June 6, 1955– Sandra Bernhard:
“My father was a proctologist and my mother was an abstract artist, so that’s how I view the world.”
I am just crazy for her, although if I have had a little too much medical marijuana, I sometimes get her mixed up with 19th century French actor Sarah Bernhardt.
We live in such troubled times, when a provocative, outrageous female comic who has long been the best friend of LGBTQ people for decades is suddenly persona non grata for a satire, referencing classical art, that takes on the man who wants to ruin everything good about the USA, I just want to give-up. We live in the age of outrage. It is exhausting me.
On Ladies’ Choice, the November 10, 1992 episode in Season Five of Roseanne (1988-1997), Roseanne’s friend Nancy, played by Bernhard, comes out of the closet. This was a television milestone with Nancy becoming the first regular lesbian character in a sitcom. 15 years earlier, Billy Crystal was a television pioneer with role as a gay guy, Jodie Dallas, on the ABC sitcom Soap (1977-1981). But, there wasn’t much other gay stuff going on in television.
Bernhard went from showbiz’s best kept secret to a household name during the half-decade that she and Madonna were best friends. She even made an appearance in Madonna’s documentary Truth Or Dare (1991). Those crazy girls were always teasing the press and the fans about a romantic relationship. So, Bernhard’s role on Roseanne wasn’t that hard for gay fans to understand. But, the rest of America probably wasn’t quite ready.
Roseanne was a perfect reflection of its star, and it was a true breakout show when it came to gay characters. At the luncheonette where Roseanne’s character worked, she had a gay boss, Leon, played by Martin Mull who had a boyfriend Scott (Fred Willard). In a famous episode, they had a wedding ceremony. However, the biggest deal was when Bernhard’s character Nancy had a girlfriend, played by Mariel Hemingway, who kissed Roseanne at a gay bar in the episode in Season Six, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. ABC, fearing viewer and sponsor backlash, initially planned not to air the episode. The network executives said: “A woman cannot kiss a woman. It is bad for the kids to see.” ABC said that they stood to lose up to $1 million in advertising revenue. In response, Barr threatened to move her series, then one of the most popular on television, to another network. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) urged ABC to air the kiss uncensored, while the conservative Christian groups declared the episode was an insult to American families. ABC ended up not only airing the episode uncensored, they specifically promoted it as “The Lesbian Kiss Episode”.
Gay actor Sara Gilbert as Darlene Conner: (Roseanne tells Darlene that Nancy is gay) “Whoa! How did you find out? Did she tell you?”
Roseanne: “No. We saw the, “I’m a Big Ol’ Dyke” bumbersticker on her car.”
Pretty progressive for the blue-collar heartland! At the end of Ladies’ Choice not only has Nancy come out, but Roseanne’s mother, Bev, deliciously played by the great Estelle Parsons comes out of the closet too:
Bev (after she learns Nancy is a gay): “Of course she’s a lesbian! I’m a lesbian! You’re a lesbian! We’re all lesbians!”
Bernhard said this week that she was available and willing to rejoin the original cast as Nancy in this fall’s reboot of Roseanne. Write ABC a letter. Let’s make that happen!
I have never seen Sarah Bernhardt live; I’m not that old, but I have seen Bernhard perform live six times (that I remember, who knows about those crazy 1980s), including a non-concert Q & A session at the University Of Washington in the mid-1990s. She never disappoints.
Bernhard gives us hysterical insights and outspoken, hilarious diatribes on the state of modern culture with a smart Rock N’ Roll attitude, fresh, crazy and real. She inspires and invigorates me. She is a model, actor, comedian, singer, Playboy centerfold, and writer; and honey, she is looking so fine at 62-years-old.
Bernhard has staying power. 35 years after she broke out with her Off-Broadway show, Without You I’m Nothing, Bernhard’s special thing stays with me. Mouthy, and sometimes obnoxious, I have loved her from the beginning of her career when I spotted her as a supporting player on The Richard Pryor Show in 1977. I was always excited to see her guest appearances on evening talk shows. I was over the moon for her performance as stalker and kidnapper Masha in the Martin Scorsese flick The King Of Comedy (1983) for which she won the National Society Of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress. Bernhard also won the prestigious Worst Supporting Female Award for Hudson Hawk (1991) from the Golden Raspberry Awards. That’s quite the awards shelf; she also won a GLAAD Media Award in 2002, and this week she picks-up a Gracie Award, named after comic great Gracie Allen, from the Alliance For Women In Media for her radio show, Sandyland, on Sirius XM’s Radio Andy. My friend, World Of Wonder writer Trey Speegle was her special guest on her show last year.
I own all her books, including a signed copy of her fragile, raw, daring, brilliant May I Kiss You On The Lips Miss Sandra? (1999). She has also written articles for Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone, Elle, and Spin.
In 2012, I caught Bernhard’s show Sandrology, a mix of vocals, cabaret, burlesque, political and social commentary, plus some stream of consciousness. It had a big old-school show charm with an amazing rock band and great songs.
Fierce, tender, confrontational, yet vulnerable, Bernhard is funny, philosophical and always controversial. Isn’t that what we want from our funny women?
“l’ll take on somebody if they’re offending the entire culture, not just offending me.”
She absolutely should get that gig in Time Square with Anderson Cooper on New Year’s Eve. My sources tell me there is an opening. I also feel she would be a smart choice to replace her friend Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! in 2018. Can you dig it?
Bernhard and gay actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein share a birthday today. I want them both to come for cocktails in the fort in my back garden this summer. That would be a whole bunch of Big Jewish Gay fun at brunch.
Bernhard lives in LA and NYC with her longtime partner Sara Switzer and their teenage daughter Cicely Yasin Bernhard who is now home for the summer from college.
“I think bravery is when you’re willing to really put yourself on the line and maybe lose out, financially and be able to say exactly what motivates you and what inspires you and what you find completely unacceptable in humanity and in culture.”