Funny women

February 10, 2010

Who do you think is funny? Or, and this will give you the real answer, who have you known, who you have found funny? It was this kind of questioning that led me to a surprising conclusion, given the received wisdom on the matter. Almost everyone I’ve met in my life, who I’ve found really funny, has been female.

My dad has quite a good line in dad jokes, but it was mum who wrote rhyming comedy pantomimes for the kids to entertain the extended family with every year. The boys I went to school with had a cocky nerve, but when they shouted “Fuck you!”, it was the female teachers who snapped back “Huh! You’d have a job”. When I think of funny people I think of teachers (mainly female). I think of the aunties who taught me practical jokes.

I think of My Naughty Little Sister and Marmalade Atkinson. I think of my primary school friend Christina telling me those years were “if not the best, certainly the funniest” of her life. Of Sophie, whose letters came in envelopes covered in notes for the postman that made me cry with laughter. Of Sarah, who wore “baggy men’s shirts” and felt it essential to point out “the shirts are baggy, not the men”. Of Gayle, who made me tapes I wish I still had. Of Katie and Lucy and Polly and Helen and Sarah and Jo.

But the funniest person I’ve ever met was a barista I once worked with called Becky.

I was at university, and she was a real local girl – left school young, had been through at least one abortion, and was full of stories you knew you shouldn’t believe. Becky was an extraordinarily strong-shelled character: continually performing, but always elsewhere – unknowable. She had a gleam in her eye that fed off her own wit, and making her laugh became a game. Because by getting Becky to laugh at you you were forcing her off-script – it was the only chance you’d get to see the real Becky.

I handed out Christmas cards to everyone when I left, and as I gave Becky hers, I said “I should’ve written something like ‘see you on telly’, sorry!” She looked down at it for a split second before deadpanning, “You can add it on the bottom there.”

I think there’s a unique warmth in women’s humour because it’s not competitive – or at least not directly so. Women are competitive, of course, just as men are. But while men use humour to showboat and impress women, girls don’t get the boy by being funny. Being fun and smart and all those things is charming in a girl, I’m sure, but ultimately these aren’t the criteria for mate selection in females. So women aren’t in a continual war to be the funniest.

The result is, I think, that women are the funniest. I’m sure no one will believe me, but I feel this needs to be said. Without the evolutionary pressure, the culture of banter hasn’t crystalised into recognisable forms. Germaine Greer wrote about women being “droll” rather than witty, in a Guardian column fairly recently, but I think her analysis was rather lazy, using the assumptions rather than questioning them. When women are funny, it’s because we haven’t had the training. It’s not laboured, it hasn’t ploughed the same furrow for generations. Women don’t have access to moulded heirlooms labelled theme and technique. Male humour is learned and expected and socially rewarded – it’s easily observed by small boys looking up and through this society – a society dominated by their same-sex parents and peers for generations. But female humour has nothing like that precedent. And to the extent that there is an established tradition of female wit, it’s not treated as a template. As individual islands with no incentive to compete and out-do the last Chief Wit, we’re usually happier finding our own way. So the whole thing perpetuates. Female comedy, like female art, doesn’t work within a tradition. It’s not contextualised by history, but by individuals in the moment. It’s a parallel circuit.

In secret corners of their inner worlds women are writing a continual narrative, and we are making it up as we go along. The female story is less prescribed than the male one because it’s all ours – we don’t have the reproductive imperative that volunteers our every social interaction into a competitive hierarchy. For all the standard bumf about women being social, all ready to be herded up, we actually have a powerful autonomy. Women are as potentially socially damaging as men are reinforcing. There are hierarchies for women, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the male fight that’s the ferocious and obvious one, the one that’s in the spotlight in our Western society. The one that gives the society its shape.

We are all animals, all competing for survival, but as females we’ve been indulged with a kind of vestigial funny bone, a weapon recalled from duty. It’s a sense of humour we can simply play with, or, if we choose, make useful through instruction, human connection and pure delight. We can choose, that’s the thing. So for women, humour is both much more valuable and much more dispensible than it is for men – it has a spectrum of uses and worth. While men reach out to each other with tendrils of wit, for women the tropes of the funny become woven inward, into all our stories and worries. Each woman is, potentially at least, a unique comedy event, but the narratives of the absurd are complex and personalised for funny women, in contrast to the scattershot outward web-slings of funny men.

Sharing those narratives is a very pure intimacy and a very liberating thing to do. I shouldn’t even have to say it, but you don’t often hear this so I will. The thing is: in real, non-showbiz, life, girls who know each other know how to press each other’s buttons. Girls can make girls laugh in ways that, I’m afraid, men can’t begin to approach. Because when women amuse each other there can be purity. There can be an almost childlike delight and, often, a subtle and intuitive recognition.

I never saw a boy make Becky laugh. Not really laugh. But what chance did they have? Being funny was Becky’s thing, it was a one-way street, and she owned every inch of it. When boys cranked up the gag machines to try to impress her the volume would drop and you’d see their lips moving in slo-mo. It was agonising to watch. Her feigned amusement. Their unquestioning acceptance of her feigned amusement. The way she got off with them anyway.

Boys and girls laugh at each other all the time and the laughter has no value as humour at all because it’s a means to an end; a working tool passed between men and women almost regardless of its inherent potential for joy. But for a girl like me to make a girl like Becky laugh. Well. That’s the real end game.

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8 Responses to “Funny women”

  1. Alex Says:

    Lot’s of pretty sentences, but everything is based on the false premise that humor is objective, although it’s in fact subjective.

    While you think Becky was hilarious, I might think her jokes suck.

  2. enemyofchaos Says:

    Of course we have subjective experiences of what we find funny. But I don’t understand the relevance of that to my point? To talk about it at all, one has to assume funny-ness is a value that groups of people do attribute to things. Either humour is description for something we can talk about, or it’s an entirely individual experience, in which case it makes no sense to argue about its properties or value.

    This entire post is written from the point of view of me, and my experience, on my blog. It’s not a manifesto or a newspaper article. It’s just an entirely personal outline of some thoughts I was having last night. And, in my opinion, women have a different sort of experience of humour among each other than they do when they interact with men. I enjoy that experience, and I’m investigating why. That’s it.

    But thanks for the compliment re sentences!

  3. oliver Says:

    Very interesting, I’d never thought about it from this perspective. I’d also say that in my experience, the purity/delight/recognition thing also happens between men when it’s just us. Thinking about it, we do sort of readjust our humour and make it more of an act when girls are around, I guess for the evolutionary/status-type reasons you outline.

  4. enemyofchaos Says:

    Aw thanks Oli, glad you found it interesting. Like I say it’s just a thought really, exercising some ideas. Boys and girls are both guilty of showing off to each other, just as they’re obviously both capable of equal levels of genuinely joyful comedy, but it occurred to me that you don’t hear a lot about the ways that women are funny with each other. Men can reach men and women can reach women, as any other group united by shared experiences.

  5. Liam Says:

    There are different types of humour and also different layers to humour which I find fascinating…some things are just intrinsically funny, some things are only funny given the right context or delivery and then there are the rare occasions when you meet someone who themselves are just intrinsically funny I.e., they don’t need to memorize gags, they just open their mouths and whatever comes out just makes you laugh.

    These properties of humour are not gender specific but gender does play a vital role in the way humour is used.

    I think your friend Becky uses humour as a leveller. In the same way that some of my old school friends do – they couldn’t give a toss about being PC, offending you or anything else for that matter and sometimes it’s just so funny it hurts like hell because you’re laughing so much.

    But is humour shared between women any more profound or hilarious than that shared between men? I don’t actually know or really care. What matters to me is the memories I have of those moments in life when something is said and you just know that everyone present at precisely that same instant in time understood it in exactly the same way at the same level resulting in uncontrollable laughter.

  6. enemyofchaos Says:

    Well said.

    A lot of folk over on Reddit seem to think I’m saying women are funnier than men. What I actually mean is, of the people I’ve known, I (personally) have enjoyed my experience of one-to-one, female-female humour the most, especially when its motivations are unambiguously purely about making me laugh. So I can enjoy the funny as much for the reason (or lack of reason) it’s being said as the content. Humour’s delight runs deeper than the superficial joke, because it carries a social intention.

    I’ve talked about women-women funnyness because I am one, so that’s my only experience of women being funny when I was there. People are variable in their response to what’s funny, but we all think something is. So it doesn’t matter if no one else thinks my Becky is funny. I bet everyone has a Becky.

  7. Kat Says:

    I COMPLETELY AGREE. Excellent post, describes a lot of thoughts I’ve had but much much better!

    I think women’s nasty sense of humour – cruel or vindictive comments – are underestimated too, and often taken seriously (or belittled as simply “bitching”). I’m thinking of Sarah Millican here, who I think does the best line in “female” comedy at the moment. She displays a proper feminine sense of humour – not like Sarah Silverman or Joan Rivers, who to me are just trying to beat men at their own game. One bloody liners with no heart or authenticity. Comedy should be levelling (as the other commenter said) and destructive!

  8. enemyofchaos Says:

    Ah, thanks very much Kat! Very true, I think, re nasty humour and the female one-offness of Sarah Millican, who I’d been thinking similar things about.

    Maybe the trick is ultimately just to be true to yourself (and, if you’re a female, the woman will show through) – but it’s very exposing to do that without a grammar to fall back on. Easier in some ways to use the established tradition – if men own showbiz comedy, do it their way, Sarah Silverman-esque. But authenticity is a nobler goal. I rather like not having a context.


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