The Loudest Political Voice on SNL

Cecily Strong used a bait-and-switch trick to deliver sharp commentary on abortion rights.

Cecily Strong and Colin Jost star in "Weekend Update" on "SNL."
A segment on abortion landed the sharpest point of the night and magnified the urgency of voting. (Will Heath / NBC)

The final Saturday Night Live before the midterm elections on November 8 couldn’t find much to say about the dire political situation unfolding in races across the country. The shoulder shrug of a cold open suggested that Democrats might do better in the polls if they found wild characters—such as Guy Fieri and Azealia Banks—to run for office and compete with similarly outrageous personalities on the Republican ticket. Instead, it was a “Weekend Update” segment on abortion that landed the sharpest point of the night and magnified the urgency of voting.

The Cecily Strong–led bit succeeded because it homed in on the consequential social issues informing the midterms. But in order to develop that point, Strong began with a bait and switch. As Tammy the Trucker, she pretended to discuss gas prices, one of the pressing economic concerns on voters’ mind, so she could actually talk about abortion. She rolled out wearing a trucker hat and aviators, carrying a big-rig steering wheel she kept honking in between points. “All I’m here to talk about is gas, even though the Supreme Court sent Roe v. Wade to the big pit stop in the sky,” she joked.

The premise emulated Strong’s Goober the Clown Who Had an Abortion at 23, a character she debuted last November after Texas banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. In the shrewd bit, clowns served as a metaphor for women, and Strong’s character opened up about the “clown abortion” she had right before her 23rd birthday. Without that option, she declared, she wouldn’t have gone on to be a clown on TV. “It’s gonna happen, so it oughta be safe, legal, and accessible,” she said. Strong later explained that she based the details of the sketch on her personal experience. “I knew I wanted to talk about women’s healthcare and specifically abortion,” she told Variety. “I think I wanted to talk about it the entire time I’ve been on the show, and never quite figured out how. Especially abortion, it’s hard to find comedy. It’s hard to talk about in general.”

Unlike Goober, though, Tammy dropped her schtick quickly and spoke more frankly about the stakes. After all, when Goober debuted, only one state had ignored legal precedent to restrict abortion so drastically. Since the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade in June, 13 states have outlawed most abortions. Given that development and the short time span in which it unfolded, Strong played Tammy as overwhelmed, anxious to convey the consequences of the midterms should voters desire to opt out. Strong’s Tammy acknowledged that gas prices were high, but also said that the problem wouldn’t magically disappear after an election. “But what will keep disappearing is safe access to abortion, and it’s not really magic, because they told us that’s exactly what they’re going to do … and they been doing it,” she said with a lilting accent.

In the bit, Strong underscored the serious repercussions women face in attempting to exercise autonomy over their own body. “These are scary times, okay?” she said. “Cuz they don’t just want to take away access to health care; they want to criminalize it too. I mean, it’s so bad, us truckers are all out here warning each other to delete our period-tracking apps from our phones,” she said. “I just want to know what week I wear my bad underwear, but I can’t in case some dickhead in Texas thinks my period is evidence of a crime.” Whereas Goober didn’t, Tammy showed outrage bubbling close to the surface.

It was a raw—and rare—moment on SNL, when the fourth wall dropped and the seriousness of the issue shone through. The show has struggled to satirize contemporary political theater, as evidenced by a cold open that assumed Democratic personas were the sole problem rather than weakened voting-rights laws, gerrymandering, and voter suppression. But where it’s flailed of late in terms of red-and-blue politics, the show has periodically succeeded at delivering perceptive social commentary. Late last season, SNL aired an astute sketch about the antiquated reasoning in the leaked Dobbs opinion that would lead to the Supreme Court effectively reversing Roe v. Wade. Since the show’s return in October, however, that biting criticism has been largely absent.

Strong’s act felt like the stance SNL has been missing this season. While it’s long tried to toe the line politically, lampooning figures on both the left and right, the show can’t ignore the fact that the scales aren’t equal. Strong’s simmering exasperation is the closest SNL has come in recent episodes to venturing a real take.