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Let’s talk about Cecily Strong’s game-changing “clown abortion” skit

Cecily Strong used comedy to “say the unsayable” about abortion.

An actor dressed as a clown sits beside a person wearing a business suit at a television news desk.
Cecily Strong and Colin Jost on Saturday Night Live.
Saturday Night Live/YouTube
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

There’s an idea, particularly popular with some comedians, that the very point of comedy is to say the unsayable, to push boundaries and envelopes by articulating uncomfortable truths. Dave Chappelle embodied this recently in his controversial Netflix comedy special The Closer, his sixth for the streaming giant in which he (once again) takes up the question of how we should treat trans people and concludes (once again) that the answer is “none too carefully.”

Saying the presumably unsayable is often the milieu of male comics such as Joe Rogan (whose 2016 Netflix special was called Triggered) or Bill Burr (whose last special was titled Paper Tiger).

For the most part, comedy titan Saturday Night Live has sidestepped that tendency, sticking to its long-running habit of doing straightforward comedic imitations and letting the real-life, absurdist politics speak for themselves under cover of parody — until this past weekend.

Cast member Cecily Strong’s recent “clown abortion” sketch for “Weekend Update” — in which she plays “Goober the Clown,” a red-nose-wearing balloon-animal maker under pressure to discuss her abortion thanks to Texas’s debilitating ban on abortions after six weeks — may well go down as one of the starkest political critiques in the show’s recent history.

What becomes clear over the course of the bit is that this may well be Strong’s own personal anecdote, too. As it’s related between clown gags, it’s a reminder that some things do go unsaid in American life, but they might not be the ones we hear the usual suspects yell about.

Throughout the skit, Strong ineffectually tries to clown — her spinning bow tie winds up tilting vertically, her attempt at making a balloon animal results in failure, and her clown horn refuses to honk. This plays out alongside her visible agitation over being a “clown” who must continually discuss abortion because of increasingly restrictive abortion legislation around the country.

The effect is twofold: As she continues the sketch, the words “clown abortion” become increasingly discomfiting and absurd, arguably highlighting the absurdity of extreme anti-abortion rhetoric. The clown conceit itself becomes increasingly flimsy and hard to maintain. When she realizes her horn isn’t working, she riffs for a few seconds, then apparently ad-libs “I’m not a clown” before soldiering on. The admission, tossed out as an aside, lands like a small explosion, a sobering release of tension.

Rattling off her story in between fun clown gags, Strong discusses the unnecessary gravitas attached to the entire subject and the shame and stigmatizing effects it has on women. She points out that “one in three clowns” will have a clown abortion in their lifetime, but that we don’t know that because most of her peers “won’t even talk to other clowns about it.”

When they’re able to — despite the barriers in place — there’s a real kind of relief and communion, and the retelling of her experience seems cathartic. The tone of the sketch shifts into a gentle reminder that the abortion debate impacts real people, human beings whose voices and stories are rarely heard as the war over their bodies rages on around them.

On one level, Strong’s sketch plays directly into the hands of people who think modern comedy has lost its edge — that woke culture has changed the art form into humorless political lectures. But on another level, Strong arguably shows that comedy can not only withstand the political lectures but also be made stronger by them, if done well. There’s something about the phrase “clown abortion” that inevitably evokes laughter.

If anything, the contrast between Strong’s clown antics and the topic she’s discussing, along with her clear emotional investment in the narrative (and, perhaps, some degree of personal discomfort), becomes a way to emphasize the serious stakes for people who lack access to safe abortions.

Strong’s final joke — “The last thing anyone wants is a bunch of dead clowns in a dark alley!” — is barbed and hilarious. The entire skit, from the way Strong wrestles with her props to the actual jokes themselves, strikes an uncomfortably raucous note. We’re laughing, but the more we laugh, the more uncomfortable we are, which just drives home the rawness of the subject under discussion.

The sketch unforgettably illustrates that we’re sometimes pushed to treat abortion like something unspeakable, a tragedy or a mark of permanent shame (or both). In an environment where a topic is so stigmatized that having reasoned debate around it becomes impossible, the addition of clown goggles and a spinning bow tie highlights how ludicrous the controversy has become — all while making us laugh despite ourselves.

The sketch also doubles as a response to the Chappelle philosophy of comedy. He and many other comedians have argued passionately that the targets of a joke need to learn to laugh at themselves even when the quip is cruel and dehumanizing. But Strong frames the sketch around the concept of empathy and kindness, using something her — sorry, Goober’s — abortion doctor told her.

It’s her “favorite joke,” she says, a warm-hearted zinger about how relatively early she was in her pregnancy (“Did you get pregnant on the way over?” the doctor asked.) It’s not “a funny ha ha” kind of humor, she clarifies, but a “funny ‘you’re not an awful person and your life isn’t over’ kind of joke — the best kind.”

The best kind indeed. There’s nothing dehumanizing about Strong’s performance, even though she does it in a clown suit. It’s not “funny ha ha” humor, but humor that spotlights the vulnerability and humanity of the comedian and her audience. It’s something unsaid that we could stand to say more often.