Love her or hate her, this comic diva is a one-of-a-kind, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners artiste. Racy, confrontational, offensive, cynical, off-putting and angst-ridden to a T, this flinty stand-up from Flint, Michigan was born on June 6, 1955, the daughter of Jerome Bernhard, a proctologist, and his wife Jeanette, an abstract painter, sculptor and photographer who later divorced after 38 years. Moving to Scottsdale, Arizona in her early years, her initial comedy stage work in the 1970s was formulated around her “fish out of water” existence growing up as a “Jewess” amongst a sea of “blonde WASPs”. A conventional beauty she was not. Her angular build was hardly complemented by angry, pronounced features, notably a trademark slash of a mouth. She managed to survive high school and went to live on a kibbutz in Israel for a period of time. Moving to Los Angeles at age 19, she paid her rent by working as a beauty salon manicurist to the stars as she tried to make a semi-name for herself in such L.A. haunts as “The Comedy Store.” It all began quite modestly at an open-mike night at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills in 1975.
As Bernhard grew in stature, the girl with major attitude was soon getting noticed for TV. She, along with other up-and-coming comics such as Robin Williams and Marsha Warfield, was cast as a regular player on The Richard Pryor Show (1977), a musical variety show. Her cutting-edge humor seemed like a natural fit in an atmosphere provided by a daredevil like Pryor, but the censorship staff and a turned-off audience had the show taken off the air after only five shows. A gifted talker and raconteur, she started making news on the night time talk show circuit for her pungent comments and observances.
She demonstrated real chutzpah on camera after Martin Scorsese cast her as Masha, who loose cannon who stalks and covets a talk show host, in his film The King of Comedy (1982) starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. Nothing, however, came out of this dark success and she instead focused on the possibility of doing a one-woman comedy show.
Her first solo piece was entitled “I’m Your Woman” in 1985 and was met with a so-so reception and followed by an unsuccessful album release. Undaunted, Bernhard continued to work on film and TV while crafting a more volatile, performance art-oriented show for shock effect. This came in the form of the off-Broadway 1988 piece “Without You I’m Nothing” which played at the Orpheum Theatre. It was a cult hit and immortalized into both a film, also called Without You I’m Nothing (1990), and a double-album. As a monologist, Sandra trademark blending of pop culture topics along with blatant social commentary is usually given a boost by a bluesy-styled song.
Bernhard could also make eye-catching news on TV. In 1991 she was cast as Nancy Bartlett on the hit sitcom Roseanne (1988) as one of the first actresses to portray an openly lesbian character on American series TV. Although the character grew more diluted with time, it was nevertheless a groundbreaking character and she appeared on several seasons of the popular show. She did tough-talking turns on such popular shows as “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal,” “Will & Grace” and “The L Word”. Elsewhere, in September of 1992, Sandra opted to do a nude pictorial for Playboy Magazine. She then went on to host the USA network’s Reel Wild Cinema (1995) for two seasons. Her brief nudges into mainstream films, which included such bombs Hudson Hawk (1991) and Dallas Doll (1994), did nothing to advance her movie career. Her one-woman shows, however, continue to jell with her liberal following and she enjoyed another New York success with her solo piece “I’m Still Here… Damn It!”, which was also filmed. She also performed off-Broadway in “Sandra Bernhard: Everything Bad and Beautiful.”
At age 50+, Sandra continues to push the envelope on such shows as “The View.” Fair game includes everyone from Mariah Carey to Laura Bush to Mother Teresa as the object of her venom. In fact, she pretty much pioneered the celebrity put-down format that has made infamous celebrities out of such comics as Kathy Griffin. It’s Sandra’s unique brand of crass talk and self-effacing vulnerability that will keep the “Empress of Acerbity” a strong commodity in the nitery circuit.
Unmarried with a young daughter, Sandra is openly bisexual and currently living with a longtime companion, writer and PR executive Sara Switzer. Sara was attached to Sandra’s talk show The Sandra Bernhard Experience (2001) as a writer and co-host.
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