February 17, 2014

"Aggressive humor, you’ll probably guess, is linked to maleness...."

Writes Kyle Smith in a NY Post column titled "Who tells the best jokes? Neurotic, aggressive jerks."
[Scott Weems, a cognitive scientist] at the University of Maryland, tiptoes into the area of what he delicately calls women’s “struggle in the world of comedy,” or as feminist sociolinguist Robin Lakoff put it more directly in 1975, “Women can’t tell jokes — they are bound to ruin the punch line, they mix up the order of things, and so on. Moreover, they don’t ‘get’ jokes. In short, women have no sense of humor.”
With feminists like that, who needs male chauvinist pigs? I googled that quote to see if Lakoff was paraphrasing what other people think, and the first hit was this webpage — with genuinely ludicrous retro web design — with the headline — I'm not kidding — "From Peek-a-boo to Sarcasm: Women's Humor as a Means of Both Connection and Resistance." I almost got a headache finding the answer to my question, which is that Lakoff was only explaining the old stereotype, not expressing her own opinion. Anyway, Smith continues:
Terrified of where he’s heading, Weems retreats to the usual Women’s Studies jibber-jabber about how this is men’s fault, writing, “Women communicate differently than men and, consequently, are often subjected to misunderstandings in male-dominated environments. Because their language tends to be powerless, they can’t tell jokes, at least not effectively, and so are robbed of an important social function.”
But isn't Smith doing pro-woman jibber-jabber of a typical sort: Whatever is found to be true of women is portrayed as good. "Neurotic, aggressive jerks" are the best joke tellers, and that's why men are better at joke telling. What might seem bad about women — inadequacy at joke-telling — is transformed into good: non-jerkiness.

37 comments:

betamax3000 said...

Jokes Should Typically Be Humorous. Not All Humorous Communications are Structured as Jokes. Sometimes the Journey Does not Need a Destination. Sometimes a Pants Lobster Does Not Need a Punchline.

Scott M said...

I would be interested in finding out why men (myself included) find it endlessly hilarious to effortlessly regurgitate movie or TV show dialog, while the same isn't true for women. Even the "geek" women I know marveled at the average fanboi's ability to quote Monty Python, chapter and verse.

traditionalguy said...

He is ignoring Paula Poundstone.

Henry said...

I like the examples of nonsense humor vs. incongruity humor.

I've always been a fan of absurdist humor, which I think is closer to the nonsense camp. It works well with children (both to and from).

chickenlittle said...

Feminism is humerless -- that's a given.

betamax3000 said...

The Comedienne Born without Arms? Never Could Say Anything Humerus.

TML said...

Is she related to that "framing" tool, George Lakoff?

chickenlittle said...

Sorry beta, I meant hummerless.

SOJO said...

I call that type of guy "Mr. Joke". It's not the only type of humor.

Some of my favorites:

Men: Dylan Moran, Chris Rock, Louis CK, George Carlin, John Mulaney

Women: Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, Ellen (stand up), Janeane Garofalo, Tina Fey

I love stand ups and really value people that can make me laugh until it actually hurts. While I love the guys, an equal number of women can claim that.

Still, in everyday life guys tend to get territorial about claiming joke telling rights and make first claims in public while the hilarious women tend to be more situational and interactive.

Scott M said...

When Margaret Cho first got started, she was hysterical. After her TV show got cancelled, though, almost her entire act turned into making fun of her barely fluent mother and bitching about TV executives. A hour listening to someone's angst can be funny, but not in Margaret's case.

Janeane Garofalo, likewise, was hysterical back in the 90's. She's always managed to work a little social conscious-centric material into her stand-up, but it just got downright nasty midway through the last decade and never really recovered.

These days, from friends I've got that have hosted stand-up shows and festivals, I'm told that Garafelo isn't just a bitch on stage...she's actually shitty to her own fans. The meet-and-greets go poorly and, reportedly, she's surely just about all the time. That's all self-inflicted damage.

I'm with you 100% on Sykes, Ellen, and Tina Fey. Some of the more raunchy women making the rounds on Raw Dog and Comedy Central Radio lately have got excellent acts as well.

Tibore said...

The University of Hertfordshire in England also found a striking difference between what men and women found funny, and their findings also indicated that aggressive humor tended to go over best with men. They cited the joke that had the most gender divergence in how it was taken:

"A robber breaks into a house. While looking over the potential loot he hears a voice in the background, "Jesus is watching you". He looks around, doesn't see anyone, and goes on examining the wares. Again, the voice comes out: "Jesus is watching you". He turns on his flashlight, scans the room, then sees a parrot on a stand. The parrot squaks again: "Awwwk. Jesus is watching you." The burglar goes up to pet the bird, saying "Aww, what a cute parrot. What's your name?" The parrot says "Moses." The burglar is surprised, says "What, really? Man, I wonder who names their parrot Moses?" The Parrot replied "Same person who names their Rottweiler Jesus"...

(*rimshot*)

For some odd reason, that far more appealed to the men who were surveyed than the women. I thought it was hilarious, but I'm a guy, so that just goes to reinforce the findings...

SOJO said...

@scottm

Yeah, something definitely happened to Janeane in the 00s. Some people theorize bush/drinking did her in. I saw her do a recent 'uptown showdown' debate bit on summer v winter that was pretty good, but there was a big change.

I need to seek out newer acts as well.

Ann Althouse said...

Parrot jokes should have the parrot not understanding his own speech, but saying something because it has been said to him.

This joke has the parrot conveying true information and answering questions asked of him.

That's my problem with the joke.

Ann Althouse said...

Seems to me, then, that these men who supposedly find the joke funny are really only experiencing the pleasure of sadism that the dog is about to viciously attack the man.

Ann Althouse said...

So it's not so much that the joke is funny as it's funny that a man is about to suffer.

chickenlittle said...

Aggressive humor, you’ll probably guess, is linked to malenes....

The perhaps unintended truncation of "maleness" to "malenes" suggested (to me) a chemical origin of the distinction under discussion. A malene [pronounced may-lean] being a name for an unsaturated male hormone.

TOP that!

David said...

I can not tell jokes. If ever I am funny, it's the quick (usually inappropriate) one liner.

When I was 19 I drove across the country with 3 other good buddies. One of our group told jokes coast to coast, both ways, for five weeks. They were nearly all funny. I still have no idea how he did it.

He was a very decent guy, by the way. Strong, tough looking wrestler but actually a pussycat. (But not a pussy.)

Scott M said...

So it's not so much that the joke is funny as it's funny that a man is about to suffer.

Not necessarily. Humor, all humor, is based on surprise. It's the TWIST that's funny, being taken off in a completely unexpected direction. The mauling is just the result of the twist.

chrisnavin.com said...

'Comedy can actually consist of many acts of microaggression, causing victims to suffer waves of trauma akin to that of PTSD, or those of the severely bullied non-gender, non-race specific oppressed minorities often suffer when the landowning patriarchs interact with 'the other.'

-Rigoberta Menchu-Mandelsohn, Lecturer of feminist ethics and sex/victimogy at East Asswards State U

sinz52 said...

Shows how old I am: Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, etc.

chrisnavin.com said...

'That's not funny'

-Some feminist

chickenlittle said...

'Comedy can actually consist of many acts of microaggression, causing victims to suffer waves of trauma akin to that of PTSD, or those of the severely bullied non-gender, non-race specific oppressed minorities often suffer when the landowning patriarchs interact with 'the other.'

-Rigoberta Menchu-Mandelsohn, Lecturer of feminist ethics and sex/victimogy at East Asswards State U


Humor is seemingly divisible into smaller and smaller subunits. Hence microaggression, nanoaggression, picoaggression, femtoaggression, etc. The fundamental question is whether humor is a particle or a wave.

Nielson Bored

R.A. Crankbait said...

The humor in having memorized Monty Python lines doesn't come from rote recitation, but in being able to drop a line flawlessly - and appropriately - into another conversation.

Nor does it have to Monty Python, or does it have to be done by guys. My two daughters cracked us up constantly at the dinner table by being able to talk to each other contextually entirely in lines lifted from movies or TV (and usually not from the same show).

The parrot joke does suggest, however, that there is a gender element. I'm sure I laughed as hard the time I accidentally drove a racquetball into my friend's crotch as any caveman seeing his buddy get whacked in the jewels by an errant tree branch. In the words of Larry the Cable Guy, "That's funny right there, I don't care who you are."

William said...

That neuroscientist on The Bang Theory is pretty funny. I think she stole the persona from Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. Humorless women are actually pretty funny, but it takes deft comic timing to play one.

Scott M said...

The humor in having memorized Monty Python lines doesn't come from rote recitation, but in being able to drop a line flawlessly - and appropriately - into another conversation.

Yes, using the original dialog in other conversations, in completely different contexts, is what's truly funny about it. Someone just doing the whole scene is no better than a talent show...much better to simply watch the original.

You have to admit, though, that this does tend to be a more male thing than female, Monty Python aside. This isn't to the exclusion of woman, but rather just an observation that the practitioners are usually men.

The Godfather said...

@Althouse (12:27, 12:29, 12:29), that was hilarious! Thanks.

ken in sc said...

That's what she said.

Anglelyne said...

Althouse @ 12:27, 12:29, and 12:29:

Nice riff.

damikesc said...

Women: Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, Ellen (stand up), Janeane Garofalo, Tina Fey

Ellen is rock solid. Sykes is decent most of the time. The others are either horrible (Cho and Garofalo) or decidedly meh (Fey).

Why are men funnier? Because humor attracts women and doesn't seem to do much for men. Therefore, if men want sex, being funny helps. Women do not have the same need.

mccullough said...

Richard Pryor was so good at stand up, it is sometimes hard to watch anyone else.

John Constantius said...

Agreed on the humorless woman being a classic element of comedy and difficult to pull off, but endlessly rewarding if done successfully. Althouse knocked it out of the park with her rendition here.

There is a particular subtype, No-Nonsense Emergency Room Admitting Nurse, that shows up in almost every sitcom at some point including Big Bang (usually played by various highly talented but physically unattractive character actresses).

The other thing that impresses me about Big Bang Theory is Penny the waitress. A lot of the jokes about her revolve around the fact that she's not very bright, especially compared to the male leads, which is pretty daring for a female character in a modern sitcom. Other sitcoms might portray a female character as flighty, ditzy, naive, in her own world, street smart but not book smart, etc. but flat out dumb is pretty rare.

Ann Althouse said...

@Godfather & Angelyne

Thanks, but if it was funny, that might mean I am a jerk!

Or if that was, I am now.

befinne said...

Roseanne Barr: "The quickest way to a man's heart is through his chest."

befinne said...

On reflection, I think her joke went "The surest way to a man's heart is through his chest."

Tibore said...

"Ann Althouse said...
Seems to me, then, that these men who supposedly find the joke funny are really only experiencing the pleasure of sadism that the dog is about to viciously attack the man."


Yes, exactly. There is schadenfreude in the thief being on the cusp of vicious attack. That's why the joke involved a Rottweiler and not, say, a poodle or a Chihuahua.

And that's the element that seems so gender-divisive about the joke. That university researcher found that women did not appreciate it due to the man suffering an impending mauling. Whereas that is precisely the comedic element the men were laughing at: A lawbreaker getting comeuppance.

But the joke must be told properly too. Note that there's a sort of "comedic triple" inherent in the "Jesus is watching you" line: The first delivery confuses and worries the intruder, the second one calms him down when he realizes there's no human observing him, the third sets up the comeuppance in that the thing watching him is far more primally dangerous. The punchline involves both the comeuppance AND the fact that he had taken false reassurance of his safety from seeing it was the parrot talking.

It's a very aggressive joke.

broomhandle said...

Althouse,
It's funny because some justice is about to be dealt. It's also funny because it's a fuck-up story which men love, even when it's their fuck-up. Women have a tougher time acknowledging their faults.

broomhandle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.