Jewish Comedian Alison Leiby Wants to Talk About Her Abortion

Leiby spoke with Hey Alma about her stand-up show "Oh God, A Show About Abortion" and the comedy DNA of all Jewish people.

Light spoilers ahead for “Oh God, A Show About Abortion”

Not even 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to legalize abortion through Roe v. Wade, those who are fighting for reproductive justice in the United States are in a far less victorious mindset. Sometime within the next two months, the Supreme Court is expected to announce their ruling on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. With conservative justices holding a majority on the court, Roe v. Wade is, in all likelihood, about to be effectively reversed.

That’s not stopping Alison Leiby from talking about her abortion, however. On April 25, the Jewish comedian is set to open her hour-long stand-up show, “Oh God, A Show About Abortion,” presented by Ilana Glazer, at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Manhattan.

Unlike most depictions of abortion in movies and television, Alison’s abortion was not traumatic, nor was her decision to have it. In an early version of the show I was able to watch, she offers everyday observations on birth control, finding out she was pregnant and the abortion procedure. She also includes her mother’s abortion story (that happened through the mafia…) which she only learned about after she had her own. Alison never once ruminates on the ethical implications of ending her unwanted pregnancy.

“I think that presenting it as this everyday mundane thing can actually be a powerful way to discuss abortion in this current climate,” she tells me. Alison also adds the important caveat that her access to abortion was possible through privilege and not in any way reflective of or meant to be invalidating towards those who experience abortion differently.

Though “Oh God, A Show About Abortion” is more subtly Jewish, Alison’s comedy career has taken a very Jewish path. Before discussing abortion onstage, she wrote for “Broad City” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” as well as producing Ilana Glazer’s comedy special “The Planet Is Burning.”

I spoke with Alison over Zoom last week to talk about “Oh God, A Show About Abortion,” Jewish ideas of abortion and “the comedy DNA” in all Jewish people.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Because we are a Jewish publication, I have to start with: What was it like working on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”? 

Incredible. I’ve done a lot of things in my career and the one that my parents and all of their friends flip out about is “Maisel.” Understandably, because it is an incredible show. I was lucky to be there for two seasons. It was fun to write some of those family dynamics that felt very familiar to me. Being able to tap into some of those dynamics and those relationships and the way that people joked with and talked with each other… I don’t think there’s many shows where I could really do that. To have stories that I can tell in the writers’ room where it’s like, Oh, that would be a funny kind of thing to happen at this bris, there’s not a lot of times that you can do that in this industry. So for me, that was very special. I mean, also getting to write for a woman doing stand-up is, of course, very fun. Using those Jewish memories of my family and seeing them actually be able to be played out onscreen was a highlight.

I’d love to hear a bit about your Jewish identity as well.

So my mom is Jewish and my dad is not. I’m half Jewish, but my mom is Jewish from Bergen County, New Jersey, so my grandparents and all of their friends are Jewish. My grandfather and, I believe it was eight of them, were in a group called “The Crescents” for… [Alison measures the shape of her nose in a crescent].

[Laughs]

Which was obviously self-deprecating. That’s the DNA of our entire culture. But I grew up in an area where there were not a lot of Jews, in Annapolis, Maryland. Maryland has lots of Jews, we just didn’t live near them. So it was just kind of me and two or three other kids in my school of 2,000 who were Jewish. So for me, these trips up to New Jersey to visit my mom’s family and go to the Kosher Nosh Deli were when I felt like I was able to have real Jewish culture. Because it all felt so far away when I was growing up, even though one of the first movies I saw that wasn’t for children was “History of the World,” and I had an obsession with Jewish humor and the ways in which it’s always better than everything else. It just is. It’s better. 

So I always felt very out of touch when I was younger with my Jewish identity, and I wanted to have more of one, but I had absolutely no way to do that. My mom and I felt very uncomfortable in the temples near us because she’s married to a non-Jewish man, so there weren’t a lot of options. And everything in that area was Conservative, including the Jewish temples. So it was really when I got to Cornell, where obviously there are plenty of other Jewish people, and then living in New York City, where I felt like my identity could flourish a bit more. I can feel much more myself in a way that I’m recognizing now. I think a fair amount of my growing up was tied to feeling like an outsider as a Jewish person in a place where there weren’t any.

Could you tell me about how you decided to turn your abortion story into an hour of stand-up? 

Obviously, the abortion itself was a total surprise and not something I planned. I was just like, oh no, I have to deal with this. If and when people see the show, you’ll see that I went through the experience and was like, wow, this is not the traumatizing tragedy that we are taught that it is in pop culture and in sex ed and just the anecdotal discussions of abortion in this country. And I was like, wow, that’s interesting. This doesn’t really get talked about very much. And I’m a stand-up whose material is usually based on my life and the things I observe about it. 

So pretty shortly after it happened, I just started writing a couple of jokes, just to see if I could do it. Of all the topics that you can talk about as a woman, abortion, and anything related to our reproductive health, is the hardest to tackle. I remember the first time I did them, I had written two or three minutes of jokes about it. They are still jokes that are in the show today, but when I did them the first time they bombed. They bombed so hard — just silence and discomfort. Because you could tell I was uncomfortable saying it. Most jokes are not great when you start them, because you’re figuring it out. You don’t have the confidence in the bit yet. 

So I kept doing material. And eventually I wrote out the first draft and got to do a week-long run of it at a comedy theater that doesn’t exist anymore. Thanks, pandemic. But I was like, OK, there’s definitely something here. And then I rewrote it and did it right before the pandemic and I was like, alright! Let’s go off and running with the show. I’m excited! That was March 2, 2020.

[The show] had to sit on a shelf for a year and a half. But now I’m back and I’ve been wanting this theater run since the beginning, and it’s very exciting that it’s happening. 

Do you think that your instinct to tell your story and laugh through the difficulty of dealing with birth control and having an abortion comes from a Jewish place? 

I think it definitely does. I think part of Jewish humor and Jewish culture and personality is being able to take the atrocities that we’ve suffered historically and even today still suffer in the disgusting rise of antisemitism and still feeling othered. And as outsiders in a lot of white American culture, I think there is just this natural instinct to make those things funny. Not that other people who are not Jewish do not also have that instinct when things happen to them, but I do think that there’s something preternatural to Jewish comics or Jewish people to do that. And I would also say that the show is like, half complaining. Which I think is also pretty tied to the comedy DNA of being a Jewish person.

You’ve worked with Ilana Glazer before, but what does it mean to you to have her attached to your show?

She feels like — and it’s such a strange phrase to use — but she almost feels like such a mother. Since I’ve known her, I’ve started working this material out and she’s been this incredibly supportive friend and then also professional who can guide me through what’s next. And she’s obviously such a talent and so special and she just gets it so hard. It’s so nice to have somebody who I also just feel really connected to. Like one: We’re friends. But two: I feel like we do share so much identity-wise and we talk about a lot of those things. It feels like it’s this very organic development of the show that she’s been able to be a part of.

So she’s given input?  

Yeah, totally. She’s been along this journey with me. When we go on tour, when she’s headlining, I’ll try some of that stuff sometimes onstage and she was always like, do it! You should do it. I don’t care, talk about abortion before I come up! I don’t care! And there are absolutely comics that I’ve performed with who are like, please don’t do that. So to have somebody that’s so supportive in my life in general but then also connected to me professionally in this way has been so… I feel very lucky.

What does it mean to you to be doing this show during a time of really restrictive anti-abortion legislation in this country?

It’s so funny because I wrote the show mostly in 2019, and that was when Missouri and two or three other states tried to pass incredibly restrictive bans, and they all failed. They all got struck down. So there was even a line in the show when I revisited it after lockdown and I was like, oh, this is out of date now. Because now, those things have happened. Those bans exist in multiple states.

It’s tricky, too, because I am not trying to take on the whole of abortion as an experience and as a political event. But unfortunately, more marginalized people are not going to have as much access to talking about it as I will. I’m a straight, white cis-woman with money in a blue state. I am a person with the most access both for actually getting an abortion but also for talking openly about it. So I do feel like there is a little… not responsibility, but I do feel like I have to do this. And I have no hero complex, no martyr complex, it’s a comedy show first and an abortion show second. But I do think it’s important to present this non-trauma version of abortion. It does not negate that there are incredibly traumatic experiences that people have, and incredibly difficult experiences. And there are experiences that people want to have and can’t, because they are living in a state where they can’t or they don’t have the resources. This [show] is not to erase all of those experiences. But it is to say: This is the abortion experience that people could have if it was a protected right.

And it should be easier than this. I shouldn’t have to go to a clinic, I should be able to go to my doctor. There should be a lot of other things that make [having an abortion] even easier than the super luxury version that I’ve explained in the show. But I do think that people who don’t have intimate experiences with abortion, either through themselves or people they know, don’t know that it isn’t this awful nightmare all the time. They don’t know that there is this very simple experience of it. And I think that takes a little bit of the power away from [the narrative of abortion] being this awful tragedy that people have to suffer or that people go through. 

I really appreciated how you never present abortion as a moral question. Your perspective is purely discussing medical information. And as someone who has the ability to get pregnant, I didn’t know some of this stuff.

Yeah, neither did I until it happened! And that’s why I’m like, oh, this is crazy. I used to be an activist at Planned Parenthood and I never even thought to ask, like, hey, what happens during an abortion? I was out in the streets fucking fighting for [abortion] and I didn’t even know how it happened. And it’s because women’s identity and women’s lives in general are very hidden. In the version that’s going to Cherry Lane, I talk a lot about menstruation and periods and how that’s a very hidden part of our lives that we don’t get to publicly discuss in a way where it’s like… look, I’m not trying to be like, “I have my period!” every time I have my period. But at the same time, I’m like, why do I have to hide this? This is happening to me every 28 days. Half the population are people who menstruate and I think that abortion and discussions of motherhood and all of that is all part of this weird concealed women’s private lives and we are told to be quiet about them publicly. I think that’s doing us a huge disservice. And if these were things that happen to cis-men, this probably wouldn’t be that way.

I saw that The New York Times called your show the best political comedy of 2021, which, of course, congratulations. 

Thank you.

But that also interested me, because I think your show is called political because it’s about women’s bodies and the bodies of people who can become pregnant. For cis-men, talking about their bodies in comedy is often the farthest from political. 

Yeah, it’s so true. The refrain in comedy is like, I’ve heard so many dick jokes. I have heard men talk about their penises a lot and having sex a lot and it is inherently apolitical. What they get to do with their bodies is not policed and concealed. And what women do is inherently this very debatable thing, which is… terrible?

Yeah, that’s definitely the right word. So you’ve mentioned your abortion activism, could you tell me how you got into that?

I grew up in a house that was pro-choice. In 1992, when I was in first or second grade, my mom went to the March on Washington for reproductive rights and she did not hide that from me. She didn’t really explain what it was in detail, but she loosely explained that it was for women’s rights. And she had that t-shirt and she wore it to exercise all the time around our super conservative area. I have that t-shirt now and I wore it when we marched last summer for reproductive rights and that felt very special. So I grew up with no questions in my mind about what I thought about reproductive rights and abortion. 

I’m curious, how does your mom feel about you talking about your abortion and hers onstage? 

It definitely was scary to bring up. But when she told me her story, I had not even written any of this material. It was truly like two weeks after mine. It was just so weird that I was like, does she know? But she brought it up because of the political climate, and she was bringing it up to me to say people don’t know what the world was like before we had [abortion] protected. And that’s why she told me that story. She was like, I want to tell my story more and I’ve been thinking about maybe writing something on Facebook. And I was like, please don’t do that. Never write anything on Facebook. You should not be on Facebook at all. But the fact that she said that, and that that was why she was telling me about [her abortion], always kind of stuck in my mind. Like, she does want to share this and I think it is an important story to share. 

At the time of us recording this interview, she has not seen [the jokes about her] yet. She’s going to when the show opens. But initially, I was just like, is this cool? And at first she was like, I don’t know? Maybe not on TV. And I was like, well, the goal is that this goes on TV one day. Then she thought about it and also the political machine has carried on and continued getting worse and worse. I think she fully understands that she is not an activist, but she’s very pro-reproductive rights. She still cares about that issue very much and is engaged with it very closely. And so she eventually was like, say whatever you want, whatever you need me to tell you, I’ll tell you, and was very open. The show is basically dedicated to her, so I’m excited for her to see it.

She’s focused on what she should wear to the night she attends. She’s being the perfect Jewish mother right now and asking questions that I don’t have answers to.

I think the part of your show where you talk about “heartbeat bills,” and how inside a pregnant person there’s more than one heartbeat, is extremely Jewish. I’m not very well-versed in Jewish law, but my understanding of the Jewish approach to abortion is that the parent or the mother is the most important person.

When the Times reviewed my show earlier, a man wrote about it. And I was just like, oh no! But he understood it so much, and even included a line that said “this is comedy about the heartbeat of the mother.” And I’m like, yeah, the heartbeat we never talk about! The person experiencing all of this is who we should be focused on both politically and culturally when we talk about the concept of abortion. For him to get that, I felt like, OK, there’s a world where people who aren’t just me and people like me understand this. Which is always my fear. It’s like, I make jokes about Everlane pants. I know it’s not for everybody.

So much of your show is about deconstructing societal shame around women and the culture of badgering women about having children. And I’m curious if you’ve felt any of that shame or culture in the Jewish spaces that you’re a part of?

I think until pretty recently with my family, there’s been a little focus on like, well, aren’t you gonna get married and have a baby? And why aren’t you doing that? Like, come on, you’re in your late 30s now. I think now my parents get it, even though my mom brought it up when I saw her recently. She was like, are you sure you don’t want a baby? I was showing her a picture of one of my friend’s babies who is so cute. I was like, look at little Henry! And she was like, don’t you want one? And I was like, no, no I don’t. I feel this way about a cute dog too. I also don’t want one of those. 

So I’m guessing the answer to this is no, but did Judaism play a role in your decision to get an abortion? 

You know, I think the fact that it didn’t factor in is a connection to Judaism. I grew up in an area where everybody was very religiously Christian. And I think the fact that the morality of abortion played no part of my decision is inherently kind of Jewish. Because it is the absence of that weird belief that a fetus is more important than an adult human. 

The conversation about abortion in the United States is almost always infused with Christian values and the idea that the U.S. is or should be a Christian country, which is so frustrating to me as a Jewish person. I’d love to hear your thoughts about that.

I think that’s undeniably true, and that the push for restricting these rights and for forced birth and all that is a Christian ideology. It has no connection to Judaism. It does not allow for people of different beliefs to live under the same system. As a person who can get pregnant, that is scary for the future. And as a person who doesn’t subscribe to Christian religious values, Jewish religious values or otherwise, it is also a scary state to live in. I think that probably connects to just, you know, generational trauma and general white supremacy nightmares. And I think that part of the fight for reproductive justice and freedoms is always going to be also about the fight for being able to believe in and do what you think is right, regardless of your religious or cultural affiliations.

What have reactions to the show been like so far?

I’ve been blown away by how much people are responding to it. Especially as it’s evolved and I’ve worked out the serious things I want to say, in addition to the jokes. Like the jokes work, I know they do. But early on, I had multiple instances of people coming to the show, like girlfriends coming to the show, and after the show one of them confessing to the other that they had had an abortion that they hadn’t told them about. That’s kind of the point of the show.

This isn’t going to change anybody’s mind, it is not going to politically shake the ground. I mean, I hope that it has all kinds of positive repercussions in the reproductive rights space. But what I really want is for it to make people feel like they can be more open with their experiences, abortion or otherwise, and be able to talk about things that are happening to them in real time and not hold onto these things. I sat on my story for a month or two before I said anything to some of my friends. And I’m like, why did I not tell them? And that even feels so short compared to others’ timelines of sharing their experiences. For some it’s years. I really just want people to feel open and not feel shame about things like this because there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“Oh God, A Show About Abortion” is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City from April 25 to June 4. You can buy tickets here.

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