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.