The Eyeball Kid

Comedian Sarah Sherman from “SNL” is about to make Richmond squirm.   

With her loud clown wear and freakish, squirrel-next-door-vibe, Sarah Sherman is hands down the funniest, most unpredictable cast member on “Saturday Night Live” as the iconic sketch comedy show heads into its 50th season. But you don’t really know her, up-close and personal-like, until you’ve experienced her stand-up.

That is, until you’ve met Sarah Squirm.

That’s where she unpuckers and lets loose with a steaming shower of neurotic comedy and cringing ‘body horror,’ maybe a “Seinfeld” bass jam or two, all buoyed by her lovable, manic onstage energy which burns rubber right past vintage, coked-out Robin Williams-and-Koko-the-Gorilla-territory. And we won’t even get into her torturous use of medical videos and eye-burning, overhead genitalia animation.

“She’s not afraid to be bold, gross, or weird. As a matter of fact, she leans hard into that. It’s her whole brand,” says Bryan Tucker, a Richmond native and writer for “SNL” for nearly two decades. “My personal feeling is she comes from the Gilda Radner mold where she takes big, loud, sometimes silly characters and imbues them with humanity.”

Tucker says Sherman came to “SNL” totally ready.

“She can play lots of different types, but her real strength is she has a style of comedy that’s completely her own,” he says. “You can see that unique voice in many of the Weekend Update pieces she does.” Another memorable sketch which provides a good example of her aesthetic, he notes, involves actor Oscar Isaac and a meatball virus band breaking out on her body. Check it out, if you haven’t seen it.

 

Having witnessed her late-night set at Hopscotch in Raleigh, North Carolina last year, I caught up with Sherman this week from Los Angeles, where she was visiting friends before returning to perform in Richmond at the National this weekend with her opener, comedian and actor Jack Bensinger (“The Bear,” “The Eric Andre Show”).

Style Weekly: How’s the tour going so far? There’s been one show, I think. 

Sarah Sherman: I’ve been doing random shows here and there, but there’s only been one so far on this tour [in Arkansas]. It was so awesome. This tour is a lot of places I haven’t been before. Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma. I was a little nervous about how Arkansas would go, but it was a fun reminder that there are freaks everywhere.

Can you explain to our readers the genesis of the Sarah Squirm nickname?

Sure, it started in high school because of my vibe. But I think now Squirm kind of applies to the content of the show. It’s a nice trigger warning. You’ve seen the show … you know there will be guts, flesh and wiggling things. But the genesis of it was I really was a squirmy, weird, little ugly kid. So the content of my work seems to have arisen out of just being gross.

You came up in the Chicago noise music scene, right? Richmond has pretty respected noise, punk and metal scenes.

Yes! Yes. This summer I set intentions for the tour. I wanted to do a show, for sure, in New Orleans, Kansas City, and I really wanted to do a show in Richmond because of the noise scene. I’ve done a show there once before at Gallery5. But I love the noise freaks that come out of Richmond … and yes, I’d love to check out GwarBar.

How did the scene in Chicago inform or influence your comedy?

I came up at all those DIY shows, my friends ran those venues and had big papier-mâché  heads all over the place. Everyone’s bed was like a bunk bed built into the ceiling that looked like an old, dilapidated ship. In the basement, they would have crazy noise shows and I would do shows with the crazy noise people because it was so encouraging. Everyone was just going for it, doing all this crazy crap, and I was so inspired by them.

Can you tell us about your visual aesthetic, does the clown stuff come from any particular place? Do you work with any designers or artists?

I’ve always worn crazy crap my whole life, because it’s just fun. It’s funny, when I was doing Chicago noise shows, or when I would be on tour: I did a show in Boston with my friend Alaina Stamatis and the Jazz Massagers, and [she] would perform with fishnet body suits with rats covering her nipples. She had stuffed rats in the suit and that was the outfit. And I would wear body suits with painted intestines and gore, that was my costume. It’s fun for me. As you saw at [Hopscotch], it’s very maximalist. It’s a lot to see visually, it’s a lot to hear, it’s a lot to take in.

But I understand that the tickets are getting more expensive to my shows and I feel kinda bad about that, so I want to make sure that people get a total sensory experience … so it’s a real bang for their buck.

Yeah, I had no idea what to expect when I first saw you, which I think is the best way to see your show the first time. I remember afterwards, I posted something about how it reminded me of old school Butthole Surfers gigs, where they would play sex change operation videos and like, nearly burn the place down. Literally, it was dangerous to go to their shows, people were scared, but it was unlike anything else out there.

(Laughs) Yeah. You know what’s funny, coming from doing those kinds of noise shows, I’ve been at shows where people were exploding light bulbs and stuff like that. And that actually is the difference between noise and comedy: the driving aggression of noise is a little bit to alienate. Yet the goal of comedy is to kind of not alienate. So even though my show can be alienating, I don’t want anyone to feel in danger or unsafe, because I want them to be comfortable and laughing. The comedy clubs always keep a cool air-conditioned temperature and comfortable seats, which helps the laughs.

I saw some of your comedic influences were people like Todd Barry and Maria Bamford, and I really like Todd, too, he’s so great at crowd work.

Me too! He’s great.

I wondered how much your shows change on a nightly basis?

The show is whatever I’m feeling from the crowd. I do a lot of crowd work. Me and my friend Jack Bensinger, who I’m bringing on the road to open for me, everytime we get to a city, we sit down for an hour and write as many local jokes as possible. I’ll get to the city and ask like, the venue manager or someone at a coffee shop for all the local gossip. It’s fun, I learn more about the town, even though I’m only there for 10 or 18 hours or whatever. I hope that people appreciate it and that it feels like a custom experience.

So if you know any Richmond gossip, I’d love to know about it.

I’ll have to think about that … You know, I’ve written about “SNL” before, I did a cover story back in 2008 about Bryan Tucker and went to a show taping and hung out backstage. The host was Ashton Kutcher that night, and I was so amazed how when I went in, they just gave me free rein and I was wandering around, in the middle of it, while the show was happening. 

Yeah (laughs). No one has time, everyone’s in their own chaos spiral, nobody has time to check up on you. If you get in, it’s just like ‘alright, see you later.’

There are famous people everywhere, it’s unnerving. The night I was there, Cameron Diaz, Demi Moore, Puff Daddy, were all hanging out. I ended up sitting on a sofa in the writers’ room next to Jonah Hill, he had a Daniel Johnston T-shirt on, and he was like, “Let’s go down and see Gnarls Barkley!” So a bunch of us ran down that back stairwell and literally out onto the taping floor, which made this NBC suit totally freak out and start yelling [Both of us laugh]. But I wondered, how hard has it been for you to import your non-traditional, or “deranged sensibilities” into the show?

It’s been so interesting because I was so lucky to have immediately linked up with amazing writers who totally got it. You know, like Dan Bulla, who I write with a lot. We did this sketch called “The Anomalous Man,” where I play this mythical creature beast with Dua Lipa, it was kind of an “Elephant Man” parody.

When we were writing it, Bulla was like, “oh and by the way, you need to have a hunchback with an eyeball on it.” It was so amazing, you know what I mean? I feel more seen than I can see myself. Dan also came up with the Meatball sketch. So it hasn’t felt like a struggle at all … Everything I do has an eyeball on it. I could easily pigeonhole myself. That’s what’s great about “SNL,” you have to stretch your muscles, try new things and challenge yourself.

 

I don’t know if people know about your fascination with eyeballs. Didn’t that come from your family?

Yeah (laughs). I just have this fixation on eyeballs because my grandma had one of hers removed, and she would play these practical jokes on me where she would take the lens out. When you have a prosthetic eyeball, they sew in like a white prosthetic orb to place hold, and the thing that looks like an eyeball is just like a hand-painted prosthetic disc that goes over it, kind of like a shoehorn. She had a bunch of those and I inherited them when she died.

But she would play these pranks on me where she wouldn’t put her eyeball in, or she would take her dentures out and scare me in the morning when I came down for breakfast, when I was staying at her house in Boca. So that obviously embedded an obsession with the archetype of the eyeball. Now it’s her fault that I’m like this!

I heard you wore your grandma’s eyeball to your first “SNL” audition as a good luck charm.

Yeah, my first one. I had auditioned for “SNL” a couple times that nobody really knows about. They come around and it was the first one I had done. I didn’t get the job then, so I wonder if it was even a good luck charm at all?

I’ve also noticed that you’ve developed a bond with Colin Jost on the show. I remember when he started, I made some crack to Bryan that there was no way they could’ve found a whiter guy without simulating a weekly near-death experience on live TV (“go into the light” etc). Is he as white as he appears or have you located a secret soulfulness behind the Aryan exterior?

Totally (laughs). It all comes out of support. The first weeks and months there, I was just figuring out how to do network television. It was definitely challenging. He said, “you should come on Weekend Update and just be yourself.” And I was like, “alright, whatever you say.” And I took his kindness and used it to just bully him. And it worked great, but it only worked because he’s having fun … No, he’s awesome.

 

This next question, I wasn’t sure whether to bring up, because I know you’re not trying to keep this TikTok flame burning. But something happened a few months ago where a random woman posted a video online that got attention, with her saying that “SNL” has never hired a “hot woman” in its 50-year run. Your response on X was hilarious, you tweeted: “Just found out I’m not hot. Please give me and my family space to grieve privately and uglily at this time.” But I wondered if you found anything interesting about that whole conversation regarding beauty standards in showbusiness?

You know what’s funny? I was genuinely … that person is deranged. “SNL” is network television and they are trying to appeal to all kinds of people in America. Hollywood often uses very photogenic, gorgeous people to do that. And I would say “SNL” has a broad history of hiring incredibly beautiful women.

There is something that happens to me at the job that’s kind of funny, where they’ll put me in a long blonde wig and nice clothes and everyone will be like, “Wait, you’re pretty underneath the rattail and glasses?” So putting me in these strict Hollywood standards of conventional beauty does this weird thing that actually is empowering. The cool thing about performance is wearing a bunch of different wigs and playing a bunch of different characters. I would never have stretched myself in that direction without “SNL.” But I did think [the TikTok drama] was funny, because so much of the show has conventional beauty.

Afterward you said you wish you hadn’t responded at all, because it gave the post more attention.

Yeah, which is exactly what the person wanted. I think they were attention seeking.

Do you have a favorite experience with any performer, “SNL” or otherwise?

This past finale, Jake Gyllenhaal was the co-host. He’s such a good actor and just willing to go there and be aggressive and crazy and chaotic and high energy. I had a sketch at dress rehearsal that didn’t make it, totally bombed, but he’s so committed. I think a lot of times, I can be afraid of celebrities because they’re beautiful movie stars. But he was just like a cool, crazy guy. It was an opportunity to just go crazy with a movie star. The first time he hosted, we did that sketch where I play Chucky and I appreciated anyone willing to go there.

Oh, now there’s some local trivia for you. That guy that created Chucky went to my high school here.

Wait, Don Mancini is from Richmond!? I LOVE HIM.

Yeah, when I saw the Chucky TV show, there are all these references to Richmond, like street names and the principal’s name at our school, kind of sprinkled in there.

Oh, hilarious. Hilarious.

I’ve never interviewed him, but would like to some day.

He’s the best. I can connect you guys. I love him, he’s amazing.

 

Also we did a story awhile back about how some former VCU students had worked on the first few seasons of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” I’m sure you love that as well.

Of course! You mean like Gary Panter? Or not Wayne White? Richmond is so cool.

Not those guys, I’ll have to find the story and email it to you … Speaking of other acting projects, I don’t know if you want to go more into film. I wondered, if you could choose to work with any director, from John Waters to Brandon Cronenberg, Crispin Glover to Panos Cosmatos (“Mandy”)-

 John Waters! All of them! I’d work with Cronenberg, dad and son.

Any other projects or stuff coming up for fans to keep an eye out for?

You know, I made a bunch of really crazy tour promo videos. They’re all going to be coming out over the next few weeks while I’m touring. They’re crazy and I worked really hard on them and they should be fun. Yeah, go to my website (sarahsquirm.com), I’ll be posting them.

Anything you want to say about your opener, Jack Bensinger?

He’s the funniest person on the entire planet. And he’s funnier than me, so. Tell people to get there early, like before him. Because I like to open for my opener, so I can set the tone. So if you get there early, you can see me do 20 minutes before the opener.

OK, it was great talking to you, Sarah. I’m happy for you, congrats on the success. 

Oh my god, thank you so much. I’ll see ya soon.

Sarah Sherman performs at the National with Jack Bensinger on Saturday, June 29. Doors are at 6 p.m. and the show is at 7 p.m. Go here to buy tickets.

 

 

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