Bis have a unique perspective on the world. Since we end up feeling marginalized or shifting from one community to another (or just forming our own), we tend to get a neat perspective on life — and it’s usually a funny one. I thought it was high time we focused on one of the OG bis of comedy — the prolific, terrific, still-going-strong Sandra Bernhard.
Born on D-Day in 1955 in Flint, Michigan to a proctologist father and a mother who was an abstract artist, Bernhard has always asserted that these differing perspectives helped shape how she viewed the world. Raised in Michigan until she was ten, her conservative Jewish family moved south to far more sunny climes in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Bernhard dreamed of escaping to a life of sophistication. After living for a stint in Israel post-high school, Bernhard returned to the States and specifically to Los Angeles — becoming a fixture at the Comedy Store in the 1970s while playing manicurist to the stars in order to pay the bills.
Stand-up comedy was just starting to explode at this time, and while there were only a few female luminaries who preceded her (Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller among them), Bernhard was unafraid and worked tirelessly to hone her brand, creating one-woman sets and shows which eventually caught the eye of the great Richard Pryor. He hired her to be a supporting player on his variety show. The stint was short-lived, but Bernhard was undeterred, parlaying her experience into becoming a darling of late-night talk shows — including dozens of appearances on Letterman.
Bernhard’s big break came in the early Eighties when Scorsese cast her as Jerry Lewis’ stalker in The King of Comedy. After this star-making opportunity and during a slew of appearances on the small screen, Bernhard continued to craft her one-woman stand-up show, which included elements of singing, jazz, and her trademark straight-talk and acerbic wit — groundbreaking for the time.
It was also during the Eighties when rumors began to spread that Bernhard and Madonna were lovers in addition to being good friends. During a Letterman appearance, the provocateur even alluded that Bernhard was better in bed than Sean Penn. While Bernhard denied that the two were ever intimate, she has been open for decades about dating both men and women, ultimately getting together with her girlfriend writer Sara Switzer and raising a child together over the past thirty years.
In the early Nineties, she got cast on the hit show Roseanne (1988-1997) as Nancy, one of the close friends and coworkers of the eponymous character in the working-class comedy. While Nancy was married at first to a character played by Tom Arnold, she ultimately started dating women after her divorce. This makes Nancy one of the first bi characters to ever grace the screen in network television and remains perhaps Bernhard’s best-known role to date.
But Bernhard wasn’t done making history. Bernhard has kept up multiple careers since her days playing Nancy. To date, she has recorded over a dozen albums, her topics ranging from relatable comedy to music to political commentary of the day, and she still tours. Not only that, but Bernhard has branched out to becoming a voice actress as well as a radio host, hosting the SiriusXM show Sandyland.
Roseanne was not the end of her acting either. Bernhard has taken on a slew of roles since her days on the award-winning program, popping up on shows as diverse as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Family Guy, The L Word, The Sopranos, The Larry Sanders Show, Ally McBeal, Switched at Birth, 2 Broke Girls, Broad City, and American Horror Story … just to name a few! (Seriously, check out her IMDB page. She’s worked on dozens of influential shows over the course of thirty years — an enviable acting career. Bernhard can currently be spotted in her recurring role on Pose as Nurse Judy, a nurse who works primarily in an AIDS ward in the 1980s and joins the activist group ACT UP.
Bernhard shows no signs of slowing down, and I am glad she is still around and doing her thing. On a personal note — lately there has been a meme going around asking “When was the first time you heard the term ‘bi’?” And I realized my moment had to do with her. When I was a preteen, I was reading some entertainment magazine (I think it was People?) that noted the appearance of “bisexual actress Sandra Bernhard” at some event. I had never heard the term, but it stuck with me until I looked it up a little while later — and felt seen in a way I had never felt before.
So thank you, Sandra. From one bi to another. Keep up the funny.