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So Why Are Men Funnier Than Women? | A Rambling Discussion on a Touchy Subject
The number of male comedians seems to far exceed the number of female comedians, and this imbalance seems to spur on much debate about which sex is funnier. The lack of female comedians means that usually the decision is that men are funnier.
But is this true? And if it is true, why is it so? On one hand, men just may be more naturally funny overall than women. On the other hand, women may be funnier overall but not be attracted to the world of being a stand-up comedian. Or maybe their humor is a different type of humor more suited to a social setting rather than on a stage.
There could be so many reasons, or none at all, but I’m going to list as many as I can think of here on this page….and you can tell me if you agree or disagree with each of my points in the comments section below. It can be a sensitive subject for some so please play nice!
So who am I and why am I writing this page?
Well I'm female, I’m in my late twenties, I enjoy a range of comedy styles, and I have always been curious about why you don’t see many women comics on TV/in the public eye in comparison to men.
I have to say that whenever people say that “women aren't funny”, or they make a generalised comment along those lines, I can get pretty defensive and annoyed, however much I try not to!
But whilst this generalisation annoys me, if I consider my true thoughts on the subject I can't help but think maybe men are just better at stand-up comedy. This gives me an inner quandary where I feel guilty for being some kind of gender-traitor (!), so I want to thrash out my thoughts on the internet and I hope some kind of civilised discussion is started in the comments (one can hope :))
That isn't to say that I think the “women aren’t funny” generalisation is in any way correct; I’m sure everyone has met a woman who can make them laugh, and met a man who doesn’t have a drop of humor in him (and vice versa). So everyone knows that statement isn't true.
Just maybe humor style is generally different between the sexes, and maybe the female style of humor less often transfers well to stage? Or there are other barriers preventing women from pursuing a comedy career.
When I think back about my friends throughout life, I have had funny female friends and funny male friends. If I try to differentiate between them, I would say that my female friends are more consistently ‘fun’, with witty comments and lots of giggles, whilst male friends were best at taking the mickey, and turning little events and occurrences into funny (and often exaggerated) stories.
As a result of my (narrow) personal life experience, my view is that men are more natural 'storytellers' compared to women, and of course storytelling is a style of humor which lends itself very well to stand-up. Men seem to 'hold court' more to tell a joke or story, rather than making humorous contributions within a group conversation. Women seem to have more of a 'back-and-forth' way of being funny where they don't take center stage.
Of course, these observations are from a ridiculously small pool of people. And with regard to the main argument, the relatively small pool of professional comics is not a particularly reliable way to judge a whole gender either; just because there are more men in that world doesn't mean automatically men are funnier, and it definitely doesn't mean that all men are funnier than all women.
Naturally, in terms of individual people, personality and humor will be very much shaped by their upbringing, peers, environment, friends and family. Nature/nurture will have an extremely large bearing on what you are like as a person.
But on this page I want to look at the possibility of gender having a big influence too, rather than success in comedy being only down to luck and natural personality.
Who am I to judge?
Who judges what is funny anyway? Some people hate the most popular comedians and think they are totally unfunny; humor will always be subjective, and discussions such as this will always result in touchy responses. After all, not everyone can agree on a subject as personal as what you find funny and what you don't find funny.
* All statements and discussion on this page are my own personal opinions. I could put 'in my opinion' before every sentence, but that's boring :) *
The Comedy Carpet, Blackpool, U.K.
Biological, Evolutionary & Social Reasons?
Humor as a social survival method:
Humor has always been a great tool for making friends. People will always drift towards those who can make them laugh and brighten up their day. This is the same for both sexes, so no difference here.
However, if you ever look at survey results where men and women have been asked what they look for in a partner, you will nearly always find that a much higher proportion of women will say " a sense of humor/the ability to make them laugh" as an attribute they look for. Women value and look for this trait more in men than men do in women. Therefore, humor is particularly useful for men when trying to attract a partner.
Perhaps this means that guys put more effort into developing and honing their humor? Perhaps using humor as a means of impressing others comes more naturally to men because it is a great tool for flirting and otherwise attracting a mate? In nature it is most often the male who has to win the female round, however humans don't have impressive plumage like peacocks have; instead words are very important.
Looks are important too of course. In fact, people sometimes note that the less good looking blokes (and people in general) have to develop 'more of a personality' or a 'good sense of humor' to make up for the lack of strong jaws and smouldering eyes!
I don't think there are many 'Brad Pitt types' in comedy at all actually - I can't think of one anyway - which goes a small way towards backing up the theory. In fact most comedians I would say are not 'average' in appearance, they often have something that stands out about them, or they have some 'quirk'.
People often say that a quick wit and a sense of humor (especially in terms of self depreciation) are often part of a defence mechanism against being picked on, or as a way of 'fitting in' at school. On the other hand if you're good looking you are often automatically in the 'popular gang' at school without trying, thus the general view is that you aren't required to develop as much of a character or sense of humor as others. Being funny is a strange sort of survival method for people who aren't so good looking and/or have something weird about them!
In terms of the overall discussion on this page, the greater value placed on men being funny rather than women being funny may encourage men to put more effort into being funny, especially from teenage years onwards - to basically get a girlfriend!
Because the aspiration to be funny is mostly stronger for men, then this could have some influence on more men actually actively pursuing comedy either as a role in life (class clown!) or as a career.
Using humor to make friends, be popular and to defend against being picked on, especially if someone is not confident in their looks, is probably quite equal in both genders, although saying that most of the 'class clowns' I've known have been boys so....maybe humor is just used more as a tool by guys than girls full stop.
Comedy is a tough gig
Being a comic simply consists of making people laugh; this may sound like a nice and enjoyable job, but stand-up comedy is generally regarded as a hard way to make a living.
Comics need a thick skin; they receive a lot of criticism and harsh heckles, and often have to perform in front of hostile or unresponsive audiences. With regards to this element of being a stand-up, women are often regarded as more sensitive and therefore perhaps would be put off by what can be a pretty brutal reception.
Performing comedy needs lots of confidence and/or determination, and even though I'm certainly not labelling women as 'delicate flowers' (!) here, I do think that overall, men have a thicker skin. Just like 'being funny', 'being tough' is also a valued character trait in men as judged by society. Both of these traits are not so valued in women, and so likely has some bearing on how people grow up. Men often grow up fearing judgement if they show sensitivity to comments and words from others, so often learn to 'toughen up' and hide emotions; developing a thicker skin which is useful in the world of comedy.
It is seen as normal for a man to hide their emotions at all times (or nearly all times), and hurt feelings as well as other emotions can be hidden behind a mask of humor. Whereas a woman grows up being expected to be emotional and having the expression of emotions be much more accepted in society, without the need to hide it. Sensitivity wouldn't be a good trait in comedy though....it's pretty harsh!
Comedians are competitive; always trying to outdo others with their jokes - you see it all the time on panel shows. Men overall seem to be naturally more competitive in their lives in general, and more open to giving up their social lives to get ahead in their career. Comedy is a competitive world where only the best can survive and earn enough or make a living out of it.
It may also be the case that men are more likely to 'aim for the top' in their comedy career, whereas women may not be as competitive and may more often stick with comedy as a side gig or hobby. Maybe the desire to get the TV jobs, sell-out theatres isn't as strong overall, so less female comedians get to that stage.
<A Comparison to Being a Chef>
I think a career in comedy does actually compare well to a career as a chef:
Both are very much male-dominated worlds involving high pressure, stress, adrenalin, and unsociable hours. A good level of competitiveness and dedication is required to succeed.
Although more women can cook overall compared to men (although it has become a lot more equal especially in younger generations), most chefs, and definitely most top chefs, are male.
As with comedy, perhaps women could do the job perfectly well but are put off simply by the fact that they know it is a 'man's world' and find it intimidating; maybe women don't thrive in high pressure environments as much as men; perhaps it's the awkward hours that would get in the way of a family/social life; perhaps women less often put their career as number 1 priority in their lives....there could be many reasons.
Being less competitive generally might mean that women don't want to fight their way through their career to become a 'top chef' or a mainstream/well-known comedian. Total one-track focus and dedication is required to be a top chef or top comedian, and I think women may look to future family life or look at their lives as a bigger picture and think maybe the possible glory/money/success isn't worth all the social sacrifices.
Life on the road is not conducive to family life, and the unsociable hours of a comedian aren't the best for leading a regular social life either. As mentioned above, I think family life and the social aspects of life are positioned as a higher priority for women in comparison to men. I do personally believe that men value career success higher than women do overall.
And because women may put out-of-hours activities and 'family stuff' higher in the list of priorities, they would therefore more often seek out more sociable 9-5 working hours, especially if fitting work around kids.
To back this theory up, most female comedians in the mainstream arena seem to either be young (and mostly child-free) or old enough for any kids to have realistically flown the nest. It's a shame I don't have stats to back this up, because it would be interesting (in a totally geeky way!) to compare the ages of working male and female comedians and how many of each have young kids.
Momentum is very important in comedy success; you start with small gigs and build up your material, experience and reputation over years in the hope that you get noticed by the right people who can help you reach a much larger audience. As with many careers (although the issue is becoming better and more equal) women take leave from their job to give birth and perhaps raise their children, thus putting their career on hold. Because this normally happens when the woman is in their 20s or 30s, this career gap has an effect on their career, and if the gap is long enough it can have a lasting detrimental effect of career prospects. With regard to comedy, this kind of age is often when comedians do get their 'big break', and so a break can halt the momentum. There's no way around this of course, it's just that women are the ones who give birth and this could be one reason for lack of mainstream success.
Delivery & Voice
The way in which a comedian delivers their material is one of the most important factors in stand-up, and could be one way in which men may have an advantage.
I have noted that the female comedians who become most successful/mainstream often have a more monotone (or at least a less up-and-down/variable) way of speaking, and often speak with a lower voice than the average woman. In many ways, a more 'male' way of speaking.
Slow and clear speech patterns seem to be common with female comedians, although I can think of one popular female comedian at the moment who speaks quickly (yet clearly) with quite a strong accent.
An important point here is that a lower voice often 'carries' better, which is useful when speaking in front of an audience, and a deeper voice seems stronger and has more of an impact on the listener perhaps. You want all of your audience to hear you clearly and take in what you are saying, and I think the tone/pitch of voice you have is underrated in comedy.
Joke delivery by women is very often deadpan in style; with a lower tone and more level speech. Does this mimic a man's voice better? Does a lower male voice put across information in a clearer and more impactful way?
I find it fascinating that ten people can deliver the same jokes, but some will make it much funnier than others will. A lot of humor comes down to voice, physical expression, comic timing, and the flow of the spoken words. Accent also helps; some are just harder to understand whilst others are acknowledged to be more 'pleasant' to listen to. Some accents are considered more amusing generally like Welsh or Geordie.
As they say; "It's the way you tell 'em"!
Having a likeable or humorous-sounding accent is a strong attribute that can make a comedian stand out and can be a source of jokes too. People seem to warm more to those with a more lyrical, friendly or amusing accent. I've seen Glaswegian, Welsh, Geordie, cockney and 'posh' English being used to great effect as a tool for extra laughs. I'm including this point here just for fun really since it seems to apply equally to both sexes :)
Comedians are often either faster talkers, or particularly slow and deliberate speakers; most don't talk in the same way as they would normally or in a regular conversational tone. Clarity certainly needs to be maintained though!
Amusing natural voices (e.g. Joe Pasquale, Sarah Millican), or low/strong voices seem to be key advantages in comedy, which can disadvantage women perhaps, but comedians often adapt a different way of speaking for their comedy routines anyway, so it's not often an unconquerable barrier.
A commanding presence on stage is paramount if you want to hold the attention of the audience. Perhaps women are slightly hindered, as stated above, by a higher pitch which seems to make less of an impact.
Comic timing and confidence is absolutely paramount when delivering lines. A stuttered punch line is not going to make the audience relax and enjoy the show. Nothing should be stopping women with regards to these abilities though.
Other ways to increase stage presence can include being energetic and moving around, and also physical comedy such as slapstick.
I feel like men make use of the physical comedy and slapstick aspects better (e.g. Lee Evans), whilst I don't often see women move around the stage as much. I don't believe I've ever seen a female comedian give an exuberant performance as part of a stand-up act....from the ones I've seen they tend to stay quite still. But many male comedians I have seen give more energy, act out scenes, and make expressive movements to add another dimension to the act.
If the comic material is weak, physical comedy can very much improve the act...in fact, some people's stand-up acts are more like 80% performance and 20% funny material!
So I guess my point is that women don't seem to naturally incorporate physical comedy in their acts, compared to men, even though it often enhances a story or joke.
More Criticism Towards Female Comedians | Social Bias
People may watch a female comedian, not deem her to be funny and then leap to the "women just aren't funny" generalisation. Whereas, I have never heard someone find a male comedian unfunny and then announce that therefore all men are unfunny. Have you?
This reminds me of a cartoon I saw recently:
Where a poor maths answer by a girl gets blamed on her being a girl, and the lazy stereotype being applied, whereas a poor maths answer by a boy is simply blamed on being poor at maths. Same with driving too; a stereotype of women being bad drivers is applied any time a female driver makes a mistake or drives badly on the road, whereas if a man did the same no-one would say "male drivers" with an eye roll and a smirk.
I don't want to get into the issue of sexism, (even though this whole page is about gender differences!) but when there is a present stereotype that can be used against women, it is often applied automatically, at the smallest failure or slip-up, and I can't help but think this kind of dismissal of all women based on the act of an individual woman is damaging in general.
I feel this applies often in comedy too...where all female comedians, and sometimes all women on the planet, are somehow lumped together when assessing their humor because of the general acknowledgement in society that men are funnier.
Maybe this mentality is instilled in girls from a young age; that they aren't funny, don't need to be funny and wiil never be funnier than the boys. Perhaps this has a knock-on effect where girls lack the confidence to try to be funny, thinking before they even try that it won't be their strength.
The level of critisicm and generalisations levelled at female comedians in the public eye could also do the job of putting women off trying stand-up comedy through fear of the extra judgement and pressure (after all, they are representing "all women" apparently).
When I read people's opinions online about comedy panel shows (always a dangerous occupation!), the woman (usually only one and often referred to as the 'token woman') is the main focus of judgement - as though that one person determines whether women in general can be funny or not.
If they are deemed to have not been funny, people moan about why women are even included in such shows if they 'can't be funny'. If they are deemed to have been OK, then they are often labelled as 'one of the only women' who have the ability to be amusing.
On the other hand, if a man is deemed to be unfunny on this type of show, he is judged on individual merit, and 'men' as a whole are left out of it. He isn't judged against other men and isn't somehow seen to have represented the entirety of a gender.
There still seems to be a sense that women need to prove themselves when pursuing a career that is seen as a 'man's world' or skill that is seen as something men are best at. I assume that this is a relic of more sexist times that has subconsciously been carried on in some areas.
An important point to note here is that the extra criticism of women who pursue careers/hobbies that they are pre-judged (by who?) to be bad at, is not mostly by men or by women, but both genders. I imagine the reason for this is that we all grow up with stereotypes and they become naturally ingrained in ourselves unless we question it and fight the natural inclinations. They are hard to fight, but I think (*gets on soapbox*) the world would be a better place if we all made an effort to judge people on individual merit, not by their gender, social class, career, where they live or anything else (*gets off soapbox.*)
I'm sure like most stereotypes based on gender they will fade over the years as equality becomes more balanced and stable, and past inequality within society (particularly within jobs) becomes a distant memory. Perhaps they will even be replaced with new delightful stereotypes!
It's hard to know how the 'women aren't funny' stereotype can end. There have been, and are, very successful female comedians around, but will there have to be more female comedians than male comedians in the public eye for women to finally shake off this judgement that sticks to them like glue?
We’re all working against an unconscious social bias that tells us that women aren't a good fit for many technical jobs, manual labour jobs, and, indeed, comedy careers. This could definitely be a factor which puts of prospective female comedians.
With regard to a point I mentioned briefly above - referring to how the BBC now require at least one woman in every panel show - this article is a great read. This BBC rule certainly hasn't helped the already-prevalent 'token woman' comments unfortunately.
I think more criticism of 'looks' is directed towards women as a whole compared to guys, but not just in comedy so it's only a side issue in this discussion.
I think laughing more at jokes made by good looking people occurs pretty much equally towards both male and female comedians; in normal life too of course, people laugh more at jokes made by people they fancy!
Both genders seem to benefit from unusual looks or quirks....whether particularly tall or small, bizarre fashion choices, a 'character' created artificially, odd hair styles or facial hair. I think this is more that these sorts of differences in appearance help comedians stand out in the first place, and therefore can be useful attribute for getting ahead in a competitive world.
Men seem to take advantage of quirks and create comedy 'characters' more often than women, but there's nothing stopping women doing the same, so it's not relevant to the overall debate.
Other Points to Consider
Subjects covered in stand-up material:
I think female comedians too often follow the well-trodden path of telling jokes about topics which only women can really empathize with (e.g. menstruation or shopping for slimming underwear), which can seem a bit predictable and is pretty tricky for half of the population to relate to.
People of course make jokes about 'what they know', and almost any situation funny can be made humorous if the story is told right, but I think that alienating half the population by aiming jokes mainly at women could be a hindrance for reaching a wider audience and becoming a 'mainstream' hit.
Men can do this too, but it does seem to be more often women who make gender-specific jokes and focus on gender in their act. Female comedians often have largely female audiences too, which is probably explained by the subjects that are usually covered.
I believe that the reason behind this gender focus is similar to how very tall comedians make jokes about their height, foreign comedians make jokes about where they are from, black comedians make jokes about being black, and so on. It's something about them that makes them stand out and stand apart from other comedians - it's important for comedians to have a point of difference and be memorable, plus people's differences are often a good source of original material.
I understand that when women were a rarity on the comedy circuit that jokes about being a female comedian would have been understandable, and kind of necessary really otherwise it could be 'the elephant in the room'. But now female comedians are much less rare, so I feel like gender-specific jokes shouldn't be the go-to any more, because being a woman isn't so much a point of difference.
White men have always been the majority in comedy (at least here in the UK) so they have never felt the need to make a point of their gender, because that was the norm, not something that made them stand out amongst their fellow comedians.
I think men more often make general observations about life rather than making it obviously more about men and telling stories specifically and pointedly from 'a male perspective'.
So, in summary, I think some female comedians hold themselves back from mainstream success by not talking to the whole audience (i.e. to both genders) about things that most people could relate to, or by not telling jokes that most could find amusing. I doubt that men want to hear 'intimate female talk' for instance (I may be wrong though!)
In terms of how humor is created in daily social interactions, women seem to more often enjoy back-and-forth humorous interaction - chatting - in comparison to men. Women seem to like direct and immediate feedback/emotion/validation in response to what they are saying, whereas men are more likely to monologue/tell a story and otherwise entertain people with more of a one-sided conversation. Men seem more likely to tell a long anecdote or funny story, maybe as a way of impressing or entertaining others, whilst women chat to-and-fro to exchange information that is equally fulfilling on both sides of the conversation.
This could be entirely wrong, but I get the feeling that women prefer to have a funny conversation than to tell a funny story, whereas it is the other way around for men. This would mean that the lack of immediate (spoken) feedback, contribution and interaction from the audience during a stand-up comedy routine would not feel as natural to a female comedian.
In the text above I have covered many possible reasons for the differences in humor and mainstream success between the sexes....including high levels of criticism compared to other careers, social expectations and ingrained stereotypes, priorities and even voice tone/pitch.
I often think a great experiment would be to give the same material to a certain number of male and female comedians, and have them both perform the same act in front of different audiences. Then the audiences would be asked to score the acts. I would be very interested to know which gender received a higher score overall. If the women got a distinctly higher score then that would blow my whole discussion out of the water though!
So what do you think? Do you think I have some valid reasons? Or are they all baloney?! Please let me know :)