Comedian Sarah Sherman talks about her comedy troupe and its fleshy, feminist performance art.
About a minute into an Adult Swim Infomercial for the fictitious beauty product “Flayaway,” Sarah Sherman’s comic alter-ego, Sarah Squirm, matter-of-factly explains, “Unlike horses, human body hair is considered shameful, hideous, and unclean. Especially in those who identify as women.”
As she says this, the words “SHAMEFUL,” “HIDEOUS,” and “UTTERLY UNCLEAN” pop up in glittering gold letters against a backdrop of blue skies and animated clouds. Then—in a voice that is best described as that of a Home Shopping Network host teetering on the edge of a psychiatric breakdown—she adds: “And isn’t it funny […] that the thing we love most about horses is the thing we love least about ourselves?” What follows is an extremely graphic, ten-minute-long pitch for a product that promises to A) permanently remove all of your skin, and B) incidentally solve racism. “Well, that was pretty easy,” Sarah deadpans, baffled that nobody’s thought of this yet.
Enter the absurd world of HELLTRAP NIGHTMARE, where all things shameful, hideous, and unclean—especially in those who identify as women—are not only welcome, but embraced. HELLTRAP (for short) is Sarah’s comedy troupe/multimedia performance art collective/traveling freak show, which also consists of resident sketch group the Shrimp Boys (Luke Taylor, Wyatt Fair, and David Brown) and a number of solo performers and musical guests. Sarah’s been hosting the show since 2016, and she debuted a pared-down version of her Flayaway sketch on HELLTRAP’s last tour, before sending it as a proof-of-concept to Adult Swim.
“[HELLTRAP] started as a DIY music/comedy show,” says Sarah. “We would have three noise bands play and then have stand up comedians throughout. That sort of evolved into more of a multimedia-weirdo-comedy performance.”
Now the Chicago-based group is getting ready to hit the road again later this month. Ahead of their upcoming shows at Baby’s All Right on April 20 and Kings on April 24, we caught up with Sarah about her high school improv troupe, her love of Chicago, and her quest to make angry, feminist comedy with her male friends. Read the interview below.
AdHoc: You grew up on Long Island. What was that like?
Sarah Squirm: I grew up in Great Neck—so, like, high Jewish bat mitzvah Long Island. Every time HELLTRAP comes back to New York to do a show, all of Long Island comes out. I’ll be like, “Oh my god, my high school drama teacher is here? This is inappropriate.”
When did you get into comedy?
In high school, we would have really serious improv rehearsals for two hours every week, and we would take the Long Island Rail Road into [Manhattan] to see Asssscat perform [at UCB]. When people ask, “How long have you been doing stand up?” I just say, “Four years,” cause that’s how long I’ve been seriously doing stand up, but secretly I’ve been performing since I was a kid—poorly.
So improv came first?
Yeah. This was in high school, in my parents’ basement.
Did you have shows?
DID WE HAVE SHOWS? We had shows at the high school, and we named [our] improv troupe after something that we found on urbandictionary.com. It was called Hot Lunch Improv, and if you look it up on urbandictionary, “hot lunch” is when you shit in a girl’s mouth—very iconic.
I was so embarrassed by the person I was in high school. I think I’ve tried to distance myself from the person I was on Long Island, but we always come back to being the exact same person we tried to not be.
So was high school more embarrassing than middle school for you?
[Yes], because I was more responsible for my actions, which means I can make no excuses for the things I did. When you’re a child in middle school, you can be like, “Haha, I was ugly in middle school, but weren’t we all?” But when you do a long-form improv troupe in high school named Hot Lunch and you’re old enough to go to war… there’s no excuse for that kind of behavior!
How does the comedy scene in Chicago differ from the scene in New York?
Chicago is cheaper, so you can do whatever you want. There are less limitations and everyone’s less exhausted. It’s a less brutal city to live in.
In New York, it’s always freaky, cause you’re doing a show and then someone whispers to you, “The booker for Jimmy Fallon is here!” But [Chicago] is just a freaky playground to do whatever you want. People have basements, ‘cause they live in houses, so there’s more space. There’s some real good freaks in Chicago.
How long have you been there?
I went to undergrad here, so I came here in 2011 and never left.
What’d you study?
Unfortunately, I was an art history and theater major, and now I’m an unemployed psychopath, so that was a really good use of education at Northwestern University.
Yeah, I get that.
HELLTRAP, to me, is a very Chicago show. We used to do the show at Silent Barn, but there’s less DIY opportunities in New York seemingly, ‘cause it’s just too expensive, so places shut down all the time.
We started as a DIY music/comedy show. We would have three noise bands play and then have stand up comedians throughout. That sort of evolved into more of a multimedia-weirdo-comedy performance.
So who are the Shrimp Boys?
The Shrimp Boys are [HELLTRAP’s] resident sketch group. They also help run the show with me, and we’re all incredibly codependent friends who spend all day, every day together. They do FREAKY multimedia sketch comedy.
Most of us were all friends from college, then we scooped up Luke. We found him basically on the side of the road. No, Luke came to the first HELLTRAP we ever did in a basement on one of [those] winter nights in Chicago where it was like 30 below zero.
The Shrimp Boys used to be called the Rat Boys, but there’s an indie rock band in Chicago named Ratboys, so we had to change that.
Who are some comedians or writers or performers who have inspired you?
The closest comedy group to HELLTRAP that I can think of is Wham City. They basically inspired how we run [our] show.
[HELLTRAP] is very Tim and Eric-core—we do a lot of weird video art shit that’s combined with live performance. We like to think of HELLTRAP as a world that you enter. So it’s less of a show and more of an experience. It’s a very Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-energy. You have two hours of bizarre nonsense, and then you leave!
What’s so appealing about combining multimedia and live performance?
There are infinite possibilities when you include video art in your live performance, and you still get to engage with a group of people directly and respond to a group of people and connect with a group of people, but include insane movie magic. Another thing is, you could have a ten-foot butthole exploding hamburger helper meat, and then you don’t even have to clean it up.
Let’s talk about your Adult Swim infomercial, “Flayaway.” When did you come up with that idea?
That was actually a performance that I did on the last tour we went on. Every HELLTRAP opens up with sort of a PowerPoint comedy performance, but it’s almost like a fucked-up TED Talk. It has all these HORRIBLE videos of, like, me skinning myself.
We did a proof-of-concept for the infomercial and sent it to Adult Swim, like, “Hey, what if this was an infomercial?” It’s funny to see how our DIY videos translated when we had an actual budget with an actual production team. We were working with Tim and Eric’s production team.
That makes a lot of sense.
It was awesome. Every day I would go into the office, and Tim Heidecker was sitting like 10 feet away. I was too afraid to talk to him and I was just sitting there shaking, my knees knocking together. Like, he has no idea that I’ve looked at his face since I was 17 when I was a stoned teenager watching the Internet. Well, he probably knows that.
I’m sure he gets that all the time.
The videos we make at home are like, “Well, we have to film a bunch of gore for this video, so I’m just going to get real red meat from the grocery store and cover myself in real brains and meat.” And then we [got] a real production designer at a professional Hollywood production company [who was] like, “By the way, you don’t actually have to cover yourself in meat. We can make fake meat out of yarn [and] hot glue. We’re professionals.”
The infomercial also reminded me of “Check it Out with Dr. Steve Brule.” They both have a purposefully amateur quality, like a home video gone terribly, awkwardly wrong or something.
Yeah, totally. That’s the cool thing about Abso Lutely‘s stuff—it all looks like hand-made, DIY, shitty nostalgia aesthetics.
But it’s been crafted to look like that.
Yeah! [For] all the videos we make [in Chicago], we just cover my living room with murder tarps and [then] film on a shitty camera. It was so cool to work with experts.
We’ve done videos where I had to make it look like I was crying green slime from my eyeballs, so I’m like, “Obviously I’ll just take mayo and die it green and put it in my eyes,” and then obviously that burned. So it was cool working with people who were like, “Hey, by the way, you can think of alternative solutions to things that would be uncomfortable.”
A lot of that infomercial is about bodies and flesh. How does your own body feature in your work?
We like to think of HELLTRAP in general as a body-horror nightmare experience. We try to make everything fun and funny, but it’s incredibly gore-y and horrific, hence the “nightmare” aspect of it.
A lot of my work deals with—oh my god, I said “my work”—pertains to being a woman or a girl growing up on Long Island, feeling like my body is a horror show and not really knowing what to do with that. So, [I use] comedy as some form of angry, feminist reaction to that. And how do I create angry, feminist comedy with all my friends that are boys?
Yeah—what’s that like?
It is amazing. A lot of my stuff also has to do with being obsessed with my dad, and I think that’s why I’m friends with so many Shrimp Boys.
Your dad’s the original Shrimp Boy?
My dad’s the original Shrimp Boy. My dad’s also the number-one Shrimp Boy fan. And a lot of the Shrimp Boys’ comedy is them discovering all the worst parts of their own masculinity. The Shrimp Boys are like nerdy, anime, socially anxious men dealing with how to occupy that space and being apologetic for being male.
You’re performing at Baby’s All Right on April 20. HELLTRAP has done 4/20 shows here in New York before.
We’ve done three 4/20 shows with AdHoc. We don’t think of ourselves as stoner comedy—we’re all basically too anxious to even smoke weed—[but] it works. Performing for high people is actually great, cause they’re like, “WOAHHHH! A pimple exploding blood!”
We like going on tour every year so we all have an excuse to hang out, and this year, the show is being closed out by Mister Wallace, this amazing queer rapper we’re bringing from Chicago. I like going on tour and being like, “Yo! Here’s a show showing you how cool Chicago is.” That’s the best part of doing HELLTRAP—New York and LA are where the biz is, but Chicago is where the freaks are.