Sandra Bernhard by Gary Indiana

BOMB 24 Summer 1988

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Bernhard 01 Body

Sandra Bernhard. Photo by Kevin Smith, 1988. Stylist: Robert Grucela

Gary Indiana The material in Without You I’m Nothing, the show you’ve just opened at the Orpheum Theater, grew out of a writing collaboration with John Boskovitch … that you developed over two years, sort of experimentally, on the road …

Sandra Bernhard Every city you could name. Name a city, we played it. Things like “Summerfest,” where you hear Belinda Carlisle singing in one area and on the other side I could hear Herbie Mann … insane situations like that. I’m on the stage raving and the other stage is like coming down on me. Anyway, we’re staying at the hotel there and we had this maid, a Jewish girl. At first we thought she was real nice, she’d do things like sneak a Vidal Sassoon package into my bag. She kept telling us Holocaust stories about Minsk, where my family’s from … and how the collaborators sold her out. She knew these extremely first hand details … so finally we thought, Wait a minute, how did she survive? She must’ve been one of the collaborators … . We had given her like $10, $15 … feeling sorry for her. Then I said, I have a feeling she’s working us. She didn’t look Jewish at all. She was posing as a Jew and working Jews, sort of like, I can still make some money off you even if I can’t kill you.

GI Talk about this tour, going to all those places. For instance you have a number in the show about Irene, your ex-manager.

SB I’m even predating John [Boskovitch] and my association with him when I’m talking about Irene. Irene came along after King of Comedy, when things should have gotten more grand and elaborate. Instead, I found I took 20 steps backwards. It was like, you know, crawling around on the belly of America, seeing all this undergrowth.

GI What exactly happened?

SB I got involved with this insane woman, this woman Irene who … had no concept of the bigger scope of things. She’d been “on the road with Lily,” Lily Tomlin, and her concept was that that’s the only way you build a career, by starting at the bottom. Irene would do really stupid things. First of all, we’d have to drive everywhere. We drove from city to city. We didn’t even fly. She had rented a station wagon in New York and we’d driven up part of the East Coast, and we were in Rochester and Brian and I kept saying, “Irene, you’ve got to return the station wagon. There’s something wrong with it.” It wouldn’t start. We’re driving from Rochester to Chicago in one day. We get about 20 miles outside of Rochester and the station wagon breaks down. We pull off the side of the highway and I start screaming at the top of my lungs, “I told you to take care of this.” Irene lit up a cigarette and started smoking. And then she gets out and starts hitch hiking. Can you believe this? Some guy in a Cadillac picks her up, and I said to Brian, “We’re never going to see her again. That’s it. She’s going to be hacked up on the side of the road. They won’t be sure if it’s a wild boar or a human being.” So, fade in fade out, to quote Lily Tomlin, about an hour and a half goes by. We’re sitting outside the car. I’m like, tapping, I’m really sweaty and freaking out and Irene finally comes back with a tow truck. We schlepp the station wagon to the outskirts and somehow manage to get another car. And then the nightmare begins. Because we have to make it into Chicago that night for some insane reason, and we’re driving through Ohio, and we’re driving and we’re driving. Through Gary, Indiana. And it stinks and we’re driving and driving. Brian, my piano player, has a cold and he’s asleep in the back seat. I’m sitting in the front, switching stations. My eyes are like glassy. I don’t dare fall asleep with Irene in the car. She is one of the all time worst drivers on earth. And we’re pulling into this Texaco … it’s like Sunoco, not only is it a gas station, but they have a cafeteria … but the only problem, the food was cooked that morning and every tray has shrunken pieces of liver in a sauce that has rainbows in it. I’m starving. There is nothing to eat and we’re driving and driving. Finally I get behind the wheel. We’re in Illinois at this point and it’s torrential rain. Those two lane turnpikes, and I’m going 80 miles an hour past semis in the blinding rain, and as we pass the semis … I’m glazed, it’s like I’m in hell. You know how you just keep driving, your eyes are like this, your eyeballs are sweating, and I’m driving and I cut in front of a truck and I keep driving and I pass another one, going 80 in and out of the fucking trucks. We finally get into the outskirts of Chicago and we still have another hour to go. And I’m hysterical. I feel like, “Why? What did I do to deserve this? Was I bad in another life? Am I being punished?” So we finally get into Chicago to the Holiday Inn, with the worst winds they’ve had in years. Throwing up Lake Michigan. Outside I’m holding onto Irene … and that kind of shit. From one city to the next with her. In this insane … she would get to the theaters and all the technicians would be there, she’d immediately start screaming at them, that something was wrong. She always had a veneer of grease over her face. She had one of those kinds of noses that always has blackheads just ready—if a good dermatologist came along and went like this, with a fingernail, all the blackheads would come right out. They were always right there. And she used to have one mole that a hair grew out of. I would take tweezers and pluck the hair out of the mole, that was her favorite moment between the two of us. It was like a really emotional thing for her to have me pluck the hair out of her mole.

GI How did you happen to team up with this person?

SB She worked with Lily years ago and … I figured she had to be okay, you know. She was down and out, it was another one in my series of people I got involved with that I thought I could save and make them okay. And bring them with me to the top. All my relationships with women had this weird aspect … because of my mother. When I was growing up my mother had really bad emotional problems. I remember being five years old and saying to my mom, “Don’t worry, mommy, I’ll take care of everything.” I figured I could really save this woman. She obviously had something special that she’d given to other people.

GI And you wanted some.

SB I just figured I would get that kind of one-on-one attention I needed. Little did I know she was going around alienating people right and left, driving people insane and leaving a trail of angry, murderous people in her path.

GI So when was the transition from being on the road with Irene, to working with John Boskovitch?

SB Now, the road with John and I and Mitch [Kaplan] was a different thing because we didn’t have any authority figures with us. Except for me.

GI But the transition … before, you were doing a different act, right?

SB Stand-up oriented. The music was really separate. The only piece of music that carried over was the “Kansas City” part. I thought it was sort of a signature piece.

GI When did Irene leave the picture?

SB The last fiasco was Irene coming with me to England when I cut my album. I’m Your Woman was going to be a pop album, and she was like … impossible, she’d make some comments about Chrissie Hynde, or come in and say, “I just listened to the new Smiths album, it’s really interesting.” Rick, who works with the songs and me, we both went, “Right, you can see Irene listens to the Smiths.” I would tell her to shut up and it started getting really ugly … and it became more and more obvious that she was a complete moron and was manipulating me. And that she knew nothing about anything, including being a manager.

The first time I met John Boskovitch I was playing the Comedy Store, when we met he cracked some joke about Nicaragua and then I went up on stage and did it. And that was our first kind of weird collaboration. His first reaction when he saw Irene was, “I would love to make crank phone calls for you.” Which Sally, my girlfriend, had already done … Sally called Irene up and said, “You know, I just met you at a party and I can’t stop thinking about you, I’d really like to get together again.” That was a funny thing Sally did, I really like Sally … Anyway, the collaboration … we started working with this guy Mitch Kaplan, going to his house, he worked for free, and we were all just doing it, and then I was taking bookings at rock clubs all over the country. The only way I could bring John along was for him to be road manager, and he’d never done anything like that before. He was really creative, and on the other hand really ugly, because John hated being on the road. He was miserable.

GI You took Without You I’m Nothing out for two years?

SB Intermittently. We were out on the road for two weeks, and we’d come home, and go out for two weeks, off and on. Thrusting into every bizarre, ugly situation imaginable.

GI You said a lot of material evolved from going out to places like the Midwest, where you didn’t expect people to get it, and found they felt really excluded from the culture…and responded very positively.

SB They related to stuff even more than urban audiences. It was like, Oh, there’s somebody we can look up to who understands what we’re going through, this weird alienation. Finally a year ago I said, I really want to do this show in New York. I mean, this is crazy. We’ve got to establish this somewhere where we’ll have credibility in the future. The only way to do it is to be a success in New York, on some level.

GI The audiences have been good in New York, haven’t they?

SB Yeah, very good.

GI The reviews have been kind of stupid, mostly.

SB Like it goes over their heads, and they’re afraid to think it through a little bit. To figure out why it goes over their heads, or pose questions like…I mean, if I went to see something and I really didn’t understand it, but I saw everybody else loving it, and that person had a reputation, I would…do some investigating.

GI For me, the show takes apart American pop culture the way it is right now. Works with the things that work, and shows the emptiness behind a lot of it. It sort of works on a lot of things that generate out from the New York media into the heartland.

SB A lot of things originate here and radiate out. It’s more that than the other way around. New York is such a rarefied atmosphere, you know.

GI What’s different about working with John Boskovitch than developing a show on your own?

SB For me, John brought up a lot of intellectual awareness that I don’t have naturally. I don’t think I’m really a very intellectual person. Much to my chagrin. I think I’m actually kind of stupid in many ways. I’m not very well read. I’m only articulate when I’m in control and on stage. When I’m like one-on-one, I’m very inarticulate. It’s true.

GI Oh, please. You’re brilliant.

SB No. For me, everything that I’ve done has always been emotional, from my emotions more than my intellect. I mean my driving force has been to be accepted by the beautiful people; to be embraced by them and adored and loved by them. And that can also include a bigger audience than just the beautiful people. The driving force behind my whole life has been, When will I be as beautiful as she is. When will I be as glamorous and pretty as she is…whoever she is at a given moment.

GI You’re developing this Madonna thing…

SB I’m a Marxist pursuing Madonna. I want her to figure that out. I want Madonna to know that. Believe me, I talk a lot about Madonna, but I’ve never been fixated on her. I’ve been fixated on many other people, it’s just been a kind of running theme. Not like this. I just want to go so far with Madonna. I want to be able to have one intimate evening with Madonna, and then of course it will all fade into obscurity, like they all do.

GI It could be great material, like the Stevie Nicks number in your show.

SB Exactly. It’s grist for my mill. But anyway, there’s always been, since I’ve gotten into this business, it’s like—I can be a bitch and I can be fabulous, and I know I can pull off the looks and the look. But I can’t do that for real with people. And be up in somebody’s face and looking over their shoulder really talking to somebody else. I guess I could pose, if I really put my mind to it. But when I got dressed on my opening night, that’s the best I ever looked, and that was my outfit I look great in, and I look pretty and there are people around me…I mean, Richard Gere and Jody Foster came in, but it was like, I had nothing to say to them. It’s not like I was trying to trump up a conversation with Richard Gere…for what? And yet I liked that they were there and I like that they looked at me and said nice things. But ultimately I’d rather sit with you or John or people who know me and are familiar…as we commiserate about how we’re never going to get those beautiful people. And if we do, they’ll fuck us over. It’s left over from high school for me. I have horrible, horrible memories.

GI I always try to imagine people, when I meet them, the way they were in high school, the way they’ll be when they’re old, and how they’d look sitting on the toilet. When I’ve got those three pictures in my mind, I’m no longer intimidated by anybody.

SB If you didn’t learn how to work in high school—I mean, everything I see, all the behavior, is very adolescent, throughout people’s lives. It’s stilted, it’s like frozen in time at 17. How you were at 17 is how you are the rest of your life, with maybe layers of sophistication or pretense.

GI I don’t believe this food.

SB Would I drag you to a shitty restaurant? It really turned out good, didn’t it.

GI What I want to ask you about is what you were doing before King of Comedy.

SB I was absolutely floundering. I’d finished working as a manicurist about two years before that, because I was trying to make enough money to get by as a performer, and I had just finished working on a Cheech and Chong movie, Nice Dreams, I played this crazy person. Pee Wee Herman was in it. A lot of people did that film. I was living in West Hollywood in this really depressing environment, spending a lot of time doing banking and running errands. And everybody I knew was going out for King of Comedy except me. I was performing at night in the Comedy Store and doing comedy gigs, picking up $500, $1000, whatever. I always managed to get by, I don’t know how, I don’t remember any more. Because I worked for five and a half years during the day. But these things always came along and I always made ends meet. Then all of a sudden I got offered King of Comedy and it got really serious; it was my time to go on from that level. The fantasy in my mind was always success, I just knew it would be that way. There was absolutely no question in my mind that I would become successful. But on my own terms. I didn’t even know what some of the terms were, but my terms were getting defined by the movie. I got the film. The story about getting the film I’ve told a million times; a lot of auditioning and improvising. I was never in awe of Scorcese and DeNiro, I wasn’t a big fan of theirs. I don’t think I’d even seen their films, with the exception of Taxi Driver. So when I met them I wasn’t blown away. I think they sensed that, and they liked it. They didn’t want to work with somebody who was going to be idolizing them.

GI He’s smart, Robert DeNiro

SB He’s very nice.

GI He came to my book party last year. I thought he was really sweet and unpretentious, very intelligent.

SB He’s very private, you don’t read too much about him.

GI He was with his daughter. She’s so beautiful.

SB It’s his stepdaughter. She is beautiful. Sweet girl…King of Comedy thrust me into a rarefied atmosphere that I loved, because I’m a snob and I love being with people who are really talented. So ever since then, it’s been hard for me to lower myself and go back to work with most of the people I’m vying with. Which explains more about why I haven’t done anything else in films than anything else.

GI What kind of things have you turned down?

SB The role of the secretary in Ghostbusters. I was supposed to do a movie called Dare. I was bitter and hating the experience so much, I got fired. I was replaced by Loretta Switt. So horrible. I was supposed to play some small role in Perfect, with John Travolta, but I didn’t end up doing that. Shit like that, you know. I just got a script this week, a Shelly Long movie that she’s starring in, the role was like any moron could play it. I’m not going to do this. I don’t want to be in the same room with Shelly Long, let alone the same screen. I can’t bear that witch. I’ll never forget, I was doing an interview with CNN and this was when Cheers was starting to become successful. She wasn’t really anything yet. King of Comedy came out, and there was like three or four actresses on the show. She did her interview and I was doing mine, and she kept interjecting her commentary, and her bullshit into the middle of my interview…I said, you know, I think you finished your interview already, didn’t you? She was wearing a tam o’shanter and a plaid skirt. She kept giving me these dirty looks.

So that’s what I was doing before King of Comedy, and that’s what I’ve done afterwards. I don’t know if I want to be embraced by Hollywood really. The thought kind of sickens me. I don’t think we have much in common, me and Hollywood. I think they could take advantage of what I do and make money off it, that’s fine. But for me to be forced into an existing situation probably won’t work. I’m a creator. Or, somebody I trust creates for me. They all think I’m an elitist snob. I’m out there, you know. They think I have an attitude, which I do, but I think my talent and what I do on stage backs it up. It’s like being in left field. I’m not bitter about it just to be bitter about it.

GI But you don’t feel like there was anything that you wanted to do that you didn’t do?

SB Not really. There’s not much that I’m fractured about that I didn’t get to do. I’ve been cut out of many wonderful films. Especially one thing I got in Casual Sex, a piece of dogshit I’m completely cut out of. I lucked out…

GI What interested you in the Nick Roeg film?

SB That was one of the amazing experiences you get to go through. Nick Roeg has always been one of my favorite filmmakers and I love when he collaborates with Theresa Russell, I think she’s great. It was one of those films I heard about…those are the kinds of things that if I don’t get it, I get upset, because if you don’t get to work with those people…Roeg is like 60-years-old. He’s amazing, knock on wood, he’s really together, but he’s 60-years-old. Which isn’t that old, but he drinks a lot and so forth, you never know.

GI His whole career has happened within my own memory, starting with Performance in 1968…

SB He was a cameraman and an editor. Not only is he wonderful as a director, he’s just a wonderful human being, wonderful as a person. Which is some unusual combination. Did you read that article I wrote in American Film?

GI Yes.

SB That sums it up. I can’t articulate any better than what I wrote in there. It was a very romantic experience. I really felt like I was part of the whole thing. I remember that. You want to extend yourself to those people far and beyond anything you normally do with people in Hollywood. To me, it wasn’t like a show business experience…It was like what I do on my own, I get to do with them. And they all understood it. Everybody was totally in synch. I judge things like that, what it does for me in my fantasy life. And if it’s something that gives me nothing to fantasize about, then it wasn’t a good experience. Being here in New York right now and doing a show is a sexy experience. It’s exciting to see your name on a theater, and go to the theater and be in this funky dressing room, puff up your lips and have people come by and have flowers and telegrams and letters. It’s petty, but it’s sensual. It’s like getting fucked every night.

GI Well, you must be the only person in New York who is getting fucked every night.

SB It feels good. And so did that experience. And I met great people that I’m staying friends with. It was very nurturing too, I mean, even Theresa Russell, who you can see probably feels threatened very easily, really dug me and felt safe…like I wasn’t out to fuck her husband, or fuck her over…

GI Or fuck her…

SB If I’d put a little more effort into it I probably could have…I wasn’t quite as daring as I usually am.

GI She was great as Marilyn Monroe in Insignificance.

SB Really good. You’re going to fill this in, right? I mean it isn’t like Q&A.

GI It was supposed to be, in a way.

SB Then you make up the questions and answer them. You know how to answer for me. I’m so sick of dissecting myself. I feel I’ve had a variety of bad interviews, I’m beginning to feel mind fucked. Everybody leads you the way they want, from what they’ve interpreted of you, they want what they think you are. And then you have to explain almost from their point of view who you are. I always end up in an argument with them and they’re not going to write the right thing anyway. You know what I mean?

GI Talk about that some more, it’s really interesting.

SB For instance today I had two different interviews. A woman interviewed me for a Hamptons magazine. She’s very sweet but kind of dumb and she loved the show, but she really didn’t get it on any deep level, and I was spacing out really bad, I was tired but forcing myself to stay focused. She was asking questions based on other people’s articles and I was getting annoyed. And then this kid came along who writes for Splash. And he posed this thing, like, “I’ve read some articles where you say you’re really not that bitchy a person, you’re actually pretty nice and you care about people.” You have to understand, when I’m dealing with people and they’re asking you pointed questions, you’re not going to start saying, “Look, I’m really political, I have really deep political values, and Marxist theory, and…” That stuff isn’t what it’s about. I’m not going to make up some shit to tell them.

Everybody who interviews me wants to discuss me through their eyes, their interpretation of what I do. A woman from the Post interviewed me, she really related to me, we’re the same age, and all my references, like “Love’s Fresh Lemon,” and growing up thinking maybe I was going to be something that maybe I haven’t become, really struck her and she wanted to address those issues. Out of all the interviews, that was the most believable. She got it the most. And this kid today was like…Actually, he told me he’d also interviewed you a while ago. He wanted me to be this tough bitch. He wanted to believe that’s the way I always am, and I was trying to say, Look, I can be a bitch, I can be tough in my real life, and I am sometimes, but I can’t live in that place all the time; I’d be a shell of a human being. If all I was was a smart ass and quick on my feet and bitchy and cold and tough, where does the romance come in? Where am I allowed to show any emotions? He bothered me a little bit. I get tired of explaining myself when I really don’t feel I am explaining myself. And then when the reviews came out, it was like everybody was jumping on things that almost made me shudder. I’m the type of person—I get affected by people, and I don’t want to think of myself as just a bitch or just a Joan Rivers kind of vicious type. That really and truly isn’t where I’m coming from. So when people started interpreting my work in this small-minded way, like Laurie Stone, I was like—almost saying to myself, I don’t want to do this any more. I hate it. I hate myself. I hate what I’m saying. And then I build myself back up again emotionally.

GI It’s hard for me to do an interview with you because I hate setting up that relationship with people I like, and I know exactly what you’re saying…When that kid interviewed me, he came to my house. He’s very tall, he’s kind of a strange forward presence, and I’m small, like all my life I’ve been terrified of large people. And he asked me things that, after this whole interview was over, I realized he’d led me by the nose into one unpleasant area after another, getting me to say things I didn’t want to say, sort of goading me to find things that would make me sound the most shrill and bitchy and ridiculous, opinionated in completely the wrong direction, and insisting that that’s the way I am because everything he asked was framed with that in his head. He gave absolutely nothing back, as an interviewer, but just sort of sat there expecting to be entertained. What was funny, though, he asked me about all these artists, I mentioned about 10 really well-known people, and when the interview came out he’d spelled all their names wrong. Every single one.

SB I wanted to say, you know, lay off, I’m not that cruel. He said “I think of you as being so cruel,” and I said, “Well, you know, I’m kind of a geek, I’m kind of goofy on many levels. If you saw me at night in my night shirt, with my clip in my hair as I wash my face, you would not want to sleep with me, okay? I’m not like a siren, I’m not a vamp.” Yeah, I have a cruel persona, I have to. It’s like walking down the street in New York, you have to look like you’re mean so people leave you alone. I just put on a veneer when I walk outside, because I want to look cruel, because I want to be left the fuck alone. Whether I was well known or not, I always did that. Maybe more when I was lesser known. Sometimes when they know who you are, they leave you alone.

GI Did you come here when you left home?

SB No. I went to LA. It would’ve been too jarring to move from Arizona to New York. I couldn’t deal with the weather, that’s the bottom line. I needed to be near home, somehow. I think I stood out more in LA than I would have here, anyway. I might have fallen into that whole high-heeled woman campy scene, been devoured, and had really bad skin and wrinkles and looked like shit because I didn’t have enough money to take care of myself. At least in California you can kind of fake it a little bit. It always looks like you’re doing okay, if you take care of yourself physically.

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Originally published in

BOMB 24, Summer 1988
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