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    Performing a Comedy About Abortion, Watching the Supreme Court

    Alison Leiby had just performed her show “Oh God, a Show About Abortion” when she learned of the leaked draft opinion showing that the court could be on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade.After finishing a preview performance of her hourlong stand-up show about reproductive rights, “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” the comedian Alison Leiby was finishing dinner Monday night when she checked her phone.She had dozens of messages, all about the breaking news that a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion showed that the court appeared to be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion in the United States.“It was just an absolute confrontation with reality, that this is not theoretical anymore,” Leiby, a self-described abortion rights activist perhaps best known for work co-producing “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” said in an interview.As Leiby began to process what this potential decision would mean for the country, she also realized that she needed to quickly start thinking about how it might reshape her show, a 70-minute stand-up set about her own unwanted pregnancy and how it was resolved with a Saturday afternoon trip to Planned Parenthood. So at Tuesday evening’s preview at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York, she addressed the news at the top of the show.“I’m not going to ignore the literal elephant in the room,” Leiby said on Tuesday, thanking the person behind the lone guffaw in the audience for getting her wordplay.From Opinion: A Challenge to Roe v. WadeCommentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.Ross Douthat: The leak of a draft Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade is not a surprise, but the strategy behind it is something of a mystery.Roxane Gay: Whoever leaked the draft wanted people to understand the fate awaiting America. So people can prepare. So they can rage.Emily Bazelon: By suggesting in the draft that the progress women have made is a reason to throw out Roe, Justice Samuel Alito has turned feminism against itself.Bret Stephens: Roe v. Wade was an ill-judged decision when it was handed down. But overturning it would do more to replicate its damage than to reverse it.Sway: In the latest episode of her podcast, Kara Swisher talks to an abortion rights advocate about the draft opinion and the future of abortion rights in America..“I’m not changing anything in response to the news, but I understand that your feelings toward it might be different,” Leiby said. “If something is funny, not funny, cathartic — feel that. That is valid. I’m not up here dancing for applause. We’re in this together.”Zoe Verzani, right, spoke to Leiby after the performance at the Cherry Lane Theater.Desiree Rios for The New York TimesThe news that the court could be on the verge of overturning Roe, which would lead to immediate abortion bans in some states and prompt others to move to issue bans and restrictions, comes as theaters and cinemas around New York City and the nation are presenting works about abortion.In Atlanta, performances of “Roe,” a play by Lisa Loomer focused on the plaintiff in the landmark case and the lawyer who argued it in front of the Supreme Court, begin Friday. The same day, the Metrograph Theater in New York will begin a series devoted to films that touch on or explore abortion, including Josef von Sternberg’s 1931 drama “An American Tragedy” and the 1987 romantic comedy “Dirty Dancing.” And this summer, a small nonprofit theater in Chicago will premiere “Roe v US,” a play billed as giving “voice to the women who made the choice.”The same night Leiby’s show opens in the West Village, a play that looks at abortion through a very different lens is scheduled to be held at a theater in Midtown: “Oh Gosnell,” about Kermit Gosnell, a doctor who was convicted of murder in 2013 following botched late-term abortions. The case became a rallying cry for the anti-abortion movement. Phelim McAleer, an Irish-born filmmaker and producer, said that he had seen Leiby’s show billed as an “abortion comedy” and decided to counter it by producing a play about Gosnell that draws its text from a grand jury report and trial transcripts, saying he wanted to give audiences an “alternative viewpoint.”The show has faced difficulties: The theater it originally planned to use backed out, and two of its seven actors walked out shortly before previews were set to begin.Intent on making sure the play goes ahead at its new venue, McAleer — who has made documentaries questioning the opposition to fracking, and said he was working on a film about Hunter Biden — said that he was still processing the Supreme Court news. “It definitely means the Gosnell story is more relevant than ever and plays about abortion are more relevant than ever,” he said.Leiby and McAleer’s two shows could hardly be more dissimilar. One is a comedy about an uneventful abortion procedure that makes a case for broad abortion access and the other is a graphic play about an infamous abortion provider whose clinic was described by prosecutors as a “house of horrors.” But Leiby and McAleer share one similar goal: to talk about, and to get audiences to listen to, a work about abortion.This week there will be a staged reading of “Oh Gosnell,” a play about Kermit Gosnell, a doctor who was convicted of murder in 2013 following botched late-term abortions.Russ Rowland“Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” — which is being presented by the comedian Ilana Glazer and directed by Lila Neugebauer — is scheduled to run through June 4. After seeing an earlier iteration of Leiby’s show, Jason Zinoman wrote in The New York Times that, “Without a trace of didacticism, she finds humor in the messy, confusing, sometimes banal experience of an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion.”The show tells her story: of a 35-year-old comedy writer who learns she is pregnant in a hotel bathroom in St. Louis. She is so confident in her disinterest in having children that in the act, she compares her eggs to those by Fabergé (“feminine but decorative”). At Leiby’s first mention of Planned Parenthood, a group of young, female public health students who were in the audience burst into cheers.One member of the group, Zoe Verzani, 24, who wore a hot-pink Planned Parenthood T-shirt to the show this week, said that she thought Leiby handled the material just right.Understand the State of Roe v. WadeCard 1 of 4What is Roe v. Wade? More

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    Best Comedy of 2021

    The return of indoor shows brought comedy closer to normal, and there were plenty of specials from Bo Burnham, Tig Notaro, Roy Wood Jr. and others.From left, a scene from Tig Notaro’s HBO special “Drawn,” Susie Essman in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Tiffany Haddish in Netflix’s “Bad Trip.”From left: HBO; John P. Johnson/HBO; Dimitry Elyashkevich/NetflixComedy got dangerous in 2021. Not cancel-culture dangerous (though after creating one of the loudest controversies of the year with his Netflix special “The Closer,” Dave Chappelle might disagree). More like “I might contract Covid at this show” dangerous. After a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime shutdown of live performances, audiences returned to indoor shows, and comics picked up where they left off. These are some of the highlights.Best Punch Line Inside a Club to Defuse Covid AnxietyOne night at the Comedy Cellar, Dave Attell told a guy in the crowd: “I’m glad you’re wearing a mask because we need a survivor to tell the story.” But in the basement of the West Side Comedy Club, Bill Burr took down the elephant in the room even quicker: “I’m happy to be down here working on a new variant.”Best Experimental ComedyTig Notaro is not the first stand-up to turn herself into a cartoon, but her “Drawn” HBO special was the most ambitious attempt, using a different animated style for each bit — realistic one moment, whimsically fantastical the next, veering from the perspective of the audience to a cockroach. Imagine if Pixar did stand-up.A scene from “Drawn,” an animated HBO special from Tig Notaro, which uses a different animated style for each bit.HBOBest Musical ComedyThis was the year that visual humor caught up to the verbal kind in comedy specials. Bo Burnham invented a new comic vocabulary with his Netflix hit “Inside,” a filmic meditation on isolation, the internet and ironic distance itself. It was so tuneful and thematically well made that a blockbuster musical is surely in his future.Best Opening BitIn “Imperfect Messenger,” a Comedy Central special packed with refined comic gems, Roy Wood Jr. begins by discussing things that are not racist but feel racist. Things that have, as he puts it while rubbing his thumb and his fingers together as if he’s grasping at something, “the residue of racism” — like when white people use the word “forefathers,” or when you go somewhere and there’s “too many American flags,” which he calls “too much freedom.” He rubs his fingers and thumb again and asks: “How many American flags equal one Confederate flag?”Roy Wood Jr. in his Comedy Central special “Imperfect Messenger.”Sean Gallagher/Comedy CentralBest DirectingWith a jangling horror soundtrack, claustrophobic close-ups and the menacing humor of a Pinter play, the movie “Shiva Baby” offers a modern spin on the postgraduate angst of “The Graduate.” Its director, Emma Seligman, is the most promising cringe-comedy auteur to come along in years.Best MemoirIn the Audible original “May You Live in Interesting Times,” Laraine Newman describes studying with Marcel Marceau, dating Warren Zevon and farting in front of Prince. She gives you what you want in a “Saturday Night Live” memoir, but what makes her audiobook excel is her nimble voice, impersonating a collection of characters, none more charismatic than her own.Best Documentary“Mentally Al” catches up with the unsung comic Al Lubel when he’s near broke, disheveled and struggling with an impossibly dysfunctional relationship with his mother. Onstage, however, he’s consistently hilarious, even when the audience doesn’t think so. After countless documentaries about how a really funny person became a star, there’s finally a revelatory one exploring why one didn’t.Best Political ComedySometimes the most powerful punch is a jab. In “Oh God, an Hour About Abortion” — an understated, humane and deeply funny examination of the experience of having an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion — Alison Leiby uses observational comedy to reframe a political question at a critical moment for reproductive rights.The comedian Alison Leiby performing at Union Hall in Brooklyn in September.Krista Schlueter for The New York TimesBest Keystone Cops UpdateNot since Chaplin has running from the police been as funny as Tiffany Haddish in “Bad Trip,” a scripted movie on Netflix that includes unscripted scenes, such as Haddish emerging from under a prison bus dressed in an orange jumpsuit, forcing a male bystander into an uncomfortable decision.Best SpecialThere’s never been a better year for handsome comics making jokes about their fraying mental health. Along with Bo Burnham unraveling onscreen and John Mulaney describing the depths of his addiction in live shows, the British comic James Acaster delivered his masterwork, “Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999,” on Vimeo. It’s a nearly three-hour show, wildly funny and deeply felt, that mocks how easily mental struggles can be turned into entertainment before doing just that.Best Arena SpectacleThere were prop missiles, shining diamonds and a massive sign that announced “World War III” in lights. I’m still not sure what the battle was about, but as soon as the born entertainer Katt Williams charged into the Barclays Center, yellow sneakers a blur, it was clear he had won.Best Netflix DebutNaomi Ekperigin is a natural — a comic that can make you laugh at just about anything: summing up Nancy Meyers movies, vaccines, clichés (why L.A. sucks), the way she says “OK.” In a half-hour set, as part of the collection “The Standups” that will be released on Netflix on Dec. 29, she even has two different jokes about the color beige that earn laughs. It’s a delight.Naomi Ekperigin performs in Season 3 of “The Standups,” coming to Netflix on Dec. 29.Clifton Prescod/NetflixBest Grand Unified TheoryIn describing how the porn industry pioneered everything on the internet, from user-generated content to diversity casting, Danny Jolles, in his endearing and far too overlooked Amazon Prime Video special, “Six Parts,” finds a new way to describe the fragmentation and filtering of the news: fetishes. All news, he argues, has become “kink news,” catering to our narrow, even perverse whims.Best Inside Comedy ParodyLast year ended with the release of “An Evening With Tim Heidecker,” a parody of edgy stand-up comedy that was a bit too vague to really resonate. Now, Heidecker hit the bull’s-eye with his recent YouTube spoof of The Joe Rogan Experience; its 12-hour running time (really one hour on a loop) is its first joke. So precise, so meticulously sensitive to the details, to the cadence and lingo of that podcast, his conversation with two sycophantic guests (played with pitch-perfect smarm by Jeremy Levick and Rajat Suresh) is a master class in sounding absolutely earth-shattering while saying precisely nothing.Best Argument for the Staying Power of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’No comedy that started in 2000 should still be this funny. Part of the reason for this feat is the consistently elite supporting performances, none more important than Susie Essman, who shined this year. Famous for her volcanic fury, she can do dry and understated just as well. I have not laughed louder at a television show this year than after hearing her say the word “caftan.”Susie Essman, left, plays Susie Greene in the long-running HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”John P. Johnson/ HBOMost Underrated Star ComicJim Gaffigan has put out so much material for so long that he’s easy to take for granted. The fact that he’s family friendly probably doesn’t help his press either. His dynamite new special, “Comedy Monster” (premiering Tuesday on Netflix), may be his best, showing Gaffigan at his most dyspeptic. It suits him. Who would have thought that he would so satisfyingly eviscerate marching bands and parades? Or have the most unexpected prop joke of the year (keep an eye out for a grand piano). More

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    Comedians Turn Their Attention to Abortion

    Alison Leiby has an hourlong set looking at the experience of an unwanted pregnancy. She’s among a spate of female artists finding humor in the issue.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.Haley Lu Richardson, left, and Barbie Ferreira in “Unpregnant.”Ursula Coyote/HBO MaxVictoria Moroles, left, and Kuhoo Verma in “Plan B.”Brett Roedel/HuluIn 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. More