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The Strangest Species

The Sexes and Two Sides of the Laugh Gap


In one of Nicole Hollander's "Sylvia" cartoons, the cigarette-smoking doyenne of guy-gal wisdom devises a "Gender Differences in Humor Quiz" aimed at settling that age-old question, "Are you a man or woman?":

"Check the things you find funny:

1. Larry, Moe or Curly.

2. Men dressed as women but with their hairy legs showing.

3. The disparity between the ideal and real."

It's no surprise that men find physical, adolescent and sex-stereotype humor funnier than women do. But there are subtler distinctions in both subject and style, several recent books note. Social scientists have been documenting this laugh gap for 30 years.

While men tell most of the jokes, women do most of the laughing. That's due as much to the ways we are socialized as to distinctions in delivery or in what each gender naturally finds funny.

A boy who earns laughs with competitiveness, put-downs and aggression is likely to be viewed--approvingly--as a class clown. A girl who shows the same behavior might well be labeled a problem child.

Trained to be nice, many girls learn early to be passive, self-deprecating, feminine and to laugh compliantly (and with mouth closed) at Uncle So-and-So's banal jokes at Thanksgiving dinner.

Men are more likely to get their laughs at someone else's expense, setting up a punch line like a basketball player driving for a layup. Women tend to share humorous personal vignettes drawn from the dialogue of their lives. The humor often spins off of feeling vulnerable, the conundrums of relationships, child-rearing and career climbing in an unequal workplace.

Even tragedy can be funny.

In comedian Julia Sweeney's hilarious monologue "God Said 'Ha!' " she explains how visions of her life as a happily divorced sophisticate hosting heady soirees is derailed when her brother Mike is found to have terminal lymphatic cancer. Her parents and brother move in with her. As if this was not enough, Sweeney then discovers she has a rare form of cervical cancer, and a hysterectomy is scheduled for after her brother's death. She transforms tragedy into humor seamlessly.

Sweeney says: "The doctor said, 'The good news is, we were able to save your ovaries by moving them up about a foot and a half. And if you decide you want a biological child, we can harvest the eggs and fertilize them and then you could find a surrogate to carry it.' And I thought: Great. Now I have to meet a girl and a guy."

Sweeney's story is about her vulnerabilities and is rooted in her experiences. She laughs to survive, to tell herself she isn't crazy.

"Women's humor comes out of a habit of getting together and telling stories in the kitchen," says Nancy Walker, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University and author of five books on women's humor. "Men's jokes are competitive, it's 'I can tell a better, funnier joke than you.' The upshot of women's stories is, 'Now you understand me better.' When we laugh, it is the laugh of recognizing our own experience."


For women taught from birth to be altruistic and supportive, "passivity and the sharp, aggressive expression of wit are an impossible mix," writes Barry Sanders, professor of English and the history of ideas at Claremont Colleges and author of "Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History," (Beacon Press, 1996).

To be funny is to assert the self and "take up space" in the conversation, the antithesis of "the script we hand women to take up as little space in the world as possible," says Barreca. This is why women are more likely than men to resort to self-deprecating humor ("My shoe size is greater than my IQ"), she says. Putting oneself down makes one less threatening and undermines the fact that she is being assertive.

"One of the first rules about stand-up for everyone is to poke fun at yourself," says comedian Judy Carter, who teaches stand-up comedy in Venice. "A woman will make a joke about being fat before a man will joke about losing his hair."

Carter says women often come up to her after shows to tell her what they liked. Men who approach usually try to top her act with a "really funny one."

Women, including a great many comedians, tend to adhere to what critic Emily Toth described as "the humane humor rule." She notes that women rarely make fun of what people cannot change, such as social handicaps (stuttering) or physical appearance (obesity).

"Women humorists attack--or subvert--the deliberate choices that people make: hypocrisies, affectations, mindless following of social expectations."

Women's humor takes its material from the powerful rather than the pitiful, laughing up the power structure: at the boss, social institutions or the imprisoning nature of traditional mind-sets.

"Murphy Brown, Brett Butler and Roseanne are all good evidence of the humane humor rule," says Regina Barreca, associate English professor at University of Connecticut and editor of "The Penguin Book of Women's Humor" (1996).

Socialization also explains a phenomenon Barreca calls "feel dependence."

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