It never fails to amaze me that even here and now in 2013 there are still some men who flat out say that women are never funny. How many examples does it take? Anyone who knows movie history knows that there have been funny women in movies right from the beginning, (like star/director Mable Normand, pictured above), not to mention TV, radio, and stand up. To give one of my personal favorite recent examples, Tina Fey gave a master class in comedy timing on the recently ended show 30 ROCK (which she also created), which was awarded with multiple Emmys and Golden Globes. And yet the comments still often pop up, perhaps most notoriously in 1998 when actor/director Jerry Lewis emptied an entire theater during an interview in which he said "A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world." Yikes.
|Wait, we're letting this guy say who's funny?|
As a child interested in comedy, I remember enjoying Lily Tomlin's THIS IS A RECORDING album as much as my Bill Cosby and Steve Martin albums, not to mention liking the many TV sit coms built around funny female characters. Surely I wasn't unusual. So why is this still an issue?
Even if we accept the common sense notion that women can be just as funny as men, one simple fact does remain: there are more men trying to funny than women. That is, a random list of stand up comedians will be about 60-70% male, and it's the same with comedy writers, producers, etc. Again, why is that so?
One thing about a sense of humor, is that, like being athletic, it's something that must be developed over time; comedians, it has been discovered, are almost always not first born children, and humor and charm are something they initially develop to steal away parental attention from their older siblings. (The great comic performer Steven Colbert is the youngest of a family of 11!) And then the development of that humor often continues when they begin being interested in members of the opposite sex. And that's where the difference really lies; talk to almost any male comedian, and they will say that they used their sense of humor to attract girls in high school and college. As Fran Lebowitz put it in the 2007 Vanity Fair WHY WOMEN AREN'T FUNNY by the late Christopher Hitchins, "The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying that a woman is pretty." That's really it in a nutshell; men are judged more by their intellect than women are, and being funny is a easy way to display that intellect to prospective girlfriends. In survey after survey women list "having a good sense of humor" as more important in a possible mate than men do. There's even an interesting exception that proves the rule, when you look at some of the best known female stand ups you see Lily Tomlin, Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O'Donnell, Paula Poundstone and Wanda Sykes, who are all lesbians, and who, like heterosexual men, developed a sense of humor to attract women. So the theory holds.
And now to end this post with a personal note; when I was a young boy I often used humor to amuse my parents and I was obsessed with comedy albums, and I would often memorize my favorite bits from Monty Python or Steve Martin and repeat them back to my friends. In high school I definitely used humor as a way to get the attention of girls. At around the age of 21 I started doing open mike nights in the San Francisco Bay Area; while I would never say that I was great, I did alright, with some pretty strong moments, and I eventually reached the level of open mike night host. But then, after about three years of trying, almost over night I lost my confidence onstage. In fact, all of my more masculine personality traits, like self esteem and aggression, were clearly diminishing. (And in my case those traits were never particularly pronounced in the first place). I stop doing comedy because I just didn't feel that I could hack it anymore; while I still liked to joke around, continuing on stage seemed far too difficult for me. Years later I discovered that I have a benign tumor that formed around the time I stopped doing comedy, and which reduced my testosterone production to about half of that of a normal man. This would probably explain why after stand up I wound up working in traditionally feminine jobs like day care worker and nanny. (I'll let you decide whether or not going from comedian to nanny was a lateral move or not). So, while I certainly think that women can be just as funny as men, in my case, becoming less masculine led to me being less confident in my ability to be funny, and therefore masculine confidence may play a factor in this issue. It did for me.