Are Women Funnier than Men?

4 10 2011

I’m usually very sceptical about sex differences, but I must admit that as of late I have been tempted to draw the tentative conclusion that women might be funnier than men. Now, I’m not saying that women are intrinsically funnier than men, nor that they should be, but I suspect that their different life experiences have resulted in a different sense of humour. A sense of humour far, far wickeder than anything the male mind has ever conjured up, something rich with subtle streaks of irony.

(To avoid over-generalisation, whenever I say “women” below, it should be taken for granted that I technically mean “many women”.)

Such dry cynicism might also be shared by racial and sexual minorities. Often, I find gay people and black people to be funnier than straight people and white people. Again, it is not that the former two are intrinsically funnier than the latter two, but their worldview, and hence their humour, may have been shaped by different life experiences. I think it might be a coping mechanism. Life is a little bit harder in some ways for people who are gay, black, or mixed-race, so it can be empowering for them to treat their oppression with levity. Such an attitude suggests that the oppressor has failed in their attempt to break down the morale of the oppressed, and as a consequence the oppressed  demonstrate a sense of triumph and resilience.

This notion that women and minorities are funnier than white, straight men is especially apparent when we look at women who are also minorities. Consider, for example, the comedians Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho. The former is black, female, and gay, while the latter is Korean-American, female, and bisexual. Not only can they make light of living life as a woman, but they can make light of living life as a racial and sexual minority. For these women, the vast reservoir of story-telling material is almost inexhaustible, and the droll, bizarre, sexually explicit anecdotes they tell are almost cathartic in their gutwrenching hilarity. They have embraced their human frailty, thereby shunting the sense of self-pity used against them by more privileged groups. Think about it. We’re all familiar with the straight, white male screaming, “stop pitying yourself and take responsibility!” Well, he has no reason to hurl such invectives when the object of his vilification laughs bittersweetly at her own lot in life. And the beauty is that that same self-mockery actually turns out to be self-sustaining.

Sometimes I detect this same cynicism when I listen to women talk about going on dates with men. I’m sure a lot of you have heard women complain about forcing themselves to laugh at their date’s stupid jokes. Why are those jokes so stupid? It’s because they’re artless, contrived, naïve, bourgeois. Men don’t have to put as much effort into their humour, because they’re men, so they can expect the listener to lavish them with heaps of unearned laughter. You don’t have to try as hard to be funny when you automatically command respect, but you do when you have more invested in it. Men don’t have as much to lose. So, it must be absolutely tormenting for a woman with a more nuanced understanding of life’s cruelty to feign some fake Miss Universe grin at her spoiled date’s inane, bathetic, self-satisfying jokes. Or I could just be reading too much into it. But this is what I imagine to be the case, because I think I see a shadow of the same thing in straight, white males as many women do.

This, I think, is possible because of the special camaraderie between women and gay people, who share, it would seem, a comic genius of particular sharpness and panache. For me, women and gay people harbour a secret cynicism about sex and romance. If we think about it, women are funnier than men because they have to try harder, and gay people are funnier than straight people because they have to try harder, too. Both straight women and gay men are in a position to comment on relationships with men from a perspective which lies outside that of the heterosexual male—a person with more privilege than either women or gay men. On top of that, both straight women and gay men like penises, so they already have a lot to talk about regarding their sex lives. Lesbian and gay male humour also overlap in that both lesbians and gay men view life from the perspective of sexual minorities. Thus, we can see how the comic taste of many women is corroborated by that of sexual minorities.

What all of this leads to is a distinction between two types of comedy—standard and vernacular. Standard comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the privileged classes (white, male, heterosexual, rich, etc.), while vernacular comedy might be defined as the comic sensibility of the underprivileged classes (non-white, female, non-heterosexual, transsexual, poor, etc.). As in language (e.g. AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English), vernacular humour is dangerous because it presents the worldview of the underprivileged classes, who tend to be seen as subversive. It lurks somewhere on the outskirts of the comedic metropolis, just beyond the purview of the cocky college jock grinning stupidly at his deltoids in his smartphone mirror shots, brandishing a middle finger for no real reason. According to standard humour, a funny woman isn’t feminine, because belly-rolling laughter is a messy, rowdy, indelicate affair, and while that kind of woman may not exactly be threatening, she isn’t considered as desirable as a male of the same calibre, hence she gets screwed over despite her talent. And that is why I love pioneering women comedians like Lucille Ball, and emerging talents like Melissa McCarthy. They’re utterly, unabashedly unruly—they’d be sitting on the toilet and eating Rice Krispies in their smartphone mirror shots.

Believe me, there are so many men out there who make me chuckle till my guts roll out of my mouth. Where do I start? Well, there’s Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Conan O’Brien for starters. But these men are self-deprecating. For some reason, they are able to mock themselves when it would behove them not to do so. Men are “supposed” to save face and look cool while telling jokes (because they can get away with it), but these men don’t care, and they relish every minute of it. They don’t rely on prestige to get a laugh; they shamelessly eviscerate themselves in front of a live audience. They make themselves look like fools because they don’t want to be taken too seriously. And in doing so they join the ranks of Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Wanda Sykes, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Margaret Cho, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Hynes, Julia Davis, and all of the other grande dames of comedy. Funny men, I salute you! You have clearly surmounted the nature of your sex. (Kidding.)

By the way, we should all salute our newest star Jocelyn Jee Esien for being so brave. She is a challenger of comfort zones, which is absolutely paramount in comedy.

I guess the point is that women are funnier than men because they have had different life experiences. These life experiences are determined by environmental stimuli, and are not intrinsic, but they affect us nonetheless—for the better, I would say. Meanwhile, female and minority humour often overlap, and together these upstarts turn puritanical, middle-class, mainstream American humour on its head (when America notices, that is). In addition, women and gay men in particular seem to share a similarly tawdry humour, especially about sex and romance, while this type of humour can be said to be vernacular, since it challenges middle-class norms. Should women be funnier than men? No, of course not, so what we should be doing is teaching men to relax for once, take themselves less seriously, and  start mimicking Conan O’Brien. Don’t worry—you’ll probably still have the upper-hand in most areas (until we take care of that). It’s just that you’ll be a little bit more lovable in the meantime.

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5 responses

4 10 2011
Christine

I totally think you’ve hit the nail on the head here — there’s something very relate-able and cathartic about brutally honest humor. Life can be fundamentally difficult and unfair for a long of people — I think being able to scream “THIS IS BULLSHIT!” with a big grin pasted on your face somehow makes it easier. Easier for the comic because they can vent all their emotions, and easier for the audience, who feels that someone else out there is taking the shit in life in stride.

You’ve got to watch “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”, Brandon — Joan Rivers has had an incredible life and she still makes money saying incredibly shocking things, yet she still comes across as sympathetic and very human. Also, the way in which her position as a woman has helped and held back her career is becomes very apparent throughout the documentary. You’d love it!

8 10 2011
Brandon Arkell

OH MY GOD! I forgot to mention Joan Rivers! SHE is the ultimate comic grande dame. I’ve watched everything I can find of her on Youtube. I can’t get enough. Thanks so much for reminding me of her. I have to hunt down a DVD for that special somewhere.

I agree. There are comedians out there who say the most vulgar things–yet you can tell they’re being tongue-in-cheek because they have the je ne se quois (sp?) to pull it off. A certain air about them, the mannerisms, the grins, the laughs and chuckles, and facial expressions to tell the audience, “I’m being ironic”. If a joke is so absurd as to be offensive, but the comedian has a huge grin on her face and is chuckling to herself, she’s probably just mocking her situation, which takes power away from the people who want to say, “stop pitying yourself!”

I remember watching a special of Joan Rivers live in London, and she was talking about how she taught her daughter to hunt down a rich man–the sex didn’t matter, because you could always fake that. And for gay men, all you have to do is spit on his back. lololol. The point being that I think she’s totally mocking all of these unfair expectations and pressures placed on her and her daughter in life. By making light of it, I really think she’s taking away its cache. It’s a form of burlesque. You can mock the elevated in order to bring down the elevated. And in the end, it’s good for you, because when it was still elevated it was bad for you.

8 10 2011
Brandon Arkell

Oh and another thing. The film “Bridesmaids” is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Initially when we’re watching it we might think, “Oh, wow, this really does perpetuate silly feminine stereotypes about women”, because they’re all female friends to a bride who is being married off to a man, etc., but if you really think about it, it’s actually mocking those very expectations of women. Kristin Wiig’s character is the WORST bridesmaid ever. The blond bridesmaid is constantly complaining about being married with children, Melissa McCarthy’s character is this awkward, heavy, tomboyish, goofy, successful go-getter, the brown-haired pixie-ish bridesmaid sees her innocence and idealism dashed to pieces by the bitter blond mother of three, and, of course, Kristin Wiig, this single, thirty-something loser who is so awkwardly unfeminine and undainty and uproariously funny that it’s like a welcome beacon in the disorienting mist of feminine scrupulosity. All of those feminine pressures become diffused and dispersed in the film, because the film makes light of them.

12 10 2011
Christine

I’ve definitely gotta watch Bridesmaids now — I keep hearing mixed things about it (not to mention that I have NO time anymore), but if you say it’s good and feminist, then it gets a high priority on my to-watch list. 🙂

14 10 2011
Brandon Arkell

I think it is. There are just too many instances of women being goofy and fucking up at being feminine for it to be taken as a serious commentary on how women should be feminine. And it’s just plain fucking funny lol. If I were a woman, I would see it as this breath of fresh air–something to let my tampon hang loose on.

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