Sandra Bernhard Hated Female Comics' Self-Deprecating Humor

Bernhard had no time for Joan Rivers’ ugly jokes
Sandra Bernhard Hated Female Comics' Self-Deprecating Humor

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Comics like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers were an inspiration to a generation of female comics, but not to comedian Sandra Bernhard. To her, they were “women doing self-deprecating things: husband jokes, kid jokes, ugly jokes,” she told Paul Provenza in Satiristas: Comedians, Contrarians & Vulgarians. “I was just, ‘This is a bummer. This has got to change.’” 

“I was postfeminist,” Bernhard explained. “I had a strong, natural belief that a woman can be and do whatever she wanted to no matter what she looked like or where she came from. I said, ‘I’m not going to put myself down.’”  

In Bernhard’s view, Diller and Rivers were just taking on all of the trappings of male comedians’ acts. Early female comics were either acting like men or embodying men’s idea of what women should be. And so, Bernhard vowed to create an act that did neither of those things. “I was going to come in being a woman,” she said, “doing what I wanted to do as a woman.

The high-school version of Bernhard was “skinny and awkward,” but she had a vision of the sexy, exciting person she wanted to be and turned it into her onstage persona. “I created my own world, my own reality, and my own happiness for myself,” she said. “I didn’t look for someone else to go, ‘You’re beautiful! You’re fabulous! We accept you!’ I was always on the outside, so I took that and turned it around and found some sort of happiness and understanding of myself.”

Not everyone liked it, as Bernhard had to deal with “the sexism of a woman who owned The Comedy Store and the sexism of a man who owned The Improv.” It’s safe to assume she’s referring to influential comedy gatekeepers Mitzi Shore and Budd Friedman. Neither were buying the sexy, confident act Bernhard was selling. “Of course, they’d seen all that from male comics for ages, they just weren’t used to it from a female,” she told Provenza. “I had to break through all that just to get stage time.”

To be fair, Bernard’s act was both groundbreaking and in your face, exploring the fluidity of sexuality. The persona was borderline confrontational as it questioned conventional mindsets. “It’s about the interaction of people, what turns you on from unexpected places, about the adventure of sexuality. The excitement, the fun, the sophistication of sexuality. It’s not about what gets done in dark rooms, or guilt and shame and remorse. If you’re connected with and turned on by somebody, that’s a groovy thing.”

Bernhard didn’t always understand what she was doing as she figured out her comic persona and themes in real time. “But I knew instinctively that there are roadblocks for all of us sexually, so I just barreled through them and came through the other side,” she said. “I’m from that postfeminist era where we were trying to question or break down what was perceived as beauty. I wasn’t explicitly saying it, I was doing it. That’s what I’ve always tried to do: Be it, not just talk about it. I am the result of that era and those influences.”


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