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Chicago comic Sarah Sherman makes audiences squirm

With Helltrap Nightmare, Sherman embraces the grotesque through comedy.

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As a high schooler in Long Island, Sarah Sherman was given the nickname "Squirm" because she was "really skinny and gross and squirmy." The name stuck, but it's since taken on a different meaning: the comic is now known for her absurdist, gross-out stand-up. She will handle a bag of her own pubes, or chug a can of clam chowder. And her show, Helltrap Nightmare, encourages others to embrace the "squirm" in themselves.

The performers who take ownership of their vile behavior at Helltrap are mostly women and people of nonbinary gender. "Being a woman, you're made to feel gross about things that are gross about you," Sherman says. "People perceive the female body as grotesque. I'm trying to own that grotesqueness as a trophy through comedy."

Helltrap Nightmare feels like something that would be right at home with the nonsensical videos Adult Swim plays in its 2 AM slot, a place reserved for bizarre comedy that often makes viewers uncomfortable before it makes them laugh. Past nights have featured comic Carly Ballerini performing a stand-up set as a drunk clown who makes balloon animals, and noise artist Forced Into Femininity crawling through the crowd while covered in trash bags. The lineup frequently unites comics and noise musicians; to Sherman, the similarities between the mediums are obvious. "Noise is just harsh insanity," she says. "That's kind of what stand-up is: mostly really depressing people literally living out their worst nightmare in front of you."

Sherman also creates the posters for every show: trippy horror-themed drawings of women made out of seafood and raw meat. The artwork for the upcoming event at the Hideout is a photograph of a bright-red Sherman covered with a few stragically placed shrimp as she poses with two pig heads—it's a fair warning of what to expect from the comic onstage. She hopes to incorporate more visual and performance art into future appearances—and find those episodes a home on the Internet—providing more opportunities for performers who don't neatly fit into standard definitions of "comedy" or "music."

Even though Sherman has been seriously doing stand-up since only November 2015, she's turned her own nightmarish onstage persona into a distinct point of view that earned her a spot in the Lincoln Lodge's 2016-2017 cast and the title of "Best stand-up comic" in the Reader's Best of Chicago 2016 readers' poll. But she's not changing her ways for more mainstream stages. "You will be terrified," she says. "I will use a larger platform to disgust more people."  v

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