give them any attention at all, because these are narcissistic people that I don’t care to acknowledge.

The Daily Beast: You are now a Kabbalah practitioner, which is ironic because the most famous person connected to that is your former friend, Madonna. How do you think the connection to celebrities affects a religion’s profile?

Bernhard: I don’t know. I think any time it becomes sort of a celebrity-oriented situation, it kind of diminishes it unless it’s done in a very tasteful way, which unfortunately it never is. I don’t think it’s the best thing in the world.

The Daily Beast: Does that bother you that people still ask you about Madonna?

Bernhard: Well, people are very rarely asking about her anymore. No, it doesn’t bother me. We were friends, but I don’t see anything that comes out of talking about it at this point. We haven’t hung out in a long time, but certainly in the day, it was fun and I think it was cool that two women of our kind of crazy stature were friends. I look at it with fond memories.

The Daily Beast: When you guys were on Letterman and you were talking about going to the New York City lesbian bar, the Cubbyhole, you sort of made lesbian culture cool. Do you feel like a gay icon?

Bernhard: I certainly wasn’t setting out to do that, but I think once again it just kind of naturally, organically happened. Certainly nothing wrong with that, right? It’s a positive thing, and it’s always great when you can be a spokesperson, once again, without beating people over the head with the idea of it.

The Daily Beast: I always think of you perpetually as being a 30-something single lady, but you are actually a mother. How has that changed your worldview? How has that affected your work?

Bernhard: Well, it’s in very subtle ways. It’s transformed me completely as a person. I don’t know. It’s just a different level of love and intimacy and being present. I think overall it’s all great, and my daughter’s great. I love her. She’s really an original, and she’s a great person. I’m really pleased to see her unfold, evolve and be really sensitive and aware and connected and interested in the world and music and reading. She’s a really thoughtful person. She stands back. She doesn’t jump into the fray. She really thinks things through. She’s not a follower.

The Daily Beast: Kind of like her mom.

Bernhard: In her own way, yet in a very different, even more sensitive and introspective way than me.

The Daily Beast: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve been critical of plastic surgery in the past?

Bernhard: I’m not critical of anything. It’s just like I feel like we’ve become sort of like this weird uniformed look. It’s almost kind of automaton-esque, and I think that’s not good for anybody. If you want to tone up, if you want to perk up, I do it. We all do it. You can’t just chop away until you’ve got nothing left that’s recognizable.

The Daily Beast: A lot of people pay money to have lips as luscious as yours.

Bernhard: I’ve never seen anybody with lips like mine. You can’t replicate my look. That’s the quote of the century.