Why don't we think women are funny?

by Dean Burnett

Despite being an aspiring (meaning ‘unsuccessful’) comedian, I am also a neuroscientist. This involves a fair amount of psychology and behavioural study. As such, whenever I come across what I perceive to be an ‘anomaly’ in human behaviour, I have to try to explain it.

The different perceptions of men and women in comedy is one such anomaly. The general opinion of a depressingly large amount of people is that women just aren’t funny. Not only is this an unfair sweeping statement, it’s also undeniably wrong. But the majority viewpoint that I’ve encountered seems to be that women are funny, but men are generally funnier.

Why should such a bias come about? It’s true that in the very early days of comedy, in the music halls and variety theatres, it was a male-dominated institution, but this can be said of nearly everything if you go back far enough, given the way society was structured. But the performing arts are one of the few areas where you usually struggle to find a gender bias. I’ve never encountered anyone who thinks men are better singers/dancers/musicians/writers/actors, so why don’t comedians get similar treatment? If anything, comedy is the art form that is most influenced by the individual, with their style, writing, timing, delivery, body language etc. all being integral to a successful performance, so sweeping statements are pointless. And yet this generalisation persists.

The belief that women aren’t as funny as men seems to be firmly entrenched in the cultural psyche, however incorrect you feel it to be. But why? Here are just some suggestions.

Is it an evolutionary thing? Humans are social creatures, the most social creatures on Earth statistically speaking (our most populous cities far outstrip the largest insect colonies, in population densities). And what is a comedy gig but a large social gathering, the kind humans have been forming for protection for nearly a million years? But such groupings have rules of their own, ones that go down to the instinctive level. Comedy is a perfect example, where watching a clip on YouTube can be funny, but watching the same comedian as part of a large group will always get you laughing more (assuming they’re any good).

But in nature, and in our own pasts, the group has traditions. The comedian plays the role of the alpha male, demanding your attention and controlling the room. And there is the problem: alpha male, not alpha person. Because evolution has decided that it’s the males’ job to be the centre of attention, it’s the male chimps that scream and scrap and beat their chests, it’s the male deer that get the antlers and try to headbutt each other into submission, it’s the peacocks that get the ridiculous tail feathers, not the peahens, and it was the male caveman that wrestled and slapped all the others about to show that he was in charge, while the women looked on critically.

You might argue that this is an archaic, primitive system, and it is. But it’s one we’ve evolved to expect. So when we see a woman as the centre of attention, is there some subconscious part of us which rebels, as this is not how things are supposed to be. This might also explain why awful male comics seem to get tolerated more than awful female ones, in my experience. Maybe some primitive part of our brain sees the man and says ‘he’s shit, but at least this is how it’s meant to be’.

But that theory only works if you think of people as basic animals. Which we aren’t, we’re capable of rational thought, logic and personal preferences. So what else could be behind the bias?

It may be societal. In western societies, particularly the media, there are certain ways men and women are portrayed. If you want a TV show about some single, shallow, sex-crazed women, you get Sex And The City. If you want a TV show about some single, shallow, sex-crazed men, you get Bottom. The women are fashion icons, the men are hopeless buffoons.

The acceptable ways people treat each other also differ between genders. When a woman is bullied by other women, it’s usually very tense, uncomfortable scenario, like the Celebrity Big Brother debacle. Bitchiness is engaging to many, given the popularity of Heat magazine, but rarely humorous. Contrast that with the hilarious Ray Peacock podcast on Chortle which is basically non-stop harassment of Raji James, often ending in actual physical violence. Yet this is OK as it’s accepted that men can bully each other in a non-serious way, and therefore it’s fine to laugh. Schadenfreude seems to apply to men far more than women. Basil Fawlty slapping Manuel was comedy, Sybil slapping Polly would have been drama.

Our perceptions of the different genders mean it’s easier to laugh at men. Women, overall, are undeniably portrayed as more dignified and glamorous creatures, whereas men can be acceptably pathetic, shambolic and downright ridiculous. Maybe this is some unexpected downside to the sexual revolution, where women demanded respect, and got too much, so now people think it’s not acceptable to laugh at them?

That’s bollocks of course; I have no reason to believe that’s true or even possible, just mentioning it as an option.

Maybe I’m looking too deeply into this; maybe it’s a simple thing. Maybe it’s just to do with sex. Most men I know are very reluctant to laugh at women they don’t know, as it would massively reduce any chance of having sex with them. And of course the male ego is a fragile thing; no man likes to see a woman doing something he can’t do, which may be why men often object to the sight of a woman breastfeeding.

The reaction of women is more complex, as you’d expect. Most female comics support and stick up for each other. But in my experience, the punters who object most to female comedians are other women. Men will usually display a degree of indifference, possibly resigned acceptance, when they say women aren’t as funny, but many of the women I’ve encountered are openly hostile to women doing comedy, and are more than happy to declare that men are better. Although this is not exactly a fair test, men may be unwilling to say what they really think for fear of sounding sexist, whereas women don’t have that worry.

Maybe Freud was right; maybe it’s all about penis envy and wanting to shag our mothers. A woman on stage upsets people, men because an authoritative woman provoking strong emotions reminds us of our mothers, and makes us too uncomfortable to laugh (especially if she’s talking about wanking or periods); and women because they resent her for doing what’s viewed as a man’s job, meaning she’s closer to that much sought-after penis. That’s what Freud would say. But I disagree, I’m with Homer Simpson on this one, who said of Freud: ‘If he’s so smart, how come he’s dead?’

There are no doubt other reasons for this weird sexist division, involving brain chemistry and hormonal discrepancies that I won’t even attempt to go into here. But whatever the cause of the bias, I think the only way to beat it is to keep challenging it.

Any woman who succeeds in the comedy world in the face of this unfair reputation has my infinite respect. But this should in no way lessen the achievements of the men who make it on the circuit and beyond. And I also grow weary of new female comics who use their gender as an excuse for being shite. If you die on your arse, it’s never going to be solely because you’re a woman, and claiming it is so is a slap in the face for all the genuinely funny women out there.

Published: 14 Dec 2007

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