Why Women Aren’t Funny

Christopher Hitchens wrote in “Why Women Aren’t Funny”:

“The reproductive and eliminating functions (the closeness of which is the origin of all obscenity) were obviously wired together in hell by some subcommittee that was giggling cruelly as it went about its work.”

I laughed out loud at the word subcommittee, because I find the dull, paperwork bureaucracy at odds with the metaphysical land of eternal torture.

laughing woman

Hitchens argues that we laugh at insults to others and to ourselves and at filth. I think those are interchangable tools and I’d like to further abstract that. Freud said that laughter was the release of psychic energy. I think it’s the release of electrochemical energy in the brain.

A joke is typically a build-up followed by something unexpected. The build-up activates a certain neuronal path and when the input is shifted to the unexpected thought, the built-up activity becomes trapped. The unexpected connection in the joke means there is no well-established neuronal connection and so the activity simply can’t fit into that thin pathway. The excess activity is led via alternate neural paths and then dumped.

The electrochemical energy is dumped in the motor centre in the brain, a harmless place from a psychological perspective, causing involuntary physical activity, such as the slapping of the knee and the making of weird guttural noises. It’s like a computer dumping RAM. Probably this then became a) a physical solution to prevent seizures and other related problems and b) a social tool.

“Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon,” said the report’s author, Dr. Allan Reiss. “So when they got to the joke’s punch line, they were more pleased about it.” The report also found that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.

Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?”

Hitchens draws the wrong conclusion. I think the answer to gender differences in comedy is not biological but social. Women aren’t slower to get it, they are more open-minded or receptive and that as a product, at least partially, of culture.

Women are not expected to be funny, and expectation, or build-up, is half the joke. If you don’t pay attention to a story, there will be no excess activity to convert into laughter. A lot of men won’t give women the chance to be funny, but will dismiss them prejudicially, which thus becomes self-fulfilling.

Timing is everything, some comedians would say. If you guess the punchline too soon, there wont be much pent-up energy. If you get the joke too late, the energy will have already dissipated. Additionally, if you already have a well-established neuronal connection, e.g. if you’ve already know the joke, you won’t be surprised; the energy will easily flow from build-up to punchline without the need for release.

I’ve made some unscientific, personal observations:

In panel shows, dominated by men, the host often comments on the women’s jokes, as if to explain that it was funny, because the host himself didn’t expect a joke and assumed nobody else would get that it was a joke.

Stewart Lee and Milton Jones, although very disparate comedians, share a tone of understatement in their delivery, which to the expectant observer only emphasizes the punchiness. More mainstream comedians are very obvious in their delivery. Sometimes I know the punchline is coming without having heard the words in the build-up and that makes me think the audience is just laughing because of convention. Either way, female comedians don’t seem to exert this theatrical delivery. I appreciate this, but it might not be as popular.

Laughing without being amused is a sign of mind over matter, or more accurately, culture over biology. It’s a social tool. I think this explains why women laugh at attractive men. I think men laugh more easily at attractive women too, which would indicate a relaxation of traditional social gender norms. This might, in fact, explain why women aren’t considered funny.

Post Scriptum

Just saw a video on laughter. The presenter discusses the difference between involuntary and social laughter, points out that other animals laugh and that we laugh to relieve stress. Although it doesn’t explicitly adress my idea of dumping energy, it’s at least compatible with it: Why We Laugh (video)

laughing man


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