It was way back last month, when Saturday Night Live had just announced it was going on hiatus (like nearly every other mainstream piece of entertainment), that comedian Ian Abramson tweeted out that he’d do his own show in its place. Four days later, the first episode aired on his Twitch channel. It didn’t save, but the episode lives on through Abramson’s rehearsal footage, which includes “Toonces in an AA Meeting,” “Celebrity Jeopardy with Tom Hanks” and a cold open where he painted only half of his face orange to play Donald Trump, so that he could turn around and play Anderson Cooper, too.
And thus — live from Abramson’s mom’s home in Washington state — Saturday Night Quarantine was born.
Like Abramson’s previous work — the Comedy Central series 7 Minutes in Purgatory, which had different comedians (Maria Bamford, Roy Wood Jr., Aparna Nancherla, etc.) deliver their jokes to empty venues, completely unaware if they’re killing it or not, while an audience watches remotely — Saturday Night Quarantine is a highly lonesome endeavor. It consists of just him, his off-camera assistant and musical host Risa Rubin, his iPad, homemade props and the shorts that play between his own ingenious live one-man segments (like the interior monologue of a cue-card holder on SNL).
The live quality of both SNL and his own twist on it inspires him the most. “My favorite sketches are clearly born from that,” he tells me. “The earliest stages of SNL, I really loved. They’d do such bizarre weird left turns, and have hosts that were really interesting — sometimes intellectual, sometimes controversial — and really willing to push it to that sense.”
He preps for the show all week — again, not unlike the production of an SNL episode — even if his characters are created via cardboard, paint and whatever else he can find at his local Walmart. “I love having a bunch of ideas and trying to make them happen. Throwing them together is part of the fun. Forcing myself to learn, ‘How do I make it clear that this is Cartman or Jack Sparrow on this piece of cardboard?’ is a fun challenge. And if it sucks, that’s fun, too! There’s something very funny about somebody doing their best and it not being great, you know? I’m fine with looking like kind of an idiot with that in mind.”
With four episodes so far, Saturday Night Quarantine now has its own Don Pardo-like opening sequence and an ever-growing audience, which watches each live episode (which are then saved) via his Twitch channel. “I really love Twitch,” he says. “There’s so much to play with, and it really encourages community. It’s like hanging out with a bunch of friends. That’s why we started to incorporate more interactive pieces. Now, I kind of have the chat write a sketch that I’ll do at the end of the show, and every week Risa Rubin is writing a new theme song based on their suggestions.”
Speaking of community, the show also includes video submissions from other comedians a la SNL’s digital shorts. Andrew Porter, who has produced Tim Heidecker projects like Beef House, On Cinema at the Cinema and Mister America, helps curate them. (They’ve included the likes of Todd Glass, Amber Nelson, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, Janet Varney and Joe Kwaczala.) “I want [SNQ] to be a place where talented folks who feel up for creating can experiment and connect, and where viewers can relate to Ian’s increasing cabin fever,” Porter explains.
As for Abramson, he performs his sketches after some light rehearsal — and whether all of the technology is working or not. But as each episode proves, SNQ thrives because of its naked limits, not in spite of them. “With all the limitations, this show can run the risk of being so lo-fi it’s tough to watch,” says Porter. “But we also can’t over-produce it as that just wouldn’t be fun. It’s gotta spiral out of control a bit now and then.”
The show’s SNL influence is all the way down to having its own “Weekend Update” segment, which is performed by Tim Barnes, a friend of Abramson’s since high school and someone who claims to be the “log” to Abramson’s fire. Barnes, a writer on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, slyly impersonates previous “Weekend Update” hosts. First it was Michael Che and Colin Jost, then it was Norm Macdonald, Dennis Miller and Colin Quinn. Like with all of SNQ, the imitation meant to be a form of flattery. “I try to go at them with the respect for all the people who have done ‘Weekend Update,’” says Barnes. “I never try to make fun of the actual person, per se.”
For the next episode, Barnes has been kicking around the idea of doing Kevin Nealon. “I’ve been doing some soul-searching as to why I’m so good at impersonating white people,” he jokes.
Barnes workshops his “Weekend Update” jokes after studying the former hosts’ different deliveries and records them after he’s done with his Tonight Show duties on Friday. With a map of New York taped behind him, he receives help from his girlfriend who manages a Google doc that serves as the teleprompter. For an added comedic touch, Barnes utilizes a whole library of random sounds to accompany his punchlines, breaking with the formalities of Saturday Night Live in a way that fits perfectly within the absurdity of SNQ.
With Saturday Night Live back in action — albeit without the “live” aspect, so far — SNQ will be moving to Sundays starting on April 26th. The next step might even be moving the show out of his mom’s house. Either way, Abramson’s DIY comedic spirit has left an indelible mark on a super weird time. “In a lot of ways, [SNQ] is the perfect fit for me,” he says. “Who knows how it will turn out, but I have the benefit of failure itself being funny with this. So I might as well just go for it.”