Are Women Funny? (A Review of Female Humor Studies)

A lot of noise has been made of late on whether women are funny or not.  Eddie Brill, the booker of the Late Show with David Letterman, lost his job after making comments that women are not funny (technically, he lost his job for making unauthorized public comments).  As a comedian and scientist, I am annoyed that this is a continual topic of conversation, as I feel we are not discussing the important question.  The question should not be “Are women funny?”, but rather “Do we want women to be funny?”

Ultimately, this boils down to an evolutionary biology question. Between several rambling quotes from Wilde, Mencken, and Kipling, Christopher Hitchens very crudely argued that women are not funny because evolution dictates that they should not be, because men HAVE to be.  While Hitchens is very obviously well-read, he is a lousy interpreter of scientific data.  I would like to point out three studies that highlight the following:

Despite being equally sensitive to and capable of humor as men, humor is believed to be the realm of men, and not women.  This expectation is shared by both men and women.

The paper that Hitchens refers to in his essay is from Allan Reiss’ group at Stanford, who imaged brain activity and found that women exhibit different stimulation of the brain in response to funny pictures than men.  When shown a series of pictures – some of which were funny, and some unfunny – men responded favorably to funny, and extremely unfavorably to unfunny pictures.  On the other hand, women responded favorably to both funny and unfunny images.

Hitchens misinterprets this data as women’s inability to determine what is funny and what is not.  Despite responding positively to all images, women have a slightly larger magnitude difference in attitude between unfunny and funny images.  So, while women respond positively to all attempts at humor, men respond extremely negatively to things that are unfunny, and barely perceptibly react to funny things.  This suggests that there is an equal recognition gap between funny and unfunny things, but women err on the positive side to all attempts of humor, while men are more pessimistic.

We can go further and look at the role of humor at a deeper evolutionary perspective (something Hitchens never really was able to).  If you read another study by Markus Jokela at the University of Finland, it showed that attractive women are more likely to have more offspring than unattractive females, while attractive men have about the same amount of offspring as unattractive men.  This shows that men select their mates purely on physical attractiveness, while women select their mates on some other metric (my best guess would be ability to “provide” for offspring – due to factors such as intelligence, physical prowess, wealth, and humor).

The obvious follow up to this theory would be to see if “funny” men have more offspring than “unfunny” men.  This also was done by our good buddy Markus Jokela.  Personality traits such as “high sociability” and “high activity” (read “funny”) increase the likelihood of having offspring, which supports the humor study from Reiss’ lab. Women’s brains are much more active in response to humor than men’s brains, and humor is a more desirable trait in men than physical attractiveness.

Finally, the third piece to this puzzle is a recent paper that showed that, when women and men were asked to come up with humorous captions to cartoons, women and men were equally capable of being funny.  There was no statistical difference in the humor in captions written by women compared to captions written by men.  Where it gets interesting is that when asked to attribute gender to writers of captions, “funny” captions were more often attributed to men than women, even if women wrote the captions.  Furthermore, women felt that funnier captions had to be written by men instead of women.

So, what do all of these ramblings on scientific studies mean? Here are a few of my observations:

  • Men and women are equally funny.
  • Both genders expect that men are supposed to be funnier than women.
  • Women respond more favorably to humor than men, while men seek to “punish” things that are unfunny.
  • Men view women superficially, while women are indifferent to superficial features.

I think these points explain the “unfunny” nature of female comedians.  Men are more likely to objectify women, instead of listening to the content of their humor.  So, it doesn’t matter if a woman is funny or not.  Instead, she is only interesting if she is pretty.

What are women’s attitudes to female comedians?  Presumably, it is a balance between demanding equality in society and maintenance of some culturally repressive attitude that women are not supposed to be comedians.  While I am not aware of any study regarding attitudes to comedians (something I’m working on in my spare time, so look forward to that).  My best estimation is that it would look like this:

Basically, men look at female comedians generally unfavorably, while women are evenly distributed in their attitudes to female comedians.  NOTE: This is entirely conjecture, and I have no data to back that theory up.  I just wanted to have one data chart in this post.

So, to resolve the question, women ARE as funny as men.  What remains to be seen is do we want them to be?

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12 thoughts on “Are Women Funny? (A Review of Female Humor Studies)

      • I would enjoy working with some ‘statistical support’ and think it could really add credibility and attention to our data. HumorQ.com is currently ‘prefunded’ so do yo happen to know any statistic experts looking for a fun volunteer project?

  1. You state:
    *If you read another study by Markus Jokela at the University of Finland, it showed that attractive women are more likely to have more offspring than unattractive females, while attractive men have about the same amount of offspring as unattractive men. This shows that men select their mates purely on physical attractiveness, while women select their mates on some other metric (my best guess would be ability to “provide” for offspring – due to factors such as intelligence, physical prowess, wealth, and humor).*

    That’s not quite how I read the study. Indeed, to quote from it:

    *In men, there was a threshold effect so that men in the lowest attractiveness quartile had 13% fewer children than others who did not differ from each other in the average number of children. These associations were partly but not completely accounted for by attractive participants’ increased marriage probability. A linear regression analysis indicated relatively weak directional selection gradient for attractiveness (β=0.06 in women, β=0.07 in men). *

    And:
    *Men’s attractiveness was associated with the probability of having the first, second, third, and fourth child.*

    This means that it’s not only women who appear to be judged by attractiveness.

    • Good points, Echidne. I sort of fudged the latter point of the least attractive men having less children, as the other three appeared to be roughly equivalent. It would seem like women don’t notice physical attractiveness, unless you are hideous. Also, I interpreted the relationship of attractiveness and number of children as being a non-linear relationship. If you look at women it looks more like there are two classes: Attractive/Very Attractive and Not Attractive/Moderately Attractive.

  2. On the second Jokela study you link to: It’s only an abstract so it’s hard to know how the concepts are defined but I’m not sure that one can draw the conclusions you draw from this:
    *High emotionality decreased the probability of having children, whereas high sociability and, in men, high activity increased this probability. *

    High sociability seems to increase the likelihood of having children for both men and women, high activity only for men. So the question depends on how “high activity” is defined. Whether being funny is in that category or in the general “high sociability” category or neither is unclear without seeing the whole study.

  3. jono beat me to my comment. rats. I love this paper. This is brilliant. You should submit this to some professional medical journals.

  4. Pingback: Humor Code: Flaws in A Scientific Approach to Comedy | Raj Sivaraman

  5. Pingback: Are Women Funny? Pt. 2 | Raj Sivaraman

  6. “Hitchens misinterprets this data as women’s inability to determine what is funny and what is not.”

    Actually you are pretty wrong there. I’ve read his article and Hitchens clearly stated that the results meant that women were quicker to judge what is funny and what is not and men were looser in their judgements but quicker to come up with humorous material. He never stated women couldn’t determine what was funny. He stated quite the opposite.

  7. Hitchens: “Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon,” said the report’s author, Dr. Allan Reiss. “So when they got to the joke’s punch line, they were more pleased about it.” The report also found that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.”

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