‘I want to scream’: Stand-up comics around L.A. rally onstage over Roe decision
In the midst of the darkness that blanketed Hollywood with the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, laughter — as usual — felt like the most potent way to medicate anger and frustration. Over the weekend, comedians stepped on stages across Los Angeles to rally, rage and roast in the name of reproductive rights. One of the comedians leading the charge was stand-up star Iliza Shlesinger. Though she was already set to headline the stage for the Pro Roe Comedy Show at the No Fuss Comedy Bus stationed in North Hollywood, she had no idea when she took off to return to L.A. from a tour stop in Windsor, Canada, just before the Supreme Court decision that she would be touching down in a much different world.
“There’s something so profoundly unnerving about taking off with the world one way and landing to it a new and horrible way,” Shlesinger told The Times prior to her performance. “I want to scream. My insides feel cold. I feel profound rage and sadness. ... I was with my tour manager and opening act [Hunter Hill], and we just sat silently with heavy sighs because we all felt so powerless.”
It was in that moment, as many took to Twitter and to the streets to protest the death of abortion rights in a huge swath of the country, that comics and comedy fans would come together to make their voices heard.
When comic and show producer Taylor “Bugs” Streitz left the house Saturday morning, 150 tickets were sold for the Pro Roe Tour put on by the No Fuss Comedy Bus, a roaming comedy club that is parking itself near the corner of Lankershim and Victory boulevards every other Saturday for the next month. The show’s proceeds go to aiding the Texas Equal Access Fund’s fight for reproductive rights. By the end of the night, more than 200 seats were filled with standing-room-only capacity. For the comedy club on wheels, this was a triumph.
Within 24 hours, Streitz — No Fuss’ founder — and her crew flipped a San Fernando Valley parking lot into a North Hollywood venue, complete with a bright pink Baby’s Badass Burgers food truck, a Divine Science Brewing cart slinging IPAs and a shamrock green turf dotted with lawn chairs. No easy feat when moving tons of stage and sound equipment on 100-degree asphalt.
“Every time I throw one of these events, whether it’s people who attend, the vendors who give me a discount, [it] just reminds me how good people are,” Streitz said. “They are willing to come out and support one another, lend a helping hand, without getting anything in return. It’s amazing.”
Underneath the respite of three plastic tents propped next to a spectacular bus, 10 comics and a crowd of people gathered, hoping to have their spirits lifted. “People need to heal, and they need to feel seen and they need to feel heard,” Shlesinger said backstage. “If there was ever a moment to unleash and be unabashed, it’s this one.” The lineup was jampacked with talent, including host Renée Percy, “Bugs,” Laura Peek, Alice Payne, Matty Chymbor, Jodi Miller, Matty Fontana, Audrey Stewart and Hill.
As each comic went up to perform, the air cooled and laughter filled the street corner, drowning out the traffic and overzealous fireworks in the distance.
Even in the moments of hilarity that bonded the gathering, each punchline came with an underlying sense of protest, a message that echoes throughout Shlesinger’s comedy that has earned her five Netflix specials over the years. Now more than ever, she said, the fight for women’s rights must continue.
“This world was normal for many women already, so we can’t act like women were super safe and powerful just yesterday,” Shlesinger said. “But this direct and aggressive decision should be taken as a declaration of war on women, and my daughter will grow up fighting that war. ... What’s sad is this world will be normal to her. I will make it very clear to her that this is an injustice we all will work toward correcting.”
To close out the show, Shlesinger’s set weaved in and out of “MTV Cribs” nostalgia, the fragility of the male ego, and the wry reassessment of the romper. Before the lights dimmed in the comedy club parking lot, the comic bid adieu with a pithy roundhouse-uppercut. We’ll let you discover it when her sixth Netflix comes out later this year.
Across town on the night of the Roe decision, UnCabaret, one of L.A. alternative comedy’s hallowed institutions, also supplied a place for comics to speak their mind on the current situation. Though the show usually plays to a packed crowd, this evening brought a half-full El Cid in perhaps L.A.’s most liberal enclave, Silver Lake. The lingering anxiety in the air was palpable, filling any empty seat in the room.
UnCabaret’s creator and host, Beth Lapides, reassured those in attendance that they were the brave ones for coming out to be with others in such a dark time. She even added, “I have encased El Cid in a bubble of divine feminine protection. It’s made of lapis lazuli.” UnCabaret has carved its niche in L.A. comedy for only having comics share new material and stories, and this evening was no exception; every comic wasted no time getting to the GOP-red-tinged elephant in the room.
Mary Lynn Rajskub, an L.A. comedy staple for a couple of decades, brought up her feelings on the Roe vs. Wade reversal right at the top of her set: “You know when you’re on a plane and there’s one wanted baby? Imagine being on a plane with 10 unwanted babies. Let’s have more f— babies. That’ll work out real well.” Just at the tail of the punchline, the mic got disconnected as if Mitch McConnell was running tech remotely.
Most of the lineup was stacked with women, but the lone man, James Adomian, beloved alternative comedy star of stage, screen and podcasts, chimed in as well. He angled his take at the Supreme Court itself, sharply commenting that “The [Supreme] Court should get packed like a thirsty bottom,” after enlightening the show by mentioning that SCOTUS was expanded to 10 justices during the Civil War to prevent rash decisions.
This very special-episode-like installment of UnCabaret ended with resident closer Jamie Bridgers, a very funny raconteur who happens to be the mother of indie rock darling Phoebe Bridgers. She saved her thoughts for Roe vs. Wade until the very end of her set, when she abruptly remarked, “F— the Supreme Court,” and then related a story about inviting friends to the show only to find out that they were busy going to a protest instead. Bridgers slyly responded to said friend that she would “TOTALLY” go to a protest afterward.
One of L.A.’s “Big Three” comedy clubs, the Hollywood Improv, nestled for nearly 50 years on Melrose, had been packing both its rooms at this stage of the pandemic, but they too were not immune from the collective despondency over the weekend. The Main Room late show on Saturday night was just under half full. Unlike at a show like UnCabaret, audiences generally show up to a mainstay comedy club with the express intention of laughing, as opposed to laughing with critical thinking deftly woven in by the comics at the mic. That notion was punctuated by veteran road comic Chris Porter’s first few lines: “No more ‘abo-bos.’ That’s tough. That’s all I got on that.”
Only two of the women on the bill spoke about Roe vs. Wade, and almost everyone else (who were men) steered very clear of the topic and stuck to their tried-and-true material.
This particular show’s host, Laura Peek, a recent L.A. transplant by way of Nashville, sandwiched her thoughts on the matter in the middle of her host set. On having to respond to antiabortion family members who ask, “What if you had been aborted?” Peek fired back, “I would be having a nice time not talking to your dumb ass, Uncle Rick. It would be a nice life.” Peek channeled her frustration and rage further with a tag of “I think I’m going to go punch Clarence Thomas in the d—.”
One of New York’s local favorites, Jordan Jensen, had the privilege of making her L.A. debut the very same day Roe vs. Wade was overturned. Her joke on the subject happened to be one of the bluest yet best jokes of the whole night: “I know I’m going to take a lot more c— shots to the face now that abortion is off the table,” which earned a well-deserved applause break.
For many comics, the battle to be present and be funny is never-ending. L.A. stand-up Christina Catherine Martinez said it’s always the time when comics are needed the most.
“I’ve done shows the night Trump was elected, the night Prince died and the night Kavanaugh was confirmed. As a professional comedian but more urgently as a person, it’s my job to be present,” she said. “I try to meet the room where they’re at. Sometimes the room needs to mourn together, sometimes they need release.
Laurie Kilmartin, who’s worked as a monologue writer for Conan O’Brien, said oftentimes her role as a truth teller means venturing outside the echo chamber of Hollywood and pissing off people who don’t agree with her, especially on issues like Roe vs. Wade.
“I recently did one abortion joke on MSNBC and got dozens of death threats after it was posted on right-wing sites and Fox News. I currently have a bit about how great the ’70s were for American women, partially because of abortion rights. Obviously, I gotta tweak it,” she said. “My next road gig is in Ohio. I’m planning on doing all my abortion jokes.”
Sara Schaefer, a comedian who is currently working on a solo show about the cultish nature of the comedy business, said she’s been researching and thinking a lot about the false promise of the American dream and the lack of true equality that is put on display time and time again. This weekend was yet another red-letter reminder that she needed to keep writing and finish her production, trying to articulate the visceral emotion of “that feeling you get when a group of elected officials sings ‘God Bless America,’ while just across the way, a crowd of people protests the Roe decision and the freedoms they have just lost,” she said. “Right now I’m working on ways to connect these larger themes in my show. I don’t even know if it’s possible, but I’m going to try!”
5:03 p.m. June 27, 2022: This article has been updated to characterize rather than quote an unrecorded punchline.
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