Are Women Funny?

No, but it’s not entirely their fault.

STEVE MURPHY: I’m pretty sure everyone (or at least all men) can agree that there are more funny men than funny women.  Certainly there are more male comics and comedic actors than there are female, but even in everyday life the funniest person you know is just statistically more likely to have a penis.

I don’t think this is because women are naturally less funny, not at all.  I think it’s because we men are more likely to make fools of ourselves.

When I was a kid I ended up in a lot of social situations in which I was uncomfortable (read: all of them).  I’m just not well-suited for gatherings, so in groups of people my defenses go up.  Instead of having a substantive conversation with people, I’d hang around other kids who were having substantive conversations… and make jokes at their expense.

I was offensive, making fun of what they were saying, how they said it, and often belittling their opinions.  But… they laughed!  So I took it further, making more and more offensive jokes, only to find that the more absurd I got, the funnier it was to people (to a point).  As I grew I got more and more practice at this, going further and further over the line, learning from experience what kinds of jokes were just offensive enough to be funny… and what jokes went way, way too far.  I also got much faster at finding the right thing to make fun of in what was just said.

I therefore got a lot of experience pushing the boundaries of acceptability in different social groups.  I got to exercise my sense of humor.  And I remained completely awkward in social situations.

I think society puts pressure on girls not to have that kind of reaction to social pressure.  It’s nurture, not nature.  Lots of girls have great senses of humor, they laugh at the same jokes and like the same funny movies…but they don’t get the same kind of practice as boys do, because they are taught different defense mechanisms.  Girls are pressured not to push the envelope of social acceptability, and that unfortunately stunts their comedic growth.    Of course, this likely allows girls to grow in other ways… but at what cost?  Do we really prefer empathy to hilarity?

Unfortunately this is a bit of a downward spiral.  Girls just don’t have that many comedic women to look up to (Margaret Cho?  Maya Rudolph?  Bruce Vilanch?), while famous male comics are everywhere (even if many of them aren’t even remotely funny, Carlos Mencia).  But I’d be willing to bet that a large percentage of hilarious women had hilarious mothers, or other female figures in their lives that broke down those societal expectations.

So in summary, if you have daughters… encourage them to make fun of everything.  Demand they crack jokes at the expense of their friends, their relatives, the disabled and the elderly.  Withhold food when they don’t make you laugh.  Remember, starving your daughter may be the only way to make her funny.

Are Men Funny?

HOWARD MEGDAL: I think there’s a fundamental difference between a pair of questions. In one, are there as many female comedians as male comedians? The answer seems to be, clearly no. But are there as many funny women as funny men? Are those funny women as funny as men? The answer to that, to my mind, is clearly yes.

I think women that aren’t funny are used as a point against all women and humor- it is unfortunate. But any group looking for acceptance against the stereotypes of conventional wisdom ends up being blamed for the actions of some members of the group. African-Americans aren’t all rioters, obviously- but the Watts riots and other urban outbreaks of violence were enough for the Republican Party to use against the civil rights movement for decades. So it is with Lisa Lampanelli and female comics.

But by any measure, women aren’t knocking on the door of comedic opportunity-they are already there, and have been for years! What is America’s best sketch comedy show? If it wasn’t Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, it obviously was Carol Burnett. No list of SNL cast members is complete without Gilda Radner or Jane Curtain. Who has been better at improv than Elaine May? The very best sitcom in television history was the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

What is worth pointing out is that these aren’t successful women in comedy… they are successful women in comedy 30-40 years ago.

Now, there are a host of societal issues that are worth pursuing in terms of why there are more women than men in comedy. One wonders if they are similar to the fact that, according to a recent New York Times piece, just 18 percent of America’s law firm partners are women. But worth noting: 45 percent of the associates, and 48 percent of last year’s law school graduates were women.

I suspect that the numbers for comedians will grow even as well, and without a gender gap in quantity, we’ll be left to judge only on quality. And in that respect, women already may have men beat.

It’s true, Bugs Bunny had all the good one-liners.

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: I’m growing tired of hearing about how Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are such funny women. I mean, yes, they are. But is this such a revelation? The amount of attention those two receive for being funny is becoming a little patronizing, because for the most part it’s same reaction of good-natured astonishment that would be elicited by a gopher wearing chaps or a tap-dancing kitten. The implication is: Look! These women are breaking down barriers, they’ve turned our misconceptions upside down; they’re thriving outside their element! It’s as though the general public thinks each of them woke up one day and said, “Today, I think I’ll be funny—unlike women.”

Tragically, I was never informed that women aren’t funny. As a result, I spent my clearly misguided youth worshipping witty, smart-ass female authors like Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr and Cynthia Heimel. I listened to old records and radio programs and grew to love the crackling improv of Elaine May and Joyce Grenfell and the sweet guile of Gracie Allen. I rented early Saturday Night Live episodes and marveled at the physical comedy of Gilda Radner and the snarky wit of Lily Tomlin. All of these women were brilliantly funny. I guess none of them got the memo.

It’s true that my many female comic idols are often less well-known than their male counterparts. George Burns’ fame far surpassed that of his counterpart and comic foil, Gracie Allen. Ricky always told Lucy she couldn’t be in the Babalu show. Saturday Night Live, for all its talented female stars, never seemed to launch their careers as far as it did the careers of legendary comedians like Steve Martin and Jim Belushi.

Indeed, for every smart, funny female role model I discovered through books, radio and television, there were many mediums which suffered from a distinct lack of vibrant, funny female characters—or any female characters. After all, Bugs Bunny had all the good one-liners. None of the women stranded on Gilligan’s Island had decent comic timing; Smurfette was dull as dishwater. But to me, the lesson there was still not ‘girls in general aren’t as funny as boys’—it was ‘those girls aren’t funny’. So instead I watched Murphy Brown raise hell, and dreamed of the day I would live un-chaperoned in the Plaza Hotel like bossy, outrageous Eloise.

I agree with Steve Murphy that humor thrives on awkwardness and alienation, and that an adolescent penchant for feeling like an outcast is very likely to produce an individual who is quick with a one-liner and has a Simpson’s quote for every occasion. But I disagree that humor is a defense mechanism and a means of social survival mostly for males. Rather, I think it is a natural reflex for either sex—one that, if properly nurtured and cultivated, can be merrily abused as a dysfunctional means of self-protection by both boys and girls. After all, both face a tremendous amount of pressure to fit into their respective roles—and there are always going to be those on both sides who look around and think, “Wow, this shit is hilarious.”

I also agree with Howard that individual women who are not funny are often used as an example to somehow prove that women in general are not funny—which I find unfair. Were this standard applied to men, Pauly Shore alone would irrevocably prove that all men as a rule are desperately unfunny. Which is fair to no one, except Pauly Shore.

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