Notes on humor and women

Notes on humor and women

To say that “women (as a rule) aren’t funny” may sound rude and blunt. But there is a way in which it makes sense and expresses a truth about the difference between men and woman. A better way to put it would be to say that comediennes (remember when it was permissible to call female professional funny people “comediennes”?) like Kathy Griffin tend to ape the edgy raunch of their male counterparts. And it doesn’t quite work. There is something about “being really funny”– and this goes to a mystery of the universe — that is not naturally associated with femininity.

This is not to say that individual women have never induced big laughs in others. Obviously they have, and they do. My mother and sister have offbeat senses of humor and my daughters keep me smiling daily. Yet women bring profundities to the human table. So if someone says, “Go outside and look around — everything you see built was made by a man, sucka!” I reply, “Yeah, look closely at the human beings around you who are enjoying the things made by men. Every last one of those people was brought into this world, at great cost, by a woman.” Mere comedy can’t compete with what femininity is.

Here is a list the top-flight comediennes in the last 50 years. It’s surely incomplete, but I believe representative:

Moms Mabley

Phyllis Diller 

Lily Tomlin

Carol Burnett

Joan Rivers

Roseanne Barr

Ellen Degeneres

Margaret Cho

Amy Schumer

Rosie O’Donnell

Jane Lynch

Judy Gold

Sandra Bernhard

Wanda Sykes

Kate Clinton

Paula Poundstone

Carol Leifer

Kathleen Madigan

Janeane Garofalo

Whoopi Goldberg

Kathy Griffin

Notice any trend here, any commonality at all? I spot three. First, these talented women  — to be delicate but factual — are on the mannish side, no? Which is to say, the affect of their schtick reflects the brash, blunt-edged attitude that is almost invariably identified with men. By the way, I left out Lucille Ball, Bea Arthur (Maud) or Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker), simply because they were more actresses who played funny characters (and had most male writers, as was the case with most TV shows) than standup performers. Mabley and Diller are generally considered the first female stand-ups, a phenomenon that didn’t exist before the late 1960s.

Second, except for the first four ladies — whose careers peaked before the era in which entertainers didn’t constantly politicize their acts — all of them are doctrinaire liberals. This wasn’t always so, as Dennis Prager notes in this thoughtful column. Pre-early 1970s, we didn’t know the politics of entertainers, and we didn’t care. They entertained, we laughed; full stop.

Finally, there’s also a high proportion of lesbians among their ranks, as openly gay writer Jesse Bering pointed out on the Scientific American magazine blog post (2011). I’m not sure why that might be, but there it is.

Maybe this male-female difference an evolutionary biology thing. Maybe it’s that most men are attracted to women who find them funny as opposed to being funny per se. I don’t know. What I do know is that the enterprise of stand-up comedy is much more aligned with masculinity than with femininity. To call it phallic would be to over-literalize the point; masculine gets it about right: The funny man gets up before a crowd and delivers his material, which is, seed-like, received in the soil of the audience. And voila, belly-laughs are born.

(Boy howdy, is anything less funny than explaining the ontology of comedy and why some things work and others don’t?)


Women also tend to laugh about different things than men do. And yes, there is a strong subjective element at play here. Still the class clown is typically a boy, and some of them grow up to make a lot of money off their clown skills.

As more than one person said on Facebook in response, “Patrick, women need a sense of humor to put up with men.”

Who could disagree with that?



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