“Do you know why God withheld a sense of humor from women?” remarked the acclaimed British stage actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, when seated next to a tedious dinner companion. “That we may love you instead of laughing at you.”
When it comes to comedy, women doubt themselves (though Mrs. Campbell was quite the wit, as her wry remark suggests). A few years ago, Vanity Fair stirred up fresh conversation, if not actual controversy, with an unfair attack on the fair sex, provocatively titled "Why Women Aren't Funny,” and authored by the career provocateur, Christopher Hitchens. It has lingered in my mind ever since, perhaps because I’m a woman and I relish laughter, having frequently been the cause of it.
But Hitchens’s assumption troubles me for a less personal and far more important reason, one which has nothing to do with the arguments in his essay, or indeed with any arguments. The fact is, no argument is needed. A simple statement, “Men excel at comedy,” is damned near impossible to refute because it stands on an Everest of evidence, accumulated from Aristophanes (“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever”), through Plautus and Molière and the Marx Brothers, to Dr. Seuss (“I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells”). Women, meanwhile, are sallying in the low Adirondacks, mimicking men more than being ourselves. Kristen Wiig is the Lite Beer version of Judd Apatow.
As his title promised, Hitchens tries to explain the general lack of funny females, though he does acknowledge that funny women do exist among those of us who “are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” (Replace “dykey” with “masculine” and he’s described Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett, Curly Howard, Bert Lahr, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Seth Rogen, Allen Sherman, Jerry Stiller, Chaim Topol, and Zero Mostel, among others. And now back to regular programming:). His ultimate argument to explain why two X chromosomes suppress jokes: "Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can't afford to be too frivolous."
You have to be damnably clever, as Hitchens was, to compress that much falsehood into a plausible-sounding sentence. But let’s overlook the bulk of the balderdash, starting with the sheer folly of generalising across half of humanity. Let’s allow the verb “risk” even though we know that pain is not a risk in childbirth, it’s a guarantee, at least until the epidural. Ditto “fiasco,” even though many people manage to find purpose and contentment during their lives. And let’s tiptoe very gently around “afford,” which suggests that women actually do have humor, but they’re miserly about it.
Accept all that claptrap, so that we can stand undistracted before his final boldface statement, that humor is “frivolous.”
If a woman dismissed humor like that, he’d have used it as further proof of her lack of humor. I can’t think of another writer, or person, who considers humor frivolous-- including Hitchens in an earlier paragraph: “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex... [and] an average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh.” (A statement which also, by the way, admits that women appreciate humor.) A sense of humor is a treasured quality in my friends, up there with integrity, generosity, and a tendency to buy rounds. In the words of the humorist who has given me more memorable laughs than anyone else, Chuck Jones: “Once you have heard a strange audience burst into laughter at a film you directed, you realize what the word joy is all about.”
The fact that humor is important, however, only underscores the evidence that men are more witty, jocular, and generally amusing than we are. What do we do about their mountain of recorded proof?
We take a shovel to it, like geologists after bedrock. Humor tends to be culturally specific (“Humor is the first of our gifts to perish in a foreign tongue,” Virginia Woolf observed), so I confined myself to American humor in my dig, and I started with a recent book, in the hope that the historical disproportion had shrunk since Dr. Seuss. In 2011, a comedian named Andy Borowitz published The Funny 50, his list of America’s greatest humorists, living or dead. He starts by admitting that, like Hitchens, he himself cultivated humor for one simple reason: “to charm women,” and his list is dominated by men. He begins grandly with Mark Twain, who is generally considered the father of American humor, whenever the pointless question of its paternity arises.
His 50 humorists do include women, however, a total of nine: Anita Loos, Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, Veronica Geng, Molly Ivins, Susan Orlean, Wanda Sykes, and Jenny Allen. I am tearfully grateful that he didn’t include Maureen Dowd, if only for the dismal reason that his list already has eight women too many (Mrs. Parker is the keeper), given the epic roster of male humorists who are omitted: Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Robert Benchley, Carl Reiner, Matt Groening, Will Rogers, Gore Vidal, Alexander Woolcott, James Woolcott, Preston Sturges, Steve Allen, Fred Allen, Sid Caesar, I.A.L. Diamond, Neil Simon, Joseph Heller, Ogden Nash, Ring Lardner and R. L. Jr., George S. Kaufman, Garson Kanin, P.J. O’Rourke, John Kennedy Toole, Ian Frazier, Bill Bryson, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert... The list goes on, and should include the witty (and naturalized) Mr. Hitchens himself, but I’m exhausted, you’re bored, and the point is made.
I can’t help but also question the women he omitted in favor of Susan Orlean, whose Wikipedia entry mentions neither “humor” nor “comedy”: Gertrude Stein, Edna Ferber, Flannery O’Connor, Elaine May, Ruth Gordon, Carrie Fisher, Susan Harris, Erma Bombeck, Tina Fey, Whoopie Goldberg, Jennifer Weiner, Sarah Silverman.... but I’m scraping bottom already. That was an anorectic sentence compared to the fat paragraph above it.
There are, of course, scores of Sallys writing comedy for television, but that sorority is swamped by thousands of Robs and Buddys. Picture, if you will, any of the seven times that The Daily Show won an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing. The stage swarmed with suits. Ditto when the award was won by Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, and indeed every winner back to 1956, when the Best Comedy Writing category was introduced: the winners were four men from The George Gobel Show, and among the multitude of staff writers named as nominees, only one was a woman: Madelyn Pugh, from I Love Lucy.
In desperation, I began to look beyond writers to comic performers, because women fare better in front of camera than behind it. Disappointment awaited. Yet again, women are outnumbered to an absurd degree. Search "movie comedies" and you'll get lists like 100 Greatest Comedic Actors/Actresses, which includes only eight women (and only two in the first fifty, Lucille Ball at 21, and Carol Burnett at 38). Another site, 100 Greatest Comedy Movies, has actors outnumbering actresses at about six to one, and half of the Top 10 movies feature male casts: Duck Soup, Some Like It Hot (Marilyn Monroe, Joan Shawlee), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Airplane! (Julie Hagerty), Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles (Madeline Kahn), What’s Up Doc? (Barbra Streisand), Animal House, A Night at the Opera, The Odd Couple. Even in the silent era, the great comedians were named Mack, Buster, Charlie, Fatty, Harry, and Harold. Name a silent film comedienne. I dare you. Talkies arrive in the 1930s and we have three Marx Brothers and Three Stooges to one Carole Lombard.
There is, of course, an obvious rebuttal to “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The first step is to toss the premise. Stop begging the question and rephrase the title from “Why Women Aren’t Funny” to “Why There Aren’t More Funny Women.” The answer to that is obvious, because it’s the same as the answer to “Why aren’t there more women physicists? cops? architects?” Career women are outnumbered by career men, and have been ever since the Neolithic Revolution consigned us to the kitchen and nursery. A counter-attack article might be headed, “Why there aren’t more male upstairs maids.”
But there’s another, more trenchant answer to the Everest problem. I found it when I was examined a truly serious tome about comedy, The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotes. Men vastly outnumber women in it, as expected, but I began to notice a pattern in the quotes attributed to women, a pattern which appears in almost any Bartlett-like list. Consider these bon mots from the second sex:
“Tell him I was too fucking busy-- or vice versa.”-Dorothy Parker
“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” -Alice Longworth Roosevelt
“I have my standards. They’re low, but I have them.” -Bette Midler
“Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.” -Mae West
“Ever notice how ‘What the hell?’ is always the right answer.” -Marilyn Monroe
“With the newspaper strike on, I wouldn’t consider dying.” -Bette Davis
“The less I behave like Whistler’s Mother the night before, the more I look like her in the morning.” -Tallulah Bankhead
“It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another. It’s one damn thing over and over.” -Edna St. Vincent Millay
“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. I’m also not blonde.” -Dolly Parton
“Man forgives woman anything save the wit to outwit him.” -Minna Thomas Antrim, author of Don’ts for Girls: A Manual of Mistakes (1902), which included, “Don’t oppose or ridicule the opinions of your brothers. Boys and men grow crusty when things go crosswise.” With that kind of traditional instruction, no wonder women have held their tongues.
The pattern? All but the last of these quotations were said in conversation. Women never lacked for wit, or humor, or acuity; they lacked public outlets. When welcomed to speak, their remarks had quality, which was always the issue. Not quantity.
In his article, Hitchens hoisted himself on his own petard, linking humor directly to intelligence, and unwittingly echoing Mrs. Antrim’s 1902 manual: “Wit, after all, is the unfailing symptom of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright),” he wrote, with the telling decision to use parenthesis to distance himself from the clause that cuts to his bone. But he went on, bless his unflinching soul, and admitted that, therefore, “ it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny.