Monday, July 16, 2012

Why men are funnier than women

It's a discussion that's been thrashed out countless times: are men funnier than women?

There's an interesting article up at Street Carnage (a web magazine that seems to be targeted at right-leaning hipsters, a weird niche if there ever was one) written by Kyria Abrahams, entitled A Woman Explains Why Women Aren't Funny. Abrahams, who herself is a humorist of sorts, takes the novel tack of documenting the subject matter covered by a selection of male and female comedians. She comes to the conclusion that female comics tend to make jokes that centre roughly around themselves, while male comics cover a far wider range of material, much of which is not really connected to their own lives. One might suggest that her research method is not exactly scientific, but it's an interesting perspective.

The "who's funnier?" debate is something I've been thinking about for a while, and I have to admit that I just don't think women are as funny in general as men are. Some of you might get angry to read that, so let me make a few things clear. There are lots of very funny women; comics, writers, and people who I know in my own life. And there are lots of really unfunny men as well. But on average, men are just better represented in the humour stakes. While that could be accused of being a sexist thing to say, I don't think it's any more sexist than saying that on average, men tend to be physically stronger than women, and women tend to have better emotional intelligence than men.

And of course, as Abrahams also points out, it can be a matter of taste. If I think of the comedians who are funniest to me, it's a very male-dominated list. Let's see... Louis CK, Hannibal Buress, Jo Koy, Russell Peters, Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais. All men so far. There are female comedians I find funny: Kristen Schaal, Wanda Sykes, Sarah Silverman, Gina Yashere... but I doubt any of them would make my top 20. Of course, that's just me, and I'm no universal arbiter of what's funny. Even if it were pointed out that the most successful comics are predominantly male - thus indicating the tastes of greater numbers of people - that doesn't mean all that much really. Funniness, like musical quality, is extremely subjective, and mass popularity does not mean a comedian is correspondingly funny any more than Britney Spears' huge record sales make her a brilliant musician.

So if we just go with the assumption that men are funnier, the next question to ask is: Why?

I've always figured it was a sort of evolutionary thing. You know the way male rams bang heads for establish dominance, and male peacocks have those outrageously long tails? Most behaviour of male animals boils down to two things: attracting the attention of females, and establishing status amongst other males, which in turn leads to attracting females. The females themselves don't need to do that much to get attention aside from look pretty good and make themselves seem available. But not all of us males can rely on looking good, so we need some other tools in our arsenal. And being able to make people laugh with your rapier wit and collection of fart jokes is a pretty powerful tool.

And of course, women do possess a sense of humour, often in spades, which is not the same as actually being funny. The evolutionary theory above probably wouldn't work if women didn't appreciate jokes.

But then there are social and cultural factors, and perhaps typically for someone with a social science background, it is these I tend to find more pertinent than any Darwinian-type imperatives.

Abrahams might have a point with her idea that it is about the sort of jokes they tell, but that just poses more questions. Why are men thinking further outside the box to come up with their material? And if men tackled the same subject matter as women do in their jokes, is it possible that they might even be better at that?

Of course, as within most fields of human endeavour in which men outperform women, the issue of sexism arises. Do male comics have greater success than females because of sexism? You could probably argue that sexism does play a role at some levels. But in a field that is rife with unfunny wannabes, and in which even the best comedians tend to toil away on the standup circuit for years and years before somehow making it big, you'd have to think that if a female comic is truly good enough, she'd get some sort of break eventually.

But getting away from the business of comedy and to a more universal idea of funniness, is it possible that we are sexist in the way we perceive women's attempts at humour, when compared to men? Given that the very foundation of our society is male-dominated, it could be argued that the nature of what we find funny is skewed towards male humour and male joke-telling styles. I'm not going to argue that, but I'm sure someone could.

I would argue rather that gender construction, rather than sexism per se, has most to do with it. Women pretty much everywhere face extreme social pressure to be the upholders of the tribe's moral decency. Men can sleep with numerous women, and burp and fart and urinate in public, and it is generally tolerated. By contrast, women are expected to be more chaste, to be prim and proper, and to consider certain things "unladylike". So from an early age, males are given greater permission to be loud, brash and demonstrative, to talk about bodily functions and express aspects of their sexuality, while women are not. And all these things are conducive to being funny, or at least being recognised as such.

It's no coincidence that when we talk about "Dad jokes", we are talking about fathers making terrible unfunny jokes as some way to get approval or attention. Whereas "Mother jokes" are usually the things males say to other males about each other's mothers, as if to attempt to claim dominance over the other via degrading humour. I'd even posit the idea that men's comparative weakness at emotional connection gives us an incentive to be funny; when you are struggling to empathise or to feel certain softer emotions, one of the easiest ways to avoid these things is through mockery or levity.

Male identity is just conducive to being funny. Or at least attempting to be funny.


  1. unsuspecting visitorJuly 23, 2012 at 12:32 AM

    What a surprise, a male making half-arsed assumptions about women's role in society.

    Are you aware that the whole "men are more rational and systematic & women are more emotionally intelligent" thesis has been proven to be a load of bollocks?
    Have you ever considered that perhaps it's the male-dominated society that brainwashes individuals into thinking women are not funny/rational/systematic/analytical/what the fuck ever and furthermore, brainwashes women themselves into thinking they are less than men and it has been proven that this is what influences the outcome of numerous depthless "scientific studies"?

    Get your head out of your arse.

    1. Oh sorry, I didn't realise I was not allowed to have my own opinion on the internet.

      Let me introduce you to what is called a conversation.

      Person A: This is what I think.
      Person B: I disagree. This is what I think instead.
      Person A: That's interesting and might possibly make me rethink my view. Please tell me more, and I shall also clarify what I think.
      (and so on).

      One day you may realise that this is more productive than abusive ranting.