I was at a small comedy show recently where a panel of eight or so comedians discussed who they thought would be on the “Mount Rushmore of Comedy.” I listened as all the comics listed their top four comics of all time and only one woman, Maria Bamford, was listed. And she was picked by the host, who went last, who might have thought “Hey, maybe I should throw a woman in there.” (and I only say that because everyone vehemently disagreed with Bamford’s right to be on the Mountain) That’s 8×4=24+ “best comedians of all time” listed and only one female comic came up. Isn’t that weird?
It reminded me of another time when I was in college in California. I was eating a meal alone with two married professors who lived in my dorm. They were asking me about what doing stand up comedy was like and wondered who I thought were the most influential comedians of all time. I listed off a few names like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Woody Allen, Mitch Hedberg, I can’t remember who else. And then I finished. But the professors shot me a stern look, like they were expecting more names.
After a moment of silence, one of them said with an air of complete and utter disappointment, “Don’t you think you should name some women?”
To them it was a glaring omission, but to me it wasn’t even something I had considered. I just said what came to mind. I hadn’t noticed everyone I mentioned was a man. I didn’t think, “Oh, well I better say some women too.”
I thought for a second and then said, “You know, I don’t really see many female comics as that influential to comedy in general. In terms of ‘women in comedy’ I definitely think there have been some influential comedians, but I wouldn’t really sub-categorize comedy like that.”
I immediately realized that was a mistake.
I quickly recovered: “Well, I think Joan Rivers is fantastic!”
Smooth, right? But still, I thought that Rivers was more “hilarious” than influential. Definitely influential for other female comics, that’s for sure. But all of comedy?
According to this Atlantic article Plight of the Funny Female: Why people tend to appreciate men’s humor so much more than women’s, which compiles a ton of research on gender and humor, people (women included) generally see women as less funny than men. Am I a humor sexist like most people? Or do I and those other eight comics who were at that show have some kind of reasonable point?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I never said that I thought women weren’t funny. I do think Joan Rivers is hilarious and I can think of loads of other female comics who I know personally that really make me laugh, not to mention a bunch of female friends I think are hysterical. (loads/lds. is the customary metric system units for comedians, by the way)
The best three shows I’ve ever seen were Mike Birbiglia, Dan Cummins, and Nikki Glaser. And in all three I was practically hyperventilating with laughter, which just does not happen to me, ever. And Glaser is a woman, in case you didn’t know. She also always kills it on @midnight.
I know that women are funny, but I also know that a lot of other people have trouble realizing that. I think that’s part of the reason why female comics haven’t reached Mt. Rushmore in my mind: women have to overcome the idea that “women aren’t funny” that most of society believes. And it’s really hard to do that.
I mean, just look at the numbers alone…I frequently find myself at all-dude mics or shows. How often are there all-chick mics or shows? Practically never.
One thing the Atlantic article talks about in great length is the role of evolution in this weird sexist humor thing. The reason that researchers say women care about humor in a man is that it shows intelligence. And, when a woman is scoping out “mates” in a bar, she wants to choose a man who is smart and will stick around.
Men, on the other hand, also look for women who “have a good sense of humor.” But, to a man, that means “she thinks I’m hilarious and laughs at all my jokes,” not “she makes a lot of great jokes that I find are hilarious.”
Men prefer women who are receptive to their humor, whereas women prefer men who produce humor.
Successful relationships and male/female dating interactions involve way more female laughing and way less male laughing. There are a lot of factors telling women that they aren’t funny or that they should try not to be. And I think that’s a huge reason why women don’t even try to do stand up comedy. I know a ton of funny girls who would never try something like stand up. Guys are less afraid of making a stupid joke and, possibly, they are less intimidated by the thought of hearing total silence after their joke.
Men are willing to take more risks [in humor], and they also fail more miserably.
Another thing for female comics to overcome is the huge stereotype that women only tell sex/dirty jokes or must resort to “female comedy” to be funny. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “female comedy,” or material that more women than men find relatable. And there’s nothing wrong with sex jokes either. Male comics also tell a ton of perspective jokes and dick jokes, it’s just what people do. Louis C.K.’s sets always have sex or poop jokes. People tell those jokes because they work. Yes, they’re usually hacky, but they work.
Look at Amy Schumer, for example. She’s blowing up in popularity, but most of her jokes are female-oriented. It seems like every girl I talk to who finds out that I do stand up will go, “Oh do you like Amy Schumer?! She’s HILARIOUS!” Whereas I’ve never once heard that high of praise from a guy. And, I haven’t listened to her last special, but I know the joke she’s most famous for is a sex joke that sounds like a Patrice O’Neal joke. Female jokes? Check. Sex jokes? Check.
Yes, Amy Schumer is awesome and I think she is really funny, but at the same time you didn’t hear “Amy Schumer” come up in that Mt. Rushmore of Comedy discussion once, even from the female comics who were on the panel. I think that we’re still one step away from that level of appreciation for female comics. Right now I think society is at “Women are allowed to think women are really funny!” But I think that “Women are really funny!” is still in the future.
Why don’t women get as much respect in comedy? Well, if there are female comics like Iliza Schlesinger, who specifically chose to go nude on the cover of her Netflix special so that more guys would click on it, it’s harder for people to take her seriously. If you’re playing the sexist game, you can’t also break the sexist game. Schlesinger is a creative and new and hilarious comic, but it shouldn’t matter how she looks. It should matter what she says! I’m sure that objectifying herself for more views is part of the joke, but it shouldn’t have to be.
Women aren’t not funny, they just haven’t been given a chance yet. I think society will catch up. Getting past that evolutionary instinct that women aren’t funny, if you will, takes a lot of learning. Obviously, people still have some lingering idea that women aren’t funny. When the audience catches up, I think they’ll finally be able to take women more seriously. When that happens, I think women will find it easier to tackle more serious material and still be funny, rather than resorting to “female comedy” or “sex jokes” or “dirty jokes” that are crowd-pleasers. There are a lot of female comics out there right now who are more serious, or at least don’t resort to those topics. Tig Notaro and Maria Bamford are good examples. I think the more the audience changes with time, the more those types of female comics will be respected.