From her career-making debut in 1982 opposite Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy" to her early work as an openly lesbian character on "Roseanne" and her shocking look at cultural appropriation in her award-winning one woman show "Without You I'm Nothing," actress-singer-author-comedian Sandra Bernhard always swims against the tide.
The epitome of an iconoclast, Bernhard revels in being the edgy provoker to a complacent society. EDGE spoke with this arbiter of the cultural zeitgeist as she wended her way down the freeways of Los Angeles, where she's taping episodes of "Two Broke Girls" -- part of her recent return to network television.
EDGE: In the early '90s you took a risk by playing Nancy Bartlett, one of TV's first openly gay characters, on the network sitcom "Roseanne." Now gay and lesbian characters are commonplace, but what do you remember the reception being at that time?
Sandra Bernard: I think it was very positive. A great thing about everything that was done on "Roseanne" was that it was done to be funny, and not trying to make a political statement. It was so smart that everything became political and groundbreaking, but you were not hit in the head with it.
EDGE: The role helped create what has become a huge LGBT fan base. What's different about your gay fans as opposed the unfortunately straight ones?
SB: Obviously everything! To be gay is to be free and funny and edgy and interesting, and I think that's part of the beauty of the gay movement. We get to be on the cutting edge of what's happening culturally, musically, and in every way we have always been on the forefront.
EDGE: In 1990 you wowed the world with your show "Without You I'm Nothing." What are your thoughts as you look back on that seminal piece?
SB: Well, when I was doing it, it felt fresh and real and of the moment. I was sort of defining what was going on in my life and my world. It was a lucky time for me, when I could be edgy and interesting and unique. When I was doing it, I was just doing it, but looking back now I can see that, wow, it really was very raw and fresh.
EDGE: This is our Iconoclasts issue. When I think about the idea of an iconoclast, my mind goes to the final scene of that show, when the last audience member, a black woman, writes "fuck you" on the cocktail napkin. That scene marked you forever as a true iconoclast -- but what exactly were you saying about cultural appropriation there?
SB: That frankly everything done in our cultural experience is from the black community. They brought an essence and rhythm and culture that wouldn't have happened without them. They were not allowed freedom but still had the cultural ability to change our nation. I think that's what that scene was about; if you are black, you are wearing your stigma.
EDGE: Then there was Madonna, with whom you were rumored to be linked back in the '90s. Did you two ever rekindle your friendship, now that you're both older and wiser, and moms?
SB: Well, not really. Madonna is Madonna. She's living her life, and I'm living mine, and I don't think it matters that much at all. I mean, we kind of like still hung out a little bit off and on: we saw each other in social situations, hung out a few times over the years. But was she my friend? Not the way I define friendship; we never became those kinds of friends again. But like I said, you move on to live your own life. People come into your lives at a certain time and then move through it, and that's all fine.
EDGE: You spent the past year traveling to NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities with your show "I Love Being Me, Don't You?" Are you excited about being on the road?
SB: So much has happened since that, including my "#blessed" show, and now I'm in LA shooting four episodes of "Two Broke Girls." So apart from doing something that you have to be careful to not become totally overwhelmed by, these new shows like "Broke Girls" -- I'm really excited about that. But you know, I'm always touring; I'm always writing new shows and trying new material. I love to be in the middle of what's going on culturally and ahead of what's going -- being an arbiter of what's happening in the zeitgeist.
EDGE: One thing that hasn't changed much over the years is that fact that you're a real looker. Share your philosophy on aging in our plastic world.
SB: I think I'm blessed, number one. Number two, over the years I didn't drink or smoke. I'm a fanatic about what I eat and how I take care of myself, but I don't let it run my life. Then there's keeping a happy medium of friends and being happy with your life and taking care of yourself. If I don't get enough sleep I'm wrecked, so I always try to get enough sleep. I also love fashion; I love to look good and chic, and that helps.
EDGE: Your singing voice has also stood the test of time. Do you still like the same types of songs, or have your tastes changed?
SB: I love a lot of music, but I also write a lot of music. I was so influenced early on by singer-songwriters like Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. I love R&B and soul from the old days, Motown, rock and roll from the early days, and edgy music. My tastes cover a wide swath of things that lyrically and musically influence and inspire me.
EDGE: I caught your Sandra Bernhard is #blessed show at Joe's Pub in December and was struck by the interesting song choices you made there.
SB: I cover songs that I can bring something, some specific emotion to. If I can't bring my own take to it, I won't do it. If it's a song that been done definitively, done to death and I can't add anything to it, I stay away from it.
EDGE: I also laughed out loud at your anecdotes during that show, particularly the one where Jane Fonda mistakenly emailed you to plan your birthday party and later informed you that she really meant to contact Sandra Bullock. As someone who goes back and forth between NYC and LA, dish some dirt on the differences.
SB: I think people in New York live a much faster lifestyle. They are always moving, walking the street, riding the subway, getting in and out of taxis. It makes you a different person. Mentally, you are not as challenged in LA as you are in New York. News is everywhere in New York -- on billboards and ticker tapes. Just walking down the street you see it and read it; it's more of a news-centric system there. You know more about what's going on in the world. I think LA is just more spread out; people are not as central. The vibe in LA is a different experience; it's not as much of a community as you have in New York.
EDGE: I remember running into you often in the West Village. I believe you lived near that old lesbian bar, Cubbyhole. You still live in NYC. What do you think about the changing dynamics of the city?
SB: New York has become very overbuilt. It can be a little claustrophobic in some ways. But I like my area, the skyline and the people. I really like living below 23rd Street, in Chelsea.
EDGE: You are now guest-starring on episodes of Fox TV's Brooklyn Nine-Nine as the character Gina's "eccentric" and "offbeat" mother, Darlene Linetti. How is it to work with this comedic team?
SB: Yes, I've been working on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" as Chelsea Peretti's character's mom, and it's all very young and cool. It's like "Two Broke Girls" -- the younger generation is really much cooler. They're not looking at themselves so precious; there's not as much of that Hollywood bullshit. They are so easy to work with and really nice girls. It's kind of refreshing.
EDGE: You've also done cameos on "Hot in Cleveland," Logo's "DTLA," CBS's "The New Adventures of Old Christine," FOX TV's "American Dad," NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and have appeared more than 30 times on "Late Night with David Letterman." Are you helping to carve out a place for mature women on primetime TV?
SB: I think that time is here. But I also think that [casting agents] are always going to come back to people who can deliver the comedy and the cutting edge, like I do. Sometimes I need a break from it, but then people reach out to you and it starts right back over again.
EDGE: What's next on the roster for Sandra Bernhard?
SB: More of the same! I am in the thick of it now with "Two Broke Girls." The pilot season is coming up, so I'm sure I'll land another series. It's just good to be back live performing, doing all this TV and more. In my life, things start to pick up speed, and they just keep going!
For more information, visit www.sandrabernhard.com.
From our media partner EDGE