“Hideout, do you want to see me put my dead great-grandma’s teeth in my mouth?” comedian AJ Marroquin asks the mostly standing audience packed into the performance space in The Hideout with a flirty but demanding flourish, nonchalantly holding up a pair of dentures. Indeed, the crowd does. And Marroquin, smartly dressed in a button-up shirt, matching skirt and tall black boots, is happy to comply. He’s already had a killer set but this macabre — and strangely hilarious — bit of physical comedy is the icing on the cake.
It’s a Saturday night and we are now in the exact center of an impressive set of performances from comedians, drag queens, musicians and multimedia artists. This is the nightmarishly funny Helltrap Nightmare — a monstrous monthly mainstay at The Hideout, the infamous dive bar-slash-performance venue tucked away in an industrial area near Lincoln Park, that showcases all kinds of comedic weirdness and weird comedy.
Though it’s been running for several years now at the Hideout to very receptive audiences — “It sold out the first time and hasn’t stopped selling out since,” says Hideout talent buyer Sullivan Davis — on Sept. 19 the curtain will close on this chapter of the show’s life when the five core performers — Sarah Sherman, Scott Egleston and The Shrimp Boys (Luke Taylor, Wyatt Fair and David Brown) all pack up and move to Los Angeles together.
“It’s so sad and I just can’t even believe it,” says showrunner Sherman, in the upstairs office at The Hideout before the penultimate show, when asked about the upcoming move. “None of us take for granted that The Hideout is the best place in the world, and Chicago is the best place in the world. Generally in Chicago, and especially at The Hideout, people come out to shows because they care and they want to be challenged and they’re not there to see a famous person.”
That doesn’t mean that Sherman — who often performs as Sarah Squirm — isn’t inching towards fame herself. Outside of the Chicago recognition she’s garnered with Helltrap Nightmare, co-hosting Cole’s open mic, and performing around the city, she’s also recorded a video for Adult Swim, toured with Helltrap and is currently on tour opening for Eric Andre’s “Legalize Everything” tour (which stops at the Chicago Theatre on Sept. 29).
Her offbeat approach to comedy — “If you don’t call an ambulance at the end of this set, you are not an ally,” she declared at one point during the show — has a way of growing on you. “When I first saw Sarah and what she was doing I was like, ‘That’s (messed)-up gross.’ says Hideout owner Tim Tuten. “Then I watched her and I was like, ‘She is doing this really well. She’s got a charisma and a style. She can do this … she is good. And what she has created is really good. It’s called Helltrap Nightmare, it’s not called ‘The Sarah Sherman show.’ And there are all these great comedians that she showcases.”
The Shrimp Boys — who have their own standalone final show at The Hideout on Sept. 28 — are an ongoing part of that showcase and an integral part of Helltrap as a whole. Described by Luke Taylor as “multimedia comedy” centering on “weird white guy anger stuff and weird misplaced masculinity,” the trio integrate video and live performance to wring laughs from uncomfortable and often bizarre scenarios. Fellow Shrimp Boy David Brown describes their work more succinctly: “It’s shouting,” he deadpans. “We try to describe it different ways, but shouting is really sort of the most common denominator.”
So will the show’s purposeful wildness and D.I.Y. Midwestern style — four of the five core performers met during college at Northwestern and have lived (and performed) in Chicago since — translate to the sunny West Coast? Tuten thinks so. “A world class city helps create and nurture world class artists and we send them out to the world and culturally imperialize the world with Chicago sensibility,” he says excitedly.
Caleb Hearon, a comedian on the rise, who used his time during the show to present a non sequitur-laden PowerPoint, seconds that notion. “Chicago does this really innovative stuff, so when people leave here to go to the Coasts I feel like they get to see what we’re doing here,” he says. “And it feels very Chicago and it feels very specific to us. So when people who are as good as these guys leave — when Helltrap goes to LA — it feels like they’re taking all of us with them and it always feels like when somebody from Chicago wins we kind of all win.”
Tuten is excited to see Sherman and the rest of the Helltrap team expand their reach. “I used to look at it like, ‘Stay in Chicago, record in Chicago, never leave.’” he says in the green room before the show. “Now I’m like, ‘Become huge and then tour the world!’ I am so happy for her. I want her to go to LA. I want to look and see her on the Emmy awards next year for some crazy TV show,” he says, before adding a point of clarification that is quintessentially Chicago: “And I hope it’s a good one. Because if I see her in some really stupid banal (show) then we’ll be back here like, ‘That was pretty lame.’”
If you’ve missed out on Helltrap over the last few years, don’t get too depressed just yet, Chicago. When asked about this being the final Helltrap show at The Hideout, Sullivan Davis, who expressed his sadness at the group moving, says, with a mischievous smile, “They already have a show booked in January. They’ll be back. Sarah and all those guys will be back. I have no doubts about that. They can’t just leave. I can’t let that happen.”
“Helltrap — The Final Haunt with Nnamdi Ogbonnaya” (lineup includes Sarah Squirm, Shrimp Boys, Scott Egleston, Alex Grelle, Glamhag (Molly Hewitt), Marilee, Danny Catlow, Kate O’Connor and musical guest Ogbonnaya) is 9 p.m. Sept. 19 at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., tickets $15, hideoutchicago.com