Afternoon Inquisition

AI: With friends like these, who needs anemones!

If you’ve been around Skepchick for a while, you know that I’m a funny chick. I am. It’s a huge part of what makes up Elyse. Elyse brings the funny. I like to think that I balance it out with bits of awesome as well.

What’s interesting to me is the reaction I get from people when I acknowledge the fact that I am funny. It’s certainly not something that I think makes me better than anyone else. Really, it’s not even a very useful skill in and of itself. Yet, if I say that I’m funny, people scoff. I know it’s generally awkward for people to acknowledge their talents, and we’re supposed to be modest and apologetic about them, yet if I said I was a great cook, or a good dancer, or a gifted mathlete, I don’t think I’d get the same reaction. And the kicker is that the scoffing is done by people who know me… well… and who really do think I’m funny! I don’t even claim to be funniest. I’m no Bloggess, for sure. And I bow to Brian Thompson, Amateur Scientist and comedy god.

But men can describe themselves as funny in the same way they can describe themselves as tall or athletic.

I’ve seen it explained that saying a person has a “good sense of humor” means different things for men and women. For a man, it means that he makes people laugh. For a woman, it means she laughs at other people’s jokes. I don’t know how true that is, but I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that women aren’t funny, that women comedians are awful or something similar and see everyone in the room nod in agreement.

What’s up with this? Why aren’t chicks funny? Why can’t chicks say they’re funny? And seriously, how hilarious am I!

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. Elyse, my detailed scientific analysis shows that you are:

    87% freakin’ hilarious
    12% batshit crazy
    1% high fructose corn syrup.

    Not sure where the corn syrup came from, but equations don’t lie.

    Anyone who says that women aren’t funny is a clueless moron. I don’t know how someone could even suggest the possibility! In no particular order, I would submit the following names:

    Ellen DeGeneres
    Margaret Cho
    Maria Bamford
    Wanda Sykes
    Paula Poundstone
    Sarah Silverman
    Kathleen Madigan

    I would pay money to listen to any one of these women do standup.

  2. Some of the funniest people I know have no penises! Turns out that a penis (or indeed an entire Y-chromosome) is completely optional to teh funneh. Who knew?

    (My wife, for example, is hilarious. Inappropriate most of the time, but that’s part of what’s so funny about her. Hell, our -cat- is funny and female!)

  3. Totally went in a different, non-sexist direction when I started reading this… namely “My Blue Heaven” where Steve Martin talks about how everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor, and most people don’t. Possibly coincidentally, funny stuffs in that movie from Joan Cusack, Melanie Mayron, and Carol Kane.

    I seem to also remember that Christopher Hitchens once claimed that women couldn’t be funny… actually twice if I recall correctly, which means that Hitchens is as likely to double down on bad ideas as quickly as it does on the good ones. I’ll go ahead and assume that men who think women aren’t as funny as men fall into the same category as the folks who think they have a good sense of humor and don’t.

  4. They look at you funny because women are socialized to not think positively about themselves in any way that doesn’t fall in line with the patriarchy. So if you identify as an excellent wife/mother/teacher/nurse … well, duh, you’re supposed to be and that’s not very impressive anyway because it’s just what women do. Women don’t do funny. They’re also not supposed to be in STEM fields. And they can’t make serious music because they just can’t master the technique. Those are all skills viewed out of bounds because they’d get in the way of our proper places tending home and hearth and the needs of the menfolk. They make people uncomfortable because they still seem unfamiliar as it’s a frustrating cycle of ridicule and belittling filling girls with doubt who grow up with squashed ambition and bitterness and an “if I couldn’t do it, you certainly can’t either, bitch” attitude. That’s why a 9 year old girl like Willow Smith has haters to write a song about. (A 9 year old with haters!) And why the people in my office couldn’t articulate their policy disagreements with Hillary Clinton but man oh man could they tell you all about their strong feelings why she’s unsuited to office –all based on her sartorial choices.

    How many hilarious voices did we miss out on because they were only heard by audiences of dishes and toddlers? It’s hard to throw yourself out there into the fire, but man, I respect a woman who does. Rock the fuck on, Elyse.

  5. It’s a cultural thing. Men feel like they have to be witty to impress the ladies and women feel like they have to laugh to impress the men. Things are changing, though.

  6. I have never understood people who think women, as a whole, aren’t funny.
    Some of my best friends are black favorite comedians are women (Fey, Bamford, Kenney-Silver, Silverman…). My absolute favorite sketch comedians in NY are a duo of ladies who kill me every time I see them.
    And my wife, is HIGH-larious. Extremely quick-witted, perfect timing and the mouth of a sailor.
    Elyse, you constantly crack me up here and on Twitter. We know you’re funny, and you should unapologetically flaunt that fact every fucking chance you get.
    @Eliza: I’ve heard very similar things from female comedians. I think you are spot on.
    @Improbable Joe: He said that on SGU. I was quite taken aback and was also surprised that Rebecca didn’t gut him on the spot.

  7. “it means she laughs at other people’s jokes”

    I thought it was code for not attractive. “Oh you’ll love Ellen, she has a great sense of humor!”

  8. I find myself hilarious! I don’t mind so much that other people don’t, because I’m my target audience and I crack myself up a lot. I keep about 99% of my hilarious thoughts to myself though, I don’t want to annoy everyone around me.

    I don’t think anyone is allowed to say they’re funny regardless of gender. We’re not allowed to say that we’re smart either. Even if it’s true. False modesty is so rubbish.

  9. Still remember some jackass looking at me and saying, with disgust, oh, a funny girl.

    If you’re raised on Monty Python, it’s very difficult to take anything seriously. If you lack a brain-mouth edit function, you get used to the taste of foot…but you also get some laughs!

  10. @Loki: I don’t think I ever succeeded in making Alessandra Stanley laugh. :-(
    Elyse, on the other hand, has cracked me up lots of times.

    The worlds greatest authority on all things, including dinosaur extinction, salamanders and humor (my niece) says “there are two kinds of jokes. Jokes where you say something funny about someone and jokes where you do something funny to someone.” “Those are called ‘practical jokes'”, my brother butted in. “Yes, and they’re hilarious“, she continued. She is also very fond of fart jokes.

  11. Cred up front: I’m a comedic professional – and by that, I mean I perform, comedy is a huge part of my performance, I get paid for my comedic performances, and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. Credentials? Argument from authority? You decide.

    Elyse, I read skepchick and value your comments, but really, I wouldn’t say you’re hilarious. Honestly, I wouldn’t say you’re any funnier than any of the other skepchicks (and that includes Sam)…except Rebecca. I think Rebecca’s pretty darn funny.

    But that’s all individuals. And while I agree with many of the female comedic professionals named above (Carol Burnett, Paula Poundstone, et al…but not Wanda Sykes, who is painfully UNfunny and antifunny at the same time), those are specific examples that only prove that females can be funny, but not all are, not even a majority.

    I’ve met a lot of comedic professionals in my years of performing, and very, very few are female. Why? Hard to say, but it’s my (professional) opinion that to be funny means you have to put yourself “out there” and be willing to embarass yourself, look stupid, etc. You have to risk your dignity. And I think society is much harder on women who risk their dignity and lose than it is on men. It’s accepted that men can be loveable goofballs. But women? Not as much. It’s almost like the old “men are studs but women are sluts” thing – if a man smacks himself in the face with a pie he’s being a clown, but if a woman does that it seems she has no respect for herself. Dunno why, but that’s the way it seems to me.

  12. @mikespeir: “Men feel like they have to be witty to impress the ladies and women feel like they have to laugh to impress the men.”

    Really? Because as I remember it, Joe had to be witty to avoid getting beaten into the ground by bullies, and girls didn’t have to do much being being female in order to impress the guys.

  13. Recently, for a research methods class, I researched this very topic (not how funny you are but gender differences in humor).
    Before I say anything else, I want to add my disclaimer here:
    1 – yes, it is social science and as such not as exact as chemistry.
    2 – yes, I am aware that I’m about to make some generalizations. They reflect the very clear and significant trends that are shown by the data, and for practical reasons I won’t be saying “but it’s more like guidelines, and there are many exceptions” every other line here.
    3 – yes, I am also aware that there are many people of both genders that do not fit the pattern.
    4 – if anyone wants sources, I can dig out my paper and post some, but I’m not going to worry about them right now.

    In general the genders approach humor very differently. Men use humor primarily as a dominance tool. In the video above Hitchens says if men couldn’t make women laugh they’d never get laid. That might be a slight exageration (maybe not even slight). But men primarily use humor competitively, to make themselves look better than the other guy. Women primarily use humor as a bonding agent, to diffuse situations, to connect.
    What that means in practical terms is that men tell canned jokes. Canned jokes are safe, they don’t expose who you are as a person. You can test them, work them, get them just right, like a recipe. You can be aggressive and demeaning and say things that in the context of normal conversation would get you labeled a bigot, because after all, it’s not your fault if they can’t take a joke, you didn’t mean it anyway. Men are more likely to become professional comedians, or write humorous books. When they joke about everyday life kinds of things, it’s often to make someone else (or a group of people) look stupid. Also, it’s very hard to use humor effectively in a competitive way without an audience. Humor for men is not only competitive, it’s a spectator sport.

    Women on the other hand, share of themselves when they use humor. They are much more likely to use situational humor, tell stories from their life, and laugh at life in general, but in a “yeah that happens to me too” or “isn’t life inherently funny or ironic” kind of way. Contrast, for instance, any of Foxworthy’s redneck humor books and any of Bombeck’s books – say “The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank”. Jeff says aren’t these people ridiculous. Erma says isn’t life funny. Women can and do write and perform humor every day, but for women the audience is generally optional.

    From a man’s point of view, I sometimes wonder if a woman’s humor doesn’t look like a soufle that didn’t rise. If you look at humor as a power play, isn’t life funny kind of stuff just doesn’t cut it. There are no power games, there’s sharing going on (leaving women vulnerable to ridicule), there’s a sense that we’ve all been there that tends to put everyone at the same level. As power plays go, a complete flop.

  14. I really enjoy finding a comedian that makes me laugh. The problem is that most comedians I hear only elicit a chuckle or a smile. Most of the stand up artists I really like are dead or not as funny as they were when they were younger. I like comedians who are willing to be brutally honest, irreverent and a bit nasty, which seems to describe more male comedians I suppose. And perhaps the lifestyle of doing endless small clubs and being on the road all the time is less appealing to women ergo fewer women comedians. The funniest bunch of women I’ve seen working together were in the original SNL cast…, Curtin, Newman and Radner. And I think Joan Rivers uncensored stage is a very funny.

  15. @Lyr: I thought about mentioning Lucy, but only because I’ve never found her funny at all. She’s the female Jerry Lewis who gets the award as the least funny comedian ever in my book. I think comedy taste is a lot like music taste; very personal and what you don’t like you really object to.

  16. @Zoltan: Just because you get paid to perform doesn’t mean that 1)You are the end-all-be-all of what is funny, or 2)That you yourself are actually funny.

    Your comment rubbed me the wrong way. It was like you were patting yourself on the back for being so awesome. Elyse patted herself on the back, sure, but when she did it, IT WAS FUNNY, and not “I am a serious comedian and I must talk down to everyone else because I get $$$$ to make people laugh!”

    Hmmm…. I think she’s funnier. How ’bout them apples? She made me laugh in her post. Several times. You made me roll my eyes. several times. Zzzzz.

    Anyone who starts off with, “I am a pro comedian and now I am going to tell you why you are don’t know what you’re talking about!!” is probably not funny and most likely obnoxiously pretentious (likely without any reason to be).

  17. I’ve noticed that with a particular group of my friends, all male, that they get a bit twitchy if I join in their more or less incessant mocking of each other. I don’t do it often, because their humour tends toward the toilet end of things, but if I spot an opportunity, I’m not going to pass it up :)

    It does seem as though they think girls shouldn’t say those sort of things. Now that they’re ‘used’ to me, I think that idealised view has worn off a bit. But giving each other a good ripping appears to be some kind of male bonding thing that I wasn’t invited to…

    I once had the displeasure of seeing a genuinely awful female comedian at a comedy club in New York. Her entire routine consisted of lame, unoriginal jokes about how much stuff was in her purse, and an overly long anecdote about her engagement ring that didn’t have a punchline. Afterwards, the two guys I was with made some generalised comments about women in comedy. Heated discussion ensued. Eventually it was agreed that generalising was inappropriate and some women are good at comedy. What was interesting was that there was another disaster of a routine which we agreed was even worse than the woman’s, but no one came out saying ‘men can’t do stand up’ because of his performance. Bizarre.

    The ‘women can’t do stand up’ argument is a bit thin, seeing as there are plenty of successful female comedians out there. But I think sometimes women tend to aim their jokes at women and make them about women. Which there’s nothing wrong with, of course, but it goes some way to explaining why men don’t get it.

    PS Elyse, any post that references Finding Nemo in the title gets a thumbs up from me :)

  18. @Kyerin: It does seem as though they think girls shouldn’t say those sort of things. Now that they’re ‘used’ to me, I think that idealised view has worn off a bit. But giving each other a good ripping appears to be some kind of male bonding thing that I wasn’t invited to…

    I can’t speak for those males, but for myself, its not that ‘girls shouldn’t say those things’, its that I am not sure if I should be saying those things to her. I live in a culture where far far too often, the mocking of females (among others) is real, not a form of bonding banter.
    I am careful when starting the banter with a woman, with frequent checks to see that I’m not being inadvertently insulting. Most of the time, it becomes a healthy give-and take in short order.
    But sometimes, it never gets off the ground. I try to find other ways to be friends.

  19. I disagree Elyse, or at least I personally LOVE a woman who is funny.

    Funny is funny.

    What’s the definition of funny? Are there sex differences in how funny is presented or appreciated? Are there social constraints specific to culture?

    If it makes me laugh, it’s probably funny.

    Are there sex differences? Probably. But it’s more based upon one’s world view, one’s experiences, one’s fund of knowledge, one’s perspective of what is normal or acceptable and what deviates or twists that norm.

    Funny is funny and I don’t care if it a man or a woman saying or doing the funny thing or even if it’s a pig. But, to quote Samuel L Jackson, it has to be one mighty charming, motherfuckin’ pig.

    Funny is funny.

  20. First, thank you to all those above for saying the obvious. Men who call themselves funny are asking to be mocked or scoffed, just as women.

    But I should also like to add that people who are criticizing the notion that women are not funny by naming funny women are missing the point. Imagine someone said women are short. What is meant is obvious. Women [compared to mean] are [generally] short [-er than men]. The same is meant by saying that women are not funny. It does not mean that there are no funny women.

    I, for one, cannot defend Hitchen’s assertion that women are not funny. But I have noticed that women are not funny around me until they know me very well. I am not prepared to generalize from my anecdote. Perhaps I am selecting funny women and getting to know them well. Perhaps women are not funny in the same social situations as men. Perhaps women in the same encounter have different social situations than men. It’s not that I’m uninterested, it’s that I really don’t know.

  21. @Zoltan:

    Honestly, I wouldn’t say you’re any funnier than any of the other skepchicks (and that includes Sam)…except Rebecca.

    Hmmm . . . So Elyse is only funnier than Rebecca??

    I still have the biggest penis among the group, right?

  22. I think it was Maria Bamford who said (paraphrasing), “It’s not so much that there aren’t a lot of funny women, just that there are a lot of guys with too much confidence in their Chris Rock impression.” Sure, there are way more comics who are men than women, but the vast majority of comics can’t muster much better than the humor sections of Readers Digest.

    Maybe it’s just easier for the men to get paid (nothing new there). I’m sure there are thousands of women funnier than Carlos Mencia, but it seems like people won’t tune in to see a show fronted by a female comic (or networks won’t make them in the first place). There are also no girl cereal mascots, very few female action stars, and gereally low representation of women in the main character role across genres. It sucks.

    Personally, I can’t name a lot of female comics I like, but I can’t really name a lot of male comics I like either. Maria Bamford DEFINITELY makes my top 5; she’s feminist, blasphemous, shameless, honest, and, most importantly, fucking funny. Any skepchicks who haven’t checked her out should definitely do so. Her most recent CD and her various “Comedians of Comedy” projects (a couple are on Netflix Instant) are all worth a view/listen.

    Hitchens’ rant about women not being funny was enough for me to barely pay any attention to him since. It’s a bummer that the man has cancer, but his brand of “free thought” never really lined up with mine, except for the whole disbelief-in-god thing.

  23. @Kyerin:

    PS Elyse, any post that references Finding Nemo in the title gets a thumbs up from me

    And not a single person has replied with, “You think you can do these things but you just can’t!”

    Which makes me sad.

    And, while I was specifically talking about acknowledging that I’m funny amongst people who I know well (friends, family), many of insisted that it was in poor taste for anyone to ever declare themselves funny. I was not declaring myself funny as I walked into a room of strangers… though, I think doing that would be quite funny. But OKtrends says that doing so is very socially acceptable for men.

    Hispanic men routinely describe themselves as “funny”, “very funny” or “I’m a funny guy”. This is not the case for women. Women do not describe themselves as funny.

    I do. Even if it means I’m only as funny as Sam.

  24. As for our “paid comedian for twenty years” above, that’s pretty much a guarantee that he’s not much of a funny guy as far as I’m concerned. He’s about as qualified to judge humor as a guy playing blues guitar in the same bar band for twenty years would be to produce the next Radiohead album.

  25. There aren’t that many women who are comedians for the same reason there aren’t that many women who are lead guitartists in rock bands.

    As a culture, we don’t accept women in roles that (1) give them intellectual power over the other people (particularly men) in the room and (2) make them a figure of desire for any reason other than their appearance. Women are trained early and often to understand that if they are not desirable to men, they are nothing. And men, for the most part, don’t want women who can make fun of things because there’s always the threat that she’ll make fun of them. When a man says he likes a woman with a good sense of humour, he means a woman who laughs at his jokes.

    It’s just your standard, run-of-the-mill misogyny. Nothing new to see here.

  26. Personally I don’t find many women funny.
    I’m a big fan of stand-up but there isn’t a woman that makes even my top ten comics.
    Does that make me sexist or a mysoginist?
    If so I can’t help it. I can’t make myself laugh at something that’s not funny (to me).
    Comedy is like music. If I hear something I like I laugh. It’s got nothing to do with power or gender roles as far as I can tell.
    Some women can say funny things but IMHO they aren’t as “funny” as a group as men are.
    And for the record when I say I like a woman with a sense of humour (like my wife!) it means I like someone that makes me laugh.

  27. I know some girls who are funny but in general I don’t think that girls are typically funny.
    Maybe it is because there are so many male comedians that you are bound to see a funny one (2 good ones died in September) or 9 and there aren’t nearly as many female comedians.

    But for the most part talking about how hard it is to find a man or lose weight or how your mom doesn’t understand you just doesn’t do it for me.
    And for some of the comedians listed, just because you drop the hard C into your act doesn’t make you edgy.

    I think a good comedian tells a story well.

    Tina Fey is funny, but I wouldn’t want to see her do stand up (Same with Tracy Morgan, he’s not funny in a stand up way).

    Ok, so maybe girls are funny but just not in the same way. Nobody wants to see a female Larry the Cable Guy*.

    Maybe guys are funny for the same reason peacocks have great ass feathers?

    *oh wait, wasn’t she called Roseanne?**
    ** Or a male Larry the Cable Guy

  28. Saying that you don’t find women funny, as a group, does make you sexist.

    It’s akin to saying ‘I don’t find black people funny, as a group. Maybe I just like jokes about watermelon and fried chicken,’ and then wondering if that makes you racist.


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