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Sandra Bernhard

b. June 5, 1955

by Roberta Mock
Last updated January 12, 2023

Actor and comedian Sandra Bernhard. Courtesy of Sandra Bernhard

In Brief

Sandra Bernhard is an American comedian, actor, storyteller, singer, fashion model, author of creative non-fiction, and talk show host. Since the late 1980s, she has bridged and critiqued popular entertainment, celebrity culture, religion, sexuality, and politics as a solo live performer and across a variety of media. At the center of Bernhard’s outspoken and often confrontational persona is the confident presentation of her own body: “I’m not gonna get a nose job. I’m not going to pretend I’m the girl next door,” she has said. “But I do live in the neighborhood, so you better get used to me.” Bernhard is celebrated for her performances in the film The King of Comedy (1982); the sitcom Roseanne (1991-1997 and 2018); and the drama series, Pose (2018-2021).

Early Life and Career

Sandra Gail Bernhard was born in Flint, Michigan, on June 6, 1955, the youngest child of Jerome and Jeanette (LeZebnik) Bernhard. She grew up in a “liberal intellectual Jewish household with three sensitive older brothers” and explained in a monologue that “My father’s a proctologist. My mother’s an abstract artist. That’s how I view the world” (Without You I’m Nothing, 1988). Bernhard knew she wanted to be a performer from the age of five. She remembers singing “Hello Dolly” at her cousin’s Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah party when she was eight and experiencing it as being “just where I belonged—you know, in front of a big crowd of Jews, performing” (in Barr, 2012).

When she was ten, Bernhard’s family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. Her bat mitzvah was held at Beth El Synagogue in Phoenix and she was a member of United Synagogue Youth. At Saguaro High School, she felt alienated by what she describes as its “very white and racist” environment (in Christon, 1990); she “scowled in the corner,” obsessed over Barbra Streisand, and dreamed of show business (Van Meter, 1998). After graduating early from high school in 1973, she went to Israel to work on a A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.kibbutz for six months. She describes this as a “life-changing” experience that instilled self-confidence and discipline in her (Anderson, 2007).

In 1974, Bernhard moved to Los Angeles, where she became a manicurist and a year later began performing in comedy clubs. She was influenced by Bette Midler, whom she had seen in New York when she returned from Israel. Bernhard’s first joke at an open mic spot at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills was: “I’m a medium. [pause] I understand you’re a small, and you’re an extra-large” (in Barr, 2012). That night she met the comedians Lotus Weinstock and Paul Mooney, who became her mentors and champions.

Through Mooney, who was one of its writers, Bernhard appeared in two of the four episodes of The Richard Pryor Show (1977). Mooney also taught her how to channel her rage when performing stand-up. She recalls that she developed a “hostile style to get control. It was me on a lineup with 15 others, usually men, and a few self-deprecating women. I was angry in that space” (in Christon, 1990).

Film and Television

Bernhard’s breakout film was Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1982), co-starring Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis. She won the National Society of Film Critics’ Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as an obsessive, volatile fan who kidnaps a talk show host. According to Scorsese, Bernhard was cast due to the closeness of her persona to the character, Masha: “defiant and frightening,” “totally in control,” and easily able to flip between “adoration and hostility” (Sandra Bernhard: Confessions of a Pretty Lady, 1994).

Bernhard gained mainstream attention on the sitcom Roseanne, which aired from 1991 to 1997 and was one of the top-rated television programs in the United States. Bernhard’s ground-breaking bisexual character, Nancy Bartlett, was married to a man and began dating women after their divorce. After the first run of Roseanne ended, Bernhard performed as a voice artist, guest star, and in limited recurring roles on dozens of shows, including Ally McBeal (1997), The L Word (2005), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2014-2015), 2 Broke Girls (2015), and Broad City (2017).

In creating a star persona that connects her staged performances and “real life,” Bernhard’s filmography and television listings include many guest appearances playing “herself” as a celebrity in both documentaries (such as the 1991 movie In Bed with Madonna) and in fictional scenarios. In a 2001 episode of the sitcom Will and Grace, for example, Debra Messing’s character tells the “real” Bernhard that she was recently featured in the Jewish Daily Forward. Bernhard responds, “I love that paper. It’s genius. Do you know that I was last year’s cover Jewess? Me in a bikini on Fyvus Finkel’s lap. Hot” (Season 3, Episode 12).

Between 2018 and 2021, Bernhard appeared in the acclaimed drama series Pose, set in New York’s largely African American and Latinx drag ball subculture of the 1980s and 1990s. Her character, Judy Kubrak, is an activist nurse who cares for people dying of AIDS. For Bernhard, who at the time moved within an artistic scene where “black meets gay meets drag,” the role took her full circle: “I had been part of it, seen my friends in hospital and known what people went through: the degradation, loneliness and alienation. There was a lot to inform my performance” (Healy, 2021).

Without You I’m Nothing

In 1988, Bernhard performed her one-woman show, Without You I’m Nothing, to rave reviews long past its original end date at New York’s Off-Off Broadway Orpheum Theatre. She described it as “rock-and-roll meets the theater with elements of performance art, cabaret, and standup comedy” (in Holden, 1988). This more or less characterized Bernhard’s next 30 years of live solo performance work, which often resulted in studio and live recordings released as LPs as well as on video.

The film of Without You I’m Nothing (1990) uses the context of a fictional live performance, also structured as a variety-style revue of monologues and songs, to both underline and undermine the fame and recognition Bernhard received for the original version. In a range of styles and genres, she performs as 1950s career girl, stripper, matriarch, 1960s pop star, and “herself” without irony. However, filmed in a nightclub in front of an apathetic and unappreciative all-Black audience, she seems to be parodying her performance medium, celebrity status, and authenticity. The MC twice mis-introduces her as “Sarah Bernhardt,” the nineteenth-century actor; like her spoken routines about Streisand, this mis-introduction positions Bernhard within a lineage of performances by Jewish woman.

The stories Bernhard tells as part of her act in the film generally take two forms, both apparently autobiographical. The first are personal associations and reminiscences, primarily of her Jewish adolescence. The second type of story she tells is gossip involving her interaction with other celebrities (such as Stevie Nicks and Warren Beatty). Interspersed between Bernhard’s turns on stage are clips of fictitious interviews with her “friends” and “manager,” which tend to destablize the veracity of her stories, as well as erotic lesbian imagery and sexual fantasy scenarios with men.

At the end of the film, Bernhard disrobes from a large American flag. Wearing a g-string, nipple tassels, and high-heels and dancing to a song by Prince, she doesn’t notice the film audience vacating the venue. The last person to leave is the beautiful Black model who has appeared as both object of desire and alter-ego throughout the film; she has written the words “F*ck Sandra Bernhard” on the table with lipstick.

Without You I’m Nothing has been described by The Creative Independent as “one of the greatest cultural documents of its time” (2016/2021). It garnered a great deal of academic attention from feminist, Jewish, Black, and queer theorists. Most celebrate its complexity while criticizing some of its ambiguities and strategies, especially regarding the appropriation of Black culture, to which the film itself draws attention.

Celebrity, Talk, Clothes

From the start of her career, Bernhard was a regular guest on television talk shows, which have long been home territory for celebrity stand-ups. It is where new comic material is tested with audiences, as well as a space in which celebrity myth-making takes place and the myth of celebrity is often exposed. Bernhard appeared on Late Night with David Letterman nearly 30 times between 1983 and 1992. Most infamously, in 1988 she was joined by her “gal pal” Madonna, hinting at a romantic relationship between them. In 2001, she hosted her own short-lived talk show, The Sandra Bernhard Experience.

In 2015, Bernhard began hosting a live daily radio program, Sandyland, on SiriusXM, for which she has won a Gracie Award. The show includes an opening monologue on the state of the world, as well as interviews with high profile figures such as Bette Midler. Bernhard has said that “It is really not a celebrity-driven show per se; it is really people that excite me and inspire me” (Nesti, 2017).

Like her insider-outsider relationship with celebrity culture, Bernhard’s connection to the fashion industry has been ambivalent. While she frequently critiques the narcissistic, superficial environment of the modeling scene, she herself has modeled for a range of designers including Isaac Mizrahi, Mark Jacobs, and Chanel.

In 1992, Bernhard appeared nude in Playboy magazine. She said that she did so because “it’s really important that a woman that is not a cliché beauty, who hasn’t been manipulated by men, or altered herself surgically, be presented in a really beautiful, sensual, forthright way” (Siegel, 2015).

Personal and Spiritual Life

Bernhard has known she was bisexual since high school. A gay icon and high-profile LGBTQ+ presence, she was criticized in the 1980s and 1990s for refusing to identify as a lesbian, despite her openly presented relationships with women. In response, Bernhard stated that she didn’t “put any barriers on my sexuality” (Walton, 1994, p. 258) and that ambiguity allowed her to reach and educate straight audiences (Garratt, 1992, p. 46).

Bernhard’s daughter, Cicely Yasin Bernhard, was born in 1998 and co-parented by Bernhard’s partner, Sara Switzer. The family live in New York. Bernhard has never named Cicely’s father. Before meeting Switzer, Bernhard had been in a relationship with model and actor Patricia Velásquez.

In 1995, Bernhard began studying at the The esoteric and mystical teachings of JudaismKabbalah Center in Los Angeles because she “was seeking something spiritual within the confines of being a Jew” (Tucker, 2021). By 2010, her engagement with kabbalah had waned and she started attending weekly services at either an Orthodox synagogue or Chabad house, especially if she was on tour. She describes herself as “spiritual” rather than religious and is critical of the gender inequality in Orthodox Judaism.

To Bernhard, her humor is “in the tradition of the great thinkers and interpreters of our religion” (Billen, 1994), and the personal and professional world she has created for herself “incorporates all the elements of who I am: the feminist, the social commentator, the Jewess” (Tucker, 2021)

Selected Works

Books/Articles:

Confessions of a Pretty Lady. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

“Not Just Another Pretty Face.” Playboy, September 1992.

Love, Love, & Love. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

May I kiss you on the lips, Miss Sandra? New York: Rob Wiesbach Books, 1998.

 

Films:

The King of Comedy (1982)

Without You I’m Nothing (1990)

Hudson Hawk (1991)

In Bed with Madonna (1991)

Dallas Doll (1994)

Sandra Bernhard: Confessions of a Pretty Lady (1994)

 

Television:

The Richard Pryor Show (1977)

Roseanne (1991-2018)

Sandra Bernhard: I'm Still Here... Damn It! (1999)

Pose (2018-2021)

 

Stage Shows / Recordings:

I'm Your Woman (1985)

Without You I’m Nothing (1988)

Excuses for Bad Behavior Part 1 (1994)

I’m Still Here … Damn It! (1998)

Hero Worship (2003)

Everything Bad & Beautiful (2006)

Sandra Bernhard is #blessed (2015)

 

Radio:

Sandyland (2015-present)

Bibliography

Anderson, Hephzibah. “Sandra Bernhard.” The Observer, August 26, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2007/aug/26/features.magazine57

Barr, Roseanne. “Sandra Bernhard.” Interview, April 2, 2012. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/sandra-bernhard

Billen, Andrew. “Sandra Bernhard bares nothing but her ego.” The Observer, November 13, 1994 (Life Section, p. 8).

Christon, Lawrence. “Without Us, She’s Nothing: In her new movie, Sandra Bernhard finds meaning in the artifices of pop culture.” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1990. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-06-17-ca-308-story.html

Garratt, Sheryl. “Funny Face.” The Face 2, no. 48 (September 1992).

Gregory, Alexis. “‘Without You I’m Nothing’ at 30.” We Are Cult, December 1, 2020. https://wearecult.rocks/without-you-im-nothing-1990-at-30

Halley, Catherine. “The Mouth that Launched a Thousand Rifts: Sandra Bernhard's Politics of Irony.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 1 (1995): 23-39.

Headapohl, Jackie. “You Can’t Go Back Home Again.” Detroit Jewish News, February 21, 2013. https://thejewishnews.com/2013/02/21/you-cant-go-back-home-again/

Healy, Rachael. “Pose star Sandra Bernhard: ‘I never tried to be revolutionary. That’s just who I was.’” The Guardian, August 17, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2021/aug/17/pose-star-sandra-bernhard-i-never-tried-to-be-revolutionary-thats-just-who-i-was

Holden, Stephen. “Life Images In Sandra Bernhard's Solo Show.” New York Times, March 31, 1988 (Section C, p. 15).

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

Indiana, Gary. “Sandra Bernhard Interview.” Bomb 24, July 1, 1988. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/sandra-bernhard/

Mock, Roberta. Jewish Women on Stage, Film and Television. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Nesti, Robert. “Talking With Sandra Bernhard: Things Are Great in Sandyland.” Edge Media Network, August 21, 2017. https://www.edgemedianetwork.com/story.php?219998

Pellegrini, Ann. Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Rachel, T. Cole. “Sandra Bernhard on embracing your mistakes.” The Creative Independent, September 30, 2021. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/2016-10-04-sandra-bernhard-on-the-pleasure-and-peril-of-being-a-big-personality/

Siegel, Matt. “Interview: Sandra Bernhard.” Wag’s Revue 15 (Summer 2013): 9-21. https://wagsrevue.com/15/interviews/bernhard1

Siegel, Matt. “A Day in Sandyland.” The Awl, November 25, 2015. https://medium.com/the-awl/a-day-in-sandyland-25e4e50abd69

Tucker, Karen Iris. “Sandra Bernhard Shows Her Softer Side.” The Forward, December 20, 2011. https://forward.com/articles/148201/sandra-bernhard-shows-her-softer-side/

Walton, Jean. “Sandra Bernhard: Lesbian Postmodern or Modern Postlesbian?” In The Lesbian Postmodern, edited by Laura Doan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Van Meter, Jonathan. “The Bitch is Back.” New York, October 19, 1998. https://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/2777/

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How to cite this page

Mock, Roberta. "Sandra Bernhard." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 12 January 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernhard-sandra>.