This is, of course, a stupid question. Plenty of women are funny. Our culture’s baseline arbiter of funny, Saturday Night Live, now features a cast headlined by Kristen Wiig (who, as I figure things, is the first female deserving of Most Valuable Cast Member status—she’s been the funniest person on the show for the last two seasons). Tina Fey has launched herself into fame over the past five years, starting as SNL’s first female head writer, impersonating Sarah Palin, and executive-producing 30 Rock, which, if you go by Emmy’s standards, is the best comedy on television. Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, that really skinny pretty girl who has a dirty mouth (I think her name’s Whitney?), Chelsea Handler, Aisha Tyler…there’s a lot of funny women out there.
And yet…men keep asking the question. Christopher Hitchens wrote an infamous piece in 2007 for Vanity Fair giving his reasons: it has something to do with women being able to give birth and men knowing that actually puts them in charge, and men trying to subvert this earth-mother status with humor—one of those things that sound super-interesting and intelligent while you’re reading it, but ultimately you think to yourself, how the hell could anyone know if this is in any way true? Many famous male comedians have stated publicly they don’t think women are very funny—John Belushi and Chevy Chase have both been quoted saying basically that, even while they were working alongside female cast members on SNL.
The real question isn’t why women aren’t funny, because as we’ve demonstrated, that’s not even true. Men laugh watching the Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler-as-Hilary Clinton skit (which, okay fine, a man—Seth Myers—wrote it, but still). Women are often very funny. The question we’re actually asking may be: why is a woman never the Most Hilarious Person Ever?
Most Hilarious Person Ever status gets conferred on the person we acknowledge as the King of Comedy, in any situation—in a movie or a television show, but also just in regular life. Amongst your friends, someone gets anointed as the Most Hilarious Person Ever. In high school they get voted Class Clown, or Most Likely to Make You Laugh in the yearbook. And in a really disproportionate way, men are usually the ones being anointed.
Taking SNL as an example, I can name a few of the Most Hilarious People Ever off the top of my head: the real alpha dogs who were obviously the anchors of the entire cast the whole time they were on, like Will Ferrell or Eddie Murphy or Dana Carvey, and others who were a bit more limited but perfected their shtick, like Adam Sandler or Jimmy Fallon, and others who were maybe too weird to be alpha dogs but were indisputably hilarious in everything, like Tracy Morgan or Phil Hammond.
Even if you were to agree with me that Kristen Wiig is currently the most valuable cast member, I don’t think anyone would say that she has, or ever will have, the same stature as Will Ferrell. People like Ferrell just dominate every scene they’re in, just like some people you might know just dominate the conversation at a dinner amongst friends. Wiig is an amazingly precise performer—the way she measures out the rhythm, timing, and volume of her dialogue, along with her ability to transmit almost any kind of information with her eyes (the eerie widening of the pupils as Nancy Pelosi, or the panic of the sweepstakes-announcement woman who doesn’t understand why the winner is so calm) gives her an astonishing psychological nakedness on screen. And any type of nudity is funny, right? Ferrell is capable of being very precise as well, but he also has another gear, when he becomes a big, sloppy, completely uninhibited bear. We all appreciate precision, but when it comes down to it the most powerful laughter is the uninhibited, uncontrolled kind.
All of this is a little off-topic when it comes to Tina Fey’s book. She addresses the question of gender difference in comedy very briefly, and in a very offhand manner, giving an answer she acknowledges is probably lame and boring (something about women appreciating more observant humor, while men go for the gut) and quickly moving on. She’s probably right to approach it that way. Again—how can anyone know?
But the truth remains: most men just don’t find women very funny. There’s nothing you can say in a group of men that is likely to draw more agreement than saying that women aren’t funny—bring it up at your weekly poker game or fantasy football draft and every guy in the room is likely to give his hearty assent. The enthusiasm men have in making this declaration seems both mean-spirited, and rather deliberate—almost like it’s not just something we believe, it’s something we want to believe. In that respect Christopher Hitchens may have had a point. Something about women gets to us, makes us want to proclaim our solidarity with each other. We have penises, and we also get ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’
Okay, so this was a book review: Bossypants is worth reading, mostly for its later sections which deal with some of Fey’s recollections of handling the writing room of SNL, and her dealing with motherhood and a very demanding job. It’s very short, almost to the point of you wondering if you’re getting your money’s worth (the type is as big-fonted as those books for sight-impaired people in the library), and not at all a book of any extraordinary depth. The humor is consistent and smart, with some genuine laughs sprinkled in (I don’t take her to task for not being hilarious in a book—it’s just hard to do that in print). Fey comes off as something very close to the character she plays on 30 Rock, which is kind of cool but also makes you realize she’s probably selling some version of herself even in this book.
Fey has a very no-nonsense approach to being a woman in a field usually dominated by men. She finds condescension ridiculous, and advocates for her fellow female performers and writers, especially Amy Poehler, whom she seems to think is one of those Most Hilarious People Ever (I will respectfully disagree, but then again, I may just be being hostile because I’m a man—that’s not sarcastic, it’s very possibly true; I’m just not sure).
I wonder if this is one of those Unbreachable Gulfs. It doesn’t seem like it should be. Men and women don’t have different brains, after all—there shouldn’t be any kind of inherent difference in humor between us. That a girl wants to see a chick flick and a guy wants to see things blow up makes sense to me. But why should we laugh at some things and they laugh at other things? Ghettoization of humor is the worst possible scenario I can imagine—it makes it seem like we can never really understand each other.
Also consider that humor has been one of those areas where our cultural tastes have merged, to a large degree. If you told Mark Twain that in a hundred years all of the best people doing what he did—making witticisms based on general social patterns—would be black people, he would probably have laughed at you, or possibly even found the idea distasteful. Jewish humor has largely ceased to be Jewish humor and become just plain American humor. Woody Allen, Jud Apatow, Jerry Seinfeld—no one would suggest these are performers of a subset of American humor. They are American humor.
But men remain hostile to people like Fey and Wiig and Poehler. I can’t speak objectively on the matter. Secretly I think I don’t want women to be funny, because if they were funny than that would be one less reason for them to pay attention to me. But that’s really dumb, and counterproductive, and they’re not paying attention to me anyways. I’m hoping that, in the generation of female comedians, performers, and writers that comes in the wake of their successes, someone makes me laugh so damn hard I forget they’re a girl.