Ian Abramson is into absurdist, experimental comedy. He performs with a drawn-on pencil mustache, and he’s organized comedy shows that he insists are real funerals. His biggest experiment yet is Seven Minutes in Purgatory, a show that has stand-up comedians perform to a camera in a soundproof room while the audience watches a live feed.
Abramson says the idea is to take away all audience feedback and then see just how important laughter — or awkward silence — is to the performers. Other comedians have described the concept as a little sadistic, but to be fair, Abramson was the first one to try it.
“Going into the room for the first time, it was so much more strange than I expected it to be. I had been thinking about it for a couple of months at that point, of what it'll be like to perform isolated like that, but it suddenly hits you when you’re wearing noise-cancelling headphones and you can kind of hear yourself, and you’re speaking into a microphone knowing that they’re hearing exactly what you’re saying,” says Abramson. “The video of me doing it for the first time is up and I keep laughing through my own set just thinking, this is the most absurd feeling."
There’s a kind of giddy, nervous energy in the audience too. They’re laughing at the jokes, but they’re also laughing at the strange experiment they’ve become a part of. Abramson says this is part of the show’s purpose: to make audiences realize how integral a part of this experience they are.
“By isolating the comic, it just brings an awareness, like, ‘Oh, I’m part of this.’ Feeling audiences be that much more engaged and laughing harder at points, that was a lot fun to watch,” says Abramson.
Since the first show last spring in Chicago, Seven Minutes in Purgatory has visited a handful of cities, and comedians take a lot of different approaches. Some, like Mary Holland, prepare entirely new material to work with the concept of the show. She performed her whole set as Angelina Swill — a middle-aged divorcee making a video for her eHarmony profile.
“It was really interesting,” says Holland. “It felt so bizarre, but also so creative because it’s almost like there is nothing to go off of, so you have to just commit to whatever it is that you’re doing, and you can’t second guess it.”
Others opt to perform their regular stand-up material and riff on the unusual set-up.
Now, Abramson has organized and performed in Seven Minutes in Purgatory 13 times, but he says it’s still nerve-wracking. He watches recordings of his set after every show, because otherwise, he’d have no idea how it went.
“People immediately were like, ‘Oh man, that’s so malicious.’ And it didn’t even occur to me that it would be seen as some kind of like evil experiment. I was just genuinely curious about what would happen,” says Abramson. “But, I’m sure, so was Dr. Frankenstein.”