Sandra Bernhard On Sharing ‘The King of Comedy’ Set With Scorcese & De Niro

When I was running clubs, I had the pleasure of booking Sandra Bernhard a number of times. Her talent – and the inevitable and often uncomfortably wonderful swirl of controversy that defines her every move – makes her a tone-setting choice for a big night. You always know where she stands, and sometimes you better be sitting down to hear it. I chatted with her last month, and we did a phoner earlier in the week to help promote the 30th anniversary of The King of Comedy – a restored version of the 1982 Martin Scorsese flick, starring Robert De Niro and Sandra – that’s closing the Tribeca Film Festival.

Where did your character Masha from The King of Comedy come from? Is it a combination of your childhood friends and memories, or is it you?
No. It’s totally based on who I was as at the time, which was a very, you know, super-energized person (laughs). I fit the bill, and the kind of crazy, neurotic aspects of the character Masha. are me. And of course, as an actress, I brought other elements to it, but it was not a stretch for me to play that role. 

So Jerry Lewis was actually a second choice to Johnny Carson, who actually had his own talk show. But Jerry did what I thought was one of the best performances of his career in this film. There’s one scene where De Niro started yelling racial epithets at him, trying to get a rise out of him, which really set the tone. What was it like working with Jerry? 
Well, for me it was very intimidating and intense. Everything that kind of felt natural between the two of us as people also worked for the role because, as I’ve often said, I don’t think he’d [Jerry Lewis] ever worked with a woman like me before who was from a post-feminist era. I think every woman he had ever worked with was kind of just there, as a foil. So this is a new experience for him. Of course, I grew up on his work, you know, and looked up to him, so it was a funny relationship but it worked for the characters. 

The incredible scene where you have him duct-taped to the chair, and you’re playing with him – and it’s all sexual — 
Right.

Basically he’s threatened and not enjoying it, and you were just in heaven. Did the two of you talk about it in advance or did it just unfold?
Well, it was a combination. We had rehearsed some of these scenes, but a lot of it was just improvised. Jerry was sort of watching it all unfold the first time, as I was just there in the moment. It was all very new and fresh, so I think all the reactions everybody had were very genuine and organic, since a lot of the stuff was not written. It just kind of came from me, so it was a combination of being truly kind of surprised and engaged in the scene. 

I’ve met a lot comedians in my private life, and a lot of them are just on all the time. You talk to a guy like Gilbert Gottfried, and he’s just non-stop. There’s no difference between the character on stage, and the character himself as a person. Is the Jerry we saw in film natural? More like the real Jerry?
Yeah, yeah, he is. He likes to pontificate and tell people his opinions. He’s a little bit, you know, well, you know – he’s Jerry! He’s been around. He’s an auteur. 

It’s been 30 years – that’s a big chunk of time! When’s the last time you saw the film?
In its entirety?  I can’t even remember. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it, but I have not sat and watched it from stem to stern in quite a long time. 

Are you attending the premiere?
I actually cannot attend the premiere. I booked a performance months ago that’s in association with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg, and I can’t get out of it. I’m doing a lot of press and a few little, surprise things to promote the event that I can’t talk about right now cause they’re surprises!

There was a report that it took De Niro seven years to work with Scorsese again. Since then, they’ve done a number of films together. Both said the set was full of so much tension. Do you recall that kind of tension?
No, I didn’t sense any tension at all. The material was intense and the roles were intense, but I felt like everybody got along really well, and I had an incredible time. I didn’t get caught up in any drama, but I don’t remember any… you know?

That was Wikipedia talking, so…
OH! They don’t know – they’re nobodies! (laughs) Never draw on anything from Wikipedia! 

“Research.” Really though, the film was very uneasy to watch. It was a comedy with some chilling scenes in it. I remember not knowing what to say when I walked out, and every time since.
Right. It hits you from a lot of different levels, which I think is amazing, because that’s what filmmaking should do. 

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