She may have no genetic relationship to the boundary-busting 19th-century French Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt, but the singer, actor and comedian Sandra Bernhard is every inch as brazen and sexually uninhibited as her putative namesake.
“No one under 50 knows who Sarah Bernhardt was,” Bernhard told The Jewish Week in a recent interview, as she prepared to debut her annual holiday show at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village ($60-$200, joespub.com). “But Bernhardt,” who is considered one of the greatest actresses of all time, “broke the mold as a Jewish woman.” In “Sandra Bernhard is #blessed,” which will run through New Year’s Eve, the multi-talented artist will offer her own pioneering blend of rock music, cabaret, blistering satire and burlesque. Last year, Next Magazine raved of her holiday show that her “lacerating observations and spot-on social commentary remain as sharp and insightful as ever.”
Bernhard was born in Flint, Mich.; her father was a proctologist and her mother was an abstract painter. When she grabbed the microphone as a teenager and sang at her cousin’s bat mitzvah in Detroit, she first realized how much she loved to perform for an audience. After living on an Israeli kibbutz for a year and then moving to Los Angeles, she got her big break in the 1970s on “The Richard Pryor Show.” She went on to become a frequent presence on both film and TV, including appearing more than 30 times on “Late Night With David Letterman” and doing a well-publicized stint on “Roseanne” in the late 1980s as Nancy Bartlett, one of the first openly lesbian characters in an American sitcom.
On stage, she performed in “Without You, I’m Nothing,” an off-Broadway play that was later turned into a film. She also won notoriety for posing nude for “Playboy” in 1992. In a 2011 interview with Roseanne Barr for Interview Magazine, Bernhard noted that the “most important, overriding arc of my career has been that I would never be self-deprecating,” like so many other Jewish female comics. Instead, she insisted that “I’m not gonna change. I’m not gonna get a nose job. I’m not gonna pretend that I’m the girl next door.” Her non-holiday stage show, “I Love Being Me, Don’t You?” has run all over the country since it premiered in 2010 in San Francisco.
While Bernhard told The Jewish Week that she “doesn’t do Jewish humor” these days, she called herself a “product of my Old Country grandparents,” who gave her a profound appreciation for her heritage, helping to mold her into the “liberal, smart, left-leaning” person who she is. Nevertheless, she said that “being a Jew in the modern times is about taking responsibility for the whole global picture and not just a little slice of it.”