Aug 16, 2023
Not ready for primetime: SNL’s Sarah Sherman ‘needs to go to the psych ward’
Sherman brought a little punk energy back to SNL. Now she's bringing her 'vulgar' show to Williamsburg on Thursday
Every week, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Sarah Sherman’s gross-out surrealism breaks up the monotony of the show’s more normie sketches. One Saturday, you’ll see her release interns from the cages in Colin Jost’s office, and the next, she might turn Oscar Isaac into a singing meatball attached to her neck.
In two short seasons — the audience in her first season was limited because of Covid restrictions, and the end of her second season was cut short by the Writers Guild of America’s strike — she’s become SNL’s secret weapon (and one of our 50 Most Fascinating People in the borough for 2023).
Fort Greene’s resident body horror comedian (but not the neighborhood’s only SNL star) brings her “Live + In The Flesh” tour to the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Thursday for a sold-out hometown show.
Brooklyn Magazine recently chatted with Sherman to discuss her career and her approach to comedy. In an interview as unique as you’d expect from someone who goes by “Sarah Squirm,” Sherman laments the grotesque creations (made with SNL makeup artist Louie Zakarian) that never make it to air. She also tells us about playing a rabbi in Adam Sandler’s upcoming Netflix movie “You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah” — and about owning her grandma’s prosthetic eye. Excerpts:
Nothing in the last year has made me laugh more than “Jewish Elvis.”
Really? Oh my God. No one asks me about Jewish Elvis, and I have so much to say! I was really anxious about that sketch because if you’re gonna invoke Elvis, it obviously has to be major because I love Elvis. I saw the widely reviled “Elvis” movie last summer and it’s literally one of my favorite movies, and more than anything, I will defend it until the end. I was watching it, saying, “Oh my God, Elvis is so Jewish.” He’s just Jewish. I can’t explain it.
How did it become a sketch?
I wrote it with my friend Dan Bulla, and I held onto it for months. It was the first sketch that I wrote last season, but it was cut at dress rehearsal. We couldn’t figure out how to make it work. The first iteration of it was a take on that moment in the movie where everyone goes, “He’s white?” The original sketch cut to everyone saying, “He’s Jewish? ”
We finally got it on the show when Austin Butler hosted in December. I had a really fast quick change right before the sketch, but I needed to step away to meditate and clear my head. It was the first time I’d ever gotten in trouble at work. You’re supposed to be in your place before the sketch starts cause so many things can go wrong. I showed up to the sketch late, but because I memorized my lines, I knew which line I could technically come in on, and I knew I didn’t have to come in till page 3.
They were screaming for me on the floor, “Sarah! Where are you?” And everyone in the audience is getting so anxious, which I think probably negatively affected the sketch because you can hear over the speaker, “Where are you?”
Were you the type of kid who disfigured your Barbies?
I’m not even saying this to be cool. But no, I didn’t really have Barbies. I don’t remember having many dolls, but I remember my grandma bought me this giant coffee table book called “The History of Barbie.” I remember being obsessed with that. All the girls had American Girl dolls, but my mom thought it was stupid and didn’t want me to have them.
What toys did you play with?
Yeah, what fucking toys did I have? I had stupid fucking bullshit. I had Raggedy Ann dolls. Thinking about it now, Raggedy Ann has heavily influenced the way I dress. I had a bunch of Lamb Chop dolls, too. I’m a huge Lamb Chop freak because Shari Lewis was a Jewish comedian, and I have a giant Lamb Chop tattoo on my leg. People always see it and say, “My dog has one of those dolls!” And I’m like, “Fuck you!”
There’s a picture from your Vulture photoshoot where you’re wearing this Frankenstein head, and it reminds me of this deranged Jerry Lewis movie based on Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Slapstick.”
I’m obsessed with Jerry Lewis, and I didn’t even know about this movie. So thank you for this. [Sherman Googles the movie.] I look like Jerry! But that headpiece was Vulture’s idea. I think they were playing off “Coneheads.” They literally just put a plastic box on my head and then put a bald cap over it. They interviewed me while I was in the prosthetic department in SNL’s Louie Zakarian’s makeup chair. I was getting an eyeball in the middle of my forehead and eyeballs on each one of my earlobes, but they didn’t include that in the fucking interview! It was a true encapsulation of my experience at SNL, which is that Louie and I make all this crazy shit that doesn’t see the light of day.
Speaking of eyeballs, it seems like they’re your favorite body part to use on SNL.
It’s an exposed organ on your head, and it’s not that deep. I also have a pathological neurosis about eyeballs because growing up, my grandma had one of her eyeballs removed and I was morbidly obsessed. She had a prosthetic eye lens. I don’t think I have them within reach right now, but I have her prosthetic eye. Basically, when you get an eye removed, they sew a prosthetic orb into your head. The thing that looks like an eyeball is a hand-painted prosthetic lens that goes on top of it. She would play these practical jokes on me with it when I was 8 years old. I would wake up and come down into the kitchen for breakfast, and she would turn around with no dentures or lens in. So she just had a white orb in her face and do a jump scare on me. And that was obviously very formative!
The explanation is clear as day. “Why are you doing this with eyeballs?” “Because there was eyeball trauma in the family.”
Did you say you have your grandma’s prosthetic eye?
I have it. Weirdly enough, I’ve auditioned for SNL a bunch of times throughout the years, and the first time I ever auditioned I was 22 and wore it around my neck as a good luck charm. I guess it wasn’t a good luck charm, ’cause I did not get it that year.
The name that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to body horror is the filmmaker David Cronenberg. Is he one of your influences?
Yeah, one billion percent.
Did you like his newest movie “Crimes of the Future”?
I loved it. I loved it more than anything. I got scared because so much of the movie is about Viggo Mortensen’s character being an old guy who can’t keep up. I was like, “Oh my God, is this Cronenberg telling us he’s not making another movie after this?” But it’s okay, he is.
Do you think live TV limits your comedy?
I actually feel totally released because of the limitations. I came up with fucking crazy performance artists, like noise musicians in Chicago where there are no rules. Sometimes when there are no limitations, I feel crippled by infinity. The idea of infinite possibility. When you’re given limitations, it’s just a challenge that’s interesting. I hope I’m more of a well-rounded writer and individual because of it.
Is there anything you wanted to do on SNL but weren’t allowed?
Oh, yes. I can think of very specific instances, but I kind of don’t want to tell you about them because I do still feel like I can make them happen on the show. But we’ve made things that ended up having to get cut because it was far too grotesque.
Tell me about the show you’re bringing to the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
My show is so blue, it’s so vulgar. It’s an hour and change, and all my jokes are poop. Everything is in shit if you’re thinking in a Freudian sense. What I’m realizing is the show is a little demanding. I do too much screaming. I need to figure out how to become more of a vocal Olympian so that I can scream for an hour and a half and not fucking shred myself. But this show is so fucking disgusting. It’s the most hideous shit I’ve ever made. It’s like I need to go to the psych ward level of disgusting. I can’t have this much freedom! I’m like a terrorist at this point.
You also play a rabbi in Adam Sandler’s new movie, “You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah,” coming out at the end of August.
It’s fucking awesome. When Adam Sandler calls you and says, “Do you want to play a rabbi in a movie?” That’s just like, I can die now. That’s the supreme Jewish fantasy. “Happy Madison” is literally the comedy movie GOAT, so it’s just cool to see how they make a movie. Even in scenes that I wasn’t in, I would watch Adam Sandler do a take and be like, “Oh, that’s what it’s like when someone’s really good at acting.” I’m not an amazing actor, so it’s cool to watch someone who’s so aware of filmmaking and yet can be so embodied and good at acting at the same time. And all of their movies really embrace play. There are comedians in their movies, so they trust a comedian’s instinct and let you fuck around and do whatever you want.
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