Americans are a tough crowd right now. In these purgatorial days after a Supreme Court leak spelled the end of Roe v. Wade, women are stewing with sadness, fear, and a phrase that’s come to populate my group chats: incandescent rage. In the midst of all this, comedian Alison Leiby has debuted an all-too-timely one-woman comedy show, aptly titled Oh God, a Show About Abortion, that manages to make the incendiary topic seem, of all things, hilarious.
Despite its title, Oh God, a Show About Abortion, which opened this week at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater, is not exclusively about Leiby’s experience terminating an unwanted pregnancy three years ago, at age 35. In the first half of the show, Leiby, who was a writer on Broad City and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, charts her (and many other women’s) fairly deranged history with reproductive health, from fear-based, gender-segregated sex education to period pain and shame, “insulting” birth control ads (“Where is male birth control? I want the people who made the COVID vaccine to get on male birth control”), and a fleeting reference to nearly dying from a blood clot at 19.
Yet the show crescendoes when Leiby unsparingly addresses her abortion. There’s the matter of what to wear—she settled on athleisure, which was ubiquitous in the Planned Parenthood waiting room (“Yoga pants? Just call them abortion pants”)—the presence of the luxury maternity boutique Hatch across the street (“Who owns that, Mike Pence?”); and the fact that she gabbed throughout the procedure. “I talked as much during my abortion as my mom does during an episode of Ozark.”
In what may be the waning days of Roe, there is an acute sense of power in Leiby’s joking about, demystifying, and otherwise normalizing abortion. This is the mission of the show, which began in her stand-up routines. “The more we talk about it openly and honestly,” she urges the audience, “the less of a catastrophe it is.” Leiby does not make apologies for not wanting to be a mother. “Having and raising a baby does not look fun,” she declares at another point in the show. “It looks impossible, scary, exhausting, and painful.” Recalling being asked during a routine pre-abortion sonogram whether she wanted to know if the fetus had a heartbeat (a misnomer, as embryos do not have developed hearts), she quips: “You can fax that to Mitch McConnell. I don’t really care. He seems to care a lot.”
Vogue spoke with Leiby this week about performing the show through the breaking Roe news, the craft of joking about abortion, and the meaning behind her go-to stage outfit.
Alison Leiby: It’s such a tough emotional roller coaster to be on, because I’ve been working on this show, or versions of it, for almost three years. When we got this run, I think we secured the dates knowing that the Supreme Court decision will come down in June, and this run ends June 4, for now. We were like, “Wow, wouldn’t it be crazy if that decision came down during the course of the show?” And then, all of a sudden, here’s the leak. It’s so hard because it’s making the show the most topical thing ever, and I’m on the phone with every press outlet, and people are tweeting about it and posting on Instagram, and it’s happening at the cost of the civil liberties of a huge swath people in this country, including myself, and it’s devastating.
You said “the show is exactly the same, you know, as it was before we lost all our rights,” but are there any differences—in your emotions or in how you’re approaching it?
The next night [after the leak] was incredibly charged. I got emotional, which was a surprise to me, multiple times throughout the show. Overall, the jokes are a light touch, but I think the jokes about abortion feel tougher for people and understandably so. I think that it’s important to have a range of approaches to talking about this topic, and one of them is going to continue to be realistic and make darkly funny jokes about it.
What was the impetus when you began working on this three years ago? What made you say, “I’m going to do a show about abortion?”
I was doing stand-up, and I talked about my life onstage. So I had this abortion, and I was like, Well, I have to talk about this now, mostly because I carried very little trauma or negative feelings around it. There are people for whom their abortion experience is very traumatic, and those people should not feel pressure to joke about it if they don’t want to, but I did not feel that. And so I started writing jokes, figuring it out. We so rarely see or hear the experience of a mundane, everyday, nonevent abortion. We very rarely talk about the experience I had, which is no part of me was considering motherhood. Getting my abortion was not that hard, and it’s kind of a model of what could be for lots of people that live in this country: showing up and having the procedure and going home and watching TV and carrying on with your life without having to dwell on it too much.
You say in the show that your abortion felt anticlimactic. Were you expecting to feel a burden or to feel traumatized because it’s so laden with cultural and political weight?
I think, intellectually, I knew I would not, just because I wasn’t questioning anything around it going in, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us that we only talk about it like it’s the biggest deal, it’s the biggest tragedy—like even if it’s not traumatic that it’s dramatic; it’s something that will change you. Like, you walk in who you are, and you walk out that person who has had an abortion. And that is true. I did walk out of there a person who has had an abortion, but it did not change any of the things about me that I think our culture teaches you it will.
Is the act of joking about abortion in itself normalizing it?
Yeah, I think it normalizes it for people to be like, Oh, it’s just a medical procedure. I think we’re taught to feel guilty when we have abortions, and it’s supposed to be a thing that you didn’t want to have to do, kind of a necessary evil, even though it was the right choice. That makes it very hard to then walk out of there and be like, “Wow, I’m really glad I did that,” because you sound like a monster. But any reason for an abortion is the right one, including I don’t want to be pregnant right now.
Creatively, did you encounter people along the way who doubted that abortion could be funny? Is there an art to making it land?
The feedback that I’ve gotten from anyone who has actually seen the show has been incredibly positive. Sometimes I’ll read comments, and a lot of people are like, “I agree with abortion, but I don’t see how you could ever make it funny.” When I was writing it and developing it, I learned those abortion jokes belong in the back half of the show because I have to earn them. I think that those jokes, exactly as they are written, 30 minutes earlier in the show, would not be as well received. Not because people don’t think they’re funny but because you have to handhold a little to be like, It’s okay to laugh at this. You’re in good hands. I’m going to unpack sex ed for you, and I’m going to unpack periods. I’m covering the things that got me to this point, and now we can laugh at the pants.
Is the title of the show also about easing the audience in? Oh God, a Show About Abortion feels like you’re acknowledging the skepticism.
I acknowledge that if you were like, “I’m gonna do a one-hour, one-person show about my abortion experience,” the response would be somebody being like, “Oh, God, a show about abortion?” That’s the tone with which I read the title. The joke is, of course, that it’s a show about so much more than abortion. My brilliant director, Lila Neugebauer, said in one of our early meetings that “abortion is the Trojan horse for discussing female identity and motherhood and the ways that those are conflated in our culture.” I was like, “Yes.”
You declare very simply in the show that you do not want kids. You also note that it’s a hard thing to say out loud. Why is it so hard?
For years, I have struggled internally with being able to say that even to myself when in reality I’ve known. I think that our culture is very hung up on the nuclear family, and we live in a natalist culture where being a mother is an important thing to do because you can, and thus you must. One of the hard things with my parents is they’re like, “Who’s going to be there for you if you don’t have a family of your own?” And I’m like, “Well, I have an incredibly rich life. I have a lot of friends who also are not interested in parenthood, and therefore we’re all there for each other.” The response that I think people are well intentioned with is: “But you’re exactly who should have a kid! You would be so fun!” That still paints a picture that the best thing a woman could do is be a parent. It’s like, I think the other things about me that you like are things that might suffer at the expense of my motherhood. I saw a TikTok from this woman [explaining] that it’s really important to have childless people in our culture because they have the bandwidth to provide guidance and leadership and love to children in a way that people with their own children can’t. That is a really lovely role to get to fill.