September 23, 2004

Why Men Are Funny

During my brief tenure at Cal, a popular discussion topic at Heuristic Squelch meetings and at Sean's humor writing course was the distinct lack of female comedians. For whatever reason, there are very few female comedians (standup or otherwise) in the world and the few that do exist tend to be lesbians.

At the time, I had just finished reading How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. The book is a very in-depth survey of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is a discipline that aims to explain why certain human psychological features exist by placing them in the context of natural selection and evolution. Some of the most interesting stuff applied to sexual relations and you'd find tenets that go something like this: "Men prefer large breasts because large breasts can produce more milk, feed more children and, hence, are an advantageous feature from the perspective of reproductive success." (Note that this does not suggest that men are consciously aware of this, rather that the male mind evolved to desire large breasts because of the reproductive advantage they bring. Men simply like large breasts, they don't necessarily have a good reason for it.)

This stuff all made a lot of sense and so, armed with our new knowledge, we attempted to explain the lack of female comedians. We reasoned that, because women mainly attract mates through their looks, they don't need to emphasize an outward personality. Men, on the other hand, have to rely on things like social status to attract mates and so it would make sense that they would place more emphasis on an extroverted personality than women. So, despite all of the nonsense counterarguments about gender roles and societal conditioning, we concluded that humor was essentially a mating device and, because of the different ways that men and women attract mates, women don't tend to go into comedy.

However, it occured to me a few days ago that this reasoning was deeply flawed. If anything, men tend to joke around more when they're surrounded solely by other men and are generally more staid when around women (probably to avoid offending them). That fact alone shitcans the whole theory of comedy as a mating device...but I quickly had another, far better idea.

First, think of what the primary purpose of humor is. I would say that its purpose is to relieve social tension (I would consider general entertainment to be a secondary purpose). Hopefully, there aren't any disagreements with that. Given that the primary purpose is to relieve social tension, then why would men focus so much more on this? Well, it's simple. Its because the stakes are so much higher when it comes to social tension with men. The extreme of social tension amongst men is a physical confrontation that is potentially life threatening. Women, for the most part, are in no physical danger when they argue with someone or escalate a social confrontation. So, it follows, that men would always attempt to make their inter-relations as lighthearted as possible to avoid any possibility of a physical confrontation. Women don't have that pressure, so it follows that a supercharged sense of humor would never have been that valuable of a trait to begin with -- and never developed over the course of evolution. Comments?

Posted by dr_v at September 23, 2004 07:12 AM

Well, I really can't comment on your argument. Since I primarily attract mates based on my looks, my brain never evolved for this kind of logical exercise. But a man just walked by and used his highly-developed critical thinking skills to wonder if you've considered the notion of "social injury", meaning a loss of social standing that presents a significant hazard to an individual's chances of having a comfortable life in his or her society. In primate societies the effect of a male being ostracized is pretty much that he will die alone without getting to reproduce (and that death is much more likely to be from a predator attack or other "untimely" cause than if he were still living in the protection of the social group). The effect of a female being ostracized is quite similar, unless of course she has any offspring; they'll be vulnerable to scavengers if she leaves them alone and goes out to hunt or forage, or they'll starve if she doesn't.

I'd spell out the parallels to human society, but I'm afraid I'm not equipped to do it in a witty and eloquent manner. I just have this feminine intuition that tells me that maintaining social standing is sufficiently important to survival that it's simplistic to discount it if you're talking about risks that need to be avoided.

That's what the man said, anyway.

Posted by: Dianna on September 23, 2004 10:22 AM

Damnit. I paid too much attention to my snideness and my point got obscured. The point was that because social injury presents as great a danger to survival as physical injury (albeit on a slightly longer time scale) and is as dangerous to females as to males, if males have such a pressing need for wit to defuse social tension then females should need it too.

Posted by: Dianna on September 23, 2004 10:34 AM

My comment must begin with expressing extreme surprise (yet pleasure) at seeing a "My Mind's I" posting this morning. Beyond that, I agree with you. Women don't have that kind of tension between them; rather than the threat of physical violence, we have the threat that some other bitch will take our man; so we compete using fashionable clothing and sparkly make-up to not only attract (and keep) men, but also to make other women convinced they shouldn't even try to challenge us. Also, I'd like to point out that humor seems to be something that (no offense to all my male friends that I find incredibly funny) small, nerdy, shy or insecure men tend to develop as a kind of self-defense mechanism to make themselves feel more comfortable and to gain some street 'cred among other men as a fun guy to be around. Men's witty banter rarely amuses women b/c male humor tends to not really click with what a woman deems funny (or appropriate)... since I find men who are trying to be funny often either come off as vulgar or jackasses.

Posted by: Kristina on September 23, 2004 10:53 AM

Let me point out first that saying "no offense" just before you make a blatantly offensive generalization doesn't do anything to negate that generalization.

The first part of this post talks about the gender split in stand-up comedy, while the comments seem to be talking about joking around with your friends. Those things aren't the same. Going into stand-up comedy is more of a professional choice - it's one of the ways you can turn writing, performance, and joke-making skills into something you could survive on. It doesn't necessarily say anything about evolutionary strategy and the role of wit in survival any more than playing in a rock band does. And, much like playing in a band, being a stand-up comedian can increase your chances of getting laid. Not so much because you're funny, but because you're on stage, being mildly famous, and thus, people will talk to you that might not have otherwise.

Conversational funniness is different, and I don't think there's nearly the same gender split as in professional funny-making. I feel like I know a lot of extremely witty and funny women. It's an attractive quality for me, at least. As it relates to getting laid, eh. Being "on" all the time is an unattractive quality, no matter who you are or what you do. Most people in relationships tend to think their partner is funny, I would wager, regardless how well they'd do at an open mic.

Posted by: sean on September 23, 2004 12:18 PM

My desire to not be offensive, yet to express my inately offensive opinions has, once again, horribly, horribly failed me. I think this stems more from my inexcusably poor opinion of men in general (despite the myriad of good men I seem to know) and my being a total and utter bitch on all occassions.

Posted by: Kristina on September 23, 2004 02:08 PM

to offer another reason why the comedy as a mating tool idea should be shitcanned: if males look at female breasts and want to mate with them based on reproductive concerns, shouldn't it follow that women judge male mates on the same basis? comedy/extroverted behavior wouldn't be high on the list in the realms of desirable qualities then. sperm count would though. or money so as to support all the wee little tykes we women will be popping out. social status and comedy are just not the same thing.

furthemore, i would argue that female interactions are much more devious and sneaky than male ones, (see "mean girls"). maybe there is not a threat of physical violence, but there is the threat of serious mud-slinging. comedy should develop in this situation to keep one's surrrounding female social group at ease. because it's when they feel you're not a threat that you can most easily stab them in the back (metaphorically). therefore, comedy can also be seen as a survival trait for females.

Posted by: michele on September 23, 2004 02:29 PM

I shouldn't have chosen the example about breasts for an example of evolutionary psychology. It was just the first thing I thought of (gee, really?). Sorry about that.

Also I would say that small, nerdy, shy or insecure men tend to become professional stand-up comedians but most/all guys "josh" each other.

Posted by: dr v on September 23, 2004 04:37 PM

If humor is a device to counteract male violence, shouldn't women be the funniest fucking people on the planet by now?

Posted by: didofoot on September 24, 2004 08:17 AM

Yeah, I know I'm a little late, but I've got a point no one's made yet and I have nothing to do at work but read out-of-date posts on my friends' websites...

I've been rolling some ideas around in my head for a while (at the point of writing this comment) and this is what I've come up with:

First I was thinking that comedy was probably an evolutionary coincidence--in other words, it evolved as a consequence of other things that had been ACTIVELY selected for, and that since more comedians are men they were probably things that occurred primarily in men (i.e. hunting skills or tool use).

This led me to think that maybe it was a question of right brain v. left brain (since women use the left side and men use the right, maybe the comedy ridge is on the right side). After some research, though, I found this interesting quote:

"The essay on Left Hand and Right Hand disabilities details some original research in the origin of humor by using LHD and RHD patients and a process of joke completion. What is amazing is that the humor source is in neither the Left Brain nor the Right Brain. It is in the coordination of the two hemispheres that humor is made possible. The researchers found that lacking either hemisphere's contribution, only half of the joke was sensed, and the humor was therefore lost. The presence of the coherence half and the non-sequitur half simultaneously creates the possibility for humor. An LHD misses the coherence half of the joke (a Right Brain function) and an RHD misses the non-sequitur half or the punch line (a Left Brain function)"

that pretty much trashes that idea and sends me back to the thought that comedy might just be coincidentally male oriented.

Posted by: Renee on October 22, 2004 08:37 AM

I feel that in order to make 2 people comfortable in a situation one or the other has to relieve the tension.With that said I feel that a comedic influence to reach that goal made by the man makes the woman feel that the man is taking control of the situation and women love a take charge man.Also it makes the women feel comfortable that the man she is with can handle any high pressured situation with with a calm clear confident brain on his shoulders. Women love that also......

Posted by: Danny K on January 8, 2005 04:59 PM

By the way FUCK ALL YOU HOES!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Danny K on January 8, 2005 05:01 PM

not to be spiteful but i think men are all the same when it comes down to it. they act nice as pie to get you into their clutches and then turn into their real selves and start to completely control you and tell you what to wear. then when you start fighting back they act as if your the one in the wrong. to put it bluntly all men are complete arseholes!

Posted by: joanne on March 30, 2005 12:05 PM

Just as a side note, has no one taken into consideration sociology compared to psychology in this situation. That perhaps the male:female ratio of stand up comedians is due to the fact that comedy for men and women are different. That perhaps humor is honed in the same sex groupings and maybe male humor is more amenable to the stand-up forum. I notice that men's humor has a tendency to be more punchy, with a solid set up to a punchline. Its suitable to an everyone look at me, I'm saying something, watch wait, BAM! funny. Whereas womens' humor has a tendency to be more storytelling, which of course often involves audience participation, snarky comebacks or long hilarious stories which take some wherewithal or shared background to truly enjoy (they don't translate easily across cultures). Thus perhaps women's humor is more amenable to written forum, possibly? Just a thought.

But I'm in total agreement with person who said that men develop a stronger sense of humor as a way to get girls. Big fat somewhat insecure guys are really funny and shy nerdy little guys are extremely sarcastic.

Posted by: patricia on November 3, 2006 09:37 PM