Stand-up standout Sandra Bernhard talks Tea Party, Twitter and teen suicide with her raucous brand of totally untamed candor
On the inaugural eve of the smash LGBT weekend bash Out in AC, comedienne extraordinaire Sandra Bernhard sat down with GO and spilled her thoughts on everything from TV to taunted LGBT youth. The convo—much like Bernhard’s offerings in her “Queens of Comedy” show with Margaret Cho the following night—was off-the-cuff, politically-charged, and full of the same sharp-witted musings that have kept Bernhard on our radar since way before “teabag” meant much (ahem) beyond a product made by Lipton’s.
GO: You’re here at Out in AC for the Queens of Comedy show with Margaret Cho. How excited are you?
SB: Very! It’s fun to play casinos—very funky, old school, big stages. It makes me go back to when I was a kid.
You’ve been very political in a lot of your past shows. What’s your take on the whole Tea Party craziness?
I was just saying to my girlfriend that when I was growing up, the world was weird. Women didn’t have reproductive rights yet, and there was still segregation. We worked towards all that changing, and now we have it—but it seems everybody wants to go backwards.
Do you feel that impulse is driven by the media?
Definitely. People like Sarah Palin came out of the woodwork, found her sea legs, and the media kept supporting it. And they keep reporting it as if she is an important person that should be talked about.
At the same time, the Internet and reality TV make access to the airwaves so easy. People can just blast their opinions whenever they feel like it through many different channels of communication.
When you watch a lot of reality TV, you see that the thrust of it all is a kind of sniping, bitchy, contentious interaction among people; it’s just become part of the American dialogue. It’s really disruptive. When I was growing up, you watched great sitcoms, great dramas; you watched actors reading scripts and doing things that were written. But not everybody can be in the limelight—that’s not what it’s supposed to be. There are certain people who have talent, and everybody else, just be quiet.
It spills over into our politics; it spills over into every aspect of life in America now. I just think that the people who’ve worked towards saying important things in entertaining ways are the people that should be out there.
Perhaps the messages on either side of the political spectrum need to be more extreme to resonate with people and rise above the fray. Do you think that leads to anti-gay violence?
That’s my point. There’s a sort of exploitative attitude. It’s on Twitter, it’s on Facebook; it’s everywhere. Everybody’s an expert, everybody’s got a way in, everybody’s got to have a dialogue. It’s great when people can express themselves—we’re a free society and I think that’s really important, but I also think there’s a fine line between having interaction that’s intelligent and interaction that’s destructive. Destructive messages spill into every aspect of society and this is where all the bullying and violence stems from. It’s very clear. I don’t know why people can’t just see it and go to the source and root it out.
The LGBT movement seems divided about how to move forward in this climate. The established LGBT organizations lobby for change through traditional means, while grassroots movements are mobilizing almost solely through social media. Do you think the two approaches might be reconciled in the future?
I think both methods are important: You need money to keep the movement going, but on the other side of it you want people to be able to just spend a dollar or two dollars to make a difference, the way that Obama got elected.
Your daughter, who you raise with your partner, is in seventh grade now. Has she been affected by bullying in school at all?
Where she goes to school, it’s a whole different vibe. Sometimes the girls go through a lot of emotional changes, but they’re all friends. It’s a small school, it’s a small class. There’s a mechanism in place at this school to deal with [harassment]. If kids are bullying, if there’s some sort of negativity, they address it immediately and all the kids are dealt with in a positive way so nothing gets out of control.
What would you say to a youth in crisis over their orientation or identity?
I’d just say, reach out to the most intelligent and compassionate people you can find and don’t be afraid to say, “I’m scared and I feel lost and I feel like nothing is ever going to be OK in my life.”
If your family isn’t there [for you], go to your friends. There’s so many numbers and groups and people to call. Just call and say, “I don’t think I can make it.” I know that there are so many people who’ll be there.
Did you at any point ever feel that way yourself?
I went to high school in Arizona, but I wasn’t really [bullied because of my sexual orientation]. It was way before that. It was more about being skinny and, you know, weird. Kids would make fun of me for the way I looked and that was upsetting, but because I had my sense of humor in place already, I was able to channel it into something positive right away. I was able to do that instinctively, but not everybody has that ability at their fingertips.
What’s your advice for young people today?
Stay off Twitter, off Facebook, the Internet; don’t be texting people, just stay off the shit unless it’s something productive. And parents, don’t give your kids access to it. If you’re not going to be on top of it, if you’re not going to clock it and make sure your kid is being protected, don’t let them be on it. Kids will cry, they’ll scream, they’ll shout, the same way they want candy and bad food. I mean, who’s running the show, you or the kids? You’ve got to put your foot down and say, “I’m the parent here. If you’re going to throw a shit fit, go to your room or sit down in the corner until you can pull it together.”
Sandra continues her annual tradition of celebrating New Year's Eve 2010 at Joe's Pub in New York City! She will be performing an unprecedented 8 shows as part of this very special week:
December 29 - January 1
Get tickets here