You can count on a few things at a Helltrap Nightmare show: handmade props simulating bodily fluids and organs, sketches making fun of white male culture and a performance by a punk, metal or noise band. It’s not for everyone—in a good way.
The lineup changes every month, but it always includes the core group of Sarah Sherman, Scott Egleston and the Shrimp Boys (David Brown, Wyatt Fair and Luke Taylor). Most members of this self-described “traveling freak show” met as undergrads at Northwestern University, but didn’t craft their particular brand of comedy until after college.
As an experimental show, Helltrap Nightmare constantly toes the line between funny and inaccessible—and sometimes crosses that line. “I killed hundreds of worms onstage, and that was too far,” Sherman recalls. “There was a bin of worms and I blindfolded [an audience member] and told him to get in there and feel the worms. And he was like, punching them.”
“You also covered them in ranch dressing, which is probably why they died,” Taylor interjects.
“That will absolutely never be happening again,” says Sherman.
The Helltrap folks don’t relish those “too weird” moments. Despite their unconventionality, their main goal is the same as any stand-up show: to entertain. As Sherman says, “If it’s not funny, then we’ve failed.” To its creators, this priority makes their concept stand out among other alternative comedy acts.
“I think a lot of alt-comedy doesn’t take into account the audience enough,” says Fair. “A lot of it is comedy to be performed by comedians, watched by comedians, which isn’t ever what we’re going for.”
The group started the show to bring together two seemingly disparate communities—performers and fans of comedy and of noise music-. Helltrap began as half-comedy, half-noise, but the show has since scaled back to one musical act, with two sets during the show.
“Noise musicians and comedians are really similar,” says Sherman. “They’re both very confrontational and they’re usually having a nervous breakdown onstage.”
Helltrap Nightmare celebrates its two-year anniversary in January, sharing the bill with Baltimore weirdos Wham City.
Helltrap Nightmare plays the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival at the Hideout Jan 18 at 7 and 10pm (hideoutchicago.com). $12.