Sandra Bernhard makes a correction. She did not cry the first time she tried stand-up comedy at The Improv club in Los Angeles in the late '70s. "I cried once I was doing it for a few months," she says. "My first night, I loved it and didn't think twice about it."
It was only after audiences got to know her — and realized that she was a woman who did not mock her own appearance a la Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and other popular female comics of the time — that the tears set in. "The repetitive nature of waiting to get on was daunting when you know it's a very, very sexist business, much more than now," she adds by phone from her New York home. "I was doing something that was different, not very cookie-cutter stand-up. I wasn't self-deprecating. Nothing was handed to me."
Bernhard, now 58, had been working as a Beverly Hills manicurist at the time, moonlighting as a comedian. (Her nail-polish clients included actresses Tina Louise of "Gilligan's Island," Dyan Cannon and Jaclyn Smith, whom Bernhard would disparage for years as a bad tipper.) Eventually, friends told her she was funny, and she began to work the LA comedy circuit, not so much cracking jokes as rebelliously flinging her unusual persona and appearance at the audience. The skinny, angular, sneering comic used to say with a sultry smile: "You just don't see lips like these often enough on a white girl." This prompted her best-known foil, David Letterman, to respond, in the early '80s: "Uhh …"
In today's comedy world, when everyone from Norm MacDonald to Amy Schumer rambles through non sequiturs punctuated with jokes, Bernhard's style doesn't stand out quite as starkly as it did in the '70s and '80s. She performs as an exaggerated version of herself, a recurring character that is part ostentatious fashionista and part profane girl-next-door. "Diva moments, honey!" she said, in a late-'90s response to a heckler, immortalized on YouTube. "I'm telling you, Miss (Diana) Ross would have walked off stage and thrown some kind of a s--- fit and taken off in a helicopter."
Bernhard has told her back story numerous times over the years: She was born in Flint, Mich., and her parents moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., when she was 10. ("My mother's an abstract artist, my father's a proctologist," she once said in a routine, as quoted in New York magazine. "That's how I view the world.") At an early age, Bernhard had been the family showperson, the youngest of four, so her parents weren't too surprised when she took off for LA at 19, after working on a kibbutz in Israel for eight months.
"I had made that declaration when I was 5 years old. I loved being a performer," she says. "The best thing was they just didn't get in my way. I don't know if they fully understood what it was all about. They just let me do it."
The core of Bernhard's humor has always been her delivery, on the precipice between catty and mean. She played a crucial role in Martin Scorsese's 1982 classic "The King of Comedy," hectoring Robert De Niro's Rupert Pupkin into helping her get close to Jerry Lewis' isolated talk-show host. Her fame peaked in the '80s, when she began to appear on Letterman (30 times) and reveled in her public role as Madonna's flirtatious friend. Later, on "Roseanne," she played the first openly gay character in TV history.
By the late '90s, Bernhard had drifted out of public view. She made a comeback with her 1997 Broadway show "I'm Still Here … Damn It!," in which she lambasted celebrities from Tom Cruise to Courtney Love to Madonna. Mostly she focused on her family, bearing a child with her longtime partner, Sara Switzer, a former editor at Harper's Bazaar magazine who had assigned her a story about the end of the millennium. Their daughter, Cicely Yasin, is 15. Bernhard suggests she may have comedy-writing skills.
Today, after years of small TV parts, Bernhard is full-scale multimedia. She has a series of funny online shorts, "Comedians Walking & Getting Mani-Pedis," with stars such as actress Rosie Perez; plays a recurring role on ABC Family's "Switched at Birth"; and launched a musical 2011 show, "I Love Being Me, Don't You?" drawn from her comedy album. The performance is classic Bernhard, as she sings, ad-libs, rambles asides and needles every celebrity that pops into her head. At one point, she sings a line from a Tina Turner song, then asks: "Where the (expletive) is Tina Turner? Up in Switzerland, honey! Getting thick! She has (expletive) had it. You pass that point of no return and you can't go back again. That's why I never stop." She also plans to film a pilot next spring.
And fortunately for both Bernhard and, perhaps, her daughter, the show business landscape isn't nearly as bleak as it was when the stand-up comic began her career in the '70s. "I was naturally confident, so it helped. For a lot of girls, it's been a rough road," Bernhard says. "I've been just lucky — I've managed to kind of adjust to things along the way as I evolved as a person, as a woman. I think it's a good time. A very good time."
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Dec. 7
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Tickets: Sold out; 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.org