Sandra Bernhard is an actress and comedienne but neither word is enough to explain her talents. She sings, she dances, she writes, she is known for her style, her politics, for acting and for stand up comedy, and also for being a well spoken, opinionated woman. Her award-winning performance in the film “The King of Comedy” made her famous, and since that time she’s put out thirteen albums, and made a long list of tv appearances including seven seasons on the series “Roseanne”. She recently stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about her career, and to promote her upcoming stand up tour. Excerpts of the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: You will go anywhere and do anything. And that’s the thing about you. You don’t care – it’s acting, it’s TV, you write.
Sandra Bernhard: Right.
Ron Bennington: Why are you so comfortable wherever you go?
Sandra Bernhard: Well, because I’m an old school entertainer. I’m like a throwback to the people who performed in the 30’s, in the 40’s, in the 50’s. People did everything. I mean everybody either came out of burlesque or cabaret. And then, they kind of segued into their acting. The Shirley MacLaine’s, the Sammy Davis Jr’s, the Frank Sinatra’s. Frank was a singer who turned out to be a great actor.
Ron Bennington: So nothing intimidates you along those lines? You’re not like…
Sandra Bernhard: Listen, there might be a specific situation. I think the most daunting idea to me is doing a theater piece, day in and day out. Just because I think I would get bored.
Ron Bennington: The grind too, right?
Sandra Bernhard: The grind.
Ron Bennington: People don’t realize just how exhausting that is.
Sandra Bernhard: I like my freedom. If you have to stick to a script and you go in there everyday and you have to hit the same mark every time. I think by the end of the first week, I’d be ready to go nuts.
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Ron Bennington: Well, that’s the kind of stand up that you are too. You have to have your material, but you’re always going off.
Sandra Bernhard: I’m always off on different trajectories and tangents.
Ron Bennington: And the great thing about seeing too is the band is always ready to play.
Sandra Bernhard: That’s right.
Ron Bennington: Everyone’s standing there. You could be going off – doing a 25 minute stand up riff, but the band better be ready at that second.
Sandra Bernhard: They better. Sometimes I even send them off stage now, but they know when they hear a certain cue, they run back on.
Ron Bennington: When do you know – I’m going to go into a song? Is there a time for you?
Sandra Bernhard: Sometimes I might just go off on a speaking tangent, like I’m really into like the idea and the riff. Then all of sudden, I’ll be like…and then I’ll move back into another piece again that leads into a song. You just want to break it up.
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Ron Bennington: Most people think that your private life was a lot crazier than it was.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah. Well, I mean back in the day, it certainly was like I was exposed to people and situations. Had I been somebody who was like really into drugs or really fucked up, I could have gone down a myriad of paths. But I still had fun. I still did my thing, but I always hung back and observed and watched people and had endless sources of material and fun things to talk about.
Ron Bennington: But, you always had the “Junkie Chic” look, even when you weren’t.
Sandra Bernhard: Right. Right.
Ron Bennington: So, it was always like – oh.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh I know. Everybody always thought I was like strung out, fucked up on drugs, high, crazy. I would go on Letterman – I think half the time, people would think I had just done a line of blow. But you know, never have.
Ron Bennington: How much did you plan all those Lettermans? Because those were always like…
Sandra Bernhard: Well, you always do your pre-interview. And you would have to have like…you’d have to have places to go. And marks to hit and jokes to tell. But then once I got out there, of course, it was like all bets were off.
Ron Bennington: You loved to throw him off as well too, right? He dug that.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, well, it was just fun because he played the straight man like he does. But then, of course, he’d turn it around on me and throw a zinger at me. And surprise me, so it was always good fun.
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Ron Bennington: You are out on the road. And you don’t always do the road. You take long periods of time to go off.
Sandra Bernhard: I have new agents who are actually booking me throughout the year.
Ron Bennington: Really?
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah. So, I’ll be on the road, but not in the way like a rock and roll band is. I mean like, alright, this Saturday night I’m at Tarrytown Music Hall, Saturday night, March 9th. And then, like a week later, I’m in Scottsdale, Arizona at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, March 16th and I’m at the Patchhogue Theater, April 13th. So, there’s days that…yeah, I come home. I’m home for 2 weeks. I go back out and do 2 or 3 days. But also, I’m on a really cute show tonight called “The Neighbors” on ABC. I play a drivers ed teacher named Mrs. Porsche. Don’t ask.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, right.
Sandra Bernhard: This comes on right before “Modern Family”.
Ron Bennington: You still love acting. You still dig that.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah. Well really, that’s my main goal right now – is to get back on television on a full time situation. And a friend of mine just wrote an idea that I’ll be going out to pitch in April with another actress for the 2 of us. I won’t say who it is, but somebody fabulous.
Ron Bennington: How do the pitches work for the people that have never seen it?
Sandra Bernhard: Well fortunately, the writer came up with the idea, my friend David Brin, so he’ll be doing most of the pitching, but they love it when the actresses come or the actresses come in because it’s like exciting and glamorous.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, right.
Sandra Bernhard: So, he does the main story pitch. The two of us will chime in and go. And we’ll be doing this – I’m (blah blah noises). You give them a little idea of how the relationship will appear. And we’ll be going over the place from HBO to like Amazon.
Ron Bennington: So you don’t want to talk about the premise. You don’t want to give it away.
Sandra Bernhard: No.
Ron Bennington: They’ll all steal it. They’ll come in and they’ll grab it.
Sandra Bernhard: That’s right. That’s right. I’m also working on a scripted show based on my first 5 years in Los Angeles. So it will be a great role for a really funny young actress playing me.
Ron Bennington: Are you going to do this as TV?
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah.
Ron Bennington: Wow. Your first 5 years. So what, you went out there in 70….?
Sandra Bernhard: Four.
Ron Bennington: ’74.
Sandra Bernhard: Cinco de Mayo, 1974 – I arrived in L.A.
Ron Bennington: When L.A. was pretty crazy.
Sandra Bernhard: When L.A. was like crazy, fun. You could drive from West Hollywood to the beach in 20 minutes.
Ron Bennington: And everybody was partying. No one knew anything was wrong.
Sandra Bernhard: No. No. Everybody was doing their thing. Performers were getting up at open mic nights and just saying whatever came into their minds. And then I came along and started doing my act. And everybody was like – oh my God. It was confessional. It’s was like Patti Smith meets Richard Pryor meets Lily Tomlin meets Bette Midler. I mean I was just like going up there and talking about my life. And nobody, like me – was doing that.
Ron Bennington: No. You were young and of course your act – it was like straight and gay and black and white. No one knew what the hell to do with it.
Sandra Bernhard: Yes, exactly.
Ron Bennington: It was anti-Hollywood, pro-Hollywood. It was crazy.
Sandra Bernhard: Yes. Well, it was just whatever was real for me in that moment. And week to week, it was different. And I was a manicurist during the day. So like all these wonderful Jewish ladies who were like my surrogate mothers who were so amused by me. So I would take them and the beauty world and incorporate that into my act. There’s so many stories to tell.
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Ron Bennington: Today everybody wants that kind of fucking group think.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, exactly. And people really want their hands held, whether it’s the gay LGBT community or the feminists or..you know, everybody wants to be told that you’re the person for them. But I’m the person for everybody. Because if you’re disenfranchised and you’re lost – you’re looking for somebody who just is comfortable in their own skin and holds their own.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, it becomes – I think, dangerous whenever anyone groups together and says – this is us. Even if you’re doing that against the storm, before you know it, you’re the one saying – hey, that person is on the outside. It’s human nature.
Sandra Bernhard: Exactly. It is. It is.
Ron Bennington: And you have a tendency, and you do it well, you piss people off and you end up in trouble every once in awhile.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, I hope that I never lose that ability to do that. Especially in the world today, where it just seems like people get fake mad at people. Like you’ve offended Justin Bieber or Beyonce and you’ll be like – no, that’s not what I’m going for here.
Ron Bennington: The other thing that’s great too is now it’s always that thing where the comedian comes back and says – look, I’m really sorry. I’ve learned so much.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh no. No, no, no, no, no.
Ron Bennington: They tried to do it to Joan Rivers the other day. She was having no part of it.
Sandra Bernhard: Joan’s gone way beyond the point of no return.
Ron Bennington: And God bless her for it. Because she is another person…and again, it’s going to probably take her dying before everyone goes – hey, that was great. But I see her now and I’m like – I think she’s working on an edge far beyond where a lot of 22, 24 year old people are.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh my God! She is unbelievable. Absolutely. Because the other thing is contrived. Joan is just like…she’ll just say whatever’s on her mind and she really is there in the moment. As I try to do in my own way.
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Ron Bennington: How long were you in L.A. before you met Paul Mooney?
Sandra Bernhard: Less than a year.
Ron Bennington: Really? And that changed everything for you?
Sandra Bernhard: Everything. Mooney was like – [Paul Mooney voice] Miss Bernhard, you’re a cigarette come to life. They’re going to put you through hell in a pair of kerosene drawers.
Ron Bennington: And you said – good.
Sandra Bernhard: I just like to add that. Mooney. And then he took me to the Parisian Room and all the black clubs. And if people didn’t get it, he’d go up and go – you don’t understand the white lady. You don’t understand the white lady. Let me explain her to you. And then he’d scream and yell and read them to filth.
Ron Bennington: The black clubs were a lot more hardcore in those days as well too.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh absolutely.
Ron Bennington: Because really, they were what? 10 years since the civil rights thing. So, black people in the 1970’s were still kind of feeling their oats.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah. Well honey, I think they burned down Compton in ’68.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, it was still smoldering.
Sandra Bernhard: (laughs) Yeah, there were still some burning embers.
Ron Bennington: And you’re going in to do stand up.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah!
Ron Bennington: And you didn’t grow up around black people, right? I mean you’re from…
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, yeah I did. In Flint, Michigan.
Ron Bennington: Oh, you were in Michigan before you went to Arizona?
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah. Absolutely. No, no. We were like exposed to Motown and…
Ron Bennington: Those were all your performers? That was everybody that you loved?
Sandra Bernhard: Bunch of the people I loved. Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Aretha and the Temptations. I would literally listen to our AM radio staring out at the snow falling and you would hear “Stop In The Name Of Love” for the first time.
Ron Bennington: Amazing stuff.
Sandra Bernhard: This was in the 60’s you know.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. Talk about…I mean the serious thing too of Motown being almost taken for granted when that had to be maybe the greatest American company we’ve ever had.
Sandra Bernhard: Oh, it was unbelievable.
Ron Bennington: In the 60’s, you had Motown and you had NASA. And there wasn’t a lot else to be really proud of besides that. But those 2 companies just kicked ass for awhile. And Diana Ross, I think is one of those people that almost made it look too easy.
Sandra Bernhard: Well, she was uber-confident. She came from that time when a sophisticated black lady was just like…she was an iconoclast. And she wanted to be the star. And she was in with Barry Gordy. And the other girls were not as talented or as crafty as she was.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, she was just, whatever that thing was – she had it.
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, she had star power.
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Ron Bennington: A lot of people think like – oh, the bullying thing, all that. But you’ve got to get out. You’ve got to get out of that spot.
Sandra Bernhard: You also have to exposed to people that really challenge you and aren’t very nice, because it really toughens you up. It gets you on your feet. Everybody comes in and saves everybody now. I just guess the cyber bullying is just so different.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, I don’t even understand it or comprehend it.
Sandra Bernhard: I mean when I was a kid, we moved out to Arizona. These kids would be like calling me, the n-word to my lips. You have…you know. Because they thought I was black, I guess. And I was the blackest person they had seen in Arizona. And I would just be like – whatever, honey. You’ll be paying for lips some day anyway, literally and figuratively.
Ron Bennington: Did you get that as a kid though?
Sandra Bernhard: I think it bothered me a little, but just because I didn’t want to be harassed. I mean I just sort of laughed at them. They were a bunch of cowboys and Arizona anti-intellectuals.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. I kind of felt the same way. I grew up in the suburbs and I would see like Bowie album covers and Lou Reed album covers. And I’m like – where do these fucking people live?
Sandra Bernhard: Yeah, where? Exactly. (laughs) Hey! Wait a minute!
Ron Bennington: Where does this shit go down?
Sandra Bernhard: That was the great thing. You could sit in your room and listen to Carole King and Joni Mitchell. They were people that you know that were out there, that would understand you. And it was just a matter of time.
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Ron Bennington: Well, she acts, she sings, she dances, she does it all. Sandra Bernhard, back.
Sandra Bernhard: Great to see you again, honey.
Ron Bennington: It’s great to see you and I just think – I’m glad you got the new agents and I’m glad they’re getting you back out on the road because you need to be there. This Prince thing looks amazing. “The Neighbors” is going to be there. Prince, Thursday night. March 9th in Tarrytown and then out to Scottsdale and then Patchogue Theater in Long Island. And you can do all this by going to sandrabernhard.com.
Sandra Bernhard: And (at) me on Twitter.
Ron Bennington: @SandraBernhard at Twitter. She answers back people.
Sandra Bernhard: Yes. Yes, I do.
Ron Bennington: There’s always funny stuff. It’s great to see you. I’ll see you next time.
Sandra Bernhard: Always great to see you, baby.
Ron Bennington: Alright, I’ll see you next time coming through. Bye bye.
Sandra Bernhard: You know it.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.