Make 'em laugh

Here's Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair on why men tend to be funnier than women and enjoy humor more than women (in general, that is -- you, of course, are wickedly funny): It's because women must contend with the really important, messy things in life -- giving birth and raising kids. Men get to act childish and be silly as a way of hiding the fact that they're not the ones really in charge. And men know that if you can make the woman laugh, you've eased up the tension a bit. It's a step forward.

OK, you may go ahead and argue with Mr. Hitchens if you disagree. A couple of years ago on the topic was why there were all of these sitcoms with dim shlubs married to (or dating) sharp, good-looking women (Everybody Loves Raymond, Grounded for Life, King of Queens, etc.).

This was my take on it:

Everyone has already said the obvious about the fantasies of a male-dominated entertainment industry, the desire to keep male audiences interested and the rather unsupported notion (but one widely held by women) that women are just plain smarter. But there's also the fact that many men develop their comic talents in their teens/twenties precisely because they're not scoring up there with Brad Pitt. It's one of the great forms of come-on compensation -- make 'em laugh.

I'm not saying Mr. Pitt can't do comedy, but that's not his primary appeal. He could be flat-out dreadful with a punchline and it would make squat difference to his popularity with women.

But look at the hordes of horny, unattractive men who succeeded through comedy and almost entirely through comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Gleason, the Belushis, Jim Carey, Howard Stern, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Bill Murray -- indeed, any male performer who ever started on Saturday Night Live -- the list goes on and on.

In fact, other than Tom Hanks and maybe Marcello Mastroianni, I can't think of a single, good-looking comic who is also an appealing person. That is, there are comics who may be considered good-looking by some women but there's something essentially needy or odd about them. Think of Gene Wilder or Steve Martin. And then there are comics whom women may find adorable because of their public personas but they're not exactly eye-pleasers. Think of Drew Carey.

It's not just that fat women don't get much respect in Hollywood and fat guys can. It's that comedy has long been a way for ordinary Joes to score, to get attention. It's been that way for ordinary Janes, too, but to a much, much lesser degree. Me, I like a witty woman (hello, Sarah Bird!), but a lot of men don't. In general, though, it's true: Great-looking men and women never had to develop their comic skills. Hollywood always casts brainless pretty people in absolutely everything. But let's say you're casting a sitcom and you need a guy to play the funny, shlubby, slightly dim hubbie.

You gonna hire Antonio Banderas? Or are you gonna try to put in a call for Homer Simpson?

December 11, 2006 9:58 AM | | Comments (5)



I agree absolutely that there are and have been funny women. As I noted, I enjoy witty women -- some of my best friends ... etc. And I think one of the greatest of TV humorists has been Susan Harris, the creator-producer of Soap -- aka, the original Arrested Development.

But I have to say that giving individual examples of funny women tends to prove Hitchens' point, don't you think? In other words, they tend to be the exceptions (the fact that women were excluded from the performing/writing comedy tradition until relatively recently would be an obvious counterpoint to make here, but Hitchens more or less waves it away).

But, Lisa, to Hitchens' defense, he not only references Fran and Nora -- he calls them up and asks them about his theories. You see, he makes exceptions for lesbians (Fran and Ellen Degeneres) and Jews. Kind of him.


The weakness in a couple of your examples of funny women is that they're funny performers who were generally relating a male writer's dialogue. Most male comics, if they're not spouting their own material, are generally spouting other guys'.


Um, Lucille Ball? Gracie Allen? Gilda Radner? And the list goes on...

On the literary side, who's funnier than Jane Austen (OK, Jonathan Swift, but you get my point). At his Manhattan literary soirees, does Hitchens never bump into Fran Leibowitz? Nora Ephron? Maureen Dowd?

If Hitchens really wants to write persuasive essays that ignore all facts contrary to his point, perhaps the Creation Science folks would like to hire him.

I am reminded of the Lenny Bruce routine, responding to the racist cliche, "Would you want one of them to marry your daughter?' In this sketch, Lenny imagines forcing the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to say whether he would rather marry a black, black woman or a white, white woman, when the black woman is Lena Horne and the white woman is Kate Smith.

"If we want to get down to basics, let's persecute the ugly people," Lenny said.

That is the issue here, regardless of gender. Unattractiveness is pain in this culture. Humor is an excellent tool for coping with pain. It is also a devestating weapon of self defense. If you are small and weak, what better way is there to keep from getting beaten up than to tell a joke that makes the bully laugh? If you are being tormented, what better way to change the subject, than to mock someone else's shortcomings?

I recall laughing out loud at the writing of Dorothy Parker, Flannery O'Connor, and the performances of Myrna Loy (in the "Thin Man" movies), Audrey Meadows (in "The Honeymooners"), etc., etc., There was smartness is their humor, but an edge that suggested a lot of pain.

Of course, I should also mention the exquisite comic timing of the decidedly attractive but no less tormented Marilyn Monroe in movies like "The Seven Year Itch." I think humor emerges from inner demons, not from gonads.

I'm not surprised that Hitchens turns a discussion of comedy into a sexist claim of male supremacy in humor. He's not exactly the smartest bear in the zoo, even if he writes for a self-important magazine like Vanity Fair. He should go back to writing laughably wrong-headed screeds about the Iraq War.

My highly tuned sense of humor comes from the fact that I had to "contend with the really important, messy things in life -- giving birth and raising kids" while my husband thought it was strictly woman's work.

And for the record:
1) Brad is the pits, except in Thelma & Louise,
2) Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas are not good looking,
3) I don't like the Simpsons,
4) I hate the wives in the sitcoms you listed,
5) and Sandra Bullock cracks me up. She would be great playing Stephanie Plum if a movie is ever made of Janet Evanovich's books.

Of course, the story was always that Berle had one other advantage over most lesser men....


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