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Nine Songs
Sarah Sherman

As she debuts her own brand of body horror comedy in the UK, SNL's new hire Sarah Sherman talks about the songs that give her life.

16 August 2022, 09:00 | Words by Paul Bridgewater

Sarah Sherman’s first year on Saturday Night Live has given the show something it’s been missing for quite some time.

Among the new crop of hires, she’s already left an impression as the anarchic harlequin of the 47th season. Sherman was the genius behind a sketch which saw Oscar Isaac and Charli XCX cast as a pair of meatball-sized singing pustules, and another which imagined diminutive horror antagonist Chucky in an office scenario, dealing with a HR disciplinary. Her brashness also shone in a series of star-making News Update appearances alongside Colin Jobst’s straight-man news anchor.

Her comedy has revelled in the best kind of demonically grotesque hyperbole and body horror for almost a decade – yet it doesn’t feel incongruous among on an institution like SNL. "Laughter does bring people together," Sherman reflects. "If you’re laughing at something, it’s like a point of identification. You're either laughing because it's funny and surprising, or because you’re surprised and entertained, or because you're like: Oh, I understand this, like, this makes sense!"

She uses humour to counteract repulsion, she explains: "I have a lot of gross, outrageous imagery that's shocking and repellent but my favourite challenge with comedy is to make people identify with something that might seem foreign and scary to them."

“I worship at the altar of the music I love. 1000 percent,” Sherman tells me, very seriously, from a hotel room in Toronto. She’s there filming You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah! - based on the YA novel of the same name – with Adam Sandler, produced as part of the legendary comedian’s deal with Netflix. We’re chatting about her favourite songs but she’s also wondering about how she’ll be received in the UK this month: after a stint on the Fringe, she heads to London for four nights at the Soho Theatre.

Sherman isn’t just fan of music, it’s something that's been integral to her life and performance as a self-described “comedian who likes to collaborate with noise musicians.” Her DIY shows Helltrap Nightmare was a fixture on the Chicago scene for over three years and saw her unite comedy and noise music. “The combination completely unlocked me and unleashed me,” explains Sherman. She found her people among the DIY noise artists of the Windy City; they were the ones who helped her inject outrage and chaos into her comedic experiments. "It’s an awesome and supportive community," Sherman says. "There’s people like my friend Jill (Flanagan) who does this project Forced Into Femininity where she has a bag of crickets and shakes them in people's faces, or my friend Mike who I booked for one of the first comedy shows I threw in Chicago. He would get naked and tape a chorizo over his penis and was wearing a trench coat and flashing people."

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The songs Sherman has chosen for our chat are, she tells me, the music that got her where she is today. They represent the extremes of sound as both an escape and actualisation of true art, often freakish.

Since she was a child back on Long Island, music was always a transportive medium; the first song on her iPod was "Easy Lover" - "I remember hearing it on the radio and it’s just a wash of pure 80s and I just wanted to know: what the fuck is that time and how do I get there?"

She admits to an obsession with Peter Gabriel in lockdown: "You’re stuck in your apartment and you just want to live inside the Sledgehammer music video and not the horrible world we were all in."

"Constantinople - Version 1" by The Residents (1978)

SARAH SHERMAN: : It’s not so much that you listen to The Residents as it is the total experience of it. I’ve never seen them live, it’s one of my life’s biggest failings, but I’ve watched those shows on tape and it’s awesome.

In college when I was 18, I started working at the college radio station, WNUR in Chicago And the music curators for the radio station – Max Allison, and Doug Kaplan – run Hausu Mountain, a noise label and meeting those dudes completely changed my life. When I started working at the radio station we weren't allowed to play popular music on the radio station – we had to comb through stacks of old records to find stuff. The rule was: you can't play anything as popular as David Bowie – even though David Bowie is weird. I mean if you play a Station to Station song on the radio, people aren't gonna be singing along are they? Well, maybe to "Golden Years".

So that was the rule: you couldn't play any mainstream music and you had to play from records and so Max and Doug curated this insane music collection, and taught me about The Residents. I was 18, I knew that I wanted to be a comedian and had an interest in noise music – and I found out about The Residents. And I totally identified with them: it's comedy, you know? I’m a visual artist and a lot of my stuff is body horror stuff, and I saw that album that has the eyeball guys standing with the hats (1977’s Eskimo) in the record stacks. And I got into all their stuff - making making fun of the Beatles, and they have that record where there’s 40 songs making fun of commercial music (1980’s Commercial Album). I just liked it because they were being comedians with music. I don't understand music, but I can understand when someone's being funny.

I picked “Constantinople” because it's a demented nightmare song even though it’s actually one of their poppiest songs. It’s funny to make a nightmare-carnival-poppy song about seemingly throttling towards the gates of hell. And the music video is crazy too: There’s a big crazy lumpy 3D-animated giant-blob guy falling from the sky and crazy video art of a severed head with a talking mouth.

“More Than This” by Roxy Music (1982)

SARAH SHERMAN: I just fucking love Roxy Music and I just wish that I was as glamorous as Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. I know “More Than This” is is affirmational – I guess it's about you know, this is the best there is – but it's also mortifying because there is nothing more than this. The music video is kind of terrifying because he's in his crooner’s suit singing and then there's a portion of the music video where he’s in hell. There’s a red cloud backdrop and like pyro-flames and it scary and really depressing.

It also reminds me that Donald Trump's favourite song is Peggy Lee's “Is That All There Is”, which is very bleak to think about: that this cartoon supervillain’s favourite song is a nihilistic, bleak, world-view song.

"When You Were Mine" by Prince (1980)

SARAH SHERMAN: He is my god. He is my everything. I had to put a Prince song in here. I’m a comedian and I think about performance a lot and he’s the best performer of all time and I wish I was Prince.

“When You Were Mine” is my favourite Prince song because I grew up worshipping Cyndi Lauper and when I found out that she was actually covering Prince off of a fucking crazy record, Dirty Mind – which, is just songs about him like fucking his sister – I was like, fucking respect to you Cyndi Lauper! I don’t know anything about music but that sounds like he recorded it in his bedroom or something!

I never got to see him live but I did go to Paisley Park and I remember being stood there waiting for the tour to start, and I just begin to sob hysterically. The tour guide comes over to me and she whispers in my ear: "I know why you're crying."

"Look up," she says. "You’re standing under his urn right. You’re feeling his presence right now." And I look up and his urn is literally a mini replica of Paisley Park!

"M.E." by Gary Numan (1979)

SARAH SHERMAN: You know I wear crazy clothes and I have a crazy persona and my hair is a mullet so everyone looks at me and they go like: oh, you obviously love David Bowie. And yes, he is obviously the fucking Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit but… Gary Numan is the fucking shit; another person who made really influential industrial synthesiser music and had a cool persona.

That song rocks and it's totally depressing: it’s about a world in which he's the only robot left and everyone else has died. It's just him all alone.

I love his weird computer persona and people have to put respect on Gary Newman's name, and I don’t feel like they do it enough. I don't know what the Gary Numan worship is like in England but “Cars” became like a punch line in the US and it makes me fucking furious because they’re only re-inscribing the point that Gary is making which is that he's alone and isolated in this techno-universe. That Tubeway Army song with the lines “are 'friends' electric? / Only mine's broke down / And now I've no-one to love“? That says all you need to know about humanity. You guys don’t fucking get Gary Numan because you're all electric!

During quarantine I was missing live performance and I was watching a lot of Gary Numan live videos.That sent me down a rabbit hole where I think I watched a video of Nine Inch Nails and Gary Numan playing together and I think they played “M.E.” and I watched that video one month into quarantine and I was sobbing: like Trent Reznor has fucking respect for Gary Numan!

"Angel" by Fleetwood Mac(1979)

SARAH SHERMAN: I knew that I was in love with my boyfriend because I was listening to Fleetwood Mac and realised their lyrics are the only language that makes sense to me when talking about love and hurt and chaos. So Tusk is my favourite Fleetwood Mac, album – whatever, I know, like every girl – and “Angel” is the song that I listen to before I perform. For lack of better term, it's my pump-up jam.

I was on tour with my best friend Ruby McCollister, who's also a psychotic Fleetwood Mac fan and she saw me getting warmed up for the show to "Angel" and she said, “You're fucking crazy that this is your pump up jam,” because this is about Stevie seeing Mick Fleetwood from across the room after they broke up and being like, “We're not together anymore, but I still love you and it’s so sad that every time you walk into the room, I still look up and we have to pretend that we didn't love each other once, but I'm not a good pretender.”

Sometimes comedy can be so literal and that's what makes it great: you're like, “how do I make a roomful of people laugh in the middle of like the fucking Midwest? You just have to be as literal and funny as possible, maybe. But something that Fleetwood Mac does is to deliver morally, life-shattering, destroying information with a spoonful of sugar, basically. It is crazy that I still listen to that song every time before I perform, when it's the most devastating piece of information you could ever metabolise.

"Living on a Thin Line" by The Kinks (1984)

SARAH SHERMAN: So I put this here and I also wanted to add “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus too because they’re both songs that changed my life from watching something that rocks.

"Living on a Thin Line" opens that Sopranos episode (“University” from season 3) with strippers at the Bada Bing dancing lethargically to it. And it's crazy, because the song is so depressing and demonic and the vibe is so fucked up. The song is about the glory days of England and how it’s not like that anymore but in the context of the episode they’re talking about the dying days of the mafia and at the end of the episode is when Ralphie beats a teenage stripper to death in the parking lot of the club.

I think it totally changed my life to see how music can drive a narrative – it foreshadows the ending of the episode. If it had started with strippers dancing to something like Three 6 Mafia or some club music then that means something totally different for the piece of work. But the entire meaning of the episode changed just because of one song in the background of a scene.

It's the funniest show ever made. Every character is extremely drop-dead hilarious… and then all of a sudden, your entire world is ruined. There are episodes of The Sopranos that I can't rewatch because things that happened in that show have made me bed bound for a day.

With comedy – or with anything – if you’re using sound or music in your performance it’s like what they say when they make movies: the best background music is the one you can’t hear – you’re just feeling it in a certain way. Hearing “Living on a Thin Line” in The Sopranos is like that. I guess music is everything, basically.

I wanted to add Q Lazzarus because I couldn’t work out what changed my life more: Watching The Sopranos and hearing The Kinks or watching The Silence of the Lambs and hearing Q Lazzarus.

Music can make everything totally perverted. You just enter pervert zone with this song… he’s playing with his nipple ring, he’s you know, being Buffalo Bill… and then this crazy demonic song comes up. It's like music that conjures up witchcraft. Go look in the mirror and do it playing "Goodbye Horses". Your life will be ruined completely.

"Patchwork" by Laurie Spiegel (1980)

SARAH SHERMAN: I have a very cluttered mind and a lot of chatter going on. I desperately have wanted to meditate my entire life but can't because I’m too Jewish and neurotic, basically. And if I try meditating, you know, it's like all of a sudden, I feel my blood in my face or something but Laurie Spiegel’s music is the only thing that helps and “Patchwork” is medicinal to me. Music has always been a vehicle where I can find meditation. If I'm on an aeroplane that's turbulent and I just want to meditate and clean my mind, I'll put on “Patchwork”.

Everyone needs to meditate, and especially on a show like SNL, it's a really crazy schedule, and you have to write a million things every week really fast. Your mind always has to be operating and it has to be like a clean machine and your neurons can't be all rusty and gunked up. So I use music as meditation and I love Laurie Spiegel because she's cool and she’s this electronic music pioneer woman.But you know, I listen to all the Iasos stuff too, that corny, new age music, I love all of it.

BEST FIT: Doing SNL must have changed a lot about the way you relate to live performance?

Yeh, I mean SNL is all live performance, which is so rare – it’s like old-timey showbiz. With stand up, you're performing every single night, and you don't think about it in the same way: you're just like” oh, I have a show at this place at 8pm, and I have to get to the comedy cellar at 10.. but being in a cool institution like that really makes you cherish live performances more. These people are in a room, they paid money to be there. They're teachers and nurses and they have to be at work tomorrow. Give them a good show, you know?

I read somewhere how surprised you were that the performing cast were also all contributing to the writing?

I had no idea at the start and it’s crazy because it just blows your mind: all these people are funny performers and they're geniuses at writing too? Like I never knew Molly, Shannon wrote the Superstar character? It makes you fucking step your shit up because you're you gotta pay respects to the people who came before you and do a good job.

“Im Glück” by Neu! (1972)

SARAH SHERMAN: Neu! changed my life and Krautrock changed my life. When I first heard “Im Glück”’s not a throwaway track but the song is just like a bunch of strange sounds of something floating around and knocking around in water. And this was before I knew about noise music but I remember hearing that and being like: What? This counts as music? This is fucking awesome!

This was the first time I'd heard field recordings in music and it was identifiable as something that was foreign to me. I mean I know Brian Eno was doing that found-sound stuff in Roxy Music or whatever but you couldn’t tell. This was the first time I heard something totally crazy sounding in music and I had no idea you could just do that. It was so fucking awesome.

I love how Neu! were also just two guys who left Kraftwerk and were like, “we're gonna do something so fucking weird and crazy” – and they did. They made groovy music that had crazy shit in it.

"Shatter All Organized Activities (Eat The Rich)" by Aaron Dilloway (2012)

SARAH SHERMAN: Neu! and Kraftwerk and Gary Numan and The Residents were my gateway into, weird and weirder music until I found harsh noise and I was like: oh my god, this is so crazy. It should be illegal, basically.

The best way to explain Aaron Dilloway to you is that I did a podcast recently with the comedian Whitney Cummings. I’d just done some tour dates before then and Whitney asked me how the tour was going. Then the sound engineer pops out from behind the little sound thing and says, "Oh my God, I saw you do a show in Ohio with Aaron Dilloway, like what the fuck!!!!”

And Whitney was like, “Who's Aaron Diloway?” And he just answers “THE BEATLES OF NOISE!” and that’s like the best way to describe him.

When I was working at the college radio station, I was obsessed with all the noise records they had there, like Merzbow, Kevin Drumm, all that stuff. But then they had all these records from Hanson Records in Ohio which is run by Aaron Dilloway and it was just the craziest shit I've ever heard in my entire life. My mind was fucking blown.

You know that with performance, the body is an instrument blah blah blah…and when I'm on stage, I'm screaming and I'm trying to make the worst sounds… and I like to stretch the boundaries of that, or break the limits of what's possible in comedy. Is it comedy to play a video on screen in front of stage full of people and have me spreading my ass cheeks open and you see a superimposed mouth, vomiting fake shit? Is that comedy? Should I have done that at Central Park Summer Stage in front of 1000 teenagers opening for Black Midi? Probably not but okay, whatever.

So Aaron Dilloway was my first exposure to the most extreme harsh noise electronic music that defies sound and brakes your ears. Live, it’s like totally crazy, totally unleashed, unbridled chaos. He has a contact mic in his mouth and he's rocking back and forth and screaming. When I did a show with him, I'd never met him before and I was like: “Oh my God, I’m your biggest fan!” And he said, “I'm so excited to play with you, I brought my violin,” and I'm looking around and I don’t see a violin, just a bunch of crazy tape loops, and weird machines. And he points to a metal rod and a dented, metal rusty box, and says, “that’s my violin.”

And he just scrapes his metal rod against the box – and that is the world I want to live in and make stuff in – where there's no rules and everything's totally crazy.

You know that Scott Walker + Sunn O))) album? That changed my life. Scott Walker – literally the god, with David Bowie and Prince – he gets it dude, he fucking gets it! His whole life he was tortured: I don’t wanna make pop music! I’m a freak, I’m crazy! I”m gonna sing demonic opera over harsh noise music.

That’s it man, all the freaks find their way to noise. It’s total entropy and chaos and everyone finds their way there, eventually!

Sarah Sherman finishes a run at the Edinburgh Fringe on 21 August, and plays the Soho Theatre in London from 22-25 August.

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