Sandra Bernhard wasn’t a household name when she appeared as Masha, a crazed fan obsessed with talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King Of Comedy, but that only added to the element of surprise in her performance. Fans of stand-up knew Bernhard for her disarming stage presence, a persona she sharpened to a maniacal point for the role. In the years that followed, Bernhard became more widely known thanks to her convention-bending stage show, movie roles, talk-show appearances (including many charged spots on Late Night With David Letterman), and a recurring role on Roseanne. Bernhard can currently be seen on tour with her one-woman show Sandyland, and on the ABC Family series Switched At Birth.
The Dissolve: Before The King Of Comedy, you hadn’t really made film acting a priority. Was stand-up your focus at the time?
Sandra Bernhard: Well yeah, that was kind of my launching pad, but I was definitely looking to segue into acting, like everyone who has that kind of diverse talent—which I obviously did, and still do. It may have not been so calculated, but I definitely wanted that to happen. So I was thrilled, of course.
The Dissolve: Had you gone out for other films at that point? I know you had done Cheech And Chong’s Nice Dreams, and some voice work.
Bernhard: I hadn’t gone up for that much stuff, no, but this happened very organically. A friend of mine who had read for the role ended up calling the casting director on my behalf, because they had seen so many people and they hadn’t found anyone, and my agent hadn’t gotten me up for the role. It all came through a friend, so it was just fortuitous.
The Dissolve: Were they actively looking at other stand-ups at the time?
Bernhard: They were, but they were also looking at, like, every big actor at the time, from Meryl Streep to everybody on down the line. Debra Winger. Tons and tons of women went up for that role.
The Dissolve: How did you fit into L.A.’s stand-up scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s?
Bernhard: I started performing in ’75, so it was really the mid-’70s, and it was kind of a revolution in stand-up. A lot of new and different kinds of people were performing, and a lot more women were on the scene than had been. My whole take was sort of anti-establishment, and I kind of broke the mold away from the usual self-deprecating material—you know, “my husband,” and all that kind of stuff that people were doing. I did kind of a post-feminist take on it all. It was really new and different, and really shook things up.
The Dissolve: How different was your audition from your stand-up persona?
Bernhard: It wasn’t that much different, actually. Masha was very close to the character I was at that time, in terms of, like, my craziness and my ability to just kind of take it all the way out there. It just dovetailed perfectly with the role.
The Dissolve: Most of the humor in the film comes from discomfort. In improvising your role, did you have to actively not go for laughs?
Bernhard: Yeah, well, I think they were playing it for realism, and because of that, the humor did just sort come out of… it was more situational. The lines weren’t all that funny. I mean, these are slightly demented characters.
The Dissolve: What was the most difficult scene for you?
Bernhard: I don’t think any of them were really difficult. Everything was totally fun, and I loved having the spotlight on me. I didn’t really have any problem with anything. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: This was your first major acting role. What set it apart from stand-up for you?
“Nothing Jerry’s ever said has impressed me, upset me, or affected me. I just accept him as I accept my father.”
Bernhard: Well, everything. You’re collaborating, you’re with other actors, you’re being directed, you’re working with very, very famous, successful people, which is great, because you’re being validated by them. It gives you a lot of confidence and belief in yourself that you can jump into the deep end and know there’s somebody there to catch you and guide you through. It’s always nice to have that support when you get to do a film, as opposed to flying solo onstage.
The Dissolve: The three leads were all at different levels of fame at the time: Jerry Lewis had been famous for a long time, Robert De Niro was more recently famous, and you were basically unknown to a wider audience. Did you identify with any aspect of Rupert’s quest for fame?
Bernhard: Not in the way he was doing it, no. I always imagined myself being successful in the glamorous, old-school, exciting way. As the character, no, I didn’t really relate to it.
The Dissolve: The Tonight Show was the outlet at the time. It’s kind of hard to imagine that now.
Bernhard: Absolutely. There was no place else really to go and have that kind of a big break if you were doing stand-up. But I think the best thing for me was that I got to go on The Tonight Show because I had done a movie, and then I got to talk to Johnny Carson and be funny talking directly to him, as opposed to doing five minutes of stand-up on the show, which was never something I aspired to. So it was exactly how I envisioned it.
The Dissolve: How did the film change your career trajectory?
Bernhard: Well, it opened up a whole world for me in terms of my status in Hollywood, and to a great degree, my status on the American popular-culture front. It also enabled me to do my own work and get a lot of attention, and to be able to do the things nobody had done before, in terms of the hybrid of stand-up and cabaret and music and rock ’n’ roll, and making statements I don’t think any other woman had done before in the way I did.
The Dissolve: Rewatching one of your early Letterman appearances, the line between what you were doing and what Masha was doing isn’t that distinct. Were you aware of that at the time?
Bernhard: Well, as I said, I think I was sort of a terrorist in my own way—a cultural terrorist. [Laughs.] Masha was a little more needy, and she obviously wasn’t a performer, she was just looking for love and acceptance. I was looking for love and acceptance and success as a performer. It was that added element that made it different for me as myself.
The Dissolve: As the 1980s went on and you became more famous yourself, did you see the film’s take on fame in a different light?
Bernhard: I think everybody knew how prescient the film was even then. It really kind of predicted, to some extent, in a much more intelligent and sophisticated way, where we were heading culturally, and how much people would do to garner fame. Even Rupert Pupkin, in his own demented way, at least had some sort of craft. He had written material and wanted to be a stand-up, even though he really wasn’t that funny. As opposed to now, where people will, as themselves, get to have shows by just being whoever they are: basically obnoxious drunks, whores, and miscreants. [Laughs.] I think that was the only thing that wasn’t totally predicted in the film.
The Dissolve: One thing that struck me watching it again was how the division between celebrity and the rest of the world has gotten thinner with the Internet. At that time, just spotting someone like Jerry Langford was like spotting a rare bird. Now, everyone’s a lot more accessible.
“I think I was sort of a terrorist in my own way—a cultural terrorist.”
Bernhard: Yeah, and also there’s a lot fewer of that sort of famous person. Robert De Niro, in his day, was unique. If you’d see De Niro, it was like a big deal. Seeing Johnny Carson or especially Jerry Lewis—wow! But now, there are so many people at so many different levels of notoriety that it’s hard to differentiate between people who have talent and those who don’t.
The Dissolve: When Jerry Lewis said what he said about women not being funny, did that surprise you, having worked with him?
Bernhard: No. Nothing Jerry Lewis says surprises me. I mean, he’s old-school. He’s from another generation where women were just there as foils. I don’t think any of those kind of men really ever look at women and think, “Well, we need a woman here to make it really work.” But no, nothing Jerry’s ever said has impressed me, upset me, or affected me. I just accept him as I accept my father; they’re just older men who came from a different way of thinking and a different generation.
The Dissolve: When was the last time you watched The King Of Comedy?
Bernhard: I saw it right before they screened it at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.
The Dissolve: What kind of impression did it make on you watching it now?
Bernhard: That it was a very raw film that probably wouldn’t get made now. It was very slow-paced and deliberate, much less frenetic than films are now. People just don’t make those kinds of films anymore. Also, the content was… It was a different time. It was projecting the future, and now we’re in it.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week discussion of The King Of Comedy. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote on the film as part of Martin Scorsese’s tradition of “nine-ball movies,” and Wednesday’s Forum debate on how funny/insane Rupert Pupkin really is. Next week, we give in to Beatlemania with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night.