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