September 18, 2019

Two Jewish Comedians Talk Mary Tyler Moore, #MeToo, and Mothering

Photo provided by Debra Nussbaum Cohen.

Comedian Judy Gold emerged on stage at an Upper West Side theater on Feb. 11 and screeched, “Oh my God, I’m so excited,” as she welcomed comedian/actress/performer Sandra Bernhard to a live taping of her podcast “Kill Me Now.” 

It didn’t take long for the pair of Jewy comics to dive into celebrity gossip. Bernhard asked if the host had been invited to Jennifer Aniston’s 50th birthday party. “I wasn’t invited,” Bernhard said dryly. Gold asked: “Hasn’t she had a lot of work done?” to which Bernhard diplomatically replied, “She’s had a lot of tsuris.”

Being in the audience felt a lot like eavesdropping on two famous friends having a grown up slumber party. Their conversations roamed from what it was like growing up in a New Jersey suburb (Gold) and Scottsdale, Ariz. (Bernhard); how they’ve dealt with hostility toward female comics and sexual harassment over the course of their careers, as well as the fickle fortunes of fame.

Throughout, Gold dinged a hotel desk bell every time they mentioned someone or something Jewish. There were a lot of dings.

The comics riffed on their shared love of Carole King’s album “Tapestry,” reminisced about tearing the cellophane off new albums while sitting on shag-carpeted bedroom floors, and their mutual obsession with TV variety shows and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Although both women are Jewish, Gold builds her shtick around feeling awkward and unpopular because she is tall and gawky. Bernhard, on the other hand, is all cool fashionista. She has graced the cover of Elle, is known for her style as well as her Mick Jagger pout and is as unflappable as Gold is neurotic. 

To this day, Bernhard is thankful that she didn’t get cast in her high school production of “Funny Girl” despite her Barbra Streisand-esque nose and beautiful voice. Instead, the casting director picked a curvier “totally blond shiksa” and, Bernhard said, ended up sexually molesting the lead and others girls.

“From the get-go, HaShem protected me and I was never molested,” she said, although she did share another story. She said the late comedian Buddy Hackett invited her to come to his Beverly Hills house the morning after the premiere of her 1982 film “The King of Comedy” with Jerry Lewis and Robert DeNiro. She was 26 at the time. “He met me at the door in a terry-cloth robe,” Bernhard said. That was my #MeToo experience,” but she didn’t elaborate further.

“Judy Gold builds her shtick around feeling awkward and unpopular because she is tall and gawky. Sandra Bernhard, on the other hand, is all cool fashionista.”

Gold shared her own Hackett #MeToo moment. “The Concord Hotel was trying to stay open. Buddy liked me for some reason and asked me to open for him. He liked tall women. (Gold is 6 feet 3). He comes up to me right before I go on, he comes up to here on me,” Gold said, holding her hand at bust level, “and says, ‘Give me a kiss.’ I say, ‘I’m not giving you a kiss.’ He’s like, ‘Just give me a little tongue.’ And then he puts his face in my boobs,” shaking it back and forth. “Then I went right onstage.”

Bernhard she said that while she was growing up, she was teased by schoolmates for having her famously full “n-word lips.” After finishing high school early, she went to a kibbutz in Israel, where she had lots of cousins. She picked oranges and grapefruit, chopped weeds in cotton fields and, in the kibbutz slaughterhouse, vacuumed lungs out of chickens on the assembly line. She credits the manual labor with teaching her a strong work ethic.

After returning to the U.S., she moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in the Charles Ross School of Beauty and studied to be a manicurist for three months before working in salons while doing stand-up in local comedy clubs. Comics Paul Mooney and Lotus Weinstock mentored her.

Unlike other women working in comedy at the time, Bernhard refused to be self-deprecating in her act. The late Joan Rivers told her she’d never make it in show business unless she got a nose job but she never considered it.  

“From Day One, it was confidence, confidence, confidence,” Gold said, admiringly.  

“I was insecure, don’t get me wrong, but it never came out in my material,” Bernhard said. “I couldn’t let all the feminists down. All my ladies. They fought for me.”

Gold, on the other hand, wanted a nose job. In the exaggerated, Jewish mother voice she uses when quoting her late mother, Gold said, “You’ll get your nose done when Barbra Streisand gets hers.”

Starring with Lewis and De Niro in “King of Comedy,” was a career high for Bernhard. “I’m sure Jerry Lewis was very nice on set,” Gold, said. “No, he wasn’t,” Bernhard replied. “He was a horrible person.”

The two then talked about being Jewish mothers. “I tortured my daughter. I was involved in the Kabbalah Centre for a long time,” Bernhard said. “From the time she was in utero until she was 10, 11, I would drag her to the Kabbalah Centre.”

She said she then took her daughter to Chabad, where she was bat mitzvah’d. “I thought she would never want to be near anything [Jewish] again,” Bernhard said.  But about a month ago Bernhard went to visit her daughter in London, who said to her mother, ‘Let’s go to Shabbat in Golder’s Green.’ “So we went to synagogue,” and she was really into it, and I was like, ‘HaShem, thank you.’ ”

“You’re so lucky,” Gold said. “Yeah, I didn’t drive her completely away from her faith,” Bernhard replied.

And as any Jewish mother would, Gold responded, “Mazel tov on that, honey. Mazel tov.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes from New York for Haaretz and is a contributing editor at The Forward.