“I’ve always been that way in my life,” Bernhard says. “I had three older brothers, so I guess I had to stand up for myself. That’s naturally been who I am. I’ve seen all the injustices since I was 5 or 10. It’s just kind of my nature.”
Bernhard’s career spans over four decades on the stage and screens big and small, and she approaches everything she does — from her acting roles in some of the most recent seasons of American Horror Story to her stand-up comedy — with fearlessness and bracing wit. She’s currently on her Bern It Down tour, which will bring her on Friday, Dec. 2, to The Granada Theater in Dallas.
The icon started doing stand-up in the 1970s and forming the shape and style of her act at places such as the historic Comedy Store. Comedy legend and writer Paul Mooney discovered her on stage on Los Angeles and became one of her biggest influences.
“My other friend, Lotus Weinstock, who’s another brilliant comedian from that era, took me to this club in Beverly Hills and said, ‘You’re gonna meet lots of people,’ because my friend told them about me,” Berhard says. “So when I got up, both of them came over and said, ‘You’re fabulous, we love you’ and took me under their collective wings, supported me for a long time and helped me get into that world and feel protected. It’s an amazing sort of experience having two seasoned performers be my godparents.”
Mooney, who died last year at the age of 79, also wrote for the great Richard Pryor and mentored a lot of comedians in that era. Bernhard says he taught her how to open herself up to an audience.
“He taught me everything about doing stand-up and being a performer and, as we say, shedding your skin,” she says. “If you weren’t being in the moment or honest with who you were, you weren’t worth your salt.”
She got her first break and one of her most memorable roles on the big screen in 1982 in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a dark satire about show business. She plays Masha, an obsessed fan of late night talk show host Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. She helps comedian Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, kidnap Langford so he can extort him for a stand-up spot on television.
“That’s another amazing experience that really catapulted my career, my confidence and my standing in the business,” she says. “It’s been a kind of pedestal for my career.”
Then in the 1990s, she became one of the memorable characters in the cast of the blue-collar sitcom Roseanne starring Roseanne Barr. As Nancy, a business partner in Roseanne’s restaurant, she came out as a lesbian in 1992 — five years before Ellen Degeneres’ character did the same on Ellen. She got to reprise her role in the 2018 reboot until Barr went off the rails with a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, who had been a White House advisor to Barack Obama. ABC canceled the reboot and fired Barr, killing off her character and some of her connected roles in the spin-off series The Conners.
Bernhard says she hasn’t spoken to Barr since her fall from grace.
“I was really happy to be part of it back there,” she says. “It was really groundbreaking and I thought Roseanne was incredibly daring and I’m sorry it fell apart for her. I don’t know what happened.”
She’s still taking on new challenges in her career. Most recently, Bernhard acted in heavy roles written by TV creator Ryan Murphy in the Hulu drama Pose and in the Apocalypse, and the recent NYC season of the FX horror anthology American Horror Story, which is set in the LGBTQ community of the ’80s and the horrific rise of the AIDS epidemic.
“He’s been a fan of mine for a long time,” Bernhard says. “We kind of talked and hung out for a little bit. We started off in Pose and his other shows. [Horror’s] not my milieu but everybody can get on board with American Horror Story because it’s filled with so many interesting people.” The biggest constant in Bernhard’s career will always be her stand-up. She says she may not be a road comic who spends huge stretches of time going to gigs, but she still makes time for a few weeks of comedy shows and she always has something interesting and provocative to say.
“I can’t go out for weeks on end,” Bernhard says. “I just go for a few weeks and then go home. I’m not a road warrior but it’s just a huge part of my career, performing live. It’s something that I love doing and it’s one of the ways I make a living. It’s just been the first thing about my career that I started doing and it’s something I like to do.”