Sandra Bernhard is a modern-day Renaissance woman. She's the author of three well-received books. She's a talented singer who has released a trio of acclaimed albums and shared the stage with the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Scissor Sisters and the Pretenders. She's a busy actor whose Internet Movie Database page runs the gamut from Scorsese to "Sesame Street" to sitcoms. Among her work in the last category is the role she is best known for: Nancy Bartlett on the 1990s hit series "Roseanne." Hers was the first openly gay character on a network sitcom.
But above all else, Bernhard is a dynamic comedian and live performer. She began her heralded standup career in the 1970s at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and has gone on to produce numerous one-woman shows, including the 1997 HBO special I'm Still Here ... Damn It! On Thursday, January 21, she'll perform her newest show, "Feel the Bernhard," at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe.
Seven Days spoke with Bernhard by phone on the morning of Monday, January 11, the day the world learned of the passing of the great David Bowie.
SEVEN DAYS: I was shocked to learn of David Bowie's passing. Did your paths ever cross?
SANDRA BERNHARD: I did cross paths with David and spent a little bit of time with him and his wife, Iman. I did a few projects with her. So I met him a few times over the years. He was always this incredibly nice, sweet man. I was really sad to hear what happened. I was totally shocked. I don't think anyone knew, except his very intimate circle, that he wasn't well. I'm flabbergasted. He had a really dry sense of humor. A cool guy. I'm terribly sad. I hadn't seen him in a long time.
SD: I think everyone was shocked. I mean, he just released a record last week.
SB: And I'll be checking it out. It sounds like a great project. He continued to be a musical force and a real innovator. And not just on the creative side, but on the business side, too. He was one of the first people to sell his catalog for a lot of money. He was a very savvy businessman. But he would let himself go out on the edge, in music, in acting. It's just awful.
SD: That's about all you can say. Switching gears to something also awful, Donald Trump paid a visit to Burlington last week.
SB: Yes! I was following that on "[The] Rachel Maddow [Show]."
SD: I had a feeling you might have been. What are your thoughts on the Donald?
SB: It's taken me by surprise. Again, he's someone I know peripherally, sort of through the New York social scene. I've always found him to be just a blustery guy, you know? I mean, he's Donald Trump. Money-motivated, brash. He's not subtle or nuanced. When he went in for a presidential run, I just thought it would be a clown-car extravaganza. And it has been. But who knew he would take it to this level of this discourse? He's getting everyone riled up, getting the extreme, reactionary kinds of people. And those people will buy into anyone who will feed their negativity.
I don't understand, because I don't think he really believes all of the things he says. I think he's just a shit stirrer. He's narcissistic and craves the attention. There was an article in the New York Times about all of his black friends, [for instance] Russell Simmons, who are like, "That's not the Donald Trump we know."
And I don't think it is, which is even more despicable, to go out and push people over the edge who are easily pushed. I don't know what his ultimate goal is, because I don't think he really wants to be president. The bottom line is that he's completely ill prepared.
SD: I keep hoping it's some grand hoax, like in The Producers.
SB: I don't think it is. It seems like he's someone some people really like, which is scary. But the Republican Party is terrified of him, too. He's shaking the core of politics. He's a polarizing figure, and people are fascinated, even in Vermont. But he has so much contempt for the poor. If you don't have money or that swagger, he's not interested in you. This is not someone who wants to pull the country together. He doesn't give a damn about that.
SD: I think that's more than enough airtime for him in this interview.
SD: The show you're touring is called "Feel the Bernhard," which should resonate here in Bernie Sanders country.
SB: [Laughs] Yes, it's a nod to Bernie, of course. Every year when I finish my residency at Joe's Pub in New York, I put together a new show. So it's about things that happened in the last year, traveling and people I've encountered. But it's kind of a mashup of my last two shows. I'm also coming up with a piano player.
And I've been doing my radio show, "Sandyland," for the past year, which really keeps me on my toes. It's very spur of the moment, spontaneous. So a lot of material has come from doing that. It's a mix of a lot of things.
SD: The radio show seems like a perfect vehicle for you.
SB: It is. I was a little trepidatious about it at first, because I was afraid of boxing myself into a corner. But it's been a chance for me to just be the way I am, which is spontaneous and relaxed. I'm not pushing any agendas. I like having people on who are downtown artists and not very well-known. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, I've had more famous people on, who I just have relaxed conversations with. I just get so tired of "So, you're in this movie. What was that like?" I just wanted a fresher approach.
SD: As someone who does a lot of press-junket-y interviews, I can appreciate that. Do you have a guest wish list?
SB: I've been dipping into it. I've had Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin. I had Dick Cavett. Bette Midler is supposed to come on. I've had some younger people on, too. But I'm more interested in people who have established lives and careers. I find that to be more inspiring. It's very eclectic, and that's the direction I want to keep heading in.
SD: That seems appropriate, given how diverse your own interests are. I'm curious: Of standup, music, acting, writing and all your other creative pursuits, do you have a favorite discipline?
SB: Just performing live. That incorporates all of the elements of the things I like to do: writing, singing, telling stories. And to have it all be on my terms and what I have to say. But I do love acting, too. I love collaborating, and picking up a script and having no responsibility for what's being said. Unless it's someone else's writing that I don't like. But, so far, I've been lucky in that regard.
SD: Speaking of that, I first came to know you on "Roseanne." I know you've said that being on the show was a blessing and a curse...
SB: I never said that! And I don't know where that keeps coming from. Someone must have misquoted me, because I always have to pull that apart. If anything, the hard part has been finding another series that approaches the quality of that series. If I said something like that, I'm sure that's what I meant. Being on that show was nothing but a wonderful experience, from the time I did it to the fact that we're still talking about it so many years later.
SD: I'm glad you clarified that. The reason I brought it up is that the show still holds up and has relevance, which is amazing to me. It's also kind of incredible that your character was the first openly gay one on a network sitcom but didn't really get credit for that at the time.
SB: We never really thought about it. Neither myself nor Roseanne approached that character looking for accolades. We were just looking to put it out there because it was worthy of talking about. And I don't think you should necessarily get awards for it. People need to do their work, have a real love for what they do and talk about the things that are important to them. Really, that's all you can do.
Sandra Bernhard performs “Feel the Bernhard” on Thursday, January 21, 9 p.m., at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe, as part of Winter Rendezvous 2016. $56.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Live Wired"