Sarah Squirm portrait by Parker Day
Entertainment

From Pubes to Healthcare: The Stupid Brilliance of Sarah Squirm

The body-horror artist and comedian discusses her comedy show, the experiment of Los Angeles, ‘Uncut Gems,’ and Bernie Sanders.
March 9, 2020, 11:59am

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Stupid Issue, which is dedicated to the entertaining, goofy, and just plain dumb. It features stories celebrating ridiculous ideas, trends, and products; pieces arguing that unabashed stupidity can be a great part of life; and articles calling out the bad side of stupidity. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

I went to my first Helltrap Nightmare comedy show because I liked the promotional poster: Two grotesque green witches rode skinless penises like broomsticks. The penises ejaculated ghosts, the witches farted out more ghosts, and the nipples that were, for some reason, on the testicles squirted out ghosts, too. Even the ghosts seemed to fart out more ghosts. The live show was just as stupid and weird.

While it’s billed as an ensemble—with sketches from the troupe the Shrimp Boys (Luke Taylor, Wyatt Fair, and David Brown), stand-up by the surreal comedian Scott Egleston, and performances by whatever “fellow freaks” are in town—it’s really Sarah Squirm’s show. She hosts and does short sets throughout the performances. She also draws the posters and designs the swag, both acting as visual “trigger warnings”—or, in my case, a lure—to let people know what they’re getting into. Her outfits are grotesque, glittery, and often reveal what’s going on beneath her skin. Her live-action animation slideshows are hideous inventions where pepperonis stand in for nipples, curly-haired wigs are pubes, and fake eyeballs pop and ooze pus. She calls it all a “Technicolor Pee-wee’s Playhouse of gore” and hopes to add Smell-O-Vision in the future.

Squirm (real name: Sarah Sherman) came from Long Island, New York, but incubated her style in the dank spaces of the Chicago DIY scene before taking her Helltrap crew on the road to whoever was willing to book them. After years of touring, Squirm made the jump to TV in late 2018 with the Adult Swim infomercial “Flayaway” about “a revolutionary new cosmetic procedure that will leave you breathless, and ga-ga-ga-gorgeous!” (i.e., it flays your skin off). Last year, she spent September and October opening for Eric Andre before performing the same deed for the taping of his upcoming Netflix special, and soon after, the entire Helltrap crew moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to give that thing called “showbiz” a whirl.

I caught up with Squirm as she took a morning walk through L.A.’s Griffith Park. When she picked up my call, she noticed I had an L.A. area code, even though I hadn’t lived there for seven years.

VICE: It says Beverly Hills, but I never lived in Beverly Hills.
Sarah Squirm: My phone number says “Garden City,” and that bothers me. I’m from really Jewish Long Island, and Garden City is really Catholic Long Island, so that’s where I draw the line. It’s like, can my area code really reflect that I sort of live in [the world of] Uncut Gems?

I just saw that movie a few days ago. I loved it, but I bet growing up Jewish on Long Island, it meant more to you.
It’s probably the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life. When I saw it I was next to my boyfriend, who grew up Catholic, and the whole time I was leaning over him and saying, ‘You have no idea what’s going on in this movie, you idiot.’ Every time I go home, I’m on Long Island for like eight minutes and I just have violent, eviscerating diarrhea because I’m so stressed out. That’s why Uncut Gems was so fucking perfect.

The movie’s a nightmare, like the Jewish version of The Exorcist.
I wasn’t raised to be told I was bad, or that there were sins inside me I needed to exorcise. I think Jews post-Holocaust are raised like, “We are the chosen people.” I’ve always been taught that I’m gifted and a genius.

Catholic guilt is like, “You’re never going to be truly pure.”
Jewish guilt is more like my dad, who’s very Howard Ratner [Adam Sandler in _Uncut Gems_]. He’s always calling me up on a High Holiday: “Did you go to shul?” I’m like, “No.” And he always says, “Just remember, 6 million in the oven, that’s all I’m gonna say.” That’s Jewish guilt.

I’ve seen Helltrap Nightmare three times, and it’s so much fun. Just a very visual show.
I like the magic of being transported to a different realm. You’re spending $7, and I don’t know what horrible service industry job you have that doesn’t pay you enough, so if you’re paying tickets to go to a show, you better see a show. Speaking of Jewish guilt, I do have a lot of guilt in performing. I feel bad that I’m sucking up time in the universe, and so if you’re coming to see this show, I gotta make it worth it. I can’t just get onstage and be like, “Blah blah blah, my wife is a bitch and my mom is a whore” and that’s the show.

I lived in L.A. before and after podcasts became a thing, and you saw this change as they became the more dominant form, where performers would record their shows and have that more in mind than the actual show they’re there performing.
God bless all my beautiful, gorgeous, hilarious friends who have podcasts, but there is something incredibly low effort to that style, of hoping to coast on your personality alone. Guess what? I don’t have a good personality, I’m not interesting as a person. But if my personality isn’t enough, if my jokes about my dad aren’t enough, you can always look at my cool outfit that’s got veiny tits and my intestines falling out.

How did you find this style of yours in the Chicago DIY scene?
Seinfeld. I used to take the Long Island Rail Road to [Upright Citizens Brigade] to see ASSSSCAT when I was 17, and thought it was the coolest shit. Then I moved to Chicago and was doing improv stuff, and was like, This isn’t who I am. This isn’t the proper vehicle to express myself. All the while I was getting into the noise and DIY scene. In Chicago, people can buy synthesizers instead of spending eight million dollars in rent like in New York or L.A. or wherever. My friend Mike Sugarman would be getting naked and taping chorizo to his dick and screaming, another friend would dress like a clown in a psychotic carnival, another would put crickets in a bag and shake them in front of the audience. That’s where I started doing comedy, and it was like, This is it. This is where the freaks are.

The whole environment of Helltrap Nightmare has that DIY communal environment to it.
We’re a family. We’re a codependent group of friends who all tour together. They help me film my videos, and we don’t necessarily write together, but performing is so lonely and scary and feels so bad, it’s really nice to have community. And now we live in L.A., which is a capital-I industry town, just because people have to work to pay rent, so they have that “girl’s gotta eat” mentality. And it’s geographically more spread out. L.A. was literally built to defy any sense of community. My conspiracy brain is like, “The city took away the trains, and geographical cohesion is how community organizing happens, so people here can’t organize [as much] because everyone’s in their cars.”

L.A. seems like an experiment where you atomize everyone and throw them in competition and see what happens.
I don’t think I ever got into comedy to be a famous person, but this place definitely makes you feel bad about yourself. I got into comedy to work and make stuff and have fun, and now I have to compare myself to others to have any sense of self. It’s really imbalanced. All the comedy in L.A. and New York is so great, but a lot of times it’s like, “Dude, you did shows in Silverlake your entire open mic career. Do you know what it’s like to do a show called Helltrap Nightmare hosted by a fucking freaky Jewish woman in the middle of MAGA country in Bumfuck Nowhere, Indiana, where you have to scream over Jimmy Buffett dads? Where you literally had to drive six hours to the middle of a cornfield to do a show where you make zero dollars and so you have to dance on the bar for tips?”

You actually danced on the bar for tips?
Comedians in the Midwest are scrappy. We’re always touring and doing shows in the middle of random places, and that’s a cool thing I miss. I like traveling because it’s fun to talk to people who disagree with you. And now, coming up to the election, all my stuff is Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.

I’ve seen you be more outward in your Bernie support recently on Twitter and onstage.
Anytime someone is screaming in public, it’s political, or whatever. I don’t know a smart way to phrase that. But it’s a logical progression from “Why are pubes deemed socially unacceptable?” to “Why is Medicare for All deemed socially unacceptable?” I’m always dreaming about something I’m pissed at, and we’re in an emergency situation. I don’t have health insurance. I do have trouble paying the bills. I can’t make my living as an artist because of the world we’re living in, so of course, all I think about is Bernie all the time.

I don’t think me talking about it is going to change anyone’s mind. I’m just a dumbass Jewish comedian. I read one book over the past year. I just like adding more noise to the universe. Anytime someone talks about Bernie, a little Jewish spiritual cosmological butterfly floats into the universe, into the realm of ideas, and somehow that’s going to help. I don’t think I’m an activist because I say stuff onstage, but I happened to get this amazing opportunity to open for Eric Andre for a month, looking at 3,000 people at once, and like, what am I going to do, not talk about our lord and savior, the tall Jew king Bernie? It’s like, isn’t it crazy that we’re afraid of pubes? Isn’t it crazy that college costs money?

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.