Sarah Squirm's comedy celebrates her body in all its oozing, disgusting glory | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Sarah Squirm's comedy celebrates her body in all its oozing, disgusting glory

Helltrap Nightmare, the monthly showcase she hosts at the Hideout, is a circus of vulgarity.

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  - MATTHEW SCHWERIN
  • Matthew Schwerin
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The comedy of Sarah Sherman, alias Sarah Squirm, is a reclamation of the grotesque. Body functions play a key role in her act, which includes reenactments of bodily fluids—simulations concocted with ordinary groceries—emerging from various orifices. Her ambition is to make her audience cringe—but in a fun way.

Her obsession with goo and gore stems from a desire to celebrate her body in all its gross and oozing glory. Growing up on Long Island, specifically in Great Neck, she saw her well-to-do classmates receive nose jobs and breast enhancements during their teenage years. Meanwhile, she was horrified when, at the age of 13, her pubic hairs began sprouting. She waxed them away in self-defense.

"My whole life I was taught that women are either sexualized or vulgarized," she says. "I'm talking about my own body politics, so I'm owning that shame, guilt, pain, and embarrassment by performing the act of torture on myself. If you're telling me my pubes are disgusting, well, I'm going to make a video of my pubes growing and then strangling me."

Sherman's act is a combination of one-liners and longer multimedia pieces incorporating PowerPoint slides and video. She often debuts new segments at Helltrap Nightmare, the monthly showcase she hosts at the Hideout. It's a circus of vulgarity. Bloody cardboard tampons the size of golden retrievers hang on the upstage curtain. The acts stray far from the traditional setup-punch line stand-up routine. At last October's Halloween show, for example, comic Nicky Martin strapped a Roomba across his midsection with duct tape, then read graphic erotic fiction about making sweet love to said Roomba. The show routinely sells out, to the point that it's evident Sherman requires a larger venue and more stage time. Her 45-minute set at the Empty Bottle in mid-February was the longest she has ever performed solo, and it drew roughly 80 people who waited in anticipation of the next gross thing like a crowd of fascinated third-graders.

Sherman performs at the Empty Bottle in February. - MATTHEW SCHWERIN
  • Matthew Schwerin
  • Sherman performs at the Empty Bottle in February.

On the night of her show at the Bottle, Sherman chugs coffee and nervously paces around the green room—essentially an unfinished basement—while her friend and opening act Ruby McCollister looks on. She wears a pink bodysuit depicting boobs, pubic hair, and a digestive tract. Each hair follicle on the breasts has been carefully placed and measured. The style of the artwork on the bodysuit is reminiscent of The Ren & Stimpy Show, one of her influences: clean outlines with an attention to gory details. A robe, adorned with reflective circles the size of Christmas lights, is draped over her shoulders. She resembles a peacock holding a disco ball.

As she paces, Sherman chants lines to herself from an upcoming segment about a phone sex line, during which she'll don a pale mask resembling a dead-eyed Michael Jackson and project her actual cell number on the screen. "I want you to look at my pussy and think it's going to teach you French because it looks like Muzzy," she says, swaying seductively. "Do you have a rock-hard boner right now? Well, my bush is always rock hard because it's a thicket of coarse, wiry Jew pubes."

She flops onto one of the couches and lets out a frustrated groan. "I have this narrative that everyone has seen my jokes, and I always assume everyone hates me and nobody cares," she says, sounding defeated. "I don't even like doing this." After the show, when her nerves have subsided, she hugs friends who have come out in support and heads back to the green room, where she lets out an audible sigh of relief.

Sherman's work resembles that of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the duo behind the absurd Adult Swim sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Like them, Sherman uses low production values to skewer self-seriousness in comedy. She and her videographer, Luke Taylor—who's also a member of sketch group the Shrimp Boys—use a single camera, and any special effects are DIY.

Sherman's costumes backstage at the Empty Bottle - MATTHEW SCHWERIN
  • Matthew Schwerin
  • Sherman's costumes backstage at the Empty Bottle

She formulates bodily fluids from recipes she has devised and perfected. She makes come from chunky cottage cheese blended with milk. She stuffs chili, chocolate, and hairs from wigs into diapers that later burst in a geyser of poop and pubes. She purchases fake blood—she prefers the kind from Party City for its "syrupy and bisque-ness" qualities—and occasionally mixes it with ketchup. Once she dyed mayonnaise with green food coloring to simulate slime, then shot a video segment in which the substance dripped out of her mouth, eyes, nipples, and vagina. "It was burning my face," she remembers.

She's borrowed from the surreal chaos of Pee-wee's Playhouse, and cites The Nanny and The Golden Girls as comedic influences as well. "I feel like you can't make fucked-up comedy without having a solid grounding in knowing how more traditional comedy works," she says.

"Her bits feel so honest, but so ugly at the same time," says Sullivan Davis, program director at the Hideout. "She creates a world in the show where putting microphones on toasters makes sense."

Both of Sherman's slide shows at the Empty Bottle satirize grooming habits. The first is a mock infomercial for "Flayaway," a process that simplifies body issues by peeling the skin away entirely. Dandruff, she says, is no longer a problem after Flayaway! Cut to a close-up of Sherman painted red, scratching her scalp until veal brains flop onto her shoulder.

In the second multimedia bit, she reenacts how she trimmed her unwieldy bush at the age of 13. She portrays a pube on camera by sticking her head into a dark gray cardboard cylinder. It appears as if she's wearing an overripe banana suit. After Sherman explains each hair-removal technique—shaving, tweezing, waxing, etc—the PowerPoint plays a clip of Sherman, in costume, being plucked from a pore as blood and pus erupt. The audience gasps. "I want to look at all the brutal, violent ways we've been telling women they have to lose their body hair, so I zoom in with a microscope both metaphorically and physically," she explains to me after the show.

Sherman, who's 25 and works as a freelance illustrator, has been performing for two and a half years, ever since she graduated from Northwestern in 2015 with a degree in theater. Though she's cornered the Chicago market on body-hair-removal comedy, she finds herself sabotaging her own career before it takes off—specifically by failing to do anything to integrate herself into the national comedy scene. Her act, she fears, doesn't neatly fit into a five-minute slot on, say, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, or function as a natural lead-in to starring on Saturday Night Live. "I was supposed to record a comedy album a year ago, and I just can't do it," she says. "I'm new, so I guess that's why I'm struggling with the idea of putting ideas permanently on a literal record. There's an archival record of my shit that I can never change, that will be in someone's house. I can't bear it."

She also dislikes the idea that with increased exposure comes increased pressure to speak about current events and hot-button issues. That's not her style. "Comedians are replacing philosopher kings," she says. "People listen to Louis CK and are like, 'What does he think about abortion?' Who gives a fuck? He's a comedian, that's not his job. It's interesting to see Louis CK and all these dudes fall from grace because it's like, guess what? These moral compasses you look to for answers are losers who got drunk at bars the past four years.

"I don't want to have to speak for anyone else except for my own experience. And I don't know much about anything, but I can tell you a lot of very specific things about how to make slime come out of your eyes."   v

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