Bernhard has clocked a lot of cutting-edge moments: A generation before Ali Wong earned acclaim for doing raunchy comedy while pregnant, Bernhard was blazing the theater world, including on Broadway with her solo show “I’m Still Here … Damn It!” — foul-mouthed with a sheer dress and a baby bump, that she pointedly never addressed. “First of all, being pregnant is so, sort of, pedestrian,” she said. “There’s a billion people having babies all the time, so why talk about it? It wasn’t my jam. And I loved it. I had so much fun being pregnant, being onstage, performing, and not just sitting around waiting to have a baby.” (The show also drew criticism for a bit about Mariah Carey that the singer found racist; Bernhard has said her language was socially acceptable commentary at the time, but also acknowledged that comedy standards have changed.)
She hosted a 10 p.m. talk show for A&E long before the chatter about women taking the helm in late night. And years before Ellen DeGeneres came out, Bernhard played one of the first openly queer characters on TV, as Nancy, a friend on “Roseanne,” in the ’90s; she was also an outspoken presence during the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
“She was one of the people who taught us — who taught me — how to activate, how to be present and show up,” said Billy Porter, her co-star on “Pose,” the FX series about underground ball culture, whose characters are haunted by the disease.
For Bernhard, it was a chance to mine her real-life emotions — she lost many friends to AIDS, she said — in a character, a nurse, who was, as she put it, unglamourously “in the trenches.”
She and Porter were the two cast members who had personally experienced the first wave of the AIDS crisis. “We really connected on that — the other people were acting a history lesson, but we had actually lived it,” he said. “We were telling stories of intense trauma, and it was great to have her there to help me.”
In a marigold sweatshirt, mom jeans and high-tops, her auburn curls still effortlessly springy, Bernhard cuts a youthful, relaxed figure. Her vibe is surprisingly calm. “I’m not a frantic person,” she said. “I don’t need to run from one thing to the next to feel fulfilled.” Over coffee, we talked about parenting, schools, real estate; she is blissfully domestic, and loves doing dishes and laundry. “It’s very meditative,” she said.