The comedian, musician, Broadway star, TV star, film star, author, monologuist, and 1992 Playboy bunny Sandra Bernhard is coming to Seattle—well, Mercer Island—on Saturday, November 2.
When she performed her show I’m Still Here… Damn It! at the downtown Moore Theatre in 1999, she had just given birth to a daughter. We haven’t seen Bernhard in these parts much since then (except on Pose, or on Roseanne reruns, or anytime someone rewatches Madonna’s Truth or Dare), but as Bernhard told me on the phone, her history with Seattle goes back to the 1960s. And her daughter? She’s now in college.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted the same day that Republican congressional douchebags stormed the underground intelligence chamber in the US Capitol with their cell phones out (“They’re utter morons,” she said, “It’s just embarrassing!”), we talked about Donald Trump (a “national disaster”), Mark Zuckerberg (“he’s a nightmare”), Nancy Pelosi (“masterful”), and which three powerful women throughout history Bernhard would invite to a dinner party. As for her show, it’s called Quick Sand, it will be her usual iconoclastic mix of comedy and music, and tickets are still available.
You’re performing at the Stroum Jewish Community Center—so, first question. Nazis: pro or con?
[Laughs] Well, that’s a pretty easy question. More than con. Yes, I have a problem with Nazis.
Isn’t it crazy that we’re living in a world where that’s a question?
Yes, it’s a little daunting, and a little terrifying. Yes. It’s a very challenging time for humanity.
After Trump was elected, I was shocked, and I fell into a horrible depression. What was your reaction?
Well, having lived in New York for years, and knowing him and knowing what a joke and a clown he was always perceived to be, I couldn’t believe that it had happened. But now that we know the truth, and all the different elements that came together to create this national disaster—between Facebook, and by the way, that little creep should be yanked off the face of the earth, he’s a nightmare, that Mark Zuckerberg, he’s terrifying—you know, all these elements just came together. The deep racist core in this country, I’m sad to say, still exists and never went away. I think all of this was a knee-jerk reaction to having the first black president.
Can you reflect on social media and what it’s done to us?
I think it’s just one of the worst things that ever happened. First of all, at the very core of it is people not being able to communicate in the way we were intended to communicate, which is by talking to each other. In a civilized manner. I think people have lost the art of conversation. And sitting down and making a specific point of writing a letter to somebody or reaching out to people—that’s all just gone by the wayside. These are civilities that keep our culture balanced and creative and fulfilling. And that’s really at the very base of it, and it just spews out from there—the vitriol and idiocy and presumption and total disregard for the truth and for each other… it’s just gone to depths I never could have imagined.
It brings out the worst in people—the sense that we’re on a sports team, and we have to kill the other sports team…
Oh it’s awful. I really just use it for my shows and to keep my work out there. But of course I say what’s imperative to say about this president, and the day-to-day, but you just can’t keep up with it. I don’t know, it’s daunting, and you really have to take mental-health breaks from it.
It seems pretty clear the House is going to impeach Donald Trump, and I hope the Senate will remove him from office. Do you think they will?
I think if they finally realize he’s a detriment to their party—which he is—and to the reelection of a lot of people, that’s all that matters to them. They don’t care about the country. They don’t care about democracy or the future of humanity, that’s for damn sure. So I guess just in their small scope of what affects them, they’ll do what they have to do to survive, I presume.
It’s so weird we live in a world where Mitt Romney is the hero of the week.
I know! Everything is inside out and backward and everything else that you can’t even wrap your mind around.
Republican congressmen today are invading the congressional intelligence chamber to interrupt the impeachment testimony—
My god! How embarrassing! I mean, can you imagine? “Yuh, we’ll take our cell phones and put ’em on selfie sticks, we’ll show them they can’t get away with this…” They’re utter morons. It’s just embarrassing that these people were elected! It’s outrageous.
Is there anything Trump fears, other than powerful women?
I think that’s probably his Achilles’ heel. I think Nancy Pelosi has done just a masterful job in how she’s held off until the right moment to make this impeachment a reality, instead of just—while everybody was poking at her over the Muller Report, she knew that wasn’t going to work, it wasn’t going to move the needle. And then of course he just keeps giving us the gifts, anything he does we can use in our favor. And with the Ukraine thing, people finally figured it out. Between that and Syria, it seems like people are finally waking up. I don’t know how much more it could possibly take. But it seems to be tipping the scales.
It’s crazy that the kids in cages didn’t do it.
Nope, that didn’t do it. Nope. Uh-uh.
You’ve been all kinds of places and met all kinds of people. Have you ever extorted the president of Ukraine?
[Laughs] I’ve tried my damnedest. My family fled Ukraine at the turn of the last century, wisely, so I won’t be going back to visit anytime soon. It’s never been high on my list. I think I’ll keep it as a distant memory in my rearview mirror.
Have you been watching the debates?
Oh yeah, of course. Absolutely.
What do you make of the field?
It needs to be winnowed down. There are a lot of people who need to get yanked out. I think with this last debate, it was enough—like with Tulsi Gabbard? And these other sort of fringe people who aren’t really adding to the conversation and are below 1 percent? I think it’s time for them to go. And I think the next debate, it will finally get down to six or eight people, so I’m feeling better about it.
I’m pulling for Elizabeth Warren. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve jumped around. I’m just staying open and watching the process. And whoever ends up being the nominee, I will get behind them one thousand percent.
Will we ever have a woman president?
I don’t know. I don’t think anytime soon.
If you could have a dinner party with three powerful women throughout history, living or dead, who would you choose?
I think Eleanor Roosevelt would be fun to catch up with. I think Elizabeth R, the original Queen Elizabeth, that would be fascinating. And who else would be great? There are so many, it’s kind of hard. Maybe Cleopatra. Those three. We would make a nice four-top.
What is it like having a daughter in this day and age? Do you talk about the world?
Oh god, she’s so on top of it. She really knows things and surprises me in ways. Like, she loves Marc Maron’s podcast, so she sent me a text last week and she goes, “I heard Argus Hamilton talking about how you were the protégé of Paul Mooney.” And that was my proudest moment, because Argus Hamilton was—he’s still around but—he was sort of like the perpetual host at the Comedy Store. He’s been there for like 45 years. So the fact that he even registered on her radar, this guy, Argus Hamilton, and he was talking about me, and my having been discovered by my friend Paul Mooney, I just thought: “Wow, that’s really cool.” And she loves comedy. I don’t think she always loves my comedy per se. If she does, she would never admit it to me. She’s very withholding, which I accept. I think that’s fair. I’d rather have that relationship with my daughter than have a daughter who thinks she has to kiss my ass. I think that’s very unhealthy.
What about Jeff Bezos? Do you have an opinion on him?
Not really, but I hate what he’s done to Whole Foods. And that’s enough for me not to be happy about him. Amazon owning Whole Foods just fucked it up. Every time you go shopping there, there are a million people who are doing Amazon shopping for people online and you can’t even—you know, there’s nothing to buy and you can’t even find your way around the store because they’re all zombies buying stuff for people who ordered online. Whole Foods wasn’t so great to begin with, but it’s gotten worse, I’ll put it to you that way.
You’re currently on Pose, you were famously on Roseanne—what’s your favorite TV project you’ve ever been a part of?
Well, you know, I love all of them. But I have to say, I think Will & Grace was one of my favorites, because even though I was playing myself—well, a version of myself—it was just so completely out there. One of my best friends, Jhoni Marchinko, wrote that for me. And it’s something that people just love, across the board—gay, straight, Midwest, New York, the coasts—they love my two appearances on Will & Grace. And I think it was such an original idea. So that was one of my favorites.
I remember gathering with my gay friends in the late 1990s to watch that show. We’d never seen a gay man be the main character on a TV show. That feels like a century ago.
I know, isn’t it weird how much things have changed?
Yeah, it’s wild.
You’ve written a couple of books, you’ve written for Playboy and the New Yorker—is writing still part of your artistic practice?
Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve written several scripts over the past 10 or 15 years that have not gotten produced, but you keep writing. And of course I write my shows. And I write my material for my now weekly SiriusXM radio show, Sandyland. I’m constantly writing. I keep this running yellow pad of ideas and one-liners and little observations and jumping-off places for either material or ideas for more scripts or movies. So I write in that way. Writing for magazines now, it’s sort of passé. No one pays you to do that anymore. So I don’t really do that. And, I don’t know, I feel like everybody tries to write in the social-media world, as we’ve discussed, so I kind of backed away from that. But yeah, my material and everything—I’m constantly writing that. I have that as my outlet.
You mentioned a few years ago that you were writing a musical with Justin Vivian Bond. Are you still working on that?
We tried to turn it into a TV show—and it’s not that it could never happen, it just didn’t happen. We met with a writer who was going to help us put it together, and she kind of crapped out. And then they—meaning Justin—got sidetracked, and it’s just hard to pin everybody down. So for now it’s on hold. But you never know.
You were gender-fluid—or gender nonconforming—long before we even had these words.
Is it exhausting being so ahead of your time? And what do you make of the new mainstream enlightenment around gender?
Well, it’s very different than how I approached it back in the day. To me, it was all about being swinging and groovy, and about whoever I was attracted to. But now it’s much more political—I don’t totally relate to it, and I don’t totally understand it, so it’s hard for me to weigh in. But: Yay! Everybody be gender-fluid. I don’t see anybody really having all that much fun, so that’s what bothers me. If you’re going to be gender-fluid, at least enjoy it. Today I don’t really think it’s about who you’re sleeping with, it’s about who you are. And for me, it was about who you’re attracted to. That was my definition of fluidity. So I’m sort of like: “Oh, where’s the fun? Where’s the swinging, groovy fun we used to be having?” It seems to have disappeared. And everyone’s very serious about it all, and that just bums me out. But I have your back. Do your thing. That’s what I have to say about it.
Your comedy shows always incorporate music, and you are the reason I’ve had “Midnight Train to Georgia” in my head for 20 years straight. What earworm are you going to implant in my brain this time?
Well, I mean, I don’t want to tell you—I don’t want to give it away! Just come see the show. I have so much music and so many mash-ups, and I haven’t been to Seattle in such a long time. So I’m sort of curating the past four or five shows and picking pieces out of them—the evergreen pieces that work then and now. With a little bit of topical ointment put over the top—so nobody gets an infection.
[Laughs] It has been a while since you’ve been out here. Do you have any memories or associations with Seattle?
Oh my god, so many. My oldest brother moved there in the late 1960s and married a woman from Seattle. That’s where my two nieces were raised. I’ve been going up there since the ’60s. And many of my early performances were in Seattle—like way, way back. For some reason, that’s a city that’s always had a lot of opportunities for me. And then one of my very, very dearest friends, who I went to high school with, Daniel, moved up there in the ’70s. He was a dancer. And sadly he succumbed to AIDS in 1990. So I have a lot of great memories, and a few sad memories. I know it’s not the way it used to be, but no place is. You take the best of the place and make the best of it, you know?
You’ll be performing on an island.
Which island is it?
Oh yeah, I know Mercer Island, of course. Will the kids come to Mercer Island? Will they make the trek?
Well, once they read this in The Stranger, they’ll come out.
Okay, good. Tell them it’s okay it’s a Jewish venue. Tell them not to be nervous about that.
If you could send three people into exile on a desert island, never to be heard from again, who would you send?
Well, the obvious one, Donald Trump. I might have to send Benjamin Netanyahu with him. And I might have to send Mark Zuckerberg, too. He has to go.
Trump, Netanyahu, and Zuckerberg. That’s a good selection. I think the world would be better without them.
I couldn’t agree more. Obviously.