A stand-up show about abortion sounds like a bad idea. The comic Alison Leiby knows that. Just look at her title: “Oh God, an Hour About Abortion.”
Leiby doesn’t just anticipate your expectations. She subverts them. As states like Texas pass laws dramatically restricting abortion rights, and the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case in December that could overturn Roe v. Wade, her deftly funny, jarringly understated show doesn’t respond to the news so much as clarify it.
Abortion is not new territory in comedy, and there’s a long history of male comics doing against-the-grain bits staking out an abortion-rights position while also poking fun at the idea that a fetus isn’t a person. I saw this done decades ago by George Carlin, and again this month by Bill Burr. Neal Brennan also has a quick joke in his current show, “Unacceptable,” about how liberals show empathy for everyone — but fetuses. Leiby is part of a recent spate of female artists making comedy about reproductive rights that digs into the realities of abortion today more than abstract arguments about it.
Leiby, who has been performing her show around New York City (next up: Caveat on Tuesday), employs none of the debating-society smirk of those jokes about the life of the fetus. Without a trace of didacticism, she finds humor in the messy, confusing, sometimes banal experience of an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion. This is comedy about the heartbeat of the mother — and to the extent it engages with the abstract question of life, it’s when Leiby mentions her friends’ first Instagram post of their newborn, which, she says, “I think we can all agree is when life really begins.”
Her offhandedness is part of her charm, but it has a purpose. Leiby wants to give us a portrait of abortion not as a crisis or a moral question, but as a common and confusing medical procedure. The broader context of this show, as she reminds the audience, is a culture of silence surrounding women. From sex education to birth control, she explains how much is unspoken, rushed through or hidden from view. Leiby even shocked herself when she called Planned Parenthood, she says, and in asking about an abortion, whispered the word. She mocks the vague ads for birth control and imagines an honest one in which a 37-year-old woman wakes up in a cold sweat screaming next to a mediocre white man, which leads to a scene of him eating Cheetos in a hospital room as she gives birth.
Leiby doesn’t move much onstage, and her gestures are limited. Her comedy leans on her nimble writing, which displays a range and density of spiky jokes — puns, metaphors, misdirection. She knows how to set a scene and is alert to the details of nightmares. She is terrified of scary movies and has a ticklishly amusing podcast, “Ruined,” in which a friend, Halle Kiefer, explains the plots of horror films to her. It’s like listening to a play-by-play announcer and color commentator of a game on the radio, except instead of balls or strikes, it’s about beheadings and exorcisms.
What comes across on the podcast and in this show is a sensitivity to anxiety and fear mitigated by curiosity. Leiby understands that whether to have a child is a subject fraught with confusion for many, and she acknowledges it, but that’s not her issue. She presents herself as a wry if bumbling protagonist of her own story, describing her attitude toward the prospect of children like this: “I acted like my eggs were Fabergé: feminine but decorative.”
In 2004, The New York Times published an article about culture and abortion titled “Television’s Most Persistent Taboo.” That has changed. In a short set on “The Comedy Lineup,” on Netflix, the comic Kate Willett has a sharp joke about how men looking to hook up should care about abortion rights. “I don’t even know if the men that I know understand that sex can make a kid,” she said. “They are super worried that sex can make someone your girlfriend.”
In the past year, streaming services have put out two comedies, “Plan B” (directed by Natalie Morales) and “Unpregnant” (directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg), about girls who go on the road with a friend to get reproductive help. These knockabout buddy films aren’t explicitly about the recent state-level pushes for anti-abortion legislation, but they certainly haunt the action, with closed clinics and ideologues providing key plot points.
Like Leiby’s show, these movies present getting an abortion or taking the morning-after pill, often called Plan B, as ordinary decisions made relatively easily, but because of the dictates of a commercial comedy, their plots are full of incident and action, romantic and villainous turns. They make the process of getting an abortion into a high-stakes adventure.
In observational comedy, Leiby has found a form better suited to what she wants to say. “Oh God” is about details, and by zeroing in on them, it navigates the difficult terrain of making a funny hour about a difficult, polarizing subject. Even so, this isn’t one of those comedy shows interrupted by grave talk or political speeches. It’s one where the response to the person at the clinic asking if she wants “pills or procedure” is: “That’s a real fries or salad.”
There’s a power in the relatable details of storytelling. Before Leiby gets the procedure, she’s asked a series of questions: Does she want to know if there’s a heartbeat? Does she want to know if it’s twins? In her telling, these are poignant, even painful moments leavened by quips. To the question about twins, she wonders: “Does it cost more?”
Leiby proves that light comedy can be as pointed and meaningful as that which advertises its own weightiness. For while she tells a story about a safe, legal and quick abortion, she doesn’t ignore other more fraught situations, either today or in a potential post-Roe future. She explores this indirectly through her relationship with her mother, which gives her an opportunity to dig into the issue before abortion was legal. Through this historical perspective, she frames the stakes of the next year, when abortion could grow even more prominent in the American discourse.
Political stand-up typically lends itself to argumentative point-making, but it can use other tools. In repositioning abortion not as a political battle of ideas but as the real-world choices in the lives of flawed human beings, she brings this charged issue down to earth.