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December 08, 2006

Christopher Hitchens On Why Women Aren't Funny

To caveat it, as he does, there are funny women, just not as many of them as men.

To caveat it again, I'm not sure Christopher Hitchens is well-qualified to opine on the topic of humor. He's ascerbic, dry, witty... and I know I've chuckled at something he's said at some point... but actually funny? I don't know. He wonders if Dorothy Parker was ever really funny (a good point), but the same question may be asked of himself. He's funny in the way Parker was funny -- witty, cutting, etc., but rarely giggle-yourself-stupid funny.

Anyway, here's the meat of his theory:

Substitute the term "self-defecation" (which I actually heard being used inadvertently once) and almost all men will laugh right away, if only to pass the time. Probe a little deeper, though, and you will see what Nietzsche meant when he described a witticism as an epitaph on the death of a feeling. Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone's expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste. Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough. (Perhaps not by coincidence, battered as they are by motherfucking nature, men tend to refer to life itself as a bitch.) Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is. Jokes about calamitous visits to the doctor or the shrink or the bathroom, or the venting of sexual frustration on furry domestic animals, are a male province. It must have been a man who originated the phrase "funny like a heart attack." In all the millions of cartoons that feature a patient listening glum-faced to a physician ("There's no cure. There isn't even a race for a cure"), do you remember even one where the patient is a woman? I thought as much.


The plain fact is that the physical structure of the human being is a joke in itself: a flat, crude, unanswerable disproof of any nonsense about "intelligent design." The reproductive and eliminating functions (the closeness of which is the origin of all obscenity) were obviously wired together in hell by some subcommittee that was giggling cruelly as it went about its work. ("Think they'd wear this? Well, they're gonna have to.") The resulting confusion is the source of perhaps 50 percent of all humor. Filth. That's what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth in lavish, heaping quantities. And there's another principle that helps exclude the fair sex. "Men obviously like gross stuff," says Fran Lebowitz. "Why? Because it's childish." Keep your eye on that last word. Women's appetite for talk about that fine product known as Depend is limited. So is their relish for gags about premature ejaculation. ("Premature for whom?" as a friend of mine indignantly demands to know.)

A lot of it probably has to do with social rewards in early development. Boys are rewarded more for being clownish by both sexes, whereas women are less rewarded by both. Really funny stuff is often trangressive, or self-deprecating, and girls may pay too high a penalty for being transgressive or self-deprecating in the social system.

But a big thing is, as he says, the idea most women have that humor should be elevated. Although the more elevated forms of humor can be funny, they're often "smiling nod" funny, and not belly-laugh funny. I don't think I know too many women who appreciated the genius of Beavis and Butthead. (Although that could have something to do with the fact that the characters were idiotic, mysogynistic, degenerate losers. Rich, handsome men are frequently thought by women to be funny, even when they're not -- they're just rich and handsome. And Beavis and Butthead were a scream, but women may just have been too repulsed to enjoy them.)

On the dirty-joke thing: I was thinking that before I read Hitchens writing it. Although I think that men aren't so crude in joking as adults, nor women so elevated. But I do think that kids learn the template of humor from the dirty joke. You learn the basics of joke structure from dirty jokes as a kid, then apply that to other things later. That's what I was getting at with the "trangressive" thing -- it could be that girls are less willing to indulge in dirty joking at a young age, and so are less facile with the basic template of the joke.

Who knows. I just know that compos mentis crapping his pants at his daughter's soccer game is some pretty funny shit.

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posted by Ace at 10:39 AM

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