Do we have all the cool kids playing on the LGBT team? Among the coolest is comic legend (and Great Lakes native) Sandra Bernhard. After getting her start in stand-up comedy, she’s morphed into a first-rate monologist, as demonstrated in Without You, I’m Nothing, I’m Still Here… Damn It!, Everything Bad & Beautiful and, most recently, Sandyland. She’s also made movies, including the Martin Scorcese masterpiece The King of Comedy (with Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis!). She’s palled around with Madonna, played recurring roles on sitcoms (you might remember her as Morgan Fairchild’s lover on Rosanne?) and released music and comedy CDs.
Bernhard spoke with me about her career and her upcoming performance at Milwaukee PrideFest.
Do you remember attending your first Pride parade or festival? Actually, I don’t remember anymore (laughs). The last time I rode in a parade, which was also maybe one of the first times I rode in a parade, was in San Diego about two or three years ago. It was definitely fun. We had a great crowd. The vibe is always great. People want to go out and have a good time. I think now, more than ever, with the quickly shifting sands of history in the gay community, people are in an upbeat mood. It’s a really good time to be out there performing.
How different is your preparation for a Pride performance than for one of your theater performances? You try to take the pieces you think will work best in an outdoor venue and keep it casual. At the same time, you can’t get too involved with the crowd, because people come and go. They’re not sitting in a formal theater. You have to work a little bit harder to keep people’s attention and keep them focused. I will also have my band with me — The Flawless Zircons. They’re actually my Midwestern band — these young, groovy musicians from Chicago who I’ve worked with several times. I’ve got musicians all over the country now. It’s too cost prohibitive to bring everybody in. But I have all of these nice, young, gorgeous boys who work with me. They’ll be there. The music will be fun.
How did your early years doing stand-up prepare you for the performances you’re doing now? Every time you get up, it’s always a new experience. You never know who’s going to be there, what you’re going to encounter. It makes you be on your toes like no other performing. It’s trial by fire.You get good at it if you stay with it long enough.
Have you spent much time in Milwaukee or other parts of Wisconsin? We never went to Wisconsin when I was little. First of all, we moved from Michigan to Arizona when I was 10, so I missed out on the possible camp years. And I don’t necessarily mean the camp years in the sense of Judy Garland. As an adult, of course I’ve been to Wisconsin many times. It’s a beautiful state.
You are something of social media maven, making frequent use of Twitter and Facebook. What impact has social media had on you? I think it’s been great. It introduces you to a new audience and it reminds them of what you do. For me, as a creative person, it’s a great outlet for funny, witty asides that might otherwise go into the trash heap of funny, witty asides (laughs). Although, in general, I don’t really like it — the whole narcissistic vibe of social media and selfies and people celebrating themselves and their every move. I really try not to do that. I think it’s incredibly boring. I really try to curate what I say and what I show on social media.
Besides live performances, you continue to be seen on television and in movies. What do you have coming up? I’m working on raising money for the film version of (Sandyland), the show I’ve been doing. It’s actually a culmination of a lot of material I’ve been doing over the past 15, 16 years. I’ve also written a couple of scripted television projects that are just in the nascent stages of getting seen and hopefully set up. It’s a long process. First, you have to get people to look at it, then you have to take meetings. It’s a slow climb. I’m also auditioning for shows and movies. I’ve been shooting a show called Switched at Birth for ABC Family where I play an art instructor. You can see those on Netflix. I hope to do more of those when they pick up again with the shooting.
Sandra Bernhard performs at Milwaukee PrideFest on Sun., June 8.