Feature 06.13.2023 6 minutes

The Unmakeable Joke

Stand up stage with mic and stool

Even professional rule-breakers can’t slay this sacred cow.

Comedy is supposed to be transgressive. It renders our deeply held convictions grotesque and unfamiliar, so jokes skewering abortion on-demand are especially appropriate. The god of personal autonomy—also called by his ancient Babylonian name “OMG-It-Literally-Doesn’t-Affect-You”—sits atop the modern pantheon, and should therefore be the number-one target for any self-respecting gadfly.

Comedians demonstrate their maverick bona fides by going too far, by indulging on our behalf in outrageous overstatement. And on most issues, they do a pretty good job. I’ve heard good bits about slavery and school shootings. Sam Kinison mocked starving children in Africa—“LIVE WHERE THE FOOD IS!!!”—and it was one of the funniest bits of all time. No topic should be off limits, but no comedian is obliged to be even-handed either. One skewers Fox News dads. Another pokes fun at woke urbanites. George Carlin mocks religion while Dane Cook takes a potshot at atheism. It all evens out in the end.

But on the issue of abortion, our supposed firebrands will only go too far in one direction. In doing so, they show that some pieties of our postmodern social creed can never be opposed, even in jest.

Even the most pointedly irreverent comics, who sometimes flirt with mocking abortion, always make a point of endorsing it in the end. They seem to validate journalist Richard Hanania’s theory that Americans are much more comfortable with infanticide than with restrictions on individual autonomy. The joke is always “we should be allowed to kill toddlers.” It’s never “women who get abortions should go to jail.”

In his recent Netflix special Selective Outrage, for instance, Chris Rock suggested that the window for legal abortion should be measured in “semesters” rather than trimesters. “I think you should be able to kill a baby until you get the first report card. ‘Woah, he ain’t ever getting a scholarship?! Okay, you can finish watching Stranger Things, but when it’s over, we’re going to the clinic,’” he joked. Comedian Ashley Gavin also playfully advocated infanticide on the grounds that human newborns are far less developed than those of other mammal species.

Others are willing to flirt with pro-life sentiments, but still feel the need to bookend the bit by flashing their pro-choice credentials. These bits can be both hilarious and profound in how they undermine progressive orthodoxy on abortion. There’s Dave Chappelle’s argument that men shouldn’t have to pay child support because “if you can kill this motherf**ker, I can at least abandon him.” There’s Louis C.K.’s dichotomy, according to which abortion is either “taking a sh*t” or “killing a baby,” and if you think it’s killing a baby you should be outside a clinic protesting. There’s Bill Burr’s metaphor of taking a half-baked cake out of the oven, smashing it on the ground, and then claiming it wasn’t a cake. There’s Andrew Schultz’s theory that if abortion is entirely the woman’s choice, then it’s the woman alone who will burn in hell for it. But ultimately each one makes his obeisance to Moloch. “It’s absolutely your decision, ladies.”

You might say, well, a comic who’s totally hostile to his audience will lose them. By and large this is true—but it’s certainly possible to make people severely uncomfortable and keep their support in the end. In 2006, Bill Burr confronted a mob of heckling Philadelphians at a comedy festival and spent his entire 12-minute set lambasting the crowd. Their sports teams sucked. They all failed eighth grade. The Rocky movies are stupid. “You’re all gonna get f**kin’ cancer which is fantastic.”

Burr powered through the boos, and in the end the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Attacking the audience works. You just have to do it right.

Comedians have good reason to change tack on abortion. The Burr/C.K./Chappelle/Rock tactic of admitting abortion kills a baby while insisting it should still be legal is already suffering from diminishing returns. The shocking part doesn’t actually shock anyone anymore. It’s a kind of controlled opposition, reinforcing the limits of discourse by pretending to breach them. The real risks are the ones even the iconoclasts won’t take.

So what would an ideal pro-life abortion bit look like? It turns out that at least one conservative comedian has taken a crack at it. Nicholas De Santo is less polished than the A-listers, but he has some good lines. At one point, he notes that, in Nazi Germany, they eradicated undesirables for the glory of the Fatherland and the advancement of the Aryan race. In America, we do it because a baby “would be a burden on Karen from accounting.”

Another good one, riffing on Planned Parenthood’s name: “By the time you leave the clinic, there is no ‘parenthood.’ It’s like I am planning my visit to Australia, and I start by shredding my tickets to Australia.”

But for me, the ideal pro-life stand-up bit would be more aggressive. The bodily autonomy argument, in all its selfishness and absurdity, cries out for ruthless mockery. Any comedian who really wanted to push the envelope would go straight at it. Keep the (mostly liberal) audience on the line, and then land the punchline: most abortions should be illegal. Then we’d find out what happens to a cultural figure who crosses a truly uncrossable line.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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