The first Helltrap Nightmare I attended was in 2016, in the bar half of Cafe Mustache. Sarah Sherman took the stage wearing a metallic jumpsuit hand-painted with veiny boobs, holding up a Ziploc bag full of her own pubic hair—an intro that, though jarring, was completely on-brand.
Helltrap Nightmare, with its distinctive type of lurid, unfiltered humor, has since become a fixture on Chicago’s underground comedy scene, holding down a monthly slot at the Hideout for the past two years. In its current iteration, it’s a variety show featuring weirdo comedy from Chicago’s finest self-described freaks, with a core group that consists of host Sarah Sherman, Scott Egleston, and the Shrimp Boys (Wyatt Fair, Luke Taylor, and David Brown). But just as the city’s started to catch on—the Tribune ran a story on the show this week—the group is skipping town. Sherman and the gang are all moving to LA at the end of the month, with their final show as residents of Chicago tonight, Thursday, September 19, at the Hideout. It’s sold out.
Sherman never anticipated that Helltrap would become what it is today. When studying theater at Northwestern, she created a Facebook group titled “Helltrap Nightmare: Wake up Sheeple,” a platform where she and friends Brown, Fair, and Egleston sent each other weird YouTube links and joked about potential collaboration. “Sarah would occasionally text or Facebook message us being like, What if there was a thing called ‘Helltrap Nightmare?’” Brown says. “We were like, sounds great, what is it? Is it a show? Is it a painting?”
After Sherman graduated in December 2015, the premiere of Helltrap Nightmare came together in the basement of the Logan Square DIY venue Flood Haus. The first performances were Sherman’s attempt to create a showcase that would bring together two disparate but equally active Chicago scenes: noise music and stand-up comedy. “We’d always known that we wanted to start a weirdo comedy show, and then I moved into Chicago and immediately got immersed in the stand-up comedy scene,” Sherman says. “Conversely, all my friends were playing at noise shows. So I was going to noise shows, and also performing at stand-up shows, and I was like, why can’t these just be the same show?”
In the years following Helltrap’s inception, the format has expanded to include the entire spectrum of performance-based comedy and DIY music, serving as a multigenre open mike for any and every one. Past performers include rapper/performance artist Mister Wallace, angular noise-rockers Sugarm, local comedian Marilee, and multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, a recurring guest who will be performing at the final show. The mission is “definitely providing an energetic space so that people can just try out stuff they want to try out, and there’s no limitations,” Sherman says.
For the Shrimp Boys, who host their own show at the Hideout, performing monthly at Helltrap Nightmare helped push them to solidify their comedy careers. “I don’t know if we would have made it as hard and fast just operating on our own,” Brown says. “Helltrap begat us.“
Beyond its standing as a monthly show, Helltrap has become an incubator of sorts that encourages performers to expand their repertoires. The Hideout’s resources and support have played a role in this—according to Fair, the Hideout’s program director, Sullivan “Sully” Davis, purchased a new projector for the venue solely because Helltrap performers were using the previous one so much. “I think what Helltrap is for all of us is a fun thing we get to do, but also this awesome thing we have that makes us generate new stuff all the time,” Taylor says.
Even with the prospect of new audiences and more visibility in LA, the group is reluctant to leave their supportive community in Chicago, a city that they feel is full of people who genuinely care about local arts. Tonight’s Helltrap, which they stress will not be the group’s final performance in Chicago, is the group’s chance to say farewell to a community that has allowed the show to become successful enough to outgrow it.
Sherman anticipates that the last Helltrap will be a little different than the typical night of oddball comedy. “I think it’s gonna be really emotional and sentimental,” she says. “Like any comedian, all of us have some irony poisoning—I’m always onstage talking about my family and myself, but I’ve got intestines and they’re squirting come and all that. I think we’re going to be kind of vulnerable with this last show, and be really self-referential and very sad.It’s definitely just going to be an ode to Chicago. It feels so stupid to leave the best place on earth.” v
Helltrap Nightmare—The Final Haunt with Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is Thursday, September 19, at 9 PM, at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-337-4433, hideoutchicago.com, $15, sold out.