‘SNL’s’ Sarah Sherman, aka Sarah Squirm, is back in Chicago

‘SNL’s’ Sarah Sherman, aka Sarah Squirm, is back in Chicago

Something cringey this way comes.

Sarah Sherman, aka Sarah Squirm, aka ringmaster of the Chicago comedy bacchanal “Helltrap Nightmare,” aka the freshest new face last season on “Saturday Night Live” and a safe bet for stardom, returned to the scene of the crime the other night. Last September, she played a show at Sleeping Village in Avondale then left for New York the very next day to audition for “SNL”; within a handful of weeks, Sherman’s transgressive, confrontational yet charming act had a home on creaky old legacy media. This was way less expected than your typical unknown-to-late night celebrity trajectory.

Thursday night at the first of four homecoming shows, Sherman reminded the audience — no, soaked in — the fact that she made her name in Chicago by burrowing into the body politic. Quite literally.

Midway through her hourlong set, she showed a set of slides of blood splatters and asked the audience to identify the source — hang nail? pimple? Doritos dust? With each increasingly disgusting answer, she cut to illustrative AV footage, hot springs of pus oozing from cardboard orifices and strips of (faux) skin torn off fingers, each (homemade) video a small terror, made with the day-glow color and DIY arts-and-crafts rowdiness of an episode of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” during, ahem, more traditional stand-up, she thrust her crotch into the front row. She addressed her body parts.

She pinged and ponged. It’s all kind of a great mess. She wore a paisley psychedelic matching two-piece and said the eight years she lived in Chicago were “the ugliest eight years of my life.” She pretended briefly to be a standard-issue stand-up playing Zanies. She asked what that smell was. She tightened her shoulders, waddled across the stage and claimed she was Lori Lightfoot. She spoke of diarrhea within minutes of being on stage.

Ew, someone groaned.

“You think that’s disgusting?” Sherman screamed. “You ever heard of Vietnam!?!”

New proximity to Lorne Michaels aside, it was the Sarah Squirm that Chicago once cringed through, turning her monthly Hideout freak shows into must-see events. (“A circus of vulgarity,” the Chicago Reader memorably described them.) Indeed, if anything, Sherman’s gross-outs have become less remarkable than her steamrolling confidence, which bursts out in breathless rants less concerned with a typical set up-punchline pattern than a casual connection. She’s fun to hang with. I hate to call this star power, but there you go. Some people, you know† Their freshness is a big smile. After an “SNL” debut in which Sherman stole the venerable “Weekend Update,” played the homicidal Chucky, stabbed Jake Gyllenhaal in the leg and made a short film in which she revealed to her date that she had tiny singing (and vomiting) meatballs attached to her skin (like R. Crumb boils), she arrived at these sold-out Chicago shows with a glow of inevitability.

Watching her right now, on the ascent, she’s picking and choosing from smart influences but also just trying stuff† The precedents are obvious but the alchemy is electric. She brings the body horror of a David Cronenberg film to the joyful bad taste of a John Waters film, adds the manic delivery of Robin Williams, the hair of Patti Smith and the handmade spirit of Chicago storefront theater. She started here in improv but it’s hard to imagine this sensibility blending in. she popslike a Belushi or a Poehler.

She finds a beat, then pushes, pushes, pushes.

Her Long Island family, their Jewish New York caricature, their accents, their insistence — why, they ask, why would she move to California? Move back to New York! “Because it’s (expletive) New York! (Expletive) New York! (Expletive) New York! (Expletive) New York! Best pizza, best bagels, best water, best public transportation system, best rats, best tiny cockroaches running around, best medium-size cockroaches running around, best unequal distribution of wealth, best seat of all the world’s financial evils…” Etc , etc.

She wears you out, breaks you down. Your head spins. She’s so fast even when she’s stumbling, rooting around for a funny line, and failing to connect, she crumbles well. “I’ve lost it,” she said, deciding: “Well, going to grad school! See you guys later.” She walked into the wings and could be heard loudly applying to the University of Chicago to study medieval architecture. In life, she studied theater at Northwestern University.

And it shows. Nihilistic as her act becomes, it’s always kind of sweet, sincere, knowing and grounded. She’s raising questions of beauty and image. As for the grotesque: She’s owning the shame and sexualization drilled into women, then, with glee, flinging it back.

The audience, of course, flinches.

“Disgusting!?” Sherman shouts. “You see what we did to Afghanistan!??”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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