When comedian Alison Leiby got an abortion three years ago, she didn’t know that she would write a comedy special’s worth of material about the experience, or that special would eventually evolve into a one-woman show called Oh God, a Show About Abortion. And she definitely didn’t know that during the show’s debut run in New York, the Supreme Court would strike down Roe v. Wade. With that initial run extended and more shows coming later this summer in Los Angeles and New York, Leiby spoke to Slate about the emotional wallop of performing a funny show about abortion against the extremely unfunny backdrop of millions of Americans losing their right to the procedure. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: Can you take me back to the moment you heard the news that Roe was overturned?
Alison Leiby: I actually woke up in the morning to find myself locked out of Twitter, because my Twitter had been hacked. Obviously we had been talking the night before about everybody expecting that Friday was gonna be the day, because they had added that extra decision day. And then I got a text from my publicist, Kelly, that just said, “Well, fuck.” And I was like, “Well, it must have come out.” That’s how I’m gonna find out, just a “Well, fuck”—and then, you know, a slew of other texts and alerts and emails and things like that. But it was maybe a relief to not find out on Twitter.
It’s weird that we’ve been living in the limbo of, like, we know it’s coming. I thought, “Well, the band-aid has been ripped off with the leak. How could there really be more emotions to feel around this?” And I still fully had the pendulum swing from rage to sadness all day. The implementation of the case being overturned … I mean, people stopped performing abortions that day. I think those realities are what made the actual decision day really so horrific. And then I had to go do the show. The day I did the show after the leak was a very somber crowd. I think a lot of people came to the show after that news had leaked and were like, “Oh, let’s go to this. This will feel cathartic.” And I think that it did, but I would say that the comedy elements of it, which there are many, didn’t really have the same feeling. When I showed up on Friday [after Dobbs], I was prepared for that kind of crowd, and it was kind of the opposite. It was a room that was kind of ready to laugh, weirdly. Certainly it was more moving and more emotional as I got through certain parts of the show that deal a little bit more in the realities of abortion. But it was kind of electric to just be with a bunch of people in a room that night about this thing. We’re all here because we’re ready to hear about and talk about this issue.
Did you give any kind of preamble when you got there?
I didn’t write anything out. I was like, “I don’t know what this’ll look like, I’m just gonna show up and start talking and see what comes outta my mouth.” It was similar to what I had said when I got onstage after the leak had happened, which was that I’ve been writing this show for three years. Of course over the three years, our rights have constantly been in the crossfire and the movement towards overturning Roe has been happening the whole time. But the show could feel different today than it did yesterday. So I just kind of welcomed people like, “Hey, if something hits you weird or you have emotions about it, feel those feelings.”
Do any parts of the show stand out as being different to perform lately?
The moment that I address how frictionless my abortion experience was based on who I am has felt more intense, and even as a performer, that is something that always was a quiet moment to address privilege and the realities of equality of abortion. But it has been outrageously charged to say it out loud in the days following the decision and Roe being overturned because it went from, “Yeah, there’s a lot of people that can’t access abortion in this country” to that number jumping so much, even though that number was incredibly high before. Having it be the law of the land and the court basically saying, “Women don’t matter, people with uteruses who can get pregnant do not matter, suck it up and deal with it,” I just think that that has been so hard. That is where I have ended up basically tearing up every time, and that’s not something that had happened before.
You’re going to perform the show in Los Angeles for a couple weeks. Will that be the first time you’ve done it somewhere besides New York?
Before this opened, earlier in April, I did three nights in Austin, Texas, just kind of workshopping it, and it was different to do it there. And I was like, “What is it about this? Is it just because I’m in a more conservative state and everybody is inherently a little bit more conservative?” And I was talking to someone after and they were like, “No, it’s that we don’t have this right here anymore.” It was still pretty raw. We’re still only months out from that six-week ban going into place.
They were like, “Yeah, we all want to be able to do what you did, and now lots of people here can’t.” Whereas in New York it has always felt theoretical, the loss of abortion rights. You hear people be like, “Thank God I’m in New York,” where we’ve obviously codified abortion rights and have protections. It’s a very liberal city, even though I think as you get out into the state, it gets redder. Since the leak and then definitely since Roe was overturned, that sense that I felt in Austin, I can feel it a little bit more in New York—like, “Oh, this is very real.”
Have you thought about touring the show around the country?
I am planning that as I look into the future a bit. Right now, I’m just like, I need to get through every day. But I do wanna tour it. Am I gonna go do it in a rural town in Alabama? No. But I think there’s lots of cities that would welcome a show like this. But again, all of that is how I was planning before [that] Friday. And since Friday I’m like, “I actually don’t know what that looks like anymore.” I’m like, “Is it OK for me to show up and be like, ‘I had an abortion’ into a microphone?” I don’t know if it is.
Even when I was planning to do it in Austin—and Austin is such a big city that has, compared to the rest of Texas, such liberal politics, and it was part of a comedy festival with which there was security and all this other stuff—I had a lot of safety concerns for myself. Which is why, on one hand, I always want the word abortion to be in the title of the show, because part of me is like, “I don’t want someone who disagrees with this to be tricked into, like, “Plan C,’ ” or whatever awful, cheeky name that it could be. But at the same time, it is the word abortion and my name and my face and a location and a time and a venue. It’s just so hard to know what it’s like in some of these other places right now. I know what it’s like in New York. I do not feel threatened walking around and walking to the theater. We’ve had like one lady with like some pamphlets try and stand outside once to be like, “Abortion is murder!” And they were like, “Could you stand across the street?” And she was like, “OK.”
A lot of people like walk away from [the show], at least in terms of some of the responses I’ve gotten, being like, “Wow, I didn’t realize. I always just thought [an abortion] was like a bigger thing.” Which is something that I thought and I really address in the show, which is what my expectations of abortion were, even being somebody that deeply believes in the right to abortion. When I finally went and did it, I was like, “This was it? I’ve been told that this is the biggest tragedy that could ever happen to somebody.” I think that a lot of people have that. I do feel like it would be powerful for people in other places to get to really hear that. It makes me sad that it feels like a safety concern and it feels like, “Ooh, can I?” when like, it should be something that anybody should get to hear. And I think also for people who have had this abortion experience to actually get to hear it reflected back at them, because it is an abortion experience that gets so ignored when abortion is debated, ’cause everybody focuses on the trauma ones, and those are incredibly important reasons that we should have this right. But as important is, “I didn’t wanna be pregnant and then I got to not be pregnant.”
Was it hard to get your show produced? Was it a lot of people, especially men, like shutting doors in your face?
I did not feel that. I am incredibly lucky to have a manager and a team of agents that all saw it and were like, “This is great. Let’s make this a thing. You’re doing something here.” There was never a question of like, “Can we put up the abortion show?” It was always just like, “What dates are gonna work for you?” I really never found along the way any gatekeeping around being able to talk about this. I remember very distinctly when I was workshopping it before it became the theater run and I was just doing it around in Brooklyn, and I did it under the title Oh God, an Hour About Abortion. When we were starting organizing the theater run, my producers were like, “I think we need to talk about the name.” And I was like, “Ugh, they’re gonna tell me, I can’t say abortion ’cause they’re not gonna want it out there” and blah, blah, blah. And they were like, “The word hour is just so stand-up-y, and I think we need to say show.” And I was like, “That’s the problem?” And that really illuminated for me how on board everybody was. Nobody was doing this ’cause they were like, “I guess we have to do this important thing.” Everybody was like, “No, we really like this and it should exist.”
One thing I wanted to ask you about is the way that your show is having a lot of success and you’re having a moment in your career, but it’s been lifted by this terrible political moment. That must feel really complicated.
I started writing it before, then as we were getting it to the theater stage, we knew that they were gonna hear Dobbs. So it was like, “Wow, well it’s gonna be in the conversation.” And that had nothing to do with why this show was when it was. It was purely a mix of the pandemic and the theater’s schedule and my schedule. It all just happened in this way.
When the leak happened, we were trying to get press when the show was about to open for previews. But it just felt like, “Oh, nobody’s really talking about it.” And then all of a sudden the leak happened and every newspaper, magazine, website, podcast, everybody wants to talk to you. I’ve been doing comedy for like 12 years. I’ve written for other people. I’ve written on TV shows. I’ve grinded out my entire 20s and 30s to have something of my own. And here it is. And here’s all this press, and it’s all because we’re losing civil liberties. It’s devastating. I would trade all of it. I would rather no one wants to see this ’cause no one cares ’cause everybody can get an abortion easily. That is something I would absolutely prefer. I can write another show.
You see like, “Ooh, like Anna Wintour is here. Ooh, Vogue, ooh. The New York Times won’t stop writing about it.” And I have to step back and enjoy the fact that people are saying good things about something you wrote. It happens to be part of a huge conversation. It is hard to kind of read the news and be confronted with the absolute realities of what this is, and then also be like, “You sold a lot of tickets this week. Great.” It’s a real roller coaster.
Your mom is a big part of the show. Have you talked to her about the decision?
She called me Friday and she was like, “I am physically ill.” She was like, “Even though we knew, it still just is a gut punch.” Here’s a woman who lived in pre-Roe America and saw Roe v. Wade get passed and marched on Washington in 1992 to protect that right for people and to stand up and use her voice and to then generously let me tell her story onstage to strangers every night. And now she’s living in a world where we don’t have that right protected anymore. It’s just so mind-boggling to think about, and she’s very thoughtful about it and aware and scared and angry. And we talked for like 40 minutes that day, which is a lot of talking to your mom about abortion.
Have you been to any protests?
I’ve been doing the show and they tend to start at 6 and the show starts at 7. If I were doing a show about anything else, I’d be like, “We’re canceling the show.” I don’t think that me doing the show is the same as like thousands of people marching down Fifth Avenue, but it does feel like it is educational, it is destigmatizing, and it also gives me a place to really channel all of my feelings and feel like it’s productive every day, which is an incredibly important part of being able to move through this moment, to have something that you can be like, “This is helping at least one person, maybe, I hope,” and that feels kind of good.
I also, two or three times in the show, I get to really scream really loud, like, for a joke. And it is so freeing to have a place in New York City to scream at the top of your lungs. When you’re surrounded by people and you live in an apartment, you just don’t get to like primally scream and it’s all I’ve wanted to do in the last week, is just scream.
What are you doing to distract yourself or relax during all of this?
Definitely a lot of quiet time. Normally I’m somebody who would do a bunch of shit during the day. I’m always running errands. What do I even do? It’s like buying shampoo. Why is that an activity? But I really try and stay at home, stay on the couch, make good food during the day, like a really delicious sandwich, a good turkey sandwich with a bunch of veggies on it. Really just spending time being by myself during the day, because to get out and do the show, and to do the show especially in the moment that we’ve been in in the past few weeks and certainly in the past few days, is very emotionally grueling.
I also can’t even anticipate my own reaction throughout the show, ’cause things just sometimes hit me and they become like incredibly emotional or incredibly heavy or I get really angry. And all of that happens in the span of when I step onto the stage to when I leave. And so to be just by myself and not responsible for other people’s feelings is a really important part of my day. I’m a big Bravo nightmare. Rich strangers yelling at each other is weirdly soothing to me. I hurt my back a week or so ago, but before I had hurt my back, I was swimming a couple times a week. Being in water and you’re not people-watching, you’re not on your phone, you’re not listening to music, you are just in water and it’s physical, but also not painful, it’s my favorite escape. I’m just counting down the days until this muscle stops spasming and I can go back to the pool.