Are Women Funny?

Andrew Ladd argues that the fairer sex has a great sense of humor—and that we ought to start appreciating it.

Here are the criteria for an ideal late night television host: be gutsy and energetic, possess excellent cue-card-reading abilities, and above all, be prepared to tell a whole lot of dick jokes.

Oh, and you should also be an 88-year-old woman.

I’m talking, of course, about Betty White, and her Saturday Night Live appearance a few months ago—a homerun of an episode, widely and deservedly praised as the show’s best in years, in which the octogenarian was joined by the series’ past female heavy hitters returning for a Mother’s Day-themed show.

Molly Shannon and Anna Gasteyer were back behind their fake NPR desk, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were back behind their real Weekend Update one, and by the end of the evening, the tepid Jude Law episode from a few weeks earlier was but a fleeting memory.

If the Betty White show was an especially funny one, though, the episode seemed especially odd, because the sudden preponderance of (former) female cast members made their usual absence all the more conspicuous.

SNL has always been covered in the grubby fingerprints of its male cast and writers—when Janeane Garofalo quit after six months, she cited its miserable sexism as a reason. (So did Catherine O’Hara, who quit before appearing in a single episode.) But with the relatively large followings behind Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey in recent years, it’s been easy to forget that the show is essentially a glorified men’s club. (Despite several female “featured players,” Kristen Wiig is currently the only permanent female cast member, and has been since Amy Poehler left two years ago.)

Still, we can hardly blame SNL for the evils of professional comedy—one of which is male dominance. Among stand-up comedians, there are by some estimates two men for every woman. In sitcoms, at least 60% of all characters are men, with major characters even more strikingly so. (Their writing staffs, like SNL’s, are more lopsided still.)

A visit to almost any improvised comedy show likely reveals women in the minority—and rarely as star players. Talk-show hosts? Men. Editorial cartoonists? Men. If I were the paranoid type, I would suspect a conspiracy.

But this isn’t only professional comedy’s problem. Even when ordinary people are asked to describe someone they know personally who has an “outstanding” sense of humor, almost everyone will name a guy. In one study, men named other men five times as often as they named women; women named men twice as much.

This is significant: there is a real cultural bias toward treating men as “the funny ones,” and women, to a lesser extent, as “the not funny ones.” It’s a cultural bias that is entirely baseless, needlessly discriminatory, and one that we really ought to fight against.

If that strikes you as excessive political correctness, feminist overkill, or gender equality run amok—and I’m sure for some people it will—consider that humor is one of the most potent, restorative, and valuable tools we have in Western culture, not only for entertainment but for making people happy, for defusing tense situations, and for bringing about social change. If we opened our minds, even just a little, to the idea that women can be equal and wonderful sources of comedy, the world would be a far more cheerful place. So let’s give it a try, shall we? For shits and giggles?

♦♦♦

I’m not the first person to notice the gender gap in humor, but much of what our cultural critics have had to say about it has gotten entirely the wrong end of the stick. Christopher Hitchens, whose controversial 2007 Vanity Fair piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny” has, sadly, dominated the mainstream discussion of the topic in recent years, simply takes the gender gap as a given and tries to explain it using some dubious biological determinism.

Men are funny, Hitchens argues, for the same reason peacocks have big tails: they want to make babies, and humor helps them attract more mates. (Women, on the other hand, don’t need to be funny because they can find a mate whenever they want, and because they’re always too busy daydreaming about the serious matter of having said babies to do anything as “frivolous” as make jokes.)

But even ignoring the gross and antiquated sexism here, Hitchens’s reasoning is still particularly vapid, because you could make more or less the same argument even if women were the funny ones: see, when women are pregnant and nursing they need men to go out and secure food for them—and if you had to risk life and limb hunting down a boar for your baby mama, wouldn’t you rather do it for a Betty White than a Barbara Walters?

Anyway, most of the time you’d probably be too busy fantasizing about your natural male bloodlust to sit around coming up with knock-knock jokes. (That’s a ridiculous argument too, of course, but I’m just trying to highlight how bizarre it is explaining relatively recent cultural phenomena using relatively ancient biological ones.)

More recently than Hitchens, perennial feminist Germaine Greer also offered an explanation for the gender gap in humor. Writing in the Guardian in 2009, she suggested that from a very young age boys are “taught” how to joke through subtle aspects of their upbringing, while girls are not—so that by the time we all reach adulthood, the difference is finely engrained and near impossible to change.

This at least resorts to a social mechanism rather than a biological one, but it’s still frustratingly vague. If it’s true, why have some women still “learned” how to joke regardless, while some, apparently, have not?

The problem is, Hitchens and Greer (and plenty more like them) start off by asking the wrong question: the issue isn’t—or at least it shouldn’t be—why men are funnier than women. It’s whether men are funnier than women—and the answer is actually a resounding no.

A second Vanity Fair piece by Alessandra Stanley, published the year after Hitchens’s, follows this second approach, opening with the provocative and far more appropriate headline, “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” According to Stanley, they absolutely are, and if they’ve historically appeared otherwise, it’s because only recently have other social changes given them a fair chance to show it. Soon, Stanley argues, the myth of female unfunniness will be a thing of the past.

Well, maybe. The sad thing about reading Stanley’s piece today is that many of her central examples from 2008 are no longer very convincing. She makes a big deal out of the “opening up” of SNL, and all the young starlets being vetted by Lorne Michaels—but none of them have since made it into the permanent roster.

She also trumpets the then-soon-to-be-released Baby Mama as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s triumphant female breakthrough into Hollywood—except in the end it got only middling reviews and grossed about half as much as Tropic Thunder, that summer’s big male comedy.

Finally, she expresses more than a little excitement about Comedy Central’s new sweetheart, Sarah Silverman—whose show was cancelled earlier this year. So much for progress.

But the real problem with Stanley’s article is that she, too, is starting in the wrong place. For one thing, focusing on professional comedy doesn’t even begin to get at the question of why average people claim to personally know more funny men than funny women, nor does it approach what to me is the most interesting angle: that women might have their own kind of humor that is qualitatively different from male humor.

What I’m suggesting is that something else does exist out there—we’ll call it “female humor” for now—that is so subtle, and so distinct from “normal” (read: male) humor, that we often don’t even notice when it’s happening. And that’s why it’s beside the point how much success women have had beating men at their own game: by doing that we’re just settling in for an umpteenth round of Monopoly with the dudes, when really we ought to be letting the ladies teach us Clue.

(continued on page 2)

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About Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd is the blog editor for Ploughshares. His work also has appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Memoir Journal, Paper Darts, and The Rumpus, among others, and his first novel, What Ends (New Issues Press, January 2014), was the winner of the 2012 AWP Prize in the Novel. Follow Andrew on Twitter @agoodladd.

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    Andrew great piece. As a huge Chelsea Lately fan I am with you 100%….

  2. Nice work, Andrew.

  3. David Wise says:

    I heard long ago that women are generally funnier than men, but as in cooking, the best comedians are generally men.

  4. Sandy Huckleberry says:

    I remember how coldly received were jokes made by girls when I was in high school. The boys did Monty Python skits for the Talent Shows, and we all know there was no room for funny women there (only funny men dressed like women, or pretty girls playing the straight man or worse)

    Wry, arch, bon mots are the preferred form for many women I can think of (from Jane Austen to Mae West to Dorothy Parker and beyond) because they can be delivered quietly and can stand on their own, appreciated or not.

  5. An excellent and interesting article. I’d prefer “feminine humor” to “female humor.” “Female” seems to suggest Michelle Pfeiffer in her Cat Woman costume and other Hollywood “female” images.

  6. Stef MacKenzie says:

    Ace article! I really enjoyed reading this Andrew.
    It’s such an interesting topic and one that raises so many questions and debates in relation to female presence and power on different media platforms.

    You’re right about Betty White too. What a lady…

  7. Andrew, thank you for your thoughtful, well-written analysis of an important topic. I have been reading, thinking, and talking about women and humor for a number years–an you gave me new ideas to consider. I hope you will continue to explore the topic.

  8. Andrew,

    Very interesting analysis.

    I noticed as a female in corporate America (years ago before leaving for entrepreneurial journey) that if I said something funny or ironic, the group of male colleagues (99 percent were male) would “not hear it.” But I could always count on one male to repeat my comment in a louder voice to great applause and laughter. So I think your point about “higher status” is critical–the higher status male gets more respect for his comments than the lower status female.

  9. Carol Burnett says:

    Excellent article. I’d never really thought about it… and probably won’t again.

  10. How can this not mention Margaret Cho… who makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose… regardless if I was drinking it or not.

  11. Thank you. I’m glad there is an article like this to counter the Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens which was probably the most absurd thing I have ever read. Women can’t be funny because all we can think about is serious things like making babies? Please.

    I’ve been considered a funny woman, by both men and women, and I get the “bitch” label often. I also get discredited often, that is, I make a comment in jest that goes unheard because I am soft spoken, by nature (low-talker) and sometimes to avoid the bitch label. Usually one man hears it and repeats it loudly, receiving riotous laughter from everyone present, for which I receive no credit. Sometimes a man is kind enough to begin repeating my joke with, “Did you hear what she just said?” I like that. Plenty of women are funny enough to kick it with the boys, but we hesitate because we know that our audience has already dismissed us as unfunny women before we’ve said anything.

    Most funny women cited are bitches and lesbians, but I’d like to cite one who is neither: Anjelah Johnson. She tells girl jokes using “man” humor and is pretty. Also does good impressions.

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  1. [...] Women Funny (differently than men) ? This post by Andrew Ladd is the latest contribution by a male writing trying, in part to explain [...]

  2. [...] Are Women Funny?: I mean, I can’t speak for the entire gender, but I am. :) [...]

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