Sandra Bernhard on Performing and Her Role in Netflix’s Documentary About LGBTQ Stand-up


To be sure, Sandra Bernhard is a goddess of the one-woman show. Cabaret, rock, and social commentary take turns in the spotlight whenever she’s on stage. Comedy, too. Bernhard doesn’t just push the envelope, she can tear it up and deliver you an entirely new package—bold and fresh, she’s as entertaining as she is blatantly honest. It comes as no surprise then that Bernhard will be one of the performers featured in the highly anticipated Netflix film, Stand Out: The Documentary, helmed by Paige Hurwitz, whose recent special on the streamer, Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration, featured Bernhard along with Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Rosie O’Donnell, Fortune Feimster, Eddie Izzard, Tig Notaro, and host Billy Eichner, among others. Stand Out: The Documentary drops later this year.


“Paige and I spoke for well over an hour about the idea [for the new documentary] and it just all seemed to go hand in hand with the recent special, and the idea that there’s such a burgeoning array of LGBTQ talent now, in ways that didn’t exist when I started out,” Bernhard says. “It’s so diverse now, with so many kinds of people doing comedy. It’s fun, exciting, and revolutionary. And everybody has, at their emotional core, a different approach to how they started or why they wanted to be comedians, and what they want to say.”

In addition to Bernhard, Rosie O’Donnell and Margaret Cho will be featured in the new doc, which will examine the history of LGBTQ stand-up comedy. It will combine original performances, poignant and witty interviews, archival materials, and backstage verité footage to explore salient themes like comedy as activism, diversity in stand-up, new queer culture, and mainstreaming the alternative. It intends to illuminate the importance of LGBTQ stand-up as an instrument for social progress over the past five decades, “changing the world,” as Netflix reports, “one joke at a time.”

Wanda Sykes (Push It Productions) is on board as one of the executive producers. Certainly Hurwitz, dubbed one of Variety‘s “55 Queer Artists and Decision-Makers to Know in 2022,” is a creative beast. An Emmy-nominated producer, Hurwitz began as a stand-up comedian and later went on to produce several comedy specials, among other outings.

“I’m curious to see what Paige creates with the documentary,” Bernhard says. “It’s an important time for something like this.”

Exploring The LGBTQ+ Comedy Landscape

The idea for Stand Out: The Documentary arrived at a perfect juncture. Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration was garnering attention and civil rights were in flux. Exploring the history of LGBTQ stand-up comedy, particularly how comedy can be a form of activism, seemed like an effective if not entertaining way to shed light on valiant performers and human rights. “They did a good job with the original special,” Bernhard says of Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration. “The performances were all good. Everybody has their own take on comedy. For me, personally, I worked very hard on it honing my piece, and there were some things missing that I would have liked to have seen. And above all, I was very happy that they left in my very passionate—and I don’t usually like to use the word rant — but… rant at the end of Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration. That was very important.”

During the last few moments of Bernhard’s set, she goes “off script” and delivers a passionate plea, referencing what was then growing uncertainty about the Supreme Court overturning Roe. v. Wade — the court went on to overturn the landmark case on June 24: “In the world we’re living in, to come to Los Angeles, a city that embraces the unique — whatever you are — it’s one of the great cities in the world. To be able to be together tonight and talk sexuality… people are holding hands—men, women, people. I just want to say, take the energy tonight… we have some battles on our hands, kids. Being a woman…how dare they — after the battles and the lives lost, and the people who have put their lives on the line, don’t you [expletive] dare. I’ve had it!”

“At that moment, the abortion issue was front and center,” Bernhard reflects. “I’ve placed importance on the different ways I am, and being a woman comes first and ahead of everything else. The fact that women are fighting again for their rights—for reproductive health, abortion, birth control, autonomy, is shocking. It’s disgusting. Outrageous. And I simply had to address it in that setting. And I’m so glad I did. And I was thrilled with the response I got from the audience because I think that was the night and the opportunity for me, personally, to make sure that I said — along with being funny and compelling — all those other things.”

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Becoming Sandra Bernhard

By all accounts, Bernhard’s career has been robust if not impactful. She rose among the ranks of other performers in the 1980s, a time when the likes of Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, Eddie Murphy, and Richard Lewis found creative footing. A fine turn in The King of Comedy alongside Robert De Niro certainly helped. Performer, singer, actress, author, Bernhard delivers a rare blend of wit, song, personal insights, and observations about life and liberty — or lack thereof. Between the various iterations of her one-woman shows, the performer’s music, and live performances (now available on Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Spotify), she often evokes a sense of unity and belonging — a good thing in an unpredictable world where progress and justice often appear to be teetering on a precarious cliff. Bernard’s television appearances stand out, too — from Roseanne and Will & Grace to Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse and, more recently, Pose, in which she starred as Nurse Judy, a troubadour working in a beleaguered HIV unit of a New York hospital.

About finding the right level of balance between comedy and social commentary, Bernhard says the most important thing for her on stage is that she’s entertaining. “And funny, fresh, and honest about what I’m feeling, and that I craft good solid pieces that are out of the realm of the mundane or cliché,” she quickly adds. “Then occasionally, you can meld something in that’s timely from a political, sociological aspect, without beating people over the head. Obviously, my audience comes to see me for some of that and that’s why I was particularly excited about doing the same for Netflix. I know how many people tune in; people who wouldn’t necessarily come see me live. I wanted to hit it out of the park in that way [in the special]. Anybody coming to my live shows knows where I stand on everything, but in the realm of that special, there was an extra need to convey things.”

No two performers experience the same thing on stage. Some find freedom in being able to express themselves, others hit harder. “I love the connection, the urgency of the moment,” Bernhard says of performing. “It’s the only thing that really transcends any other kind of art form. I mean, when you come to see somebody, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Because no matter how rote somebody might be, every night, somebody’s in a different headspace. And you—the artist—have to readjust your feelings and emotions, and discipline yourself to entertain the audience. That’s what they’re paying to experience with you. It’s a unique experience for both the artist and the audience, and that’s something very few people can successfully pull off.”

Bernhard, who has been with partner Sara Switzer for more 20 than years, never considered herself an “LGBTQ performer.” In 2019, she told The New Yorker she doesn’t use the word “lesbian” to describe herself, adding: “How about ‘sophisticated’? How about ‘groovy,’ ‘sexual,’ ‘international,’ ‘hot,’ ‘swinging’? Those are all words that work for me.” Leaping off that, she told me: “I’m a person. I’m elevated to some other sort of way of describing myself. But I’m glad to have that as one aspect of who I am, obviously. I can’t speak on behalf of anybody else — people who identify as LGBTQ comics. I don’t really know. And certainly, the younger generation I don’t know in terms of political correctness, and that kind of stuff. I don’t really relate to it, so I can’t weigh in on it.”

As for the upcoming documentary, “We’ll see what everybody else has to say,” Bernhard goes on. “It’s always interesting to know people’s process, and how they’re really feeling about their lives, their emotions, and how that feeds and supports their comedy. As artists, you don’t always get to talk about that. I believe this documentary may be just another way for people to understand people’s work. And I think that’s really important.”

Experience more of Sandra Bernhard here.

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