Hogan's Alley

Friday, December 08, 2006

Why Women Aren't Funny

In a welcome break from our common obsession with things political, our transatlantic agent provocateur, Christopher Hitchens, has spun off a piece in Vanity Fair that pokes a stick at the notion that there is in fact humor inequality between the sexes. In his usual thoughtful, well written manner, Hitchens enlists the aid of a Stanford study, interviews with Fran Leibowitz and Nora Ephron and chapter and verse from Mr. Kipling, to support his analysis.

His central point is:

Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: "He's really quite cute, and he's kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he's so funny … " (If you yourself are a guy, and you know the man in question, you will often have said to yourself, "Funny? He wouldn't know a joke if it came served on a bed of lettuce with sauce béarnaise.") 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."

Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.

If that truism has peaked your interest, Hitchens posits that the core of the humor difference between genders lies in the fact that:

Men are overawed, not to say terrified, by the ability of women to produce babies...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. The ancient annual festivities of Saturnalia, where the slaves would play master, were a temporary release from bossdom. A whole tranche of subversive male humor likewise depends on the notion that women are not really the boss, but are mere objects and victims...

In other words, for women the question of funniness is essentially a secondary one. They are innately aware of a higher calling that is no laughing matter. Whereas with a man you may freely say of him that he is lousy in the sack, or a bad driver, or an inefficient worker, and still wound him less deeply than you would if you accused him of being deficient in the humor department.

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.

I am struck by the fact that in my personal life I have known only one truly funny woman, my late and much beloved aunt. It is an interesting coda to Hitchens piece that Auntie was unable to bear children. I always took her ability to rise above that tragedy and her life long battle with the pain of arthritis to achieve marvelous flights of humor as a mark of personal greatness.

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