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.
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.