Sandra Bernhard Doesn’t Think New York Is Dead Just Yet

The legendary comic muses on New York’s heyday and her role as an activist nurse on Pose.

Pari Dukovic/FX

Sandra Bernhard has no filter, nor does she need one. Her big break came in 1982, when she starred in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, and ever since then, her bold, over-the-top stage persona has lent itself to scathing musings on politics and pop culture. The performer is also trailblazer in her own right: Bernhard was one of the first to play an openly lesbian character on Roseanne, has always addressed LGBTQ issues in her comedic material, and became something of a New York legend when she appeared around town with Madonna at parties.

On Pose, which takes place when New York’s ballroom scene blossomed from subculture to popular culture and Madonna’s “Vogue” was on repeat, she plays Judy Kubrak, a nurse who works closely with quarantined patients in AIDS wards. In the season two premiere, Judy brings Pray Tell (Billy Porter) to an ACT UP meeting to discuss a demonstration that would protest the AIDS crisis and the government’s mistreatment of the LGBTQ community. Judy also cares for Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who is diagnosed with AIDS and learns she must take AZT, an antiretroviral medication, to treat the disease. This season, Bernhard’s role as Judy has expanded to give her a more colorful background, more screen time, and of course, more of her signature zesty one-liners.

In her Culture Diet, Bernhard muses on her role as an activist nurse on Pose, reading the works of contemporary literature It Girls like Sally Rooney and Rachel Cusk, fighting with social media trolls, and whether or not New York really is dead these days.

In your scenes with Billy Porter, the two of you appear to have mastered the art of throwing shade at a funeral, which is really not an easy landing to stick. How do you strike that balance?

It’s not [easy]. It’s hard to know if people were that light about it, but I think it’s sort of an interesting approach to all of the tragedy.

Your character on Pose is a nurse, so she’s around a lot of death. How did you decide to bring that levity to an ongoing crisis?

I was in the trenches in terms of friendships and ancillary people back in the day. I’m not a healthcare person, I wasn’t working at a hospital, so it’s hard to know, but I think there’s a new documentary out called Ward B and it’s all about the San Francisco General Hospital, where they eventually had a dedicated ward for AIDS patients. I really wanna see it because it’s about the healthcare workers who were like, “No, I’m not going to wear like a space age suit to go treat people, I’ve just got to be a human being and hope I’ll be okay.” There’s a lot of fun and levity in that so that kind of made me feel better. Also, this season they’re expanding Nurse Judy’s storyline, and so she becomes not only a nurse and practitioner who’s taking care of Blanca and Pray Tell but is also becoming a friend and an advocate. There’s gotta be some more personal kind of interactions, which makes sense. Of course there will be fun moments because that’s part of the show and part of the culture.

And Judy radicalizes Pray Tell by bringing him to the ACT UP protest meeting in the first episode. Not that he wasn’t an activist or advocate in his own way before, but that was definitely a turning point for him. Back in the day, did you ever participate in any of those demonstrations or protests?

No, I didn’t. But I was involved in a lot of fundraising, and things that I felt were more appropriate for where I was at. Of course, I talked a lot about all of these issues in my live performances back in the day when I was here in New York for six or seven months performing my show off-Broadway, Without You I’m Nothing. So, all things gay culture have always been addressed in my work. I’ve always been a staunch advocate for people on the margins, no matter who they are, whether they’re people of color or women or the LGBTQ community or now of course all of these kids that are trapped at the border. There’s always some battle to fight for humanity, and as a person who cares, that’s just what you have to do.

I know it was over a month ago, but since you’re kind of a camp icon I have to know: What were your thoughts on the Met Gala this year and the camp theme?

Well, it’s kind of hard to really pull that apart, you know? I’ve addressed the idea of camp in my shows, and I’ve done pieces that I thought were tributes to campiness, but once you start talking about it, it doesn’t really exist. It’s something that exists in action, it’s not like you can be like, “Okay, now I’m going to be campy because of what I’m wearing.” It doesn’t really make any sense. You’d have to be a performer or a writer, or I guess you can be campy if you’re hanging out with your friends and you put on some music and you’re “camping it up.” But it’s something that is in movement, it’s not stationery or something you can try to force. So the idea of going to this event and dressing campy and trying to be campy just seems counteractive to what camp is. It’s way too intellectual to pull it apart, and then it becomes deathly boring.

It’s kind of a lose-lose situation to try to capture it.

Yeah, it really is. If that was the theme this year and you want to I guess try to address camp in fashion, and that’s the show that’s on, I guess you can, but if you’re gonna go to the Met Ball, not many people have the sensibility to pull off camp is, I guess, my point. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t have wanted to be in that position. I would have been terribly embarrassed.

You’ve been in New York for a while. How have you seen it change from the ‘70s until now?

Well, I wasn’t here much in the ‘70s. I was based in L.A. at that time, and I really started coming here on a more regular basis when I was shooting King of Comedy in 1981. I mean, I was in and out, I was here, but I really started living here and had a bigger sense of the city starting in the early ‘80s. And I mean, it’s all the obvious stuff that’s been addressed and kind of beaten over the head. I think that it’s really about accessibility for creative people who are trying to live here. I think that it’s nearly impossible to afford to live in this city anymore for kids that are coming from all across the country or the world to try to jump into what New York has to offer in the arts and music and fashion and theater and the street culture. It’s harder and harder to have that be an authentic experience because people just suddenly can’t afford to live here. So I think that’s the biggest change, and I think that the nightlife has greatly changed from when I first started coming here. There was always clubs and scenes and funky places to go and dance and hang out and meet people, and that seems to be, again because of just being like whether or not you can afford to have a space, I mean nobody really can. If it’s really an original funky, groovy idea, I think it’s nearly impossible to pull that off.

Is New York dead?

Well, no. No, it’s not dead, but when you look at Broadway and theater, it’s really run by people that have a lot of money that can produce and if they lose the money it’s not a big deal. So, that sort of cuts in half that sort of experimental aspect of what theater is about. I mean, saying something dead is a little bit extreme, but it definitely does not have the authenticity where people can walk and see and take it in, and not be hyper aware of what they’re wearing or the bags they’re carrying. I mean, you know! You know what it is. It’s just a different beast in the last 20 years. It’s really gotten crazy in the past…I can’t pinpoint where it all turned, but there was definitely a turning point and maybe I was just not looking close enough, but it’s just weird.

Getting into the Culture Diet questions, what is the first thing that you read in the morning?

The New York Times. We get the Times delivered. I need the paper and the ink. I mean, yes, I go online, I look at The Washington Post online, and there’s a lot of news outlets and sources that I look at online especially when I’m traveling, but when I’m home, The New York Times is definitely the first thing. We open the door and take our dog out to go to the bathroom, and then we look at the Times.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

I’m juggling two books right now, two biographies. Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness and Isaac Mizrahi’s I.M.: A Memoir. Books coming up on my bedside are The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, another new book called Normal People by Sally Rooney, and another book I’m going to pick up when I can is Kudos by Rachel Cusk. I have Joan Didion’s South and West just because I always want to dip into Joan Didion. There are also books I haven’t finished!

You’re very active on Twitter and Instagram. What are some of your favorite social media accounts to follow?

Paul Rudnick on Twitter is brilliant. He’s a comic writer and he does scathing, scathing pieces on the Trumps. Everybody must follow Paul Rudnick.

What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?

I never Google on my phone! [Laughs.] I don’t Google much of anything. I cut and paste my whole social media sensibility. It drives me insane to do it. I loathe it. I loathed the day it was invented. But it’s a must and you have to do it and you have to have an upbeat attitude about it, so I approach it like it’s part of my regimen, like working out or taking my vitamins or eating right. I would do anything not to have this computer or this phone sitting here. It has started to drive me crazy. And having come from an era where I would literally get on the phone with friends at eleven o’clock at night and talk for two hours until we were almost both asleep. You don’t do that anymore. It’s so rare to get on the phone with a friend and just talk and talk and talk and talk until you’re exhausted. You send an email, you send a quick text, and then it’s sort of like you’re back to whatever else it is, and of course what it is is looking at pictures on Instagram or what’s the latest Twitter exchange. Things that are trending and things that are gone. It’s like, what really matters? What has any staying power or impact? That really upsets me. I’m in a really sensitive kind of headspace with the news out of D.C. and where we’re at. I just really don’t know where we’re headed and it does deeply concern me and it also upsets me and makes me feel like walking that fine line—maybe I’m talking your ear off, maybe you don’t need all this information! What can you really do, what can you really say? Also I’m careful on social media because horrible people come out of the woodwork if you say anything that’s sort of inflammatory about anything. Of course I want to talk about abortion, of course I want to talk about gun rights, I want to talk about the kids that are in the cages down at the border, but if you don’t walk that very easy, fine line, they’ll come out and they’ll rip you to shreds and I don’t want to have a battle with people who I don’t even know if they really exist or if they’re bots or I don’t know who the hell these people are.

Do you ever engage with your haters or trolls online?

No! Absolutely not. No. I might have done that a few times in the past. I will never do it again.

I guess you learn once you have one experience with that.

Oh, honey! Do you ever! Do you ever. And there’s no wars to be won, I can tell you that much. You’re not going to bring anybody over to your side, you’re not going to change the narrative. No. You’ll just torture yourself, waste your time, exhaust yourself, and get some kind of a bacterial infection or something. [Laughs.] No!

What television shows have been keeping you up at night?

Well, I finished watching that Israeli show, Shtisel, a few months ago. Do you know about that show? It’s about the ultra Orthodox community in Jerusalem, but it’s a scripted show and it’s excellent. I was so depressed when that ended. Call My Agent, the French show. I loved that. That was another one that was suddenly done and we were depressed because it was so fun and frothy. I just started watching the second season of Big Little Lies. I also watch a lot of women’s tennis this time of year. Just finished the French Open and then Wimbledon is coming up, and I always hope Venus and Serena Williams go all the way to the finals because those are my two higher powers of ladies.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Oh my god, honestly I haven’t been to the movies in ages. I know there’s a few things out right now that in theory I’d like to go see but I can’t say I’m going to make it. I guess it’s my schedule right now, too. When I’m not working or shooting Pose, or doing my radio show Sandyland, there’s always stuff to do with day to day. We’ve gone to see some theater.

What’s the last play or musical that you’ve seen?

We saw King Lear, Hillary and Clinton, and The Ferryman.

You have a radio show of your own, but are there any other podcasts or radio shows you listen to?

No. The only time I listen to the radio is when I’m driving in L.A. Here in New York, it’s too crazy. You’re living your life and you can’t have the radio on at the same time. Sometimes I’ll stream some college radio stations that I like or listen on the computer so that I know what’s new and happening. I play a lot of music on my own show, so I like to see new people that are coming up. I really don’t listen to that much music here in New York, I have to admit.

What’s the last song you had on repeat?

Wow. I tend to start listening to older stuff, too. On my phone I have a very small amount of music. I’ll listen to Rod Stewart from the “Maggie May” period. I love stuff that I grew up with. Cat Stevens, Carole King. Stuff that I listen to over and over again is in my consciousness from years ago. I can tell you some of the stuff that I’ve played on my radio show recently, like this group Cage the Elephant, The Head and the Heart, The Blasters, Broken Bells, Social Distortion. I like The Decemberists, I think they’re really good. One day I just did all old disco music, like the Mary Jane Girls. Shannon, Exile, some stuff from the ‘70s because I love ‘70s dance music. I love Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, Dusty Springfield, old Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin. The list is ten miles long.

What’s the last concert that you went to?

I haven’t been to a concert in a really long time either, but I am going to see Chrissie Hynde at the Hollywood Bowl in a few weeks. That’ll be really cool. It’s fun to talk about what’s coming up!

Are you into astrology at all?


What sign are you?

I’m a Gemini. Leo rising, moon in Sagittarius.

Do you find that it’s accurate for you?

Yeah, I do actually. The Gemini has been a part of me that I’ve really worked on getting under control because there’s a real duality and a constant struggle. It’s the twins. It really does have that effect, so you have to learn how to merge the two sides of your personality. But then it’s fun because the Leo and the Sag, which are both fire signs, are kind of like, it’s good to have air and fire together because those are very compatible within your own chart.

What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?

The last thing I do before I go to bed is put in my night guard. Which I’ve been wearing for about 30 years now because I grind my teeth. But my teeth have had a whole renaissance. I did Invisalign this past year, and I did just the right amount because my teeth were really out of whack. It wasn’t just for cosmetic reasons because it was affecting my whole bite, and my teeth moved really quickly. My orthodontist was absolutely amazed. So now I wear my devices a few times a week to keep my teeth straight. Well, they’ll never be straight like the girl next door, but they’re Sandy Bernhard straight.

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