Comedy: Rated XX

Christopher Hitchens: “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. This is the unspoken compromise.”

From Dana Goodyear’s profile on Sarah Silverman: “Several years ago, Jerry Lewis, then in his early seventies, reportedly told an audience at the Aspen Comedy Festival that he didn’t much care for female comedians and couldn’t think of one who was any good. Lewis’s views were criticized in public but upheld by some, in modified form, in private. ‘When you went home alone and did the math, he was just kind of right,’ Penn Jillette, the magician-comedian, says.”

Michael Williams: “All the funniest comedians are male, in every media — stand-up, TV shows, movies, books, you name it. When women are in the comedy genre, they usually play the straight ‘man,’ putting up with the male comedians’ nonsense with a sigh and a shrug. Furthermore, most comedies are aimed at men, and those demographers know what they’re doing; I bet that female-targeted comedies bomb in the box office.”

* * *

One might presume that laughter’s universal palliative would have rendered gender distinctions null and void and that the issue of whether a comedian is funny would rest upon a joke’s qualities, its delivery and its impeccable associations, rather than the comedian’s gender. But there remains a palpable stink in the air that must be examined. Women, say these pundits, are not funny. Or if they are funny, they are somehow lesser to men.

The comedy scene, despite advances in recent years, is dominated by men. And it’s interesting that many comediennes must employ shock value in order to be noticed. Consider Sandra Bernhard’s sexual candor or Sarah Silverman’s comic experiments with racism. Margaret Cho, who I believe to be very funny, has developed a loyal gay following. But why is Cho, because she is a self-avowed “fag hag,” lesser to Silverman because Silverman is, according to Goodyear, “approachable though deranged.”

Let’s consider Goodyear’s modifier: “approachable.” This suggests then that if a woman is funny, by the logic employed by The New Yorker, discounting the requirements of audience appeal, she must somehow stifle her comic impulses rather than greet the audience in her naturally tailored persona. And even when she’s a comic as successful as Silverman, there’s still the troubling problem of coming across as “deranged,” as if comedy, a science often rooted in madness, is a loony byway as closed off to women as the Herbertstraße.

Perhaps this is because humor is associated with intelligence and some men, terrified by the notion of a level playing field among genders, view the advent of funny females as a threat.

Which brings us to Hitchens’ article, as true a confession of Hitchens’ gender fears as it is a regrettable surrender of hearty logic. Relying upon an absurd array of generalizations, Hitchens first claims that women have no need to appeal to men in a humorous manner. And then, relying upon a Stanford University School of Medicine study, Hitchens views women’s “greater emphasis on language and executive processing” as the apparent smoking gun that women are “slower to get it.” But one might just as easily adduce that this uptake in brain activity involves women processing the jokes in a more holistic manner, paying more attention to the semantics and the environment in which the joke was delivered than their male counterparts. Hitchens also pooh-poohs women who were “swift to locate the unfunny.” Could not this cerebral celerity mean that women might just be better attuned to ferret out humor by way of identifying it?

If we infer that women are more mentally equipped to deliver the goods, why then is there a stigma? A Psychology Today article attempted to examine this issue, suggesting that men and women use humor differently, with men using humor to compete and women using humor to bond. While this assertion by no means foolproof and cannot account for humor’s rich complexities, perhaps it is this competitive urge that causes funny women to be marginalized and Christopher Hitchens to have a severe lapse in judgment.

Erma Bombeck once observed, “When humor goes, there goes civilization.” If women cannot be accepted for their humorous contributions (too great and numerous to list), then what hope civilization?

[UPDATE: Apparently, if you are a woman who expresses a serious disagreement with Hitchens’ piece or asks why it was published without being looked at, you’ve just another humorless bitch, as imputed by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. More from Sklar at the Huffington Post. (via Maud)]


  1. I am a female stand up comic and have been for many years. Yes, there aren’t a lot of them out there, but I don’t think the percentage of women comics that aren’t funny is any greater than the relative percentage of male comics who are not funny.

    Stand up comedy, as an art form, is a solo act. Women generally don’t come as a solo, we have people attached to us…husbands, children, and other responsibilities. We don’t usually have the time or interest to chase a career so clearly meant for single young males who can travel around the country and not worry about who’s cleaning, cooking, and taking care of dogs and kids. (Because no matter what job we have outside the home, the home life still falls primarily on the woman to care for.) The audacity of a woman to leave all that responsibility, shame on her! Or so the male thinks.

    I have run into incredibly sexist behavior from male comics, insults and sneering way beyond what is called for. And yet, when I get on stage, I can rock the house. I play the same clubs the boys do, get paid the same, and in some instances out-do them in the funny department. Perhaps that’s the problem.

    I have found that male comics who are not threatened by someone else’s success – especially if that someone is a woman – embrace a female comic who is funny, and does her job well, writing and delivering funny material in a professional way.

    Comedians who look down their noses at female comics need to join the 21st century. Haven’t they ever heard of Phyllis Diller or Moms Mabley? Wanda Sykes? I’ve worked with a lot of male comics in the past ten years, and some of them are spectaculary unfunny, but have the arrogance to look down at female comics. What bullshit.

    The best revenge is to be good. Write well, be funny, kick ass on stage, and leave the whining little boys in the dust. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of doing so on many occasions. If you can bring the funny, that’s all that counts. Genitals and gender don’t mean a damn!

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