A Brief History of "Women Aren't Funny"

a woman wearing a funny hat

As long as there have been jokes, there have been people saying that women can't tell them.

It can be tempting to dismiss recent "women aren't funny" firestorms as yet another by-product of our internet era, where we are instantly alerted the second that anyone—from Adam Carolla to some yahoo with a Reddit account—makes an inflammatory statement about anything.

But the claim that women aren't funny isn't just new to our times. Here I've compiled a brief, totally incomplete history of people publicly peddling this line of bull: 

  • 1695: Playwright William Congreve noted in his treatise, Concerning Humor in Comedy, "I must confess I have never made an Observation of what I Apprehend to be true Humour in Women…Perhaps Passions are too powerful in that Sex to let Humour have its course; or maybe by reason of their Natural Coldness, Humour cannot Exert itself to that extravagant Degree, which is does in the Male Sex." Congreve was also the mind behind the popular quote, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," which just goes to show that it was easy to make a career out of generalizing about women even before the advent of Fox News.
  • 1884: Richard Grant White, one of the most powerful cultural critics of the 19th century, wrote in the journal The Critic that a sense of humor is "the rarest of qualities in a woman" (rather than, say, the ability to shoot lasers out of her eyes). Not only did the remark yield two separate counter-essays in 1884 by critic Alice Wellington Rollins, it also led to the 1885 publication of The Wit of Women, the first-ever collection of women's humorous writing, which sassily name-checks White and his comment on the book's first page.
  • 1975: John Belushi's belief that the women of Saturday Night Live weren't funny is well-documented. Though Belushi never took to a public forum to make his opinions known, in Yael Kohen's We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, SNL writer Anne Beatts notes, "John Belushi used to regularly ask for us to be fired. 'Fire the girls!'." Similarly, in a 2011 Oprah interview, original cast member Jane Curtin claimed that Belushi tried to sabotage skits penned by female writers by performing them poorly in rehearsals so that they would never make it to air.
  • 1998: Jerry Lewis told a group at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, "I don't like any female comedians…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." The stunned audience walked out (but at least a decade or so later, we got a funny Tina Fey quote out of it!).
  • 2007: Christopher Hitchens's infamous essay, "Why Women Aren't Funny," answered the non-burning question, "Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women?" with the eye-rolling reply "Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be." (In order to procure the sex, don't you see? Sex with women! ). Hitchens's essay inaugurated the most recent leg of the "are women funny?" debate, though Vanity Fair itself seemed to apologize for running Hitchens' piece with a 2008 cover stor: "Who Says Women Aren't Funny?" Hitchens, with all the class of a schoolyard bully who wants to know why you won't stop hitting yourself, wrote a follow-up essay that same year about how you ladies getting all huffy about his article just proved his point.
  • 2011: The prestigious peer-reviewed journals Askmen.com and PsychologyToday.com both peddled evolutionary psychology "research" that "proved" that men had a biological reason to be funnier than women: since women are evolutionarily "choosier" mates, potential male partners today still must make more visible displays of their desirable traits, such as intelligence and sense of humor (presumably whilst the women around them forage for berries and fend off mastodons right in the middle of T.G.I. Friday's happy hour).
  • 2012: Adam Carolla told the New York Post, "The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks." His comments were immediately shouted down by many of his (much funnier) peers. Meanwhile, in a jazzy little variation on the theme, Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that "most pretty girls aren't funny" during a publicity appearance for his film Looper. After a few days of internet outrage, Gordon-Levitt walked the comment back.

The nature of beliefs about women's deficient wit has changed very little in over 300 years. Then, as now, the claim was used to write off women who were actively trying to be funny, as well as declare that under-developed comedic capacities were simply another sign of women's natural inferiority.

Through the years, the claim that women aren't funny has also transmuted from a fairly mainstream opinion to an "edgy" one. Clearly, utilizing an opinion that predates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in order to prove that you're "edgy" is just sad.

But, as you can see, things are a little different than they were in William Congreve's day. When these women-aren't-funny comments come up nowadays, they're followed by an immediate public outcry and can be countered by listing off examples of numerous women who have built careers being funny on TV and in movies. Nowdays, "women aren't funny" quotes are used to troll for internet clicks, but they're not keeping women off our stages. As Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead said to Forbes.com, "[T]hose that believe [that women aren't funny] are becoming the exception. But sometimes the exceptions have the loudest mouths."

 

This post is the first in a series on feminism and comedy. Stay tuned!

Completely unfunny photo via Maria Media.

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Comments

38 comments have been made. Post a comment.

good book on gender & humor

Don't let the title put you off this academic treatise on gender & humor. The author has done standup and knows what she's talking about. A fabulous history of the topic:
Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique (Humor in Life and Letters Series)
http://www.amazon.com/Performing-Marginality-Cultural-Critique-Letters/d...

I guess Adam Carolla is

I guess Adam Carolla is guilty of not reminding the interviewer that people of every ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality age, weight and hair color are EXACTLY the same in the funny department. That cad.

Well done!

Well done!

Other comedians who said something stupid ...

Stephen Fry cited women's non-hilarity as the reason his long-running quiz show QI mostly brought on male guests, and claimed it was fact.

Fry never claimed that women

Fry never claimed that women were not funny, but that they are perceived that way by audiences. When you say he claimed it was a "fact," he cited a study that showed both men and women laugh more at male comedians than females.

This does not prove (and he did not claim it did) that men are funnier but just that they generate a more positive response from the audience-- which could be caused by cultural perceptions and norms more than actual hilarity.

Some more data on laughter and gender

... and here's some more detail on that. Probably not the same data that Fry was referring to, but interesting nonetheless:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/02/why-we-laugh-psychology-prov...

Fry never claimed that women

Fry never claimed that women were not funny, but that they are perceived that way by audiences. When you say he claimed it was a "fact," he cited a study that showed both men and women laugh more at male comedians than females.

This does not prove (and he did not claim it did) that men are funnier but just that they generate a more positive response from the audience-- which could be caused by cultural perceptions and norms more than actual hilarity.

"Actual hilarity"? Are you

"Actual hilarity"? Are you implying comedy could be objectively funny?

actual hilarity are you serial?

wtf is actual hilarity you moron?

Read deeper, watson.

My understanding is that was meant to say that people laugh more as a result of cultural norms and the nature of the relationship than of whether or not it was actually all that funny (to them). Try reading a bit now and then.

This may have been posted in this thread already but it bears repeating.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/02/why-we-laugh-psychology-pro...

Update:

Yes, it had already been posted. Wasn't sure if I came across the link on this page or earlier. Thanks, Pipari.

Beatts

I appreciate this, but if you are going to pay homage to the greats...fyi, it's spelled Anne Beatts, not Beats. Not to be a humorless female nitpicker who needs to get laid...

Thanks, Miss!

I'll make that correction!


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Wow, that Hitchens follow-up ...

is GROSS.

Before you're so quick to judge...

Following my response to another individual on this message board, that particular response was to further inflame the very people that did not understand his argument that the entire notion of dichotomizing comedy was frivolous; it was intellectual trolling, if you will. He did not take the position that group of people are inherently superior to another, and if "Hitchens is a chauvinist pig" is the conclusion that you achieved despite the context of the entire fiasco saying the contrary, then perhaps you individually do need to learn how to read.

M. Cho

I dunno. I'm a middle-aged quasi-WASPy guy married to a woman and can't remember laughing as hard at another movie as I did at Margaret Cho's I'm the One That I Want. I don't think I'm a total outlier in that respect.

I suppose it's easy enough to picture someone like Belushi or Hitchens laughing their a**es off at ITOTIW and then claiming afterwards that it wasn't funny. Human brains operate that way sometimes. Testosterone certainly doesn't seem to help the matter.

Hitchens?!

You know, I used to like Hitchens. But, not to speak ill of the dead, I would imagine then he wouldn't have taken my thoughts seriously if I had ever the 'pleasure' of meeting him. That's rather crushing, to realise that your idol wouldn't give you time of day simply because of your gender, not because of your actual wit. Jesus Christ, can't we be judged individually, we are all so different?

Christopher Hitchens

That is false; Christopher was a liberal feminist in, every sense of the word, who took rationalism as the core of the human experience. The reason that this article was taken as it was -- and how his subsequent response was considered chauvinistic -- is because there are too many ignorant individuals out there that do make similar arguments with different conclusions. While Hitchens argued that in terms of evolution, generally it was the female population that had the ultimate say in their reproductive partners...so the condition to be funny naturally fell unto their male counterparts.

What can be gleaned from this article is that females were the ones to have been placated in the human race, and as males strived to appease them, they were in fact the ones that took initiative to further advances in human capital (knowledge). This is rather unfortunate for females, as society has developed in a patriarchal manner as opposed to one that gives equal consideration to all individuals.

However, we do acknowledge that civilization has advanced to the point where child-rearing has become a marginal function of females, therefore they can participate in a more full manner, as it were. The specific point that Christopher makes in regard to comedy being the realm of "men" and women being parrots of their testosterone-laden peers is the poverty of the idea that we dichotomize in the first place. This salient point, of comedy being gender-neutral, is overlooked because pundits do not want to acknowledge that their fundamental approach to the argument may have been wrong in the first place, with both men and women taking up the idea of protecting their narcissistic "identities."

With that, it has to be recognized that Hitchens saw himself as a purveyor of criticism...and he was particularly caustic about it when approached with self-serving and ill-thoughtout arguments, regardless of the subject. Also, if you watch his video response on YouTube regarding that very essay, he definitely comes off as flippant, but that attitude has to be put in context of the individual. I have never met -- yes, I've personally talked to him on two occasions -- a person who has such a encyclopedic bank of knowledge and, in the same token, convey his messages as lucidly as he did.

To sum everything up, Christopher Hitchens was not one to judge someone on anything other than their merits. Many of the opinions that Hitchens possessed were contentious, yet he always presented a reason for his polemics.

Nice to read brief history

Nice to read brief history about female gender which emphasizes women psychology. Well, its nice to read about all the writers their thoughts. I would like to read more about, if you guys can provide link other wise cheapwebhostinggeeks folks have lot of materials regarding this.

I've always found it amusing

I've always found it amusing that the definition behind the statement is actually "women aren't funny"...to men. Now, this still isn't true, but even if it was, the judgement is that if men don't find value in it, it's not funny. But...if women aren't funny, how do they appreciate all those good senses of humor that men evolved to impress them? It's a ridiculous argument.

Culture has a lot to do with this

Culture has a lot to do with this. I think men are told that they're "supposed" to be funny to get women, so maybe they make more attempts at humor than women do on a daily basis. Also, sometimes the reaction to humor from women is so cold that it dissuades them from trying again.
This is just considering the number of attempts at humor, not how funny people actually are. There are a lot of men who try frequently at humor and fail. If I have to read one more racist/sexist/homophobic joke that ends in "I don't care who you are, that's funny!", I will track whoever wrote it down and forcibly read Ayn Rand novels to them until they are totally unable to ever tell a joke again.

Judgement of Humor

It's also a question of who finds what funny. Many of these quotes come from men who all seem to have a fairly similar sense of humor. As they're the ones being quoted, they're the ones setting the standard of what counts as funny. This viewpoint also tends to find The Three Stooges funny. I have never once laughed at The Three Stooges, even when I was a child. However, I giggle til I cry listening to some of Ellen Degeneres' routines. The general public also found Mary Tyler Moore to be funny. That's why she was on 2 long running comedies still funny and considered classic comedy. Women are finally starting to be taken seriously by these "standard setters" now that they are resorting to mean/ cruel and vulgar humor more often, which is what the men setting the standards find funny. I guess my point is that everyone finds different things funny. Therefore, more people, like women or even men who are not mysogynistic, should also be able have a say in standards.

I guess the logic goes: Guy

I guess the logic goes:

Guy makes a sexist, misogynistic joke about women. Women don't laugh because, well, duh. SEE, WOMEN AREN'T FUNNY. THEY'RE NOT LAUGHING AT MY HILARIOUS JOKE ABOUT HOW DUMB/SLUTTY/VAPID WOMEN ARE.

No, I think the logic goes:

No, I think the logic goes: woman makes hacky, cliched "men are so stupid everybody" joke. Men don't laugh because, well, duh. That's why many men don't find women funny. If a woman can't laugh at being the butt of a joke, why do you expect a man to be?

Just accept it

Women aren't funny. Why can't you just accept it?

huh, most of these comments

huh, most of these comments and the article itself aren't particularly funny. Too bad.

Women Aren't Funny

With due respect as much as it may hurt/annoy you, I'm afraid as far as this man's concerned, women standups just aren't funny (and all my male friends think the same).
Also, have you ever thought that the much missed Christopher Hitchens Vanity Fair article and subsequent interview may have been just a bit tongue in cheek? It appears no landing net needed here..

I never once thought that the

I never once thought that the Hitchens article was tongue in cheek. And you want to know why? It wasn't. It may be why you and your friends don't think women are funny. You don't get "funny" in the first place.

That's a pretty ridiculous statement

You're entitled to your opinion, but a reasonable argument could certainly be made that the article was, in fact, tongue-in-cheek.

Women... funny?

ONLY feminists could acknowledge that women get fewer laughs in general, but argue this does not mean they aren't as funny. Ladies, it would seem that your insecurities are as endless as your circular logic.

"Women get jokes when they hear them, so they must be funny too!" Uh... no, that's not how it works.

"Women don't get laughs because we're all conditioned not to laugh at women's joke's" If this were true you'd see many women excel in comedy writing positions where the jokes are delivered by actors... you don't.

As the article mentions you all have had 300 years to change minds on this subject, and so far you have not. If there is out-cry when someone points that out it's not due to it's inherent falsehood, it's because 50 years of feminist bullying has made it taboo to criticize women's abilities (or lack of) in even the most trivial of senses.

Oh, well, if someone said it

Oh, well, if someone said it 300 years ago then it MUST be true.

People have been making assumptions based on peoples' race, sex/gender, religion and more for hundreds of years. To this day, groups of people have all kinds of stigmas attached to them, some far more serious than humor. Like, say, that darker-skinned people are less intelligent. People have been saying that for hundreds of years and people still hold that belief to be true. You seem to be suggesting that just because it's an ingrained stereotype, however untrue and however harmful, well we should just accept it. The only people who say things like this? People with the privilege of remaining free of hurtful stereotypes.

Women don't get laughs just like women don't get recognition in other fields. Not because they aren't qualified, but because the prevailing cultural idea is that women are not "supposed" to be as good at or better than as men at anything, and this pre-judgment does cloud objective review of their work--and the pre-judgement occurs in both men and women. Male performers, writers, and artists are, in my experience, are judged as performers, writers, and artists, while women are often judged as "women-performers," "women-writers," and "women-artists," with their gender taking precedence over their actual work, and gender stereotypes crowding out the actual value of their work.

Women aren't supposed to be funny, ultimately, because there's a power in humor. Humor is used to subvert norms, provide cultural criticism, and propose new ways of looking at things taken for granted. It is also a method of getting people to listen. Traditionally, the ideas of women having power and being listened to are scary to those who like our sexist system the way it is, and telling women they aren't funny is just another of the long line of things women are told daily that they can't do--along with things like math and science and making reproductive choices.

Hear, hear. Well said The

Hear, hear. Well said The reply, that is, and not the original comment. Isn't it amusing how quickly insecure misogynist men get all defensive, dismissive, and condescending if a woman dares to claim something they feel is rightfully the property of men?

Unfunny men

My operating theory is the sort of male comedians who claim women aren't funny are the ones who think fart jokes, pratfalls, Mother Theresa-bashing, and impersonating a zit are.

hmmm...

not surprisingly, this has just degenerated into a man-bashing fest, with the angry posters refusing to accept that a man is free to think that women aren't funny if that is what he wants to think. may i ask why it is so important to you to assert that women are funny and to angrily "shout down" anyone who thinks otherwise?

Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa's mission to advocate the "virtues" of poverty, as opposed to combatting, it is particularly well documented. She was a huckster that took donations from demagogues and used them to advance her religion and concomitantly palliative care instead of providing actual healthcare...therefore effectively dooming the lives of individuals that had diseases that were able to be corrected in relative ease with modern medicine. She also to the Vatican stance of shaming condom usage, which perpetuated her following's situation of impoverishment. If that isn't deplorable to you, I don't know what is...

Why Men Aren't Funny

While I love me some Hitchens, he has roughly the same authority on humor as a wet rag. Paul Feig recently turned this argument on its head with a "Why Men Aren't Funny" article, a satirical piece that I actually find more plausible than the traditional argument. Comedy as means to attract women makes some sense, but to me the strongest theory in comedy is "comedy as tragedy", comedy from pain, and women know pain. GENERALIZATION ALERT: I do think pretty people tend to be less funny. I do think white people tend to be less funny. I do think straight people tend to be less funny. Extending that logic, I think men tend to be less funny. Why? Because it's not as much of a requirement to make and keep friends when you're in the in group. As a gay man, funny is survival for me, it's about laughing so you don't cry, it's about making someone laugh so they don't punch you in the face. I find male humor often lacks depth of subject matter for this reason. For every legend like George Carlin, there are literally thousands of Carlos Mencias picking at the lowest hanging fruit, millions of Dane Cooks whose diet of humor consists entirely of LOUD NOISES and fart jokes. Aside from the rare Victoria Jackson, female comics are pretty damn consistent, and consistently smart too.

Could be funnier

This is a well written article... However, the articles that I have read arguing the opposing view are much funnier.

I don't understand why the

I don't understand why the opinion of "Women are not as funny as men" is met with so much outrage and dismissed as pure nonsense so often. Men and women are different, not only physically but mentally as well. So why is it so hard to believe that humor is a department in which males are more adept? For what it's worth, in my personal experience men have made me laugh far more often than women have. And it's not even close.