December 8, 2006

"Why Women Aren't Funny."

Christopher Hitchens purports to explain:
For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle....

Men are overawed, not to say terrified, by the ability of women to produce babies. (Asked by a lady intellectual to summarize the differences between the sexes, another bishop responded, "Madam, I cannot conceive.") It gives women an unchallengeable authority. And one of the earliest origins of humor that we know about is its role in the mockery of authority. Irony itself has been called "the glory of slaves." So you could argue that when men get together to be funny and do not expect women to be there, or in on the joke, they are really playing truant and implicitly conceding who is really the boss....

If I am correct about this, which I am, then the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women. Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates....

Childbearing and rearing are the double root of all this.... As every father knows, the placenta is made up of brain cells, which migrate southward during pregnancy and take the sense of humor along with them....
He's trying to make me say "That's not funny" to prove his point, right? And, if I say he's pissing me off, that's just my womb making me take things seriously, right?

57 comments:

SteveWe said...

Usually I enjoy Hitch's columns, but I could even finish that one. Not funny. Stupid, actually. Oops, I used the s-word.

LarryK said...

Hitch missed the mark today, because he tried to reduce laughter to something Darwinian. In fact, this piece unintentionally shows the limits of a narrowly Darwinian worldview. Some things can't be explained as the artifacts of mankind's evolutionary struggle for survival.

paul a'barge said...

oh dear ... someone with an inflated sense of his own intellect trying to define what is funny (and who is and who is not). Call the police. Hitch, dude, in all of history, this has never worked. Seriously... it's been tried and it's a sure fire loser.

Now, that said, I think the right response is 1)yes, you're quite funny AND I'm rightfully pissed.

Sorry. I say choose what's behind Door 3.

Doyle said...

Gee, you found him so charming when he was defending the Iraq War.

Who would have thought that a belligerent alcoholic would have issues with women?

Anonymous said...

I don't like these kind of men vs. women observations. My wife and daughters and just about every woman in my life are funny. Same thing for men and boys I know. Some are funny, some aren't. I don't think it has anything to do with gender.

MD said...

I found the wryly meandering inaccuracies of the essay sort of amusing. Also, the study he mentions only looked at 10 men and 10 women. What is the point of studies like that? Are we really learning something, and more importantly, do people actually get promoted and tenure on such academic pieces? I am in the wrong field/department, etc, etc.

Joe said...

I've no doubt sex and humor are related, but am equally convinced that any attempt to explain it will come off as boorish at best, and just plain stupid and sexist at worse.

(There are few female comedians I enjoy watching, but most are just shrill and really grate on my nerves. But, to be fair, the number of male comedians I enjoy isn't a terribly huge number. I assume it's largely because more men are stupid enough to actually try being professional comedians.)

chickenlittle said...

Who really writes jokes and humor? I mean who conceives of them and writes them down (as contrasted to these who merely retell them).

I suspect the art is dominated by men.

Even "Sex and the City" had a male at the helm.

DennisThePeasant said...

I'm continually surprised that Raj hasn't, to date, offered Hitch a Pajamas Media fellowship. Maybe this is the column that will clinch it for him...

Wade_Garrett said...

I withhold judgment on the general question of whether women are or are not as funny as men, in general. I do think that women find men's humor funnier than men find women's humor. Friends and Sex and the City, the two most successful comedies targeted at female audiences, held almost no appeal for male audiences whatsoever. On the other hand, a lot of women enjoy Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Office, the Ali G Show, and other shows that have been described as having distinctly male sense of humor. I don't really know why that is the case.

Dave Schuler said...

There, there, Sweetie. Don't take these things too seriously.

Joseph Hovsep said...

I do think it is interesting that men tend to dominate mainstream comedy, but I'm inclined to think its due more social factors than biological ones (e.g., more social pressure for women to be polite, follow rules, etc.). On the other hand, some of my favorite comedians are women (Amy Sedaris, Amy Poehler, Margaret Cho).

Joseph Hovsep said...

Who really writes jokes and humor? I mean who conceives of them and writes them down

Tina Fey was the lead writer for SNL for the past several years.

Mack said...

Well, his first observation...

However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: "She's a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make 'em laugh."

... is definitely true.

Can we really not handle this kind of good-natured comparison? I'd say he has at least as many insights as your average political column.

I bet the silent majority doesn't mind chatting about it.

price said...

Oh gosh, why is it that girls make me laugh so much easier than guys? I agree with Hitchens that people develop a sense of humor as a social survival tactic, but he completely omits the fact that there are plenty of homely girls out there. The beauty vs. sense of humor debate is much more interesting to me, on both sides of the gender divide.

chickenlittle said...

Joseph Hovsep said:
"Tina Fey was the lead writer for SNL for the past several years"

That actually explains a lot I think

LarryK said...

Merill Markoe was also the lead writer in the early, best days of the David Letterman show. Say what you will about Letterman, but I don't think anyone ever thought he had a feminine sense of humor. He's practically the anti-Friends or SexInTheCity.

Jeff said...

Is it the biological determinism that pisses you off or the "women aren't funny" meme?

Ann Althouse said...

Jeff: The biological determinism and the form it takes.

I think men are more likely to express themselves through blatant humor, but I think there are all sorts of cultural reasons in addition to the dopey womb stuff. If I had to think of one biological reason, I would say that males have more innate aggression, and humor is processed hostility. That is, if I had to pick a sexist theory, I'd -- self-interestedly -- pick the sexist theory that made men look bad.

I would add the point that women have to worry more about being the victims of aggression and (traditionally) have had to gain male protection, so it's not wise to make them angry. It's harder to benefit from boldness as a woman.

But I recommend writing, from a safe distance, such as Madison, Wisconsin. I turned down an opportunity to move to Washington, in part because I thought it would be harder to take my shots from a close distance.

Another thing is that Hitchens is thinking of a certain type of humor: aggressive comedy. But what about all the subtler humor. I'd cite the Jane Austen tradition... as long as he's bringing up English writers.

Harkonnendog said...

He could have asked "Why do men find other men more funny than women?" That would probably be a better starting point.

Revenant said...

There's considerable evidence that women, on average, analyze speech and writing more than men do. As analysis is the enemy of humor, I would not be surprised if the average woman was less humor-oriented than the average man is.

Ann's point about the possible role of aggression in humor is a good one, too. A related point is that comedy is a form of showing off, which men are also generally more predisposed to doing.

pablo H said...

1) Are people *ever* going stop responding to a generalization with a specific exception ? Besides being stupid, it provies nothing. Examples:

Generalization
"Most comedy writers are men"
Stupid Response:
"Well, Tina Fey, is a women"

Generalization
"Men are taller than Women"
Stupid Response:
"Well, my sister-in-law is taller than a man I know"

2) Chris Hitchens is a political writer. He knows nothing of comedy, and never says anything funny (generalization - but true).

3) Very few people are really funny, and like almost all areas of human endevor men dominate at the top of the bell curve.

4) As Althouse states Humor is a form of agression, especially insult humor, shouting, satire, etc. Most people don't like women being too agressive (generalization)

amba said...

He sounds almost exactly like Norman Mailer a generation or two ago. The Prisoner of Sex, it may have been. Mailer basically said women didn't need brains because we had wombs, that a brain was a man's womb, or compensation for not having one, and that women would always be second-rate at creating anything with our brains because for us "reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing."

The effect of that was to turn ambitious women, unnecessarily, against reproduction.

James said...

Hitch quotes Kipling's famous poem, The Female of the Species, in support of his thesis that women aren't funny, but that wasn't how Kipling intended it; he wrote it as an anti-suffrage polemic, arguing that women shouldn't vote.

It's dated 1911, which was when women's suffrage started gathering momentum, and if you read it, you'll see what I mean.

amba said...

And to turn younger women, in reaction, against ambition. Christ!

amba said...

Pete said:

Some are funny, some aren't. I don't think it has anything to do with gender.

Exactly.

amba said...

1) A lot of male humor is gross and/or cruel. A lot of women don't find that as funny.

2) Maybe more men are publicly, professionally funny, while many, many, many women are privately very funny.

DNR Mom said...

Thank heavens my spare brain cells only briefly inhabited placentas the four times I gave birth. Lest I be aggressive, we can easily guess the permanent and southern roosting place of Hitchens' brain cells.

Theo Boehm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Peden said...

OT, Doyle:
"Gee, you found him so charming when he was defending the Iraq War."

Doyle, one has nothing to do with the other. But according to your groupist leader-follower Faux Liberal logic, your statement makes perfect sense!

Moreover, Muslims do not drink alcohol.

Liam Colvin said...

**Sigh**

Incredibly unimportant argument. You people need to find something more important to get cranky about.

Hitchens, like most good british writers, makes his money insulting people.

Tell you what. Let's discuss Andrew Sullivan's affection for putting the term "money quote" in his "important" observations. Hint: where does it come from?

sheesh.

Sissy Willis said...

Who but a man without qualities would presume to say the gals are not funny? He is a yawner, big time.

His choice of humorous women was a real yawner.

Sissy Willis said...

PLUS . . . His article was way too long. I started to nod off and had to surf away.

Meade said...

He's trying to make me say "That's not funny" to prove his point, right? And, if I say he's pissing me off, that's just my womb making me take things seriously, right?

Now that's funny.

Robert said...

Everyone is funny. We're a funny lot. Some are less funny than others, but everybody's got that little spark.

The question is whether you have a sense of humor or not. This one is a binary; you either got it, or not. In my personal experience, it seems like a few more men than women have one. I don't presume to generalize that to the population at large.

Kirby Olson said...

Humor requires disengagement.

ignacio said...

I'm not an essentialist. Hitchens is amusing sometimes (though not here) but unsound.

Mark Daniels said...

The absolute best response to this piece, as with most things Hitchens writes, is to ignore it. There's no denying the man's intelligence. But he is so tiresomely self-absorbed and taken with his own cleverness that I find him insufferable.

MadisonMan said...

Doesn't his argument suggest that virgins are funnier than mothers, then? No pregnancy, no humor loss.

Daryl Herbert said...

He's trying to make me say "That's not funny" to prove his point, right?

I thought he wanted you to have a semi-orgasmic experience so you would agree to bed him in his advanced state of decomposition.

If I had to think of one biological reason, I would say that males have more innate aggression, and humor is processed hostility. That is, if I had to pick a sexist theory, I'd -- self-interestedly -- pick the sexist theory that made men look bad.

Aggression is bad? That's just your womb talking, honey.

Err, what I meant to say is, the incredible responsibility and nobility associated with your ability to perform childbirthing functions has prevented you from appreciating the full extent of the value to the world of processed hostility as the motivating factor for change agents who will advance important fields such as medicine, genetics, materials science, computers, art, etc. A scientist told me so, and he used high-falutin' language, and his conclusions agree with my own base prejudices, so they must be true.

Mack said...

Well, don't women smile and laugh a lot more than men? Normally to be quite funny, I think you have to yourself not be smiling/laughing.

A lot of times to joke you almost have to be a little rude, or surly, or at least not totally gracious, I think. To have an edge, maybe? Of course, none of that is particularly feminine.

Zeb Quinn said...

Over the years, including before 9/11, especially before 9/11, I found myself reading Hitchens and usually not altogether agreeing with him and disliking what I was reading. Sometimes after 9/11 too now that I think about it. But oddly I've always found him interesting and insightful, an intellectual heavyweight, worth the effort it usually takes to plumb his depths. There is always something there. Likewise here. Reject him off-handedly because what he says bothers you at your peril. You're probably missing something.

Shanna said...

He could have asked "Why do men find other men more funny than women?"
This is probably the better point indeed. I think amba's point about a lot of male humor being gross/cruel is a good one. If I don't find fart jokes funny, or make them, that means that women aren't innately funny? What the hell, Chris?

I think Ann's Jane Austin example is a good one as well. Austen is a very funny, excellent writer, but alot of men don't get that sense of humor.

Also, I read a study in the Wall Street Journal one time that said basically, men won't read books written by women. They did covers that were neutral or masculine and put male author names on them, female names, or neutral names. Basically, even if the cover or story is masculine or neutral, a man is not likely to pick up a book written by a woman. So starting with some premis of "there aren't alot of female commedienes" is not the way to go.

Furthermore, I don't think there is any way to study this empirically and everybody knows that anecdotes are not scientifically relevant.

Shanna said...

Is there anything less funny than hearing a woman relate a dream she's just had?

What makes him think that someone telling you about the dream they had was trying to be funny?

I like some of Hitchens writing, but this article is just nonsense and completely illogical and it jumps all over the place. It needed a good edit because it's very rambling.

Bruce Hayden said...

I don't remember who it was by, it could have been Deborah Tannen, but one person theorized that the primary difference between typically male and typically female humor is that male humor is aimed at domination, whereas female humor is aimed at relationship building.

The result then is that typically male humor tends to put down someone else, whereas typically female humor tends to put down yourself. One result of this is that female humor is most often not the least bit funny to males. But I also suspect that some male humor may not be that offensive to females since they aren't directly connected to it.

I have known some very funny women, but for the most part, they used more masculine humor, and did not participate that much in the female bonding that many, if not most, women seem to participate in.

Finally, we all considered my mother humor impaired. Then, about 75 or so, it seemed like she all of a sudden developed a sense of humor and could tell jokes. But we were so used to her lack of humor, that her jokes would slip right under our radar for a minute or two, and then we would realize that she had said something very funny. And the fact that it did slip by added to the effect.

Shanna said...

I have known some very funny women, but for the most part, they used more masculine humor

That's why they were funny to you, as a man. There are probably loads of women who are very funny, but who you don't think are funny because their humor is not geared towards men. The reverse is also true (men who are funny to other men not women).

Should we say someone is not funny if they don't appeal to both sexes?

Bruce Hayden said...

He could have asked "Why do men find other men more funny than women?"
This is probably the better point indeed. I think amba's point about a lot of male humor being gross/cruel is a good one. If I don't find fart jokes funny, or make them, that means that women aren't innately funny?


No, more likely that women have a different sense of humor than men do.

I think Ann's Jane Austin example is a good one as well. Austen is a very funny, excellent writer, but alot of men don't get that sense of humor.

Like most men I think, I didn't like Austin in the least.

Also, I read a study in the Wall Street Journal one time that said basically, men won't read books written by women. They did covers that were neutral or masculine and put male author names on them, female names, or neutral names. Basically, even if the cover or story is masculine or neutral, a man is not likely to pick up a book written by a woman. So starting with some premis of "there aren't alot of female commedienes" is not the way to go.

This is one place where I differ maybe from the crowd. Obvioulsy, as a straight male, I have absolutely no interest in the female pornography known as Romance Novels.

But I read a lot of sci-fi/ fantasy, and I greatly prefer female authors to male ones. Possibly, it is because many male authors dwell on the action and whiz-bang technology, whereas many female authors look at the sociological side and try to envision how very different people (or aliens) would think and relate, and how we would relate to them. That sort of stuff. My guess is that my reading of this genre is now about 90% female authored.

One of my favorites is C.J. Cherryth who can keep the tension up for hundreds of pages through inner doubt by a (typically male) protagonist facing some trauma. Invaribly, the protagonist is struggling to stay afloat in a confusing environment. Often, it is dealing with an alien society that almost makes sense. But every time the protagonist gets too comfortable, he makes an unwarranted assumption and is plunged back into the water over his head.

Of course, this later has little to do with humor, but rather a suggestion that males more likely dislike female authors writing in female genre, and are more accepting of women writing in more male genre (and speaking of the WSJ, my favorite regular columnist there is Peggy Noonan).

Radish said...

What about the Funny Fat Girl? I posit that women-in-general aren't funny because unless they're fat, or ugly, or somehow otherwise not getting male attention, they don't NEED to be funny to get attention. (I'm uglier than homemade sin, so I learned to be freaking HILARIOUS so guys wouldn't mind spending time with me...)
Mae West. Fanny Brice. Victoria Jackson. Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin and Tiny Fey aren't fat, but they don't look like Heather Locklear, or Farrah Fawcett or even Jennifer Love Hewitt--unfunny women, all.

It holds true for men, too. The class clown was always the kid who wasn't good at school or sports; he acted up because otherwise you'd never notice him. Jocks have no sense of humor. If Letterman had been a 4.0 student, he wouldn't be on TV now. Most of the SNL greats and big-name stand-up are fat or short or funny-looking--Jon Lovitz, Sam Kinison, Louis Black, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Dana Carvey...

Brian said...

"Like most men I think, I didn't like Austin in the least."

There's a generalization I'd object to. I'm not sure, on the other hand, that I agree with Ann that her humor is not aggressive. Subtle yes, but by the time she's done subtly skewering a character they might as wll have been bludgeoned. I guess that kind of brutalizing is not exactly the antonym of "aggressive," but I don't think I would have wanted to have been in range of being an inspiration for one of her books.

Rowena Hullfire said...

Disclaimer: I am a nulliparous gyno-American who is frequently told that I should do stand-up. I disagree; I just see the humor in everything and have a lighthearted attitude towards life. I don't have a "schtick" like standups do, it's just spontaneous.

Hitch can write interesting columns, but there just doesn't seem to be much meat here.

Would he say that now we have artificial birth control and smaller families, women are funnier than they were as compared to when there wasn't reliable birth control and bigger families?

Human dignity and the wide range of individual differences is not served well by treating people reductionistically according to their plumbing functions. That goes for men and women both.

Rowena Hullfire said...

Ann, here's how you should react to Hitch. Smile sweetly, bat your eyelashes, and laugh at all his jokes (funny or not).

Kirby Olson said...

British people in general are insufferable.

It's strange because they do have a good sense of humor in TV and film. I really enjoy Peter Sellers, for example. And PG Wodehouse is a world wide cultural figure at least as important as the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal. But even Sellers and Wodehouse left England for America.

Hitchens left too but he has remained insufferably British. Always trying to seem one-up. It's a culture of prats.

I do like Tony Blair, though! For some reason there's a horrible side to England that consists in always trying to be smart but it's in a way that just seems emotionally retarded. Hitchens is the quintessence of that disgusting tradition.

Anonymous said...

PBS once had a series called "Comedy University", where a collection of comics, usually older, would gather and discuss what made things funny. It was on one of these shows that one of the (male) comics mentioned that humor was a quick look at somebody else's troubles, and I have always found that to be true.

Take for example the old stories of things that have happened in your past that, although not funny at the time, are now hilarious, as opposed to the ones that are not, at least to you. Is it because you are a different person in some respects but not others?

This may be another reason women do not predominate as comics; the lack the ability to be cruel enough to expose those troubles and make it believable. Can you imagine a women hosting "Funniest Home Videos" and doing the Head, Gut or Groin segment?

Another reason today's women may not be considered funny is to look at where humor is today. I can remember listening to Bill Cosby albums 40 years ago and laughing for hours- and not a single 'blue' word or phrase.

Eddie Murphy and Robin Wiliams have trouble doing 40 words without dropping the 'f' bomb, much less 40 minutes. Although a male comic can garner a laugh that way most women just appear coarse, not humorous, doing the same things.

Geoge Carlin, although very blue, is/was also very creative and used certain words not for their effect, but because of the way he could turn the phrase on its head. (He doesn't know shit from Shinola; I always wonder how the Shinola people felt about that?- one of his classics.)

Mack said...

Bruce,

That's pretty interesting... I actually had a similar thought with my mom recently, when she sent me a very funny email -- I don't think she's ever done that before (I'm in my later 20's).

Now that I consider it, I actually think it might have been a source of insecurity if mom had been too funny when we were younger, in a comic kind of way. Moms aren't supposed to be discerning like that, are they? They're supposed to love everything their kids do. I'm sure people largely are used to what they grow up with, but it strikes me that it would have been a pretty different experience if mom had displayed that kind of cynicism in good comedy...

For a broader theory, maybe men are funnier because many men aren't secure enough to handle funny women, and women recognize that.

In any case, I personally like engaging people much more than I like funny people, and I'd venture to say that women are generally more engaging in conversation than men.

Chuck said...

The Atheist and the Shark
There is this atheist swimming in the ocean. All of the sudden he sees this shark in the water, so he starts swimming towards his boat.

As he looks back he sees the shark turn and head towards him. His boat is a ways off and he starts swimming like crazy. He's scared to death, and as he turns to see the jaws of the great white beast open revealing its teeth in a horrific splendor, the atheist screams, "Oh God! Save me!"

In an instant time is frozen and a bright light shines down from above. The man is motionless in the water when he hears the voice of God say, "You are an atheist. Why do you call upon me when you do not believe in me?"

Aghast with confusion and knowing he can't lie the man replies, "Well, that's true I don't believe in you, but how about the shark? Can you make the shark believe in you?"

The Lord replies, "As you wish," and the light retracted back into the heavens and the man could feel the water begin to move once again.

As the atheist looks back he can see the jaws of the shark start to close down on him, when all of sudden the shark stops and pulls back.

Shocked, the man looks at the shark as the huge beast closes its eyes and bows its head and says, "Thank you Lord for this food for which I am about to receive..."

Charlene said...

I think Hitchens was trying to be funny and failed, which is all kinds of ironic.

The best comment I've read about this essay was on another blog, where a woman pointed out that when she made a word play the women thought she was funny but the men assumed she was dumb. Explaining only got her a patronizing "sure, honey".

Maybe this is the real problem: men don't pay close attention to what women say, and comedy requires that the listener pay attention.

Charlene said...

anonymous, I don't buy that somehow being "blue" is less funny, and therefore that women don't like comedy because they're pinch-mouthed prissy little judgmental bitch prudes who need everything spoon-fed to them on a grade four level. (Which is exactly what you're implying.)

Obscenity can be devastatingly funny (see Richard Pryor). Being a prude can be funny to others, but usually isn't personally that rewarding.