“Women Aren’t Funny” – Gender and Stand-Up Comedy


This evening, I’m off to watch Stand Up to Sexism, a feminist comedy night jointly produced by the Everyday Sexism project and the No More Page 3 campaign. And so, I thought it appropriate for this week’s blog entry to discuss the oft-expressed opinion that “women aren’t funny.”

But is this true? The stats of women in improv and stand-up comedy are certainly dire. In 2010, Channel 4 in the UK ran a poll, asking its audience to vote for the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time. Only 6 on the list were women. Take a look at this Wikipedia list of stand-up comedians in the US–how many are women? Women rarely feature on the British comedy panel quiz show QI, and have only a meagre presence on my favourite improv show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’. To add insult to injury, the Whose Line women, with the exception of the brilliant Josie Lawrence, are not usually very funny.

What, exactly, is the problem here? Whenever feminists discuss the issue, we deny the blanket statement that women aren’t funny, and talk about our experiences of hilarious women in our lives. I’m going to chime in on this one– my female friends are just as funny, if not more so, than my male friends. But on the stage and on TV, there just don’t seem to be that many funny women around.

As with most phenomena in society to do with gender, people are far too eager to hop on the biological determinism bandwagon. Women, they confidently assert, just aren’t programmed to be funny. They’ll then proceed to work backwards from the status quo, coming up with some evolutionary reasoning for why the hunting male needed to be funnier than the berry-gathering female. But of course, these theories completely ignore the social context behind the dearth of female stand-up comedians. Looked at from this angle, a whole host of explanations spring to the fore.

Firstly, a successful female performer needs to fulfill two criteria. Not only does she need to be talented at what she does, she also needs to conform (far more than men do) to conventional standards of attractiveness to have a shot at making it on TV. Needless to say, this significantly reduces the pool of potential female comedians. Looking through the female guests on Whose Line, it does seem as though they are, to some extent, chosen for their attractiveness; a female version of Colin Mockery wouldn’t stand a chance.

Also, let’s not forget that ‘being funny’ is not an objective measure, and that what tickles us is largely shaped by our culture, gender, age and experiences. Even between the US and the UK, two countries that are (relatively) similar in culture, the difference in humour perception is very noticeable. Given that it is generally men who dominate public conversations and decide what is universally good (look at the judging panels for the Oscars, for instance, and comedy awards), it comes as little surprise that it is the comedians who share their sense of humour (read: fellow white men) who are celebrated.

Peter Nardi, a professor of sociology, wrote a paper on the relationship between gender and magic, and drew parallels between the masculine worlds of magic and comedy. He describes how stand-up has become “an entertainment field that…demands an aggressive, powerful role, involving one-upping people.” In his paper, he refers to several other studies which show how boys are socialised into “using speech to assert their dominance…to attract and maintain an audience.” Girls, on the other hand, are encouraged to form harmonious connections with others, and are discouraged from taking the floor, since this would establish a power imbalance between them and their audience through performance.

This may seem like a bit of a strange statement at first; after all, there are plenty of female performers around, and more girls than boys have experience in performance arts like dance, singing or acting. Yet, performing in Swan Lake is a far cry from performing as a stand-up comedian. It is nothing new for women to be the decorative vessels of male creativity– vehicles through which the genius of (often male) composers, choreographers and scriptwriters can be expressed. As a stand-up comedian, however, it is her own ideas and words that are heard, she herself who is manipulating the audience into laughter. This makes it difficult for female stand-ups to be accepted without initial resistance, and makes it unlikely that a young girl would view it as a feasible career choice for herself in the first place.

In my post about Seth Macfarlane’s Ted, I mentioned the excellent Richard Wiseman‘s study into the psychology of jokes. In line with the above theory of comedy and power, he writes, “People with high social status tend to tell more jokes than those lower down the pecking order. Traditionally, women have had a lower social status than men, and thus may have learnt to laugh at jokes, rather than tell them.” So, next time you hear someone going on about how women just aren’t funny, let them know that all they’re really observing is that women have always had a lower social status than men. Which we knew already, thanks.

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Ted, and the Fallacy of ‘Harmless Jokes’

No spoilers

I wanted to like Ted. Although I had problems with both Family Guy and American Dad, the story arcs of Stewie/Brian and Roger were often funny, and didn’t always rely on offensive material. Being a talking teddy bear, I thought Ted would fit into the same mould.

Sadly, much of Ted’s humour stemmed from his being one of the most obnoxious non-villain characters I’ve seen on screen. He is the ultimate lad’s lad – doing drugs, sexually harassing women, surrounding himself with prostitutes, spewing racist tripe, and being quick to point out that he is totally not gay. All of which, of course, is supposed to be hilarious.

Film critic Jonathan Kim says in the Huffington Post, “It’s a film filled with the kind of jokes you might make with your closest friends, where you can say the most offensive things you want to get a laugh since your friends know you and your intent well enough not to take anything you say to heart.” Well, I’m not sure what kind of friends Jonathan has, but my friends and I certainly don’t find such things funny. No, not even in private. Not even if we ‘know we don’t really mean it.’

The whole idea of how it’s fine to make jokes at the expense of minority groups, because everyone knows you’re not really sexist, or racist, or homophobic, is a common fallacy.

In Quirkology, Professor Richard Wiseman’s book on psychology, he investigates the world of laughter by conducting a wide-ranging experiment as to the kind of jokes people find funny. He found that “the top jokes had one thing in common – they create a sense of superiority in the reader…in each case it is about one group of people trying to make themselves feel good at the expense of another.” He also goes on to say:

“Some research suggests that jokes like these can have surprisingly serious consequences. In 1977, psychologist Gregory Maio from Cardiff University of Wales and his colleagues looked at the effect that reading superiority jokes had on people’s perception of those who were the butt of the jokes. The study was carried out in Canada, and so centered around the group who was frequently portrayed as stupid by Canadians, namely Newfoundlanders (or ‘Newfies’). Before the experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The people in each group were asked to read one of two sets of jokes into a tape recorder, supposedly to help determine the qualities that make a voice sound funny or unfunny. Those in one group read jokes that did not involve laughing at Newfies (such as Seinfeld material), whilst the other read Newfie put-down humour. Afterwards, everyone was asked to indicate their thoughts about the personality traits of Newfoundlanders. Those who had just read out the Newfie jokes rated Newfoundlanders as significantly more inept, foolish, dim-witted, and slow, than those who had delivered the Seinfeld material.”

“Just as worrying, other work has revealed that superiority jokes have a surprisingly dramatic effect on how people see themselves. Professor Jens Förster, from the International University Bremen in Germany, recently tested the intelligence of eighty women of varying hair colour. Half of them were asked to read jokes in which blondes appeared stupid. Then all participants took an intelligence test. The blonde women who had read the jokes obtained significantly lower scores on the IQ test than their blonde counterparts in the control condition, suggesting that jokes have the power to affect people’s confidence and behaviour, and so actually create a world in which the stereotypes depicted in the jokes become a reality.”

So is Ted, as Jonathan Kim opines, “a breath of fresh air,” or does it merely trot out the same old tired stereotypes and brand of humour that has honestly gone completely stale? In a world where sexism, racism and homophobia are thriving – the very things MacFarlane’s jokes depend on – do we really believe that all “viewers are smart enough to know that they’re just jokes”?

Being obnoxious doesn’t make you cute or funny, Ted…even if you are a bear.