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‘SNL’ Star Sarah Sherman Mines Laughs While Viewers ‘Scream in Horror’

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As the special-effects chief for “Saturday Night Live,” Louie Zakarian often has interesting demands put on his time. He once transformed Kate McKinnon into an offbeat mermaid. And he worked with Kyle Mooney to create the Baby Yoda character who made frequent appearances on “Weekend Update.”

These days, Zakarian gets even more outlandish asks, thanks to Sarah Sherman, the “SNL” cast member who might, during one week, ask him to devise a fake seagull that can be impaled in her torso while moving its legs, and, in another, order up a costume so she can dress as the oddball Six Flags mascot, but still get back to normal for a subsequent sketch 10 minutes later.

“I’ve been at the show for 29 years now,” says Zakarian. “I get some pretty crazy requests, but some of Sarah’s are really out there.”

So too is Sherman herself, at least during the broadcasts of NBC’s Saturday night mainstay. Regular viewers have seen her covered in talking meatballs, flailing about with new googly eyes, and tormenting “Update” co-anchor Colin Jost with a variety of characters. Suddenly, “SNL” fans are talking about Sherman’s “body horror” comedy along with the various one-liners they may have heard from a new episode of the show.

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“To me, she’s like if Pee-wee Herman and Gilda Radner had a comedy baby,” says Nick Marx, an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University, who is a co-editor of “Saturday Night Live and American TV,” a 2013 book of analytical essays about the show. “The dominant mode of comedy in the last 10 to 15 years is writerly — it’s talking and verbal jousting,” he says. But Sherman’s colorful antics “stand out in a clip-driven social-media environment,” and might be more of the moment in an era when many viewers get their “SNL” fix by watching viral videos from the show at times of their own choosing.

In one of her stand-up comedy routines, Sherman shows a video of a snake slithering through what’s meant to look like “a giant cardboard butthole,” but she’s hoping to do more than shock her audience. “I know I can elicit a wide range of reactions from audience members. I know I can make people scream with horror or shriek with delight, but it’s a challenge to myself to make them laugh while they are screaming in horror, especially now that I’m on ‘SNL,’” Sherman tells Variety via Zoom. That audience that I perform for has a wide range of ages and temperaments. I don’t want to alienate anyone because I do a lot of crazy stuff on stage. A lot of people think my big goal is to alienate people and to give them a big middle finger. My goal is is to bring everybody under the same freak-show circus umbrella.”

“SNL” has featured gross-out humor in the past, though it has never been the show’s main pillar. Die-hards may recall Dan Aykroyd in 1978 playing celebrity chef Julia Child with a nicked artery; Jay Mohr in 1994 playing a nauseated cop; Dana Carvey as the stumbling, dying “Massive Head-Wound Harry” in 1991; or the 2000 sketch during which Julianna Margulies and Will Ferrell chewed up food so that Chris Kattan could chew it on camera.

As a writer on the show in 1998, Hugh Fink helped craft a fake “SNL” TV commercial for a bowel-control product called “Oops, I Crapped My Pants.” Getting the audience to get past reactions of shock or nausea depends on the cast member at the center of the gag, he says. “It’s the messenger, not the message,” says Fink, who teaches sketch comedy at Harvard University and Chapman University. Sherman’s appealing nature “gives her a lot of latitude to take risks where another person could not get away with it.”

It takes more than a clever catchphrase to create the bizarre characters for which Sherman has become known. At “SNL,” the people who write a skit also produce it, figuring out set design and props. It‘s an assignment Sherman takes seriously. “You talk to every department and a lot of people are like, ‘Well, what should the wardrobe be?’” says Dan Bulla, a frequent writing partner for Sherman. “Sarah never doesn’t have an answer for those questions, She can cut to it from the germ of an idea. She can visualize every aspect of it. She’s on the phone with the people who build the puppets.” Sherman talks about visual effects and color palettes, he adds. “It’s that granular for her, and all of her ideas start like that.”

When Sherman played an offbeat office worker who gets googly-eye transplants to impress her colleagues, the props she put on her face required that her real eyes be sealed shut, recalls Bulla. “They put pinholes in her eyes so she could see the cue cards, but realistically, it was impossible.” Sherman told staffers that holes were going to ruin the sketch. “She basically memorized the sketch, and in between dress rehearsal and air she and I were on the set pacing out her steps so she could count how many she had to walk before she crashed into something.”

Sherman has an eye (one of her real ones) on other areas at “SNL,” too. She has done an impression of New York Senator Chuck Schumer and another of SAG-AFTRA chief Fran Drescher. The latter posed “an interesting challenge,” says Sherman, because it came just as negotiations between the union and the big media companies were under intense scrutiny. “We didn’t want to come across as preachy, but I didn’t want to come across as simultaneously not wanting to poke too much fun.” She’s up for trying others: “I want to be someone the writers can turn to to get something done.”

She has other projects, too. For two years, Sherman and others on staff have been testing a new set-up that would allow for hands-free fake vomiting on “SNL.” Cast members who had to puke on stage for a sketch have long relied on a plastic hose taped up alongside their arm or jacket sleeve, raising it to their mouth when a surprise upchuck was cued. But Sherman believes “SNL” can revolutionize the technology. The crew has tried it out at least once, but couldn’t get it to work properly for a live show. “There are so many things that are technically challenging, that we couldn’t bring across the finish line, but I promise you I am working on how to make that vomit look good,” Sherman says.

Now that she’s come this far on “SNL,” what more can she do? Sherman seems to have some ideas. “I don’t think people have seen the extent to how crazy I can be,” she says.

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