May 21, 2008

Are women funny?

Blogger Alias Clio is a muse for the number-cruncher, as she so often proclaims but rarely offers evidence, and she is so stubborn in her beliefs that merely pointing out how crazy they are is insufficient. *

In a post at Roissy's, the topic of sex differences in funny-ness came up, she arguing that women are more humorous than men, who are so preoccupied with farting and fucking jokes that they don't get to develop the wry, ironic style that true humor consists of. Really?

Always eager to gather some data to prove how crazy other people are, I first offered Comedy Central's list of 100 Greatest Stand-up Comedians -- 8 of 100 are female (8%). Ah, but that's just those raunchy, low-brow stand-up comedians!

All right, consider the Pulitzer Prize winners for Editorial Cartooning, a genre whose style is dry, ironic, and so on -- 2 of 82 are female (2.4%). I admit that this has a strong male bias just due to visuospatial skills, which guys are better at, but still, it's not Michelangelo-level drawing, so it would be really hard to say that it would be near 50% if only it were entirely verbal. So let's go to humorous writers and performers.

Wikipedia has a "list of notable humorists" -- 8 of 97 are female (8.2%).

Wikipedia also has a "list of satirists and satires", which is grouped by time period:

Early -- 0 of 9 (probably 0 of 10, if males wrote The 1001 Nights).

Medieval - 18th C. -- 0 of 21 (probably 0 of 22, if unknown author called "Martin Marprelate" is male).

Born 1800 - 1900 -- 0 of 28.

Born 1900 - 1960 -- 4 of 65 (6.2%).

Born 1960 - present -- 6 of 62 (9.7%).

20th C altogether -- 10 of 127 (7.9%).

Admittedly, these are not lists of prize-winners or of something measurable, but they reflect the consensus of experts, so it's surely a random, representative sample.

In none of these areas do females approach 50%, even when the medium is verbal (which women tend to be better at), and even when we look just at those whose careers began after women's liberation. The numbers are very similar for both high-brow and low-brow humor -- about 10% -- suggesting that this distinction does not matter either.

Crucially, humor almost always has to do with oneself, other people, and the social ties that unfortunately bind us; and it is always interactive with other people, whether a live audience, a readership, or what-have-you. Therefore, there is no argument to be made to the effect of "Well, women can do it, they just don't like doing it." The personnel psychology literature is unambiguous that women prefer jobs that involve people, especially socially interacting with them -- if anything, being a humorist or comedian is right up their alley. **

This is the extent of my interest in this rather obvious question, but if readers know of other lists -- preferably a list of winners of a prestigious humorist award -- feel free to crunch the numbers and leave a comment. If the ball gets rolling, I'll move them into an addendum here. I know that Clio is going to claim that these lists don't really capture what it is to be a humorist, that there are scores of unseen female humorists (who would have to be far more numerous than unseen male humorists), or that there's an Anglo-American bias. All right -- find me a dataset that shows the females are near 50%, and then I'll believe it.

Now, why funny people are predominantly male is an entirely different question. This post is just to demonstrate that they are.

* I kid because I love.

** Where females have the requisite ability and suitable motivation, they make up half or more of the field. For example, here is Steven Pinker on women in his field:

I work in a scientific field — the study of language acquisition in children — that is in fact dominated by women. Seventy-five percent of the members the main professional association are female, as are a majority of the keynote speakers at our main conference. I'm here to tell you that it's not because men like me have been discriminated against.


Addendum: Here is a running list of more stats from other sources (see comments section for detail).

YouTube's 100 most subscribed comedians of all time -- 7 or 8 of 100 (7-8%).

17 comments:

  1. Pure sexual selection. Humor helps guys get laid. Humor does not help women to get a guy to commit.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous10:09 PM

    Piffle, I say again. The number of male professional humorists has nothing to do with whether or not women have a sense of humour, whether you see that as consisting exclusively of the ability to make jokes about life, or the ability to laugh at jokes about life. (Women must have a little of the latter, or humour would not "help guys get laid".)

    Once again (as on Roissy's site) I say that we began this conversation discussing the sexes' ability to deploy humour in personal encounters - and women have as much of that as men do. The drive to become a professional humorist - or even to be the class clown - is something quite different. Women are indeed much less likely to be professional jokesters, not merely because they "choose not to", in the classic feminist formula, but because it would be a positive liability for them to do so.

    The fact is that men are often frightened by funny women and often read female funniness as bitchiness, even when it isn't any nastier in tone or content than that of men. You'll notice that the comments at Roissy's website go on and on about how bitchy female humour is, a rather absurd observation given how nasty some of the humour there can get. I'm not denying that Roissy is often very funny; I'm just saying there's something odd about men who complain that women's humour is bitchy but enjoy Roissy's frequent meanness towards women.

    Clio

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just added some data on YouTube's 100 most subscribed "comedian" channels. There are 5 that are exclusively female, and 4 that are split between male and female, so that's 7. One I couldn't tell (cartoons), so at most 8.

    This is relevant because it shows that even at the amateur level -- that is a generous appellation -- where anyone who has a modicum of skill and wants to can do it, we still find females a bit under 10%.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The number of male professional humorists has nothing to do with whether or not women have a sense of humour [my emphasis]

    Well, let's stick to whether women are funny, not whether they have a sense of humor (they do, obviously).

    It's clear that the gory, on-the-ground details are not 100% correlated with the observable big picture that we can get data about.

    At the same time, are you saying that the fraction of females at the professional level (and even at the hobby level -- see the addendum) is completely *uncorrelated* with their fraction out there in the mists of society? Or that it is perhaps *inversely* correlated? I just want you to hear how ridiculous that idea is.

    Again, take anything that females are skilled at and like doing: nursing, teaching, social work, anything involving psychology, etc. We can count the fraction of women in professional organizations for these fields, and they will be majority-female.

    That is because the distributions of female talents and preferences percolate up into the big, observable picture. In the same way, we infer that Ashkenazi Jewish people are funnier than Chinese people -- and the argument that Chinese people are funnier in person (says someone) is just as silly.

    If the lack of visible female funny people were due to men (overtly, as in calling her bitchy, or insidiously, as in her not wanting to frighten him), then what about all those women who would appreciate the female's funny-ness? They're half the population and love being entertained -- and probably would identify with what the female funnyperson was saying.

    Apparently, there is little *female* demand for female funny-ness -- they too find guys to be funnier.

    And, sorry, but men are not "frightened" by funny women -- when we find one, we think "holy shit, she's a keeper!" If people at Roissy's site were afraid of funny women, why would we read blogs like yours, Lemmonex's, Irina in New York's, and so on?

    This canard shows up anytime that group X is ignored by group Y: group X claims that Y is afraid of X. Men are "intimidated" by tall women, "afraid" of women with three professional degrees, etc. It's like a short guy saying women are too weak to handle dating a shortie. C'mon...

    ReplyDelete
  5. Geoffrey Miller had an interesting paper about the role of humor in sexual selection.

    Women, interestingly enough, are greater humor appreciators than men. Females laugh more than men and this difference begins early. The reward centers of female brains are more stimulated by humor, and females process humor more deeply and are quicker to discern and reject bad humor...

    "Thus, males show higher mating intelligence in the sense of humor production ability, but females may show higher mating intelligence in the sense of humor appreciation ability – as the fitness indicator theory of humor would suggest."

    Women are much more likely to require humor in dating partners, and the amount of female laughter in conversations between men and women in is a good predictor of dating interest.

    So there is a supply/demand element to this. Men have a lot more to lose socially than women from not attempting to be funny. So even if men and women had equal natural ability for humor, the incentives would mean men are more likely to develop their abilities into skills over time (a comparison could be made for bilingualism between Americans, Europeans, and Africans).

    But the variance of male/female ability in intelligence and creativity alone suggests a large difference should exist at the tails, which is what we see.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous1:53 PM

    Now, Mr Malloy, that's more like it. The kind of science that is actually useful for the kind of generalizations I need to be convinced. And it makes sense.

    A long way from Agnostic's original claim that girls are only funny unintentionally - even allowing for a broad interpretation of "only".

    I'd add that I still believe that a sharp wit can actually be a liability for women, for reasons I'll explain in more detail (than in my previous comments) on my blog as soon as I'm able to access it again.

    Clio

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think for this, it'd be good to compare British humor (think PBS shows with Judi Dench) with American humor. The wry and dry wit of women's humor can be compared to the British, while the "wtf that is ridiculously clever" American humor can be seen as more usual for a guy.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Alias Clio said:
    I'd add that I still believe that a sharp wit can actually be a liability for women

    I definitely find this plausible. I think one example is that it limits the pool of men they find attractive: I suspect that witty women are most likely to be attracted to men at least as witty as they are.

    Of course, there are just some men who don't want wittier women. While it might seem easy to look down on those men, their preferences might actually serve them well if indeed witty women tend to have less respect or attraction for less witty men.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Anonymous5:40 AM

    There's always the possibility that a non-witty man might lose respect if he kept "dropping the ball" in conversation with a witty woman. But even a man who can hold his own in that game may decide he prefers not to have to work so hard. Men like Agnostic, who say repeatedly that they glory in young women's sweetness and silliness, might just find that wit was too sharp a quality to seem truly feminine to them.

    That's one of the reasons that women are liable to keep their humour for use among themselves.

    Clio

    ReplyDelete
  10. If there is a reservoir of female wry wit, it is a very well kept secret.

    Again, think supply and demand. You say there's little male demand for female wit -- maybe. Let's say it's true. But what about the demand for female wit from *the other half* of the population?

    At the risk of tedium, but to ensure clarity, here is the proof:

    If:

    1) There is an appreciable female demand for female wit,

    And

    2) There is a reservoir of female wit capable of supplying this demand,

    Then:

    3) There will be an outpouring of female wit (to meet the demand).

    Now, all the data show that 3 is false. I'm looking at data from the blogosphere now, and it looks the same. And you've already admitted this, and have been talking instead about *why* there is no such outpouring.

    That means that the premise, 1 and 2, is false, which implies that either 1 or 2 or both are false.

    You've already said the demand from females is there, i.e. that females have a greater sense of humor than males, at least regarding the drier rather than raunchier forms of humor, and crave this. So 1 cannot be false. That only leaves 2 being false.

    Conclusion: while not non-existent, there is no deep, untapped reservoir of female wit. QED.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Compare the above case to female demand for romance and "gossipy career woman" novels, and the female reservoir capable of supplying this demand.

    Here, it's uncontroversial that men have no demand for such stuff, so all the demand must come from females. Also uncontroversial that males have little interest as suppliers of this stuff either.

    But female writers are happy to produce this stuff, and the supply rises to meet the demand -- the dynamic unfolds entirely within the female population, showing that lack of interest from males as demanders or suppliers is irrelevant.

    ReplyDelete
  12. roissy2:42 PM

    clio, you must swim in some very exclusive waters of female friends who know how to wrest a chuckle, or your sense of humor is warped enough to misjudge the unfunny as funny. for the record, it's *women* who, when they are trying to be funny, most often resort to the cheap and easy thrills of sarcasm, something you'd know if you spent a day in the bars and clubs working the floor and confronting hundreds of female personalities. men's humor runs the gamut of types and is frequently far more subtle, dry and ironic than women's.

    i can't believe the universal fact that women are unfunny is even a point of contention. christ, women themselves tell me most women aren't funny! the rare women that are funny are disproportionately lesbian.

    i was at an improv comedy show a couple nights ago -- the three acts? all men. the audience? half women, half men. who was laughing the hardest? the women. how would i describe the humor style of the comedians? definitely not sarcastic.

    So there is a supply/demand element to this. Men have a lot more to lose socially than women from not attempting to be funny. So even if men and women had equal natural ability for humor, the incentives would mean men are more likely to develop their abilities into skills over time

    women like to laugh no matter who it is coming from, male or female, and regardless of the context in which the humor is delivered. so you'd expect to see women honing their funny bones amongst their female friends in the same way men are funny when in the company of their male friends. this practice would bleed over into their interactions with men such that the humor disparity would not be so wide. but it is. and if you've ever gone out with a large group of girls as the only male friend in attendance (and no boyfriends around) you know that women aren't "keeping the humor to themselves" to spare the guy's feelings. women, with or without men around, are singularly unfunny.

    if i were a betting man i'd not hesitate to bet on the hypothesis that women are lacking whatever brain structure is necessary to produce humor.

    ReplyDelete
  13. christ, women themselves tell me most women aren't funny!

    A female comedian agrees

    ReplyDelete
  14. Anonymous8:54 PM

    At the same time, are you saying that the fraction of females at the professional level (and even at the hobby level -- see the addendum) is completely *uncorrelated* with their fraction out there in the mists of society? Or that it is perhaps *inversely* correlated? I just want you to hear how ridiculous that idea is.


    I agree with you about humor, but I can think of one field in which "the fraction of females at the professional level (and even at the hobby level -- see the addendum) is completely *uncorrelated* with their fraction out there in the mists of society" and that is cooking. Aren't there many more professional male chefs than there are female chefs? But women as a whole are much more interested in cooking and much better at cooking than men as a whole.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Good point about cooks. It also shows why humor is not of this type. When you watch cooking shows on TV, they are mostly by women, although the superstars are mostly men. When you look at what percent of cooking blogs are female, it's a majority (around 70% iirc). And everyone just says that women are better cooks or like cooking more.

    None of these is true for humor.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Anonymous12:25 PM

    "something you'd know if you spent a day in the bars and clubs working the floor and confronting hundreds of female personalities."

    Look, Roissy, it's inevitable that in bars, in which attractive women (I assume you only make advances to attractive women) are trying to "s***-test" the men who approach them, you're more likely to encounter women's sarcasm than any other form of humour.

    Dating bars are an odd place because on the one hand, their whole purpose is to enable sexual encounters, so that women who frequent them must be careful not to be funny in the wrong way for fear of scaring off potential suitors. On the other hand, the prettiest women in bars are bound to have a "show me" attitude towards the men who approach them, one that expresses itself in sarcasm.

    But in other societies - those in which women were expected not only to organize social events, but to provide much of the entertainment - women were expected to be funny and their wit usually added much to their appeal as hostesses. Even today, traces of this kind of female wit can be found, although I think it's less common today than at any other period of history.

    Still, I maintain that women, even today, are funnier in single-sex gatherings than they allow themselves to be at any event at which men are present. The fact that you've gone out with groups of women who did not joke in your presence doesn't prove much. Have you not heard of the "observer effect"?

    Clio

    ReplyDelete
  17. Brooke12:10 PM

    Men are more likely to THINK they're funny-and thus pursue a career in it--they think being funny is some sort of pissing competition and women are funny just for the joy of it.

    REAL funny people are too insecure to think they could actually make a living off of their goofiness. they reserve the best of their humor for their friends and family. Few stand up "comediens" make me laugh out right.

    ReplyDelete

You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."