Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Jake Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Stanton Daily. Posted by Jake Frost
June 6, 1955
1970s - 1990s
Currently Known For:
Actress, Comedian, Singer and Author
The King of Comedy and Nancy Barlett Thomas on Roseanne
“I don’t believe in karma.” One of the harshest critics of celebrity culture and politics, Sandra Bernhard learned the value of standing out in a crowd at any cost early in her career after making her debut as a stand-up comedian in the mid-1970s. Ranked as one of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comedians of All Time, Bernhard has proven that she’s more than a laugh factory as she moved over to television and film in the 1990s with her best known role coming from 1991 to 1997 when she played Nancy Barlett Thomas in Roseanne. Today, after 40 years in the industry, the 62-year-old Bernhard is still going strong as a comedian, actress and radio host whose known for her outspokenness and advocacy of gay rights. So, how did the Michigan native end up in Hollywood in the first place?
Setting the comedic stage from the time she was born, Sandra Bernhard came into this world on June 6, 1955 in Flint, Michigan where her father was a proctologist and her mother was a photographer, sculptor and painter. Growing up in a conservative Jewish family with her three brothers, Bernhard knew her destiny at five years old as she recalls a conversation between her and her stepmother, Marlene. “Marlene was boiling water and she goes, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘A comedian.’ And she laughed and laughed because she thought that was the cutest, funniest thing,” Bernhard recalls. “When I was really little, I remember forcing my parents to watch me sing ‘(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey’ in their bedroom. They were staring at me like I was nuts. I had choreographed it and worked it all out. How many six or seven-year-old kids do that?”
Seeing a production of Hello, Dolly! in Detroit when she was eight years old sealed Bernhard’s decision to become a performer. Two years later, her family relocated to Arizona where she attended Saguaro High School and practiced her stand-up routine in front of her friends before taking the stage in the early 1970s at a time when her routine was based on her Jewish family and unattractive looks. After graduating high school in 1973, Bernhard briefly lived in Israel before returning to the West Coast and settling down in Los Angeles at 19 years old. Momentarily considering other options for her career, Bernhard said, “I really thought I wanted to be a musical-comedy star but I didn’t want to go all the way to New York and be that far away from home. So, I thought maybe I’d be a rock ‘n’ roll singer or an opera singer. I went through a lot of different phases, but then I went to the Ye Little Club [in Beverly Hills] and met comedians Paul Mooney and Lotus Weinstock. I got up and did my first five minutes on a Monday night, and I wore a safari hat and safari shorts and a safari jacket and lace-up espadrilles and I told my first joke: ‘I’m a medium… I understand you’re a small, you’re an extra-large…”
While joke telling wasn’t exactly her niche, Bernhard perfected her act with a series of bawdy and crazy characters who shared Bernhard’s tough attitude. With Mooney and Weinstock taking her under their wing and showing her the ropes, it wasn’t long before Bernhard’s routine picked up traction and she caught the eye of television producers and casting agents. In 1977, she made her television debut on The Richard Pryor Show, which was known for featuring comedians like Pryor himself, Marsha Warfield and Robin Williams. Bernhard was a perfect fit on the series and joined the regular cast until audiences thought the show’s risqué humor went too far and left the network with no other choice but to cancel the variety show.
Turning to late-night talk shows like Late Night with David Letterman to share her post-feminist humor, Bernhard caught the attention of movie producers and, by the early 1980s, had snagged roles in Shogun Assassin and Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams. In 1983, she landed the role of Masha in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy starring Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro. Her performance garnered her exceptional praise as she took home a National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Audiences. Finally a household name, she recorded her first live stand-up show titled I’m Your Woman, which was released on vinyl and has since become a collectible despite the one-woman show having only minor success at the time.
Raising the bar for herself and pushing the envelope even more with her humor, Bernhard joined fellow comedian Roseanne Barr on the popular comedy series, Roseanne. Cast as the gay Nancy Barlett Thomas, Bernhard became one of the first openly gay characters to appear on television and spent the next six seasons making frequent appearances on the show until 1997. Coincidentally, Roseanne gave Bernhard plenty of material for her stand-up routines and boosted her fame even further as she became an outspoken advocate for gay rights and came out as a bisexual when she walked the red carpet with longtime partner, Sara Switzer, and announced the birth of their daughter, Cicely Yasin Bernhard, on July 4, 1998.
As Bernhard’s comedy continues to shock her audiences in the best possible ways, she’s not afraid to take on new projects and even joined the cast of ABC’s Family’s Switched at Birth in 2014. The following year, she stepped in as a radio host of Sirius XM’s Radio Andy program, Sandyland. Beyond that, the 62-year-old remains humble about her success and even shies away from calling herself a trailblazer for younger comedians like Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer. “I feel like my willingness to take things to the edge as a post-feminist performer definitely set a stage,” she says, “but everyone who comes before you does that for you.” We can’t help but think that Bernhard’s comedic idols Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and Mary-Tyler Moore are incredibly proud of how she’s added to the comedy industry over the last 40 years!