Hitchens: Men are from Comedy Central, Women are from Dourland

Ever the provocateur, Christopher Hitchens tells us Why Women Aren't Funny in the January 2007 Vanity Fair.

Mr. Hitchens believes that humor in men serves as an attractant to women, sort of a laff riot version of the male peacock's tail:

Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter--I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight--well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.

Hitchens continues:

Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift. Indeed, we now have all the joy of a scientific study, which illuminates the difference. At the Stanford University School of Medicine (a place, as it happens, where I once underwent an absolutely hilarious procedure with a sigmoidoscope), the grim-faced researchers showed 10 men and 10 women a sample of 70 black-and-white cartoons and got them to rate the gags on a "funniness scale." To annex for a moment the fall-about language of the report as it was summarized in Biotech Week. (The original study is reported by E. Azim et al. (2005) Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 202 (45) 16496-16501 - Doc Bushwell):

The researchers found that men and women share much of the same humor-response system; both use to a similar degree the part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition and the part involved in language processing. But they also found that some brain regions were activated more in women. These included the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting a greater emphasis on language and executive processing in women, and the nucleus accumbens ... which is part of the mesolimbic reward center.

This has all the charm and address of the learned Professor Scully's attempt to define a smile, as cited by Richard Usborne in his treatise on P. G. Wodehouse: "the drawing back and slight lifting of the corners of the mouth, which partially uncover the teeth; the curving of the naso-labial furrows ... " But have no fear--it gets worse:

"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?

It's bad enough to be cast as a dour dowager, but "grim faced researchers?" "Grim-faced researchers!?" Are scientists perceived as a uniformly humorless group? Hopefully not, although the rank nerdsomeness emanating from the latest Ig Nobel Awards ceremony caused me to cringe in embarrasment as I listened to its Podcast from Science Friday. Maybe scientists revel in their own brand of humor. According to ol' Hitchie's metric, women scientists should be even worse with the funny bone.

I don't know. I like to think I've had my moments, but then I can be delusional. As a woman of average looks, "plain" if you will, and admittedly above average intelligence, I couldn't flaunt beauty as a draw for the denizens of dudedom. As a kid and teenager, I was influenced by my wickedly sardonic brother, Mad Magazine, and later, The National Lampoon, and many hours of listening to Bill Cosby. I resorted to humor now and then to impress guys. I mean, I'm no Sarah Silverman nor Paula Poundstone nor Phyllis Diller (my comedienne idol), but I could get the guys going back in the day. This vaguely pertained to science and yes, often at the expense of men.

Like the time a group of us grad students and post-docs were listening to a reknowned NMR expert. There was something uncannily familiar about this guy's appearance (short, balding, rather large head) and his accompanying mild speech impediment. I jotted a note on a scrap of paper: "Dr. ___ sounds like Elmer Fudd" and passed it over to the classmate on my right. Shortly thereafter, I heard poorly stifled snorts as the note made its way along the row of guys. It was awkward since we had a difficult time getting ourselves under control. As soon as we settled down, Dr. ___'s Fuddish cadence would send us over the edge. Sure, it was mean and puerile, but that little note hit paydirt. We still hoot over this.

Some years later but some years ago, I gave a seminar at a local American Chemical Society conference. The subject was kinetics of a steroidogenic enzyme involved with prostate disease. Back then, we didn't have recombinant protein so I relied on human tissue samples for my enzyme, most of which I got from a major university cancer research institute. I was thrilled when our academic collaborators sent a flash frozen chunk of human prostate, practically a whole lobe, since this served as a rich reservoir of enzyme. Anyway, when I described the enzyme source in my ACS seminar, I offhandedly remarked that after seeing a frozen human prostate lobe, I stopped eating boiled shrimp in the company cafeteria. (The frozen lobe looked just like a cocktail shrimp.) The auditorium, filled with men and a scant sprinkling of women, erupted in laughter. Like Hitchens notes in his article, guys joke about their nether regions and junk, er, stuff, ah, whatever it's called. Hitchens addresses this phenomenon in his article, "Men have prostate glands, hysterically enough..." One of my colleagues told me that he overheard a big time sr. researcher (the kind to whom you genuflect) chuckle and say, "She's quite the comedienne!" Ba-da-bing! Sign me up for Vegas, baby!

Hitchens attributes women's lack of humor with our ability to bear children:

Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle. Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can't afford to be too frivolous. (And there just aren't that many episiotomy jokes, even in the male repertoire.)

Wait a minute, Chrissie. I had the LaLeche League meeting in stitches when I noted my "episiotomy like the Grand Canyon" and that my perineal area smacked of a scene at the Star Lite Drive-In, or more precisely, "My c*nt was like a drive-in movie," with all the OB docs clustered around viewing and repairing it after the difficult birth of my son. OK, maybe the LLL fathers, had they heard this, would have turned green at the ripped asunder pudendum quips, but my fellow breastfeeders thought it was funny " 'cause it's true."

To be fair, Hitchens allows for plenty of exceptions among women and even says he does not think we are uniformly humorless nor capable of wit, but that we're different. "Men will laugh at almost anything, often precisely because it is--or they are--extremely stupid." For example, look at what I live with here at the Chimp Refuge:


Hitchens' "beloved said to (him), when (he) told her (he) was going to have to address this melancholy topic, that (he) should cheer up because 'women get funnier as they get older.' " Sorry. Wrong. You're out of the game, beloved of Hitchens. According to J.Uekermann, S. Channon, and I. Daum in the J. Int. Neuropsychol. Soc. (2006), 12 (2): 184-191, men's and women's ability to "get the joke" deteriorates as we age:

Recent investigations have emphasized the importance of the prefrontal cortex for humor processing. Although the prefrontal cortex is thought to be affected by normal aging, relatively little work has been carried out to investigate the effects of aging on humor processing. In the present investigation participants in three age groups were assessed on a humor comprehension task. They then answered mentalistic and nonmentalistic questions. Executive tasks were also administered. The older group selected significantly fewer correct punchlines from alternatives than the other groups. They were also poorer at answering mentalistic questions, but did not differ significantly for nonmentalistic questions. The findings of the present investigation showed altered in humor processing in normal aging, and this appeared to be related to mentalizing ability.

It looks like senescence is the great humorous equalizer. As we, men and women, grow old together, we lose our edge, or at least we are content to repeatedly say, "Remember the time you passed us that note about Herr Doktor Professor Fudd," then laugh so hard that we spit our dentures out and soak our Depends.


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I believe men also use humor to gain status among fellow men.

You can certainly take some solace in the fact that Hitchens is a pompous ass. If you need to.

As usual, what Hitchens writes tells me nothing about the topic, but everything about him (and in this case, how women feel about him). He REALLY needs to get out more.

Hitchens is from Pluto.......no, wait. Pluto has taken more than its share of insults lately. Quick, someone give me the name of a nearby black hole!

By anomalous4 (not verified) on 13 Dec 2006 #permalink

I'm glad Hitchens exists, but I wouldn't want to take him seriously.

Yep, no need for me to take solace. Hitchens is really, really trying to be provocative in that fluff piece. With a nod to csrter, if CH didn't exist, we'd have to invent him.

But I'm still chapped raw over grim faced researchers.

I've thought a bit about this whole men-are-funnier thing, since I used to do improv comedy. We were always astounded when a woman came in to audition for us and actually made us laugh.

I guess I'm speculating that the humor gap is a function of the audience and not the comedian, so to speak: women will laugh at men's jokes because they are, on the whole, more submissive and eager to please than men are. Men are far less likely to laugh at women's jokes because, well... aren't men supposed to be the funny ones?

I mean, I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek here, and loose with my definition of what a "joke" is. But still--and I am not one who leans towards radical feminism--I think that the humor gap is a symptom of the audience maintaining its appropriate status relative to the performer.

Disagree with me if you think this is dumb.

Perhaps there is some overthinking going on. I thought Lucille Ball was pretty funny until people told me it wasn't hip to go that way.

I agree that it mainly reflects the core audience, but I think men make up the core audiences even of sitcom TV where you'll see still more pandering to male humor because of the purchasing power.

What I find funny is not the unbelievable but that what I can believe if I was observant at all about my own behavior. Shows like the Simpsons and Futurama are effective because they place us all as subjects of character study but they mainly use the women as straight and somewhat humorless. Society expects Bart and Homer and Frye to act the way they do. If Lisa or Marge behaved the way that males do, the show wouldn't have lasted at all, so TV (the great cultural reflector) just reinforces our behavior.

The best live action on TV comes from Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza and Arthur Spooner. I'm going to miss him when he kicks the bucket.

Sarah, you did improv? Really? I am not worthy, I am not worthy! Honestly, I am impressed by those who can perform comedy on the fly. The cultural expectations angle has merit, I think.

JKB, I loved Lucille Ball, and often watched "I love Lucy: as a kid. Hipness be fucked. I agree that Lisa and Marge play the straight foils in "The Simpsons" but Leela has her moments.

Ah, the Jerry Lewis theory! ("Lucille Ball wasn't funny...women are just baby machines...blah")

Hitchie has obviously never met me! *Strikes pose (and post)* Here's a sampling:

Kristine cheers up God after bad Katherine Harris blowout.

Here's what I have to say about fundy sex toys. (Ah-hem! Also note later male commenter making reference to heightened "blog crush"!)

Here I make funny about dinosaurs as creationist pets. (Note I snare another later commenter!) *Makes notch on lipstick case*

Finally, I hold my own against those cowboys at OverwhelmingEvidence.com eating baked memes around the campfire upon which they are burning Judge Jones.

Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift. Oh yeah! Check it. Yeah, appealing. If you think Frau Blucher has no [whinny!] sense of humor, I can't argue with that, Hitch.

But I can hum it!

I guess I'm speculating that the humor gap is a function of the audience and not the comedian

IMO there's another social factor at work. It's not that women are naturally any less funny; it's that (historically, at any rate) we get the message from an early age that being funny is somehow inapropriate for us, that it's OK on stage or TV, but in real life - never! That would be calling attention to ourselves, and in addition there have always been certain subjects and modes of expression that were considered off-limits.

Maybe I'm showing my 50+ years here, but I've had trouble all my life with my oddball sense of humor coming out and someone taking offense not because anything I said was particularly bad, but because it was me who said it. (My former in-laws in particular were practically scandalized.)

The upshot of it all is that I've realized that I can't really be friends with anyone who isn't comfortable with my wackiness. My best friend these days is a guy with whom I can fling puns, non-sequiturs, etc. back and forth for an hour or more at a time and occasionally drive the rest of our friends out of the room screaming.

On other fronts:

I've always hated Lucy for playing such an absolute flake all the time, and I detest most live-action sitcoms in general because they're based on wall-to-wall dysfunctionality within supposedly "close" relationships.

OTOH, I can watch The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, and South Park for hours. I figure it must be because in cartoons, it's dysfunctionality once removed. Go figure........

By anomalous4 (not verified) on 14 Dec 2006 #permalink

IMO there's another social factor at work. It's not that women are naturally any less funny; it's that (historically, at any rate) we get the message from an early age that being funny is somehow inapropriate for us, that it's OK on stage or TV, but in real life - never!

anomalous4, that's another good observation which plays into the cultural expections piece. Granted, an n=1 does not represent mindboggling statistical significance, but from personal experience, I think you're on to something there. After firing off a preadolescent smart-alecky remark which I thought was funny, my beleaguered, and thus humor-challenged, mother, retorted that "all that Mad Magazine and Bill Cosby" were bad influences. Yet, she never forbade me from indulging in these. So the message was that it was OK to listen to and read about humor, but not to use it. I ignored the message.

Kristine, my apologies for the delay in the appearance of your fabulous comment. Movable Type has a number of befuckled quirks, and capricious "hold this comment for approval" binning is one of them. Anyway...

Okay, whatever. I'll take one Testament Tickler, a Res-erection Rabbit, and some Jehovah Jelly. Who's my Other Daddy? Va-va-va-voom!

I gotta go with the Right Reverend Bigdumbchimp here. That is gold, Kristine, pure gold! My laptop's screen is now Jackson Pollocked with breakfast crumbs and coffee thanks to your quips.

I gotta go with the Right Reverend Bigdumbchimp here. That is gold, Kristine, pure gold!

Thank you, Doc Bushwell, and no apologies necessary. I'm always glad to spread joy. *Beams* If I have laughed last, it's because I've cried on the shoulders of giants. (Awww...)

I've started a [shameless plug] new blog about science and women and have snared another male victim with my (he said it!) "sense of humor." Since I am not a scientist I welcome others to contribute, or at least to tell me when I'm going astray. I hope the anti-flapdoodle superheroines (and heroes) of scienceblogs will visit!

Hmm, must be nice to interpret a basic pilot study and make sweeping generalizations about male vs. female capacity for humor, while making a ton of money from Vanity Fair. How about some observational studies of behavior and perceived attractiveness. What do men and women say to each other in different contexts. Who indeed does say more funny stuff? Hard to quantify, but that would be better than the study cited by Hitchins.

Anyway Doc, you're Very funny.


20 people solve the humor paradox for the rest of us....

10 men and 10 women; thats statistically important, I'll tell ya.

By AlcoolWorld (not verified) on 16 Dec 2006 #permalink

10 men and 10 women; thats statistically important, I'll tell ya.

You know, that's probably the biggest knee slapper of this whole raging teapot of a tempest.

Well, I would stop eating shrimp in the cafeteria after reading this. If our cafeteria served shrimp, I mean.