The truth about 'gag hags’

Stand-up Andrew Watts on the link beween comedy and sex

We were waiting offstage while the MC bantered with the audience. He had struck what seemed to him a reach seam of comedy - the front row of the crowd, as it turned out, was a gang of single women out to enjoy themselves. And, according to their spokeswoman, to pull.

‘Well,’ the MC said, ‘It looks like our comics might be in luck!’

I turned to the opening act - Christina Martin - and made some remark about his automatic assumption that the acts would be male.

Christina, however, is a self-confident woman; she took no offence at his remarks. ‘He’s not assuming all comics are male,” she said. “Only that all the female ones are lesbians.’

This vignette - and the only reason I haven’t named and shamed the compere is that I genuinely can’t remember his name - combines several received opinions about comedy and its relationship with sex.

This idea that women find funny men attractive (and the corollary, that men do not find funny women attractive) gained academic support in an article published in the journal Evolution And Human Behaviour. This article claimed that, although both sexes claimed a ‘sense of humour’ as an attractive trait in a potential partner, they meant different things: women wanted a man who could make them laugh, and men wanted a woman who laughed at their jokes.

Readers may recall the brief media furore that surrounded the article’s publication: various female comics said things like: ‘Women see a man with a sense of humour as dangerous and sexy, while men see it as threatening.’ That was Meera Syal, while Lucy Porter, in the same article, hinted that men did find a sense of humour attractive. The article would have been more interesting had it instead asked (a) a hot-but-unfunny and (b) a funny-but-ugly female comic for their respective experiences.

Many of the subsequent discussions referred to the fact that there is a phrase for women who are attracted to male comics – ‘gag hags’ - but no corresponding phrase for men who are attracted to female comics; the thinking being that you don’t need a phrase to explain what doesn’t exist.

Female comics say they don’t get approached after gigs, in the same way men do. It does not follow, however, that men don’t find funny women attractive.

Consider the standard courtship ritual: Man goes over to Woman, makes a comment, usually humorous, to which she responds, usually by laughing. In other words, the Man’s role is to make the Woman laugh; the Woman’s role, on the other hand, is to be entertained. This means that approaching a woman, already a nerve-racking experience, is made even more terrifying if she is a comic, by the fact that she is professionally engaged with what is funny. Instead of merely worrying that she will tell him to go away (as if that was not enough), the man is also concerned that she will find his ‘line’ hack, or badly delivered, or lacking a certain finesse in the timing. Going up to Lucy Porter, say, and attempting to pull her with a witty remark would, in other words, be like going up to Mike Tyson and attempting to punch him out.

But doesn’t the fact that the above pattern - Man jokes; Woman laughs - is the standard courtship ritual in our society prove the original article’s thesis? By no means. Because, as anyone who was to eavesdrop on the conversation in such a courtship ritual would immediately realise, there is absolutely no correlation between the quality of the Man’s jokes and the quantity of the Woman’s laughter. This is the nub of my argument. Women don’t find funny men attractive. Women find attractive men funny.

Consider the conversations of couples on night buses: one will often overhear the man’s comments provoke disproportionate hilarity in the girl he is about to sleep with. Conversely, consider the number of comics making their way home after a gig on the night bus, alone but for the notebook in which they jot down particularly banal remarks they overhear. (I once witnessed another man making a woman laugh - and it was a laugh that definitely signified sexual intent - by repeating a line from my set. Which was simultaneously both flattering and deeply depressing.)

The fact that laughter is also a signifier of the enjoyment of comedy, common to both sexes, is neither here nor there. Our girl on the night bus may in the context of a comedy club have laughed at an ugly-but-funny man and she may have sat stony-faced through an unfunny-but-cute man’s act; but she will only laugh at her oafish companion’s antics if she genuinely fancies him.

Moreover, if it were the case that women found funny men attractive, answer me this: why is a moderately successful open spot comic, placed in the finals of the majority of the new act competitions, not unfavourably reviewed in Chortle, not getting a whole bunch more sex than he is? Why does theFacebook group ‘Andrew Watts’ Gag Hags’ have so few members, and none who have joined without ironical intent? I am not sure that gag hags exist. Certainly I’ve never met one. I’ve charmed women into bed; I’ve foot-massaged women into bed; I’ve bored women into bed (surprisingly effective as a short-term tactic, although counterproductive strategically); I’ve argued women into bed by deconstructing their objections to not so doing (although not since university); but I have never ever laughed a woman into bed.

The Evolution And Human Behaviour article tested the hypothesis, that men are evolutionarily programmed to be humour-providers and women to be humour-recipients. The authors asked their students to consider the following scenario:

Imagine you are choosing between two potential dating partners. In all respects they are equal; they are equally physically attractive, intelligent, interesting, friendly, compassionate, caring, and so on.

The first potential date is great at making you laugh, and you think they are very funny. However, they don’t laugh all that much when you joke around.

The second potential date laughs at all your jokes. They obviously think that you are a very funny person. However, you don’t find their humour all that funny.

Nearly 70 per cent of the women said they would date the humour-producer; but less than 25 per cent of men agreed, the vast majority preferring the woman who laughed at their jokes. Surely here there is proof both that men don’t find funny women attractive, and that women do find funny men attractive?

Not at all.

Look at the scenario again. First, look at it as a man would look at it. There are two women here: the first woman doesn’t laugh at my jokes. She’s obviously not interested in me. The second woman likes me. I’m going to date her - she might put out.

Then, as the average woman would look at it. There are two men. The first one’s funny. The second isn’t. I’m told the two guys are equal in every other respect - looks, intelligence, sensitivity - so I’m going for the funny guy.

So far, the results for the men are ambiguous: it could indeed be that men don’t find funny women attractive, or it could alternatively be that men consider their chances of getting lucky more important than whether they’re going to have a laugh on the date.

But then the researchers found something interesting: when asked which girl they would rather have a one-night-stand with, men became more interested in the funny woman. When asked which they would rather be friends with, the majority, again, went for the funny woman.

The researchers found these results anomalous, but they fit my point exactly. If you’re having a one-night-stand with a girl, you know she’s sexually interested, so you don’t need to rely on the signs she’s giving off. You might as well go for one that makes you laugh; why not? Conversely, if you’re in a platonic friendship with a girl, you know she’s not going to put out; why not go for the funny one?

The women’s preferences, however, remained pretty constant, whether they were seeking a friend, a one-night-stand, or a date. (There is an insignificant spike in favour of the funny guy for dating, but this is probably because men on dates talk too much, so it’s sensible to pick a funny one.) This suggests that there is no correlation between the production of humour and attractiveness: if there were a correlation, women would be expected to value humour more in a sexual partner than a friend.

All that the data suggest is that there are some people who prefer to laugh, and some people who prefer to provoke laughter. There is no significant difference between the sexes.

Alright then, you say, how do you explain the fact that there are more male comics than female comics? This would follow almost automatically from the idea that women find funny men attractive: if this were true, men would have a biological imperative to be funny.

Comedy, of course, is a very ‘male’ environment - taking on a crowd is an act of aggression: you need to grab the audience and ‘hit’ them with ‘punch’-lines. The metaphors come from boxing, not needlepoint. But this doesn’t explain why there are so few female comics: there is no significant difference between the number of female and male barristers, and, since both involve attempting to dominate a room through verbal dexterity, this means that it can’t be the exercise of aggression alone that has resulted in the paucity of female acts. It must be something in the nature of comedy which is not shared with any other job: that is to say, in the jokes.

Consider the following two archetypes. One is a male comedian; we’ll call him Bernard. The other is a female comedian; let’s call her, Josie.

Bernard’s objective in comedy is to reach the climax, the punchline as efficiently as possible. His set-ups are perfunctory. He has no emotional connection with the material; his purpose is purely to get to the laughs efficiently. And, to be fair, he succeeds: his audience are often drunk, and unable to last very long, and getting to the climax efficiently is absolutely necessary.

Now let’s look at Josie. Bernard doesn’t even think she has any punchlines. And, to be fair, she doesn’t have the quick climaxes that he has; she‘s not particularly good at playing to drunken audiences. Bernard says she’s all set-up; you can kind of see his point. But that’s not what Josie is about - her set is not about rushing to the punchline, because, you see, she actually has emotional investment in her material. For her, the pleasure of comedy comes from the teasing, the constant titillation, the deferred satisfaction of the audience’s desire for completion…

You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud - or Swiss Toni - to see where I’m going with this one. Set-up is the foreplay of comedy; the punchline the climax. The rhythm of the standard ‘joke’, the sort of thing that Bernard does so well, is that of the phallic orgasm (is it an accident that this sort of humour is dismissed as “knob gags“?); the rhythm of Josie’s set, on the other hand, is that of the vaginal orgasm.

And this, I think, is the psychological reason for the difference between male and female comedy. Different, but neither is superior. The phallic rhythm may play better in Jongleurs; the vaginal rhythm would do better in a lo-fi comedy club where the promoter has made cakes and Bernard’s ‘wham-bam-Ithankyew-ma’am’ style would seem rather uncouth.

I know that not all male comics are like Bernard; neither are all female comics like Josie: ‘Bernard’ and ‘Josie’ are archetypes, not stereotypes. But for a female comic to become a ‘Bernard’-style act involves sacrificing some of her essential femininity, and vice versa, and this sacrifice can lead to a discrepancy between persona and material.

There is one final connection to be made. If, as suggested above, male joking mimics the male orgasm, this could explain why laughter in women is a signifier of sexual intent. When a man in the standard courtship ritual is cracking jokes, he is (on a subconscious level) performing an act of mimesis: he is saying, ‘I want to have an orgasm with you’. If a woman laughs, she is colluding in this mimesis: she is saying, “That’s fine by me.’

These rules do not apply in the context of a comedy club, it should go without saying. I do not flatter myself that any woman laughing at my set is signalling sexual interest. The assumption that there are gag hags hanging off every word of male comics is due to a ‘category error’, a failure to recognise this contextual difference.

And, in case you were wondering, that gig with the entire front row made up of single women on the prowl? I didn’t score. Had a stormer of a gig, though.

I should like to express my gratitude to Mr D.C. Saffrey MA (Philosophy) and Mrs N. Buchan- Brodie, barrister-at-law, who commented on a previous version of this article published on my weblog, and to Miss J. Lyle MA and the Rev. E.C. Macfarlane, sometime scholar of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, for their many and varied insights. All opinions expressed, and all errors and omissions, remain my own.

Published: 6 May 2008

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