By Lauren Ball
The crowd erupted into unabashed roars of laughter as I made my way into the darkened back room of Chicago’s Hideout Inn on an otherwise mundane Thursday evening. The show had kicked off 30 minutes ago and the room was filled, from corner to beer-drenched corner, with young faces hoping to lose themselves in the outrageous, otherworldly narratives of comedian Sarah Sherman.
While Sherman bounced around the stage, flipping through exaggerated emotions with little to no warning, a film of her marrying a goat buzzed in the backhand corner. This seemingly chaotic mess, tethered to no discernable sense of reality, is part of what keeps her shows largely sold out – they offer viewers an alternative.
Sherman’s comedy show Helltrap Nightmare attracts the type of crowd that never attend stand-up shows or, at least, would prefer not to admit it. Dressed in plain black t-shirts and New Balance sneakers, it was an audience filled with faces you might expect to see brooding alone in the library or avoiding eye contact on the train, and in a lucky turn of events, they were all here, laughing.
This seemingly effortless crossing of boundaries is exactly what makes Helltrap Nightmare so revolutionary – it’s a stand-up show for those who are profoundly uncomfortable with stand-up. “I started Helltrap when I was pretty new in the stand-up scene,” Sherman expressed. “For months I had been wondering, “Where do all the freaks go?” and realized I had to create my own space for freaks to experiment.”
The eventual culmination of Helltrap certainly provides a solution to this simple question. At one late September show, Sherman (known as Sarah “Squirm” during her routines) joined local Chicago “freaky” comedians such as Alex Heller and Erin Grotheer of Andorka’s Comedy Revue.
Though similar in their acerbic approaches, each act projected it’s own specific vibe. Heller lamented over food business disasters while dressed in her uniform, recounting the moment she saved her boss’ convertible from imminent destruction by multiple space heaters. And Grotheer tackled the awkward biker-driver relations, comparing the strength of car engines to her “two little legs.”
One common thread became steadily clear as the night progressed: they were all unapologetically, unequivocally fearless. Sherman, in particular, takes fierce jabs at the traditional expectations of women.
“My work is reclaiming the grotesqueness of the female body,” Sherman said in an interview following the show. “My entire life, I’ve been made to feel ‘gross’ about how my ‘female’ body strays from the norm of what society tells us ‘female bodies’ should look like. That’s why all of my work loudly, garishly and vulgarly shoves pubes, slime and p—- grime into audiences’ faces.”
As Sherman performed at the Hideout, clad in a homemade silver jumpsuit with colorful boobs and internal organs painted on the exterior, she didn’t merely push at or stretch the boundaries of “femininity” – she destroyed them, and proceeded to reconstruct them before about 100 startled eyes.
Perhaps one of the most impressive stings of Helltrap, and the routines that comprise it, is the subversive nature that’s so necessary to each act but isn’t overwhelmingly obvious. The often shockingly vulgar, dystopian nature of the show spins a parallel world to the one just outside the door.
Through a complete disregard of boundaries, binaries, identifications, and norms, Sherman has created a chaotic universe that seeps into her own identity. “I’m not quite sure what it is yet that I do. I’m a stand-up comedian who’s never written a ‘joke’ in my damn life, so I really don’t know how I ‘identify’ anymore,” she admitted.
In a national comedy scene so often dominated by male voices, Sherman’s routine rings all the more significant. As founder of Women in Comedy, an organization that highlights and connects females in the comedy industry, comedian Victoria Elena Noyes is no stranger to the struggles women face as performers in the scene.
“It’s difficult to have women’s voices heard without being trampled by the male voice,” Noyes said. “I’ve experienced that personally with comedy teams where you’re trying to assert your comedic voice. A male peer or director might come in and, because they don’t understand your perspective, try to change your comedic voice.”
Sherman energetically took the Hideout stage for Helltrap with outlandish acts such as “Where Did Sarah Pluck That Hair-a” before revealing that about half of the hairs projected on a screen came from a “real live goat.” It became apparent that she wasn’t just performing to make the audience laugh – she was taking something back, something that she felt had been stolen from women and is rightfully ours.
I watched as Sherman mapped an escape out of the ridged constructs within which the women in the crowd had grown up. Unsurprisingly, the female faces, brightening with each new joke, also appeared to understand.
“I love making stuff with my friends, but my manic energy demands immediacy,” Sherman said in the interview. “I’m a little bit of a psycho, and I like the act of working on new s— every night, whether it’s at an open mic or a show. It’s exhausting, but sometimes I feel like if I stop, I’ll die!”