Louis C.K. or Tina Fey? Gender, science and the age-old question: Are men or women funnier?

Christopher Hitchens might not think women are funny. But new studies explain how men and women laugh differently

Published March 15, 2014 1:30PM (EDT)

Tina Fey, Louis C.K.          (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/Todd Williamson)
Tina Fey, Louis C.K. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/Todd Williamson)

Excerpted with permission from "Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why"

“It is axiomatic in middle-class American society that, first, women can’t tell jokes—they are bound to ruin the punch line, they mix up the order of things, and so on. Moreover, they don’t 'get' jokes. In short, women have no sense of humor.”

In my job at the University of Maryland I’m surrounded by incredibly smart women. According to a 2007 survey by the National Institutes of Health, 43 percent of postdoctoral fellows in the biomedical sciences are women. In fields like mine, which includes psychology and sociology, that number is even higher. So it’s almost wrong to call women a minority, at least in academia. Yet they’re still often treated with less respect than men, paid less and subjected to generalizations like the one above.

What’s even more amazing is that the author of that quotation isn’t a man but a woman, and a well-respected one at that — namely, Robin Lakoff, a prominent sociolinguist and feminist who frequently writes about language differences between the sexes. What Lakoff actually meant, though lost when taken out of the context, is that women communicate differently than men and, consequently, are often subjected to misunderstandings in male-dominated environments. Because their language tends to be powerless, they can’t tell jokes, at least not effectively, and so are robbed of an important social function. The idea is controversial, though it does raise a good question: Are women less funny than men?

I have a hard time believing so, but this question does highlight several important differences between men and women, including how they communicate. Many such differences are subtle and difficult to recognize, but humor is not subtle. Humor is direct, and it can be useful for recognizing gender differences. If women really are less skilled at cracking jokes, what does that say about how they think?

One of the largest scientific studies on gender and humor was conducted by the psychologist and noted laughter researcher Robert Provine. Provine wanted to examine humor in a natural setting. However, he had no interest in jokes. Rather, he wanted to see how men and women differ in terms of frequency of laughter. To do that, he sent assistants out to eavesdrop on people in public places. They listened to conversations at parties, took notes on subways, and monitored people ordering coffee in diners—all to collect what Provine calls “laugh episodes.” Finally, after almost a year of collecting more than a thousand such events, Provine was finally able to say who laughed more in natural settings. Women, he found, laughed more than men, up to 126 percent more. So, it certainly isn’t true that women have no sense of humor. Women talking to other women generated the most laughter, accounting for 40 percent of the recorded episodes. Men talking to other men led to laughter only about half as often. In addition, women laughed more in mixed conversations (i.e., between men and women), and it didn’t even matter who was speaking. Whether it was the man or the woman doing the talking, females were over twice as likely to laugh as their male counterparts.

These data reveal that women do indeed laugh and enjoy a good joke, though probably for different reasons than men. Laughter isn’t offered easily among men. Perhaps it’s a macho thing, or maybe they’re by nature more reserved, but men are far likelier to elicit laughter from the person next to them than to laugh themselves. Put two women in a room and they’ll soon share a laugh, but when genders are mixed, it’s the men who are the clowns and the women who are the audience.

Perhaps this explains why women are less likely to go into professional comedy. In 1970, the percentage of professional female stand-up comics was approximately 2 percent. It rose to 20 percent in the 1990s and is now close to 35 percent, but this last figure may be deceptive. Shaun Briedbart, a comedian who has written for Jay Leno and appeared on the television show "The Last Comic Standing," came up with that last number by counting the number of women performers at open mike nights in New York City, which is far from a professional setting. “The percentage of professional working comics is probably much lower . . . because it takes years to go from starting out to making money,” noted Briedbart. “And maybe only one percent ever make it to the professional level.”

Why do women struggle in the world of comedy? One way to find out is to look at the brains of comic artists and comedians. So far, we’ve seen that several areas of the brain are activated when we process humor, including those associated with conflict and reward. Yet, we haven’t looked to see if that pattern is the same for everybody. Maybe men and women have different kinds of brains, and that’s why they find different things funny.

Allan Reiss is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and his interest in humor began with a simple question: What triggers cataplexy? A disease affecting about one in ten thousand Americans, cataplexy involves the occasional, sudden loss of voluntary muscle control. Although it’s different from the epileptic fits described at the beginning of this chapter, its consequences can be just as troubling. Cataplectic incidents usually start with a slackening of the facial muscles, followed by weakness of the knees and legs. Muscles begin to tremble, speech starts to slur, and finally the entire body collapses. Then, the sufferer is left to wait, lying motionless yet completely alert, killing time until the spell ends. Reiss knew that many cataplectic incidents start as laughter, a fact that made him wonder why so little is known about the brain’s emotional responses. To understand the disease, he would have to study what happens in our brains when we find something funny.

First, he had ten males and ten females view forty-two cartoons while being monitored using an MRI scanner, then he asked them to rate the funniness of each one on a scale from 1 to 10. Half the cartoons had previously been assessed as funny whereas the other half were not—a difference that Reiss hoped would allow him to compare brain responses based on joke quality. In addition, he made subtle changes to some of the cartoons, modifying them just enough to ruin the punch lines. “I was fascinated by what very small changes were necessary,” he reported afterward. “Changing just one word in the caption could make the difference between a hilarious cartoon and a totally unfunny one.”

As expected, Reiss found that both males and females showed strong brain activation in regions known to process visual images, as well as in frontal areas dealing with the logical mechanisms associated with humor. Men and women also scored similarly on the number of cartoons they found funny. In other ways, however, they differed substantially. For example, women showed significantly more activity in the left inferior frontal gyri, a region important for language. This region includes Broca’s area, which is essential for producing words and speech. Another subset of regions also showed more activation in women during humor processing—namely, the dopamine reward circuit. These are the regions that are responsible for giving us pleasure when we eat chocolate—or understand a joke. They were activated in both males and females during joke processing, but to a far greater degree in females. Such activation even increased for women the funnier they found the jokes. For men, activation remained moderate for all jokes, except the ones with the funny parts removed—which led to a decrease in activity.

“The results help explain previous findings suggesting women and men differ in how humor is used and appreciated,” said Reiss in a press release distributed shortly after his paper’s publication. The greater activation within language and reasoning centers of the frontal lobe suggests that the brain’s analytical machinery becomes more intensively engaged in women than in men when reading jokes. This indicates either that women approach jokes with a more open mind, allowing their brains to ramp up once the joke begins, or that they dedicate more cognitive effort to coming up with a resolution when it’s over. Reiss prefers the first interpretation: “This difference in brain activity seems to have more to do with [women’s] expectations than their actual experiences. . . . Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon. So, when they got to the joke’s punch line, they were more pleased about it.”

This difference in expectations tells us a lot about how the two sexes look at life. Men expect a lot, and when they don’t get it they become sour. Women expect little and are happy when they get anything at all. When they “get” the punch line, their reward centers light up because the pleasure is so surprising. Women don’t laugh more than men because their brains are more active—they laugh more because their minds are more open.

Is it possible that women approach humor with a more open mind because men expect them to laugh at all their jokes? Or could it be that they laugh more because men give them so much reason to? Both explanations seem possible, but there’s a third option, one that also helps clarify why women laugh more when men are present rather than absent—perhaps Lakoff was right when she claimed that women are more sensitive to humor because they’re so commonly discriminated against. Laughter may be their only defense. Certainly no one can deny that humor often includes sexual biases.

Sexist jokes are an especially controversial issue, with so much already written about the topic it’s difficult knowing where to start. For example, we know that women dislike jokes that make fun of female victims. We also know that they dislike sexual humor that objectifies their gender. My favorite finding, however, is that men like the cartoons from Playboy more than those from The New Yorker, whereas women express no such preference. Actually, that’s an oversimplification, because the study looked at a lot more than just this, but it did find that men rate sexist cartoons from Playboy up to 25 percent funnier than those from more journalistic periodicals chosen for their “relative innocence.”

By now, no one should be surprised that women aren’t fans of sexist jokes. But this doesn’t mean that they’re the more sensitive gender. Consider, for instance, this joke from the LaughLab experiment, a rare example of women laughing at men: A husband stepped on one of those penny scales that tell you your fortune and weight and dropped in a coin. “Listen to this,” he said to his wife, showing her a small, white card. “It says that I’m energetic, bright, resourceful, and a great person.” “Yeah,” his wife nodded, “and it has your weight wrong too.”

Only 10 percent of the men in Wiseman’s experiment found that joke funny, about as low a rating as you can get. For women—well, it ranked much higher.

Nobody likes being laughed at—women and men alike. But there’s a broader question regarding the impact of sexist jokes on our behavior: Do sexist jokes reflect gender biases, or do they create them? Psychology has well established that stereotypes have strong, negative impacts on our beliefs. Studies have shown, for example, that people who see African Americans portrayed in stereotypically negative roles in comedy skits are quick to adopt negative attitudes toward that group in real life. Exposure to such stereotypes can even increase the likelihood of falsely accusing African Americans of committing a fictional crime.

Sexist humor has similar impacts on perceptions of women, according to a study of sexist attitudes conducted by Thomas Ford at Western Carolina University. Ford first gave groups of adult males assessments of existing sexist beliefs, asking them to agree or disagree with statements like “Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.” From those assessments, each subject was classified as possessing either low or high hostile sexism. Next, some of the subjects read a series of sexist jokes targeting women (e.g., How can you tell that a blonde has been using the computer? There’s Wite-Out on the screen!) along with equally aggressive jokes not targeting women (e.g., What’s the difference between a golfer and a skydiver? A golfer goes whack . . . damn, a skydiver goes damn . . . whack). As a comparison, other subjects read a series of nonsexist and sexist stories not involving humor.

To see what impact the sexist jokes and stories had on subject attitudes, Ford described the National Council of Women, an organization committed to the political and social advancement of women and women’s issues, and asked all of the men to imagine making a donation to this organization, up to $20. They didn’t have to commit any actual money, only to imagine themselves doing so. The final amount they chose to give was what Ford regarded as his dependent measure.

When he analyzed his data without taking into consideration the subjects’ existing sexist beliefs, the jokes appeared to have no impact on how much money they committed to the organization. However, when he differentiated the responses of those scoring low and high on the sexist scale, a very different picture emerged.

Ford found that, compared to low-sexist subjects, high-sexist subjects were willing to commit much less money to the National Council of Women—but only after reading the sexist jokes. The nonsexist jokes, as well as the nonhumorous sexist stories, had no impact on their donations. To confirm his findings, Ford varied his experimental design by asking the subjects how much money a fictional university should cut from student organizations with similar woman-related causes. The results were the same. High-sexist subjects advocated the most drastic cuts, but only after reading the sexist jokes.

If you’re like me, you find these results surprising and even a little frightening. Sexist humor does indeed appear to be more insidious than misogynist propaganda. It could even be that humor elicits opinions and emotions more effectively than direct prejudice because it works at a level below conscious awareness. In other words, by “flying below the radar,” humor amplifies existing prejudicial beliefs, giving them a voice without allowing them to be openly questioned.

Because it reveals how influential humor can be, Ford’s research is a good argument against stereotype-driven humor—even lawyer jokes. Granted, it only matters if we already have prejudicial attitudes toward these groups (in fact, low-sexist subjects pledged more money to the National Council of Women after the sexist jokes). But as we’ve seen, humor always contains two messages: what the humorist is saying, and all the other stuff left unspoken. When that unspoken stuff is hurtful or prejudicial, the easiest way to slip it in is to use a joke. Again, it’s a matter of intent.

Excerpted with permission from "Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why," by Scott Weems. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.

By Scott Weems

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