I have a joke,” a male friend once told me. “A funny woman.”
I forgot to laugh, but it’s a common notion, a cliché, that women can’t elicit the guffaws. Christopher Hitchens, the British polemicist, in a characteristically provocative article published almost five years ago in the US magazine, Vanity Fair, titled Why Women Aren’t Funny, argued that on average men are funnier than women because humour is their only weapon in the all-important battle to impress the opposite sex. “Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men,” Hitchens writes. “...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.” Women, on the other hand, already appeal to men, so they don’t need to be funny.
Women who are funny probably also threaten most men, Hitchens speculates, because humour is a sign of intelligence. “They (men) want them (women) as an audience, not as rivals,” he writes. Women, in short, have no evolutionary incentive to be funny.
One might be tempted to dismiss Hitchens’ essay as glib and sweeping (my male friend being a telling counterexample), but even the formidable Germaine Greer argued, about two years later, that men had a greater social incentive to crack jokes, although they were looking for approval not from women but other men.
Unlike women, who talk to each other about subjects that matter, men bond and communicate with each another by clowning around, the UK-based Australian feminist and academic wrote in The Guardian of the UK. As a result, they get a lot of practice from a young age.
“Women are at least as intelligent as men,” she wrote (here again, the connection between humour and intelligence), “and they have as vivid and ready a perception of the absurd; but they have not developed the arts of fooling, clowning, badinage, repartee, burlesque and innuendo into a semi-continuous performance as so many men have.”
One has to just look at the English-speaking world’s stand-up comedy circuit. Shazia Mirza and Tina Fey are oddities in a testosterone-filled field. As it is, in most domains, women at the top of their game are in a minority, for a variety of reasons, including that they are playing by rules that have largely been set by men for men. If you add to this the particular social disadvantage that women probably have when it comes to humour, it takes a lot for them to be professionally hilarious.
All this is by way of saying that there isn’t a huge pool of female humorists for HT to tap. But society isn’t static, or so I hope. For instance, I was pleased to see that a young woman had featured in an HT article about how comedy had become cool with the city’s youngsters. She was one of three youngsters profiled who are avid amateur stand-up comics, in ‘So a guy walks into a bar…’ (November 6, page 8) by Humaira Ansari.
Moreover, it is probably easier for women to write humour than to perform it. So I’m hoping that there are many more witty women out there than we know about. I’m also hoping that some of their punchlines will land in my inbox.