'CTRL ALT Delete': A Comedy Web Series That's Changing the Narrative of Abortion
June 4, 2019
When you think of abortion, comedy may not be the first thing that comes to mind; that’s exactly why writers Roni Geva and Margaret Katch created Ctrl Alt Delete.
The Los Angeles-based writers, who met in Chicago, had abortions at the same clinic in the Windy City (“separately, not together,” they said). Both looked to the media for stories of women like them, “Stories that relate to women who were not fraught; not frightened, totally relieved, and, in Roni’s case, who had a legitimately funny experience,” the pair wrote in an email.
“We found nothing.”
They decided to be the change they wanted to see in entertainment, mining stories from their own experiences. Then they took a step further and interviewed women and men about their experiences with abortion.
They fictionalized those accounts, took the funny parts and created the first season of Ctrl Alt Delete, a web series made up of seven three-minutes episodes, which they posted to Facebook.
“We want to convey how very normal abortion is, and how very normal an abortion clinic is,” Geva and Katch wrote, adding their hope is that audiences relate to the series’ characters.
“Maybe an employee reminds them of their sister, or maybe they have a similar background to someone getting their abortion … and because of that our hope is that maybe abortion won't seem so scary and foreign anymore.”
The series, which stars Ed Begley Jr. as the clinic’s veteran doctor, was independently produced and released by an all-female crew for its first season. It went on to receive a Primetime Emmy® Award nomination for outstanding actress in a short form series and three film festival awards (it screened at a total of 12, including the Chicago Feminist Film Festival).
Now in its second season, two new episodes are released via Vimeo on Wednesdays between May 8 and May 29, 2019.
“Just like how people felt like they had a gay friend on TV in Jack or Will [from Will & Grace] and all of a sudden it didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore, our wish is that when people laugh and relate to delightful human beings that they're following for a season of television, reproductive health can be destigmatized,” the pair wrote.
The writers shared their process, perspectives on the roots of comedy, and Ctrl Alt Delete in the context of a watershed moment for abortion in the United States.
Brianne Hogan: The stories are based on the experiences of real women, including yourselves. How did you make them into a comedy while not trivializing abortion? Was it challenging to humanize these stories while also having them be comedic?
Roni Geva and Margaret Katch: The truth is that Roni’s abortion story is just funny. Objectively, it was a ridiculous and funny day. So it was a very easy jumping off point into the series. In fact, it was so ridiculous that we ended up taking chunks of her story and putting them into other people’s stories (because we didn’t think an audience would believe that all of that truly happened to just one person… [it did]).
In terms of trivialization, we know that what we’re about to say might come off as controversial … but some abortions aren’t a big deal. We are making too big of a deal out of abortion in this country. Women have been having abortions for as long as there have been unwanted pregnancies. By making it a big deal, we are shaming women. So let’s make it NOT a big deal. Yes, on the day of the decision it may feel like a big deal, but also, it might not. Most women we've spoken to just felt relieved. Of course, there are some really difficult ones. We show a second trimester abortion on our show, based on our friend’s story. It was tragic, not trivial. And we believe that we did that story justice, as well. All stories are important.
Ultimately, we believe that comedy is incredibly humanizing and the very best comedy comes from a real and deep place. We’ve all been in an awful or uncomfortable situation where we made a joke to cope with the moment. It’s a very human response.
BH: What's the writing process like for the show? How do you work together? How do you break your seasons?
RG and MK: First we come up with an idea for the season. Margaret usually has some sort of universal download about what the season arc should look like. For Ctrl Alt Delete, we interviewed women and clinics about their experiences and then used our favorite stories.
Once we decide what stories we’re telling, we card out the series regulars’ arcs, find the “commercial breaks” (between the eight episodes), and start writing.
We work together. We’ll talk through exactly what a scene has to be, then usually Roni will write it, then Margaret takes a pass, then Roni takes a pass, then Margaret, and then we read out loud to make sure it actually sounds like these characters’ voices. Eventually, it blends in so much that we don’t know who wrote what.
BH: How did you approach season two differently than season one? This season focused more on the clinic; what was important to you in terms of writing and content, and why?
RG and MK: Each episode in season one focused on an individual abortion story. When we were editing it, we realized how much we loved the arc of the clinic’s employees. And we realized that we really wanted to bring to life a day at an independent abortion clinic — which, turns out, is just the same as any other workplace. So we decided to create what was basically a pilot for a half-hour workplace comedy. We are still telling individual patients’ stories (this season’s primary patient story is based on our friend’s second trimester abortion), but we mostly follow the people who work at the clinic, from the doctor who tells knock knock jokes to the counselor with a passion for the zero population growth movement, to the intern who thinks there’s a bomb in a pizza box.
So in terms of writing and content, it was important to us that above all else, this feels like a workplace comedy … Yes, the workplace is an abortion clinic, but it’s just a workplace.
BH: When it comes to shaping the character of Ed Begley Jr.’s doctor, how important is it to humanize him, as well as the other employees at the clinic?
RG and MK: This character is based on Roni’s abortion doctor. Not only did he literally say, “So, the nurse tells me you’re a comedian, let’s hear a joke …” (and Roni told him one), but his whole demeanor was that of a Borscht Belt comedian from another time. We LOVED that as a basis for the doctor character; someone who always tries to make the room comfortable with a joke, even if he fails. We imagine that he has an epic collection of joke books at home!
Most of our characters are based on the stories we gathered from women and clinics; these were all our jumping off point.
When it comes to storytelling, we believe that every character should be more than a two-dimensional cardboard cutout. We believe that comedy works best from a full and real place, and that’s what we strive to do with everyone from Dr. Rosenblatt to the nurse with two lines.
BH: From your experience, is working on a web series different than working with conventional TV? Do you have more flexibility when it comes to writing what you want to write?
RG and MK: YES. When you self-produce and self-release, you have carte blanche to make the show of your dreams. This way, we don’t have to ask permission to tell the stories we want to in the way we want to.
That being said, we fully understand that working with conventional studios comes with a lot of perks: bigger budgets, more access, more viewership. And that is our ultimate goal — to take this show from digital web series to a half-hour comedy and have even more eyeballs on it so that we can create a bigger social impact.
BH: In the context of Alabama and Georgia, the show seems more relevant than ever; it could very well be part of a watershed moment. What are your thoughts on what's happening now versus your original reasons for creating Ctrl Alt Delete? Do you feel you wrote it at the right time? How do you think the show helps support the pro-choice narrative?
RG and MK: When we started writing the show, we thought Hillary Clinton was going to become president and even still, we felt like there was so much stigma around abortion and that we had to do something about it.
The abortion conversation must be normalized because it’s a safe and normal procedure that one in four women choose, but there is so much shame and sigma around it because people don’t talk about it.
This was true three years ago and it’s still true today. Yes, we have #YouKnowMe (thank you Busy Phillips), but it’s just beginning. Yes, we have #ShoutYourAbortion but again, we are only in the seedling stage of normalization.
More than 70% of people in this country think that Roe v. Wade should remain in place, but that is a mostly silent majority being drowned out by an incredibly vocal — and vitriolic — minority. By telling these stories, we show that it’s normal. We are supporting the pro-woman, pro-choice, pro-abortion narrative. We show that 95% of people who have abortions don’t regret them. We show that there is nothing wrong with that choice. By showing it’s normal, people feel less alone. And we need more of that content in the world; the kind that makes people feel unashamed.
BH: What would you like to see happen within the show? Where would you like to explore next?
RG and MK: There are so many more stories to tell. So many men and women have reached out to us with their stories. We also have so many more collected stories from the clinics that we interviewed. We’d also like to go back in time and explore a world without legal abortion. Finally, as laws are changing in this country, we’d like to show how that impacts the day-to-day operations of the clinic and therefore the relationships between the people who work there.
BH: When you're brainstorming projects, where do you tend to go to for inspiration?
RG and MK: We think that the best stories are the ones that writers are passionate about. So yes, we love drawing on our own experiences. We’re also exploring a couple of historical topics that we think are relevant and exciting right now.
BH: Ctrl Alt Delete is a personal story for both of you. In light of what's happening in the United States, how important do you think it is for writers to write or create from their own stories and vulnerability? Why are these stories so important to share?
RG and MK: We think it’s very important! When people share their own stories, it allows other people to feel less alone with their experiences. Sharing takes away shame. That’s one of the most important things we can do: Allow people to relate to the stories we tell.
BH: What women are inspiring you right now?
RG and MK: AOC, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Lindy West, Busy Phillips, Pen15, everyone involved with Shrill, and Dr. Leana Wen.
Written by: Brianne HoganBrianne Hogan is a freelance writer currently based in Prince Edward Island. A film studies graduate from NYU, her byline's been featured in Creative Screenwriting, ScreenCraft, The Huffington Post, among others. "Jurassic Park" is unashamedly her favorite movie (at this moment). You can follow Brianne on Twitter via @briannehogan