Why David Cross Gives Such a Shit about Abortion

The day I meet up with the comedian David Cross to talk about abortion rights, the country is reeling from the news that the Supreme Court intends to revoke them. It’s April and less than 48 hours ago, Politico published a leaked draft of the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which finds the justices voting to strike down Roe V. Wade, the landmark case that made abortion legal in all 50 states in 1973.

“How have the past two days been for you?” I ask Cross as he flags down the bartender and quickly orders a beer before anyone can notice him. We’re at an Irish pub in Fort Greene, splitting a round of drinks ahead of a sold-out fundraising event for Abortion Access Front. The timing of all these events is coincidental, if surreal. “Well, I’ve caught up on all my abortions,” he jokes. “I had four since the other day; I’m squeezing them in.” Cross gestures toward a small two-top at the back of the bar. “Let’s sit over there.”

Cross is one of several male comedians that Abortion Access Front’s founder, Lizz Winstead, asked to participate. In fact, he was the first person she approached. If you’re familiar with Cross’s stand up, it’s easy to see why. His style is blunt, borderline indignant, and his material has grown increasingly confrontational in the past decade.

If the baby was knocking on the fucking wall, I’d still say, ‘You get to do whatever you want!’

In 2016, the comedian made headlines when people repeatedly walked out of his overtly political Making America Great Again tour. Watch the MAGA Netflix special, which was recorded live at a sold-out pitstop in Austin, Texas, and you’ll see an audience member abruptly abandon her seat after Cross does an impression of a pro-gun, Christian woman wondering why God allows America’s innocent kids to be shot to death in school shootings. Cross was adamant about keeping the scene in the special. Speaking to Esquire at the time, Cross said, “I stand by every single thing I said, and I can defend it.” He’s only grown more resolute in the post-Trump era, especially on the subject of abortion.

Male stand-ups love tackling abortion. It’s just the right amount of taboo. Nervy comedians like Anthony Jesselnik mine it for potentially controversial jokes; confrontational comedians like Bill Burr poke holes in prevailing opinions about it; social critic comedians like Louis C.K (who admitted to sexual misconduct in 2017 after multiple women came forward with accounts of unwanted sexual advances) find humor in debating its merits. All of these approaches require an openness to both sides of the debate to earn the punchline. David Cross will have none of that.

Like George Carlin in his later years, Cross’s approach to abortion jokes is rooted in the irony and hypocrisy he sees at the heart of the pro-life argument. Earlier this summer, a clip about “pro-life conservatives” from George Carlin’s 1996 special, Back in Town, went viral after the comedian Sara Schaefer circulated it on Twitter. “If you’re pre-born, you’re fine. If you’re pre-school, you’re fucked,” joked a weary-sounding Carlin.

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In his most recent special, I’m From the Future, Cross channels Carlin to take dead aim at the doubly flawed logic of anti-choice, anti-vaxxers. “My body, my choice,” he says, in an outraged, redneck-y intonation. “Your body, also my choice.” And now for the punchline: “Her body, especially my choice.”

Besides being true and funny, the joke is also earnest. Cross really cares about abortion rights. He is one of the 35% of Americans who believes abortion should be legal in any and all circumstances. “If the baby was knocking on the fucking wall,” he tells me, “I’d still say, ‘you get to do whatever you want!’” I’m surprised by how adamant he sounds. He seems angry—angrier than me even—and I want to know why he cares so much. After all, he doesn’t have a uterus.

He has had an abortion—two, actually— and he says his life would be “dramatically different” had he not received the first one. The second one wasn’t as consequential. “It’d be slightly different,” he tells me. To my surprise though, these experiences aren’t why Cross cares about abortion rights, and he rejects my suggestion that they might be.

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Cross pictured with his wife, Amber Tamblyn.

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He also rejects my subsequent suggestion—that perhaps he’s motivated by all of the heart-wrenching and disturbing stories there are about the consequences that people who are refused abortions face. Emotional accounts are the backbone of political strategy, after all. Surely, Cross, who identifies as a feminist, was raised by a single mother, has two sisters, is married to the activist and author Amber Tamblyn, and whose daughter serves as the background image of his cellphone, can’t help but get emotional when he thinks about the impact this might have on them, or any person with a uterus for that matter. But Cross says no, not really. This isn’t about empathy.

“I’m going to say something that’s going to make myself sound a little shittier,” says Cross, without even pausing to reconsider. “… but I’m not thinking about that poor woman who had to drive 350 miles. I know that’s a thing, and I feel empathy for that person, but that’s an abstract image in my head.” He took things a step further when he appeared on an episode of Abortion Access Front’s weekly podcast, and told Winstead, the show’s host, point-blank that the reason he’s passionate about abortion rights isn’t because “I have daughters or grew up with women.”

So then, why—if not because of his own personal experience or because he cares about the poor, stranded pregnant woman in Kansas, or because he’s a feminist who has spent his entire life surrounded by women—does David Cross give such a damn about abortion rights?

This is about the outrage of illogical thinking.

“This is about the outrage of illogical thinking,” Cross says. “I’m motivated by what, to me, is obvious and that is anti-hypocrisy.” He tells me he developed an allergy to “things that make no fucking sense,” at a young age. It started with religion and became more severe when he encountered the conservative, anti-feminist activist, Phyllis Schlafly, on the nightly news. This was in the early ‘70s when Congress came breathtakingly close to passing the Equal Rights Amendment. That is until Schafly, “a sour, old bitch” according to Cross, waged an all-out war against it and secured its defeat.

The ERA’s failure bamboozled a young Cross. “Reduce it to the headline, ‘Will women create an amendment to ensure equality and equal pay?’ You’re like, ‘Of course they will.’ And then it didn’t pass …” Cross recalls. “I can look at it now as an adult and ascribe all the external things that were happening. But as a kid, it made no sense. Phillis Schlafly was just an enigma to me. I did not get it.”

Fast-forward some 50 years, and Cross is still using the same principles of logic to define his politics. Just like he couldn’t wrap his head around Schlafly being against the ERA, Cross cannot square the idea of a member of the party of personal freedom being anti-choice, and David Cross cannot stand that which he cannot square.

david cross

David Cross cannot stand that which he cannot square. And he cannot square the thinking behind anti-abortion activism.

Mindy Tucker

“I don’t want the government telling a person what they can and can’t do with their own body. End of sentence. That’s it.” He once again sounds stern and pissed off, and in a sign of our increasingly dystopian politics, a little bit like a conservative railing against vaccine mandates.

Of course, conservatives who oppose abortion but are otherwise passionate about personal freedom can always cite their religious beliefs as an explanation for what Cross and many others would consider political hypocrisy. Indeed, according to new data from the Pew Research Center, “highly religious Americans” make up the majority of Republicans who think abortion should be illegal in all cases. Cross’s atheism spares him from having to make similar justifications. He see his pro-choice beliefs as a natural extension of his absence of faith. At the end of the day, Cross says, “I don’t believe in God or any of the reasons for being against abortion.”

Instead, he believes in science. Real science, he clarifies, not the “pseudo-science” that claims a fetus is a life. “It’s a zygote,” he says matter-of-factly toward the tail-end of a breathless tirade about so-called heartbeat bills and the people who mistakenly believe they’re audible six weeks into a pregnancy. “Anyway, even if it was a life, it wouldn’t fucking matter.” Cross drifts off, looking lost in thought. He sips his beer, “Now,” he says, the lilt in his voice noticeably lighter. “If the baby comes out and says, ‘Hi.’ Okay, that’s diff—you should have up to a week.”

Delighted by his own quick thinking, Cross cracks a sly smile while I laugh at the absurdity of the scenario he’s just drawn. The thing is, I know he’s joking. But in today’s heightened political landscape, in which comedians are often persecuted for their opinions, whether they’re real or not, I worry what might happen to Cross if and when the wrong person encounters his material and doesn’t know he’s kidding.

All jokes aside, Cross is concerned, both for his family and his country. Before we go our separate ways, he tells me he thinks abortion could be the issue that divides the United States for good, and that he and Tamblyn have been considering their cut-off point, as in: how bad do things have to get before they pack up and move to Canada? Not for their sake Cross says, still insisting that an abortion ban wouldn’t affect him personally, but for the sake of their daughter. They aren’t there yet. Right now, he says, he and Tamblyn are trying to figure out “the best thing to do to ensure a better world for our daughter and our daughter’s friends.” If that’s not empathy, what is?

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