science of us

How to Make an Abortion Joke

Photo: Jonathan Kantor/Getty Images

If you missed Michelle Wolf’s abortion joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this past weekend, here it is, in full: “Mike Pence is very anti-choice. He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it til you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You’ve got to get that baby out of there.” And then, to the chorus of groans that followed: “You can groan all you want. I know a lot of you are very anti-abortion, unless it’s the one you got for your secret mistress. It’s fun how values can waver.”

It’s one of several bits from Wolf’s set that kicked the internet take machine into action; over the past few days, there’s been a flood of pieces alternately criticizing and defending it. But Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at the San Francisco–based research group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a research group at the University of California, San Francisco, argued in a Twitter thread earlier this week that all the outrage was missing the point.

“This is a tacky joke and not really that funny,” wrote Sisson, who studies representations of abortion in pop culture. But that was intentional, she argued: “it was supposed to be tacky … she needed the audience to cringe and groan” to get to the follow-up. “The joke isn’t about abortion,” she said. “It’s about hypocrisy.”

I spoke to Sission about her tweets, her work, and how to think about abortion humor. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

I’ll start us off by borrowing a question from a paper of yours: Can abortions be funny?
Yes, of course, everything can be funny with an adept enough comedian. But I think when we’ve seen effective humor around abortion, the subject of the joke is not usually the abortion itself, or the provider, or even the choice to get the abortion. What you usually see is humor about the circumstances of a woman’s life that are leading her to get the abortion. I’m thinking of Obvious Child, where the character gets an abortion and handles it with a lot of humor — she has a stand-up routine about how she’s getting an abortion the next day, and it’s very much just poking fun at herself for being where she is at this point in her life, and her relationship history. It’s really heartfelt and relatable.

We’ve also seen that on a lot of TV shows recently. Like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where they show the character Paula in bed and you hear the doorbell ring, and you hear her son calling from the next room, “Oh, Mom, I’ll get it, ‘cause you just had an abortion.’” So it’s just sort of, her family is supporting her, caring for her. Her husband brings dinner on a tray so she can take it easy and relax. You see these moments that make abortion a lot more relatable and destigmatized. It’s the idea that it doesn’t need to be very heavy-handed and fraught and overly dramatic stories all the time. Abortion is a really common experience for a lot of women, and the idea that it can just be part of their lives — that they can talk about it with families and their friends the way we talk about a lot of deeply personal experiences with our family and friends, with some amount of levity — I think is really affirming.

You mentioned some examples of “effective” humor around abortion. What might make an abortion joke ineffective?
I think that you can have jokes about abortion that are very alienating to an audience, because this is a topic that people are deeply uncomfortable with. If the humor is too flippant or too dismissive, then it’s not a function of destigmatizing or personalizing an experience. It just alienates a viewer or reader or audience member to the point that they’re no longer willing to hear what you’re saying on the topic.

How should we think about Michelle Wolf’s “don’t knock it til you try it” line?
The “Don’t knock it til you try it, and if you try it, knock it” joke — that’s not a good joke. And I think that it is sort of in the territory of being a little too flippant. It’s one of those jokes that is offensive to people, particularly because it’s not that clever. But what people are missing about that joke is, that wasn’t really the joke. Michelle Wolf needed people to have that moment of groaning and cringing, which the audience did. Because then the follow-up, in my interpretation of her set, was the real joke, where she said, “Oh, you’re anti-abortion until you need to get one for your secret mistress,” going off of Tim Murphy, the Congressman that did that. And so the bad joke was a set up for this joke that’s not about abortion at all — it’s about this inherent anti-abortion hypocrisy. She needed to have that moment of groaning, so that she could be like, “Yeah, you groan about abortion, but this is what’s really happening.” And that, I think, is a funnier joke. Political hypocrisy is important ground for comedy, and that is what I view her joke as really being about. She told the bad joke to get to the better one.

So what separates a bad or tacky abortion joke from one with a purpose?
I think a lot of abortion jokes that come off as really flippant or tacky, you need to give them a chance, because a lot of times — comedians are there to entertain and some are there to offend, but most of the time the smart comedians are trying to have some comment on society in some way when they’re talking about abortion.

I really love the example of an episode of Bojack Horseman that featured one character who was getting an abortion, and one celebrity character who was faking that she was getting an abortion after some big comic misunderstanding. The one character who was really getting an abortion was deeply offended by it, and the character who was faking it wrote this completely over-the-top, offensive, intentionally ridiculous pop single about shooting a fetus with a gun, with a line being like, “I hope my baby has a soul so that they can feel pain” — just the most ridiculous things you could imagine.

But then at the end of the episode, it has Diane, the character who’s actually getting an abortion, in the clinic waiting room with a young teenage girl. And Diane is so offended, like, “This is so ridiculous, how dare she do this, this is so offensive, this isn’t funny, what does she think she’s doing.” And the young girl is like, “She’s so brave talking about it.” And Diane says, “You don’t think this is offensive?,” and the girl goes, “You get that it’s a joke, right? Abortion is really scary.” And what she points to as scary isn’t the abortion itself — it’s the protesters outside the clinic, it’s the need to listen to the heartbeat for the mandatory ultrasound. It’s these restrictions that she finds really scary. And she specifically says, “When we can joke about it, it makes it feel less scary.”

So what this episode is doing is, it has all those ridiculous, over-the-top, offensive, flippant jokes, and then at the end it kind of flips it on its head and says, “This is what we’re doing: If we can joke about this, it makes it more relatable and less scary for women who are going through it.” That’s not going to be what every woman needs. That’s not going to be helpful for understanding every woman’s experience. But for some, it might be.

When you hear an abortion joke, how would you go about understanding what it’s trying to do?
I’ve been studying abortion on TV for over five years. I’ve seen a lot of examples. That’s what I’m trying to do, is to look at, why would a screenwriter include this? Why would they make this a focus of their plotline? What are they trying to do here? And there are a lot of reasons to include an abortion that have nothing to do with humor: to bring a relationship to a point of crisis, to clarify a character’s goals for their future, to start a relationship or end a relationship, to bring in medical drama in some way. So if someone’s going to bring an abortion story into a comedy, why are they doing that? What are they trying to tell us about this character, what are they trying to tell us about abortion?

I think the most important thing is to not get offended by the abortion joke to the point that you don’t hear what comes next. Because I think whatever comes next — whether it’s a plotline or a follow-up or callback later in the set — see what else is happening around it and think about the person who’s making the joke. What are they actually trying to get you to laugh at here?

Are there things that humor can accomplish here that more serious conversations can’t?
Most [abortions] are not experiences that women are feeling heartbroken over. They approach it really matter-of-factly, they get it done, they go home to their families and their jobs, and we see very low rates of regret from women who have abortions afterward. Why shouldn’t this be something that they’re able to understand in that way?

And I think humor does that. Humor takes it out of the sense that this is something we must feel guilty over, we must be uncomfortable with, we must keep secret. If this is something that we can talk about it the same way we talk about any other deeply personal experience, with different degrees of seriousness and levity, that’s a step forward in our cultural narrative around abortion. And I’m not saying that abortion should be taken lightly. I’m not saying there should be a flippancy about this. But I do think we should be open to people telling all sorts of stories about their abortion experiences, and for some people, that will include humor … Any topic that you can treat seriously, you can also treat with humor.

How to Make an Abortion Joke