Helltrap Nightmare sounds like one of those sleazy haunted experiences or some twisted escape room where you pay actual money to be imprisoned with a bunch of co-workers you don't like all that much. But it's not some chintzy logic puzzle or some gropey torture-porn thing, either. Instead it's a monthly gross-out, horror-comedy variety show that's hitting Los Angeles for the first time on Thursday, Nov. 9.
Born out of the deranged mind of Chicagoan Sarah Sherman, Helltrap is about pushing comfort levels, and promoting the "fringe" and truly off-kilter shit that had been scrubbed out of a lot of the comedy scene she'd been a part of. "When I started doing stand-up comedy in Chicago, I was desperate for a space for all the freaks to try their freakiest shit," Sherman explains. "The alt-comedy scene in Chicago is awesome, but no weirdo scene in the world is as accepting of/open to wild performance as the Chicago DIY noise scene." Sherman is the show's founder, host and producer.
Though comedy is the field she most identifies with now, she got her start in basement DIY music spaces getting inspired by noise-rock groups such as Forced Into Femininity and Couteau Sang.
Sherman, who is also a graphic designer, started Helltrap Nightmare because she "wanted to marry two worlds together that seemed to never interact in Chicago — the world of comedy and noise."
She continues, "[I] genuinely began to think that a lot of the noise performances I was seeing were oftentimes a lot funnier than a lot of comedians I was seeing. A lot of my own work is very much inspired by the Chicago performance art/freak scene, and I try bringing a lot of that performance style to places like the Laugh Factory and other heavily touristy clubs and venues."
The show itself is a mishmash of grotesque bits designed to shove people out of their comfort zones and, ultimately, to get them to laugh. It's also intended to invite transgressive noise rockers to be funny and to get comedians to be more freaky.
Wyatt Fair, a member of the troupe's sketch team the Shrimp Boys, echoes the "comedy first" approach. "We all consider ourselves comedians first, so we want our crowd to laugh," he says. "There's definitely some challenging of audience expectations, but it's all for the purpose of entertainment. Even if something is high-concept and experimental, it all comes from some sort of personal place, some sort of weird fucked-up trauma, so we aren't hiding from our true weird natures. We're just coating it with this disgusting gelatin and making people deal with it at least one time a month."
Luke Taylor (another Shrimp Boy) claims that Helltrap is for people who are bored with the same old observational stand-up bits that have been stale for a long time. He says it's "for people who don’t want to see another comedy show where seven people get up and give their hottest takes on what dating for millennials is like."
Though it fits in the comedy bucket now, the show got its start in the fertile Chicago underground. "A lot of our fan base grew from people showing up to Helltrap to see their favorite Chicago bands play," Sherman recalls. "One surprising result of Helltrap is that a bunch of music fans were surprised by how much they actually liked being at a comedy show, and were relieved to finally find a comedy show that catered to a style they could identify with. I was genuinely surprised to meet so many metalheads/noise bros who had literally never been to a comedy show before. Honestly, Helltrap forced these aloof, closed-off 'cool' 'punks' to uncross their arms and lighten up a little bit. Like, we get it, you have tattoos, now take off your Carhartt hat and smile for once."
Baked into the Helltrap concept is an attempt to represent a diverse range of voices in two fields that are largely dominated by straight white men. "Comedy bros and noise bros have a lot of power in both of their respective scenes," Sherman says. "Helltrap tries to provide a platform for underrepresented freaks."
Fair says it's all about inclusion: "Helltrap Nightmare is a space for insane performers from many walks of life. The greatest part about this show is that in one night, you can watch a comic book artist dressed up as a chili pepper screaming about being a 'spicy boy,' as well as some of the best stand-ups in the city crush with their fantastically polished material. It satisfies the urges of a wide range of talent and, as a result, a wide range of audience members."
And it's overtly feminist. Sherman describes her work, as host of the show, as "body horror–based."
"Specifically, it explores the grotesque and the violent ways in which society cluelessly deals with the female body," she says. "I do multimedia performances with pimples exploding pus, vagina puppets exploding blood, enormous cauldrons bubbling with cum, you name it. This sets a tone for the show and, unfortunately, these themes of horror are always relevant in — dare I say — Trump's America."
The Shrimp Boys (Taylor, Fair and David Brown) produce new sketches every month that lampoon the fragility and "pathetic-ness of white masculinity" in Trump's America. "Whether it's making fun of SpikeTV or anime nerd culture, the Shrimp Boys never fall short of debasing themselves for the sake of comedy and white male shame," Sherman says.
She continues, "Having a monthly show is sort of a built-in way to be reactionary. Because we're churning out new material every month, it's impossible not to make horror-themed work that is in dialogue with the horrors going on in the world. We truly live in hell, and Helltrap definitely reminds its audience of that but, hopefully, provides a release valve through laughter. Live comedy is escapism and harsh noise is loud enough to drown out the horrors of the world, if only for two hours, in a crowded room with all your friends."
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When asked whether they think Helltrap will be embraced in L.A., Sherman admits that she's only been to L.A. once but was surprised to see how few weirdo comedy shows there are here. "I think L.A. might enjoy having a brief injection of Chicago," she says.
The L.A. performance features Jamie Loftus, Ruby McCollister, Bruce Bundy and a set from Lyra Hill. After the L.A. show, Helltrap hits Joshua Tree. Sherman thinks that "the desert freaks are out there enough to love the Chicago freaks."
HELLTRAP NIGHTMARE: Lyric Hyperion, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Thu., Nov. 9, 10 p.m.; $10. (323) 928-2299, lyrichyperion.com.