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At 56 years of age, Sandra Bernhard hasn’t become any less outspoken. If anything, she’s become more so. Two years ago, the comedian and singer made headlines after allegedly suggesting that if Sarah Palin were to visit New York City, she may find herself getting “gang-raped by some of my big black brothers.” This is particularly true in her one-woman shows, the latest of which, I Love Being Me, Don’t You?, a mix of comedy, music, and dance, she’ll be performing at the Painted Bride starting today through Saturday. She spoke with The A.V. Club about politics, Playboy, and feminism.
The A.V. Club: Are you disappointed by how things have turned since ’08?
Sandra Bernhard: I think people in this country are incredibly selfish, spoiled, self-indulgent, short-sighted. And that goes to the right and the left. I think that Obama has done a lot of great things. He got two major liberal women on the Supreme Court, which is a miracle. [If John McCain and Sarah Palin won] Roe v. Wade would’ve been overturned by now. There’s all kinds of things that could’ve happened had it gone the other direction. I don’t think Obama is the most accessible person. He’s not Bill Clinton. He’s not fun. He’s not frothy. He’s not so geared towards keeping Americans happy in that sort of McDonald’s, big-meal way that we’ve all gotten used to in the past 50 years. But I think he’s a smart guy, and I think he’s doing the best he can.
AVC: In 2008, you were criticized for remarks you made regarding Sarah Palin, that if she came to Manhattan, she would be “gang-raped by some of my big black brothers.”
SB: Oh, Jesus Christ, that’s not what I said. It’s such bullshit.
AVC: Can you clarify what you said?
SB: I was commenting on all these extreme, Tea Party, right-wing people coming into New York and trying to strut their stuff. It was the same thing I talked about with Laura Bush and the twins, when they’d come in to see theater and go see Oscar De La Renta. You can’t have it both ways. Either you’re with us, or you’re against us—and you’re against us, so stay the fuck out of here. That was the gist of what I was saying then, and it was the gist of what I was saying about Sarah Palin. It wasn’t like, “You’re going to come into New York, and black men are going to rape you.” I do stand-up. It’s stream-of-consciousness. So I would never try to defend or explain what I do.
AVC: What do you think of Palin today?
SB: She’s a total narcissist, and she’s gotten way too much attention and power from her little sick base. In the meantime, Karl Rove and his band of misanthropes are trying to, like, pull the rug out from underneath her. Let them fight with each other and snipe with each other. They’re all so disgusting.
AVC: She describes herself as a feminist.
SB: That is the biggest joke on the face of the earth. She always exploits what seems to be the right thing for her, whether it’s feminism or grizzly bears. She’s a crackpot. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about.
AVC: You’ve described yourself as a post-feminist.
SB: What I’ve always said is I am a product of all the hard work of the feminist movement. I was young and just hitting preadolescence when Roe v. Wade [was decided], and Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and all those people were fighting for our rights. I was very into it, and very influenced by it. So everything that I am is a result of that, my inner strength and resolve and ability to go through a lot of hard situations in the business I’m in and the world we’re living in.
AVC: Some female comics use sex and their sexuality to get ahead—like Sarah Silverman talking about her vagina.
SB: It seems to be endemic to that particular generation of women comedians. It’s not my style. I don’t really relate to it. It doesn’t make me laugh. But, you know, every 10 years a new generation comes along and kind of reflects what’s going on. I think she’s very reflective of the Internet generation and the off-handed comments that are constantly going on. I don’t like the Internet. I don’t like being smug and cynical and not communicating with people in a one-on-one human way. I don’t find it necessarily to my standards of performing or my standards of relating to people in general, but she speaks to certain people. I’m certainly not gonna trash her for it.
AVC: But you posed for Playboy in 1992.
AVC: You’ve called it the highlight of your career.
SB: It’s all obviously laced with irony. I did it at a time when it was about celebrating my strengths as a woman, and also they allowed me to write the accompanying piece. It was all very, very tasteful, and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. I don’t know if you can compare the two things.
AVC: How has being a female comic changed in the 30 years since you started—being a woman working in comedy and being out?
SB: I wasn’t out 30 years ago. I’ve never traded on that in my career. It’s never been about me being out. It’s always been about walking that fine line of sexuality. That was always my point of view—sexuality is fluid, and ephemeral. It can go back and forth. As it has for me on many occasions. Being a woman has been a much stronger identification than anything in my career. There is my womanhood. There is my sexuality, but not in a declarative manner. There’s being Jewish. There’s being part of different evolutions in our culture. It’s styles that have influenced me from early ’60s television to cabaret to burlesque to rock ’n’ roll. Everything has informed my work. It’s hardly one thing.
AVC: What do you think of the Botox and fillers trends?
SB: It depends on how far you go with it. I get some Botox and filler, but I do it in very, very small doses and very judiciously. I don’t look any different than I did 10 years ago, but it’s not because of that. You can’t really turn back the hands of time, but I think if you’re tasteful about the way you take care of yourself, there’s nothing wrong with it.
AVC: What do you think of Madonna’s face these days?
SB: It’s kind of hard to tell because it’s always so blown-out and Photoshopped. I don’t know what is underneath all of it.
AVC: You come across as pretty fearless.
SB: We all have our moments in the day and in life where we feel vulnerable. Of course, I feel strong and fearless. I worked hard at perfecting who I am as a performer and an artist and a public figure. And we’re doing an interview, so I’m very to the point. I’m not going to waste your time, and I’m not going to sit here, and be all like, [affects whiney tone], “I don’t know.” You don’t want to hear it, and it doesn’t make for a good interview.