Sandra Bernhard shows up after a session at her gym in West Hollywood, relatively subdued, dressed for anonymity, no makeup in evidence. Her not-so-secret weapon, that angry slash of a mouth, is metaphorically holstered today. On screen it’s usually highlighted, glossed in souped-up, self-satirizing shades of scarlet or vermilion. But what’s most outrageous are the words it spits out.
Late last year, the mouth landed her in trouble again, after reporters picked up on a scathing riff on then US vice-presidential contender, Sarah Palin, in Bernhard’s stage show Without You I’m Nothing. Bernhard, who is loudly and proudly Jewish, told her audience that if the Governor of Alaska showed up in Manhattan, she’d “tear her apart like a Wise Natural Kosher Chicken.” She then hit her stride, calling Palin a “turncoat bitch” and — with typical, eye-popping overkill — praying she would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers.” Outrage duly ensued.
Today, Bernhard is in a more reflective mood as she prepares to take Without You I’m Nothing to London. She says that she’ll “try to add a little local color and commentary — I try to keep it as relevant as possible.” Expect Sapphic reworkings of Me and Mrs Jones and Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, alongside sulphurously tart demolitions of celebs, divas and homophobes.
“I may not have fucked much with the past,” Patti Smith once said, “but I’ve fucked plenty with the future.” Bernhard has occasionally borrowed the line to express her own sense of being ahead of her time. She first burst on to the international scene in the early 1980s, starring as Masha in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a role that should have made her a star. Still in her 20s, and with a face that startled more than it soothed, she was totally assured as the bratty, obsessive stalker who eventually kidnaps the object of her desire. But rather than making Bernhard a household name, the film established her as a woman to be feared; an antic, unsettling presence.
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Over the last 25 years Bernhard’s public persona has been diffused across stage shows, TV talk shows and guest appearances on TV series such as Roseanne. She was famously friends with Madonna in the late 1980s; Bernhard claimed to have slept with both Madonna and then husband Sean Penn. That friendship went south soon enough and Bernhard has remained blisteringly funny on Madonna’s shortcomings ever since. Last year, the New York Post reported on a withering five-minute demolition prompted by a heckler asking, “Are you still friends with Madonna?” Bernhard — “in a mad, dark, five-minute freestyle” — robotically repeated the phrase, “We only got four minutes to save the world” interspersed with screeches of “My chicken is raw!” Pause … “Does that answer your question?”
As Bernhard often says, “My father was a proctologist and my mother was an abstract artist, so that’s how I see the world.” She is also the product of two starkly contrasting communities: Flint, Michigan, and Scottsdale, Arizona. The former is the cradle of modern American unionism, the site of the 1936-1937 strike by United Auto Workers that broke General Motors. “What I got, growing up in Flint,” says Bernhard, “was a work ethic.”
In 1965, when she was 10, Bernhard’s family moved to Scottsdale. “It was definitely an alien atmosphere. Very, very white — and I already was