Most comedians live for laughter. They fine-tune their timing and expertly tweak their material according to an audience’s reaction. So what happens when you take away everything that sustains them? What if there was no audience?
Comedian Ian Abramson wondered the same thing, and thus Seven Minutes in Purgatory was born. The comedian’s hugely popular show was recently picked up by Comedy Central, and the stage show comes to Moontower next week featuring comics from the fest. I spoke to Ian recently about the show, writing for The Onion, and why improv and stand-up don’t always get along.
Tell me a little bit about the origins of Seven Minutes in Purgatory.
Certainly: Seven Minutes in Purgatory is a show where the comedians perform to a camera in one room, and the audience watches in a separate room. When I was in Chicago I was thinking, “There’s this relationship between the audience and the performer,” and I thought it would be interesting if you got to see what a comedian did when they didn’t have anything to respond to.
Were you the guinea pig for this, or how did you first get it together?
I produced it with a man named Matt Burn in Chicago. We sat down and talked through it, and we built a whole show’s worth of comedians doing seven minute sets to try this out. The way that that played out is I hosted and then I brought up comedians. So I was the first person to do it, but by the end of the night, eight people had.
Did you come to any scientific conclusions about who would succeed at such a thing?
Right off the bat what was interesting to me — something we didn’t anticipate — was just that people get a kick out of it. The people that are showing up for the show know what the show is, hopefully, and if not, hopefully it becomes clear what they’re doing. That means that anyone that’s sitting down to watch the show gets a comedian saying, “Man, this feels so weird!” and that gets a big laugh. Because the audience is living that moment-to-moment with them, if anything it makes the audience more aware of the fact that they are part of the show. They’re keenly aware of the fact that they’re sitting there watching the show, and their response to it is part of that experience. That was an interesting thing that we wouldn’t have thought would happen, but that was one of my favorite parts of the show.
Do you ever record the audience reactions so comics can see to see how the audience reacted to certain things? Or is that just left a mystery to them?
Sometimes we do, yeah. We usually bring a camera and set it up in case something particularly bizarre happens. We’ll have shows that we really film and produce in that way with a full crew, or we will just have a great stand-up show and just hit record on the camera.
Congratulations on the Seven Minutes in Purgatory Comedy Central show. Obviously it will be similar to the live show, but are you adding anything?
We’re working out what exactly that will look like. We filmed a set of episodes with them in October, and those were a lot of fun. We’re figuring out what makes the most sense to put out there and what we want to shoot next. But there was some sketch, some music, some people going in completely alone. For one set, two comics went in and riffed together. We really try to just find new ways to approach it and have fun with it.
I read that you made a conscious decision to move out to Chicago for comedy reasons. What attracted you to that scene?
For my money, it’s the best scene in the country. But of course I’d say that: That’s where I came up. The great thing about Chicago is that there are enough comedians there that it is a real scene and a community and people producing shows and trying to get better without the pressure of the industry saying, “Who’s going to get Conan next week?” That’s not in there. It’s a great place to really just throw whatever you want against the wall. It’s right in the center of the country. It’s all the Midwest charm with still some of the hard edge of a major city. It’s just a interesting place that allows you to be totally creative, while also not letting you get away with being lazy with your comedy.
Chicago has very strong improv and stand-up scenes, and a lot of what you’re doing seems to have a toe in both. There are a lot of scenes where the improv people have a beef with the stand-up or vice versa, or see those as distinct different art forms. But I think some of the best comedians have experience in both.
There’s certainly more overlap in Chicago than there are in there other scenes, I’ve found. But that said, there’s still surprising little overlap. You do have the opportunity to really seek out people that are specifically interested in sketch or solo characters or stuff like that. You might end up on a show with them, and then you’re like, “Whoa, where did this person come from? They’re doing such funny things in all these different ways.” By the time I left Chicago, I had gotten to write on a sketch show at IO. I had gotten to start to put people that did characters and sketch onto shows that I was booking. That really is an interesting dynamic that exists in Chicago. You have the opportunity to be exposed to whatever type of comedy that you want to be.
Is it based on a certain mindset for most people?
I think they’re just born on a different thing. When you’re starting out doing improv, you’re taking a class. You might go to a jam where you’re getting on stage with a bunch of strangers and trying to work together. Whereas with stand-up, you’re going to a bar, waiting for five hours and then doing four minutes. If you’re a stand-up, you’re thinking, “Someone’s going to teach me how to be funny? Are you kidding me?” If you’re an improviser, you’re thinking, “You’re going to wait for five hours in a bar where no one’s seems to be paying attention so you can go up for four minutes?” They both have good points, but really you’re going to be drawn to whatever works best for you. There’s merits to both.
The few times where I have gone to shows where they’ve tried to mix them, it has mixed results. They don’t always go together.
I think it’s like trying to put country music with heavy metal. Genre-bending is absolutely possible, but there are more ways to do it wrong than there are to do it right.
You’ve held one of the most coveted jobs among comedy geeks and that is…
That is retail! Sorry, what?
[Laughs] You’ve written for The Onion. It has one of those mythological writers rooms like The Simpsons and The Harvard Lampoon. Is it as interesting as it seems?
I think it really pushes you. It’s just a type of writing. It’s another type of comedy, definitely. The Onion knows exactly what they’re doing and are doing it well, so you have to learn how to write for them, as opposed to them being like, “Bring your writing to us.” It’s such a great skill, and I’m just honored to be connected to them in any way.
You recently moved to L.A. How do you like it?
It’s everything that it’s cracked up to be: the good and the bad and the ugly. You can have dinner in the booth that Humphrey Bogart used to, and also you’ll hear way too much about juicing. The good news is that there are a lot of really wonderful people out here that are very creative and hard-working that aren’t interested in the juicing, networking side of things, and you can just gravitate towards those people.
You’ve been to Austin before. Anything you like to do while you’re in town?
I love Austin. Austin is great because it feels like your wacky cousin that you can’t wait to hang out with on holidays. Austin feels like you’re at Thanksgiving and you’re like, “When can I just start talking with this guy? Because when I do, that’s when I’m finding out about this cool, weird thing that I can go get really into.” I love it. Can’t wait to go back.