Are men funnier than women? ”Of course not!” you say. ”That’s sexist!” Well, think about this. What’s the ratio of male to female comedians? In your friend group, how many women do you know who love telling jokes? How many men do you know who love telling jokes and tell them all the time?
I would say men ARE funnier than women, at least in the sense that they tell more jokes and get more laughs, on average. But why would this be? Several reasons:
1. The role of humor in flirting. Have you ever seen a woman telling joke after joke to a cute man as a way of pursuing him? Have you ever seen a man laughing sycophantically at every joke that falls from a woman’s lips, teasingly touching the woman on the elbow, occasionally putting his hand to his lips to gasp admiringly, “You’re so horrible!” If he did that, he’d seem pretty gay, wouldn’t he?
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the situation the other way around– the man telling the long string of jokes, and the girl laughing more loudly the more attracted she feels.
2. Wit is a sign of intelligence, and women are socially pressured to “play dumb.” For a man, humor is like the peacock’s tail– it’s a way of showing off his mental faculties, showing he can think on his feet, showing he’s a brighter, faster, better man than any other in the room. People will often laugh at a man’s joke even if it’s not that funny– especially if the man is powerful & respected. Not laughing at someone’s joke feels disrespectful, especially if HE thinks he’s being hilarious.
A women might worry that telling a long string of loud jokes is showing off, hogging attention that she doesn’t deserve. A woman who monopolizes a party with a long string of jokes would come across as insanely confident, whereas a man who did that would only come across as averagely confident.
As a woman, I experience a lot of social anxiety before telling jokes, and often censor them before they come out of my mouth. Which brings us to the third reason why men are funnier than women.
3. A lot of humor is based on being borderline offensive, and women are encouraged to be demure. In our social mores, it’s okay for a man to be rough and bawdy and crude and uncivilized. But the perfect woman is supposed to be proper, demure, and easily shocked. That rules a lot of humor right out. Imagine a woman screaming, “THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!” slapping her thigh, and laughing uproariously. You’d probably assume the woman was drunk. Depending on your own prejudices, you might lose respect for her, or at least view her differently. That makes women afraid to tell jokes. A man who said the same thing, you’d just laugh or shrug it off.
There are many social environments that don’t put this kind of pressure on women– with certain friend groups, especially in college, I’ve felt relieved from this pressure. But it’s definitely a force in society at large. Which means–
4. People don’t expect women to be funny, so it’s hard for women to find receptive audiences. Let me tell you an example. I was at the grocery store with my male roommate. He put gin, vermouth, a bag of limes, and a bag of ice on the checkout counter, and told the female cashier, straight-faced, “I’m definitely NOT making a martini.” This seems like a weak joke when it’s in print, but at the time it was hilarious: the cashier laughed uproariously, and so did I. Encouraged by this warm reception, my roommate continued to joke, saying, “I’m definitely not going to mix it up in the back of the parking lot. And I’m definitely not going to drive home drunk. No, you should definitely not call the cops.” Each new sentence made the two of us– me and the female cashier– laugh harder.
Now I imagine the same thing happening, but with me telling the jokes instead of my handsome roommate. When I tell the cashier, “I’m definitely NOT making a martini,” she just looks at me like I have two heads, thinking “You clearly are. What’s wrong with you? Are you an insecure alcoholic?” Then when I make the jokes about the parking lot, drunk driving, and the police, she starts looking at me like I have four heads, clearly shocked and disturbed. She doesn’t expect borderline offensive humor (aka drunk driving jokes) to come from a female, so she takes what I say at face value instead of recognizing it as a joke.
5. Because women are penalized for telling jokes, they tell them less often. If you tell a joke, you might make the man you’re trying to flirt with feel threatened and insecure. He might get the feeling you’re smarter than him, and feel less attracted to you. He’ll shift away from you and find someone who will just laugh, and listen, and make him feel important. Not someone who is flaunting her own peacock tail feathers.
What else do women worry about? People in the room might start viewing you as a smartass, or a show-off. If the jokes are risqué, people might view you as less of a lady. And finally, people might just not get your joke., or misinterpret you, because they expect you’re being serious. They don’t laugh because they don’t expect you to be a source of humor. And since they’re less likely to perceive you as important, dangerous, & powerful, they’re less likely to laugh just to flatter you.
Humor is a skill. To get good at it, you have to practice, see what works and what doesn’t, flex those mental muscles. For a woman, the social rewards of humor are much less, and the social risks are much greater. When women are too intimidated to tell jokes, they get less practice, which means, they are much less funny than men.
Some women have the strength of character to swim against this social pressure, and other women are blessed with social environments where this pressure is lighter, at least with certain people in certain places. So I’m not saying this is universal, just that it’s there.
When did I start thinking about all this? Well, at work a few weeks ago, I was writing a marketing email. My male coworker, Jeevan, who has a famously hilarious sense of humor, told me my email was too serious. I should try to make it more funny, I’d get more opens and more clicks. I responded by saying it just wasn’t in my personality to be as funny as he was. He came to my office and indignantly told me I was selling myself short. He told me I’d posted a hilarious Facebook status the other day.
The Facebook status was, “I wish I was more awesome.” Just that, nothing else. The thing was, pretty much nobody except Jeevan had realized that the Facebook status was a joke. Everyone else, including many close friends, and family members, assumed I was having a bad day, and posted many consoling & comforting messages about how awesome I was. The joke went right over their heads.
When thinking over this incident, I realized the vast majority of the jokes I tell nowadays are like that. I say something that’s just a little bit over the top, but not so far out there I couldn’t really mean it. Then I have fun watching people figure out whether I mean what I’m saying or not. For example, I’m a pretty devout environmentalist, so I’ll say something like “Everyone who chops down a tree should be thrown in jail.” Then I see if anyone figures out I’m joking. Mostly, they think I mean it. They don’t realize I’m being satirical about my own overly serious attitude towards environmentalism.
Women tend to embrace more subtle humor, because it’s lower risk. With my method of telling jokes, I can dodge the social penalty for humor, by pretending I was serious all along. Plus, it’s a way of sounding out like minds. If someone does get that I’m joking, I know they’re someone special. My roommate Maia is very special to me because she gets all my jokes even (or perhaps especially) the more outrageous ones.
Do I worry I’m not awesome enough? Yes. Like every good joke, that “I wish I was more awesome,” statement had a grain of truth in it. And that brings us to the final reason men tell more jokes.
6. You can use jokes to conceal your true emotions behind a smokescreen of humor. It’s a way of expressing yourself, and hinting at your inner feelings, without ever admitting how you truly feel. And men are under a lot of pressure to keep their emotions hidden and not talk about them seriously. Because, you know women aren’t the only people who suffer from gender roles. Men suffer too (see my earlier blog, We Need a Men’s Liberation Movement.)
I had a male acquaintance once who ONLY spoke in jokes– in all the time I knew him, I never once heard him say a serious thing. My friend & roommate Brittany insisted this person was emotionally crippled and afraid to reveal his true self, so he took refuge in always being “the funny guy” and never saying anything authentic. At first I was skeptical, but over time I came to see that she was right.
So I’m sure all the male and female feminists reading this blog will be asking themselves, “What can we do about this?” Well, if you’re a woman, tell more jokes. Practice them in your head for awhile if you need to get practice, then start saying them out loud. Don’t get your ego bruised if they keep falling flat. Eventually, you’ll find someone who gets you, and it will all be worthwhile.
Men, go out of your way to express appreciation for the funny women you know. I wouldn’t mind having my fiancé laugh sycophantically, touch my elbow, and giggle at me, “You’re sooooo horrible, Charlotte!” There’s nothing sexier than someone who laughs at your jokes. So if you know a beautiful woman, and you’re wondering how to capture her interest, well–
Laughing at her jokes might be a good start.