Do Some Men's Fragile Egos Quiver in the Face of Female Funniness?
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We're at the beginning of what's looking like a new age of female comedy. A brigade of female comics—women like Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Sasheer Zamata, and the great Tina Fey—has stormed the cultural landscape. Adweek reports that of the 44 comedy pilots ordered by the networks in anticipation of the 2012-'13 season, 18 were conceived and/or written by women. At NBC and ABC, exactly half their combined sitcom orders were female-driven comedies. The hilarious women-centered comedy-drama "Orange Is the New Black," soon to begin its second season on Netflix, is a runaway hit. Comedien Amy Poehler debuted in her first romantic comedy, They Came Together at this year's Sundance, an event that buzzed with the success of funny women.
Yet the women-aren’t-funny camp clings to its beliefs like cave dwellers afraid of the sunlight. He-man comedian Adam Corolla complained that unfunny women get preferential treatment in Hollywood due to political correctness. Jerry Seinfeld recently grumbled that he didn't care about diversity in comedy. Some men see humor as their special provenence, an echo of the primal cry-of-triumph over the enemy — something far too potent for ladies. They don't like encroachment.
The late Christopher Hitchens was the standard-bearer of the modern middle-class stereotype of female unfunniness, which he proclaimed in Vanity Fair. Noting a “humor gap” between the sexes, Hitch observed that while women look for humor in the men they date, his man-friends did not share that expectation. Hitchens, a lower-middle-class boy shaped by his striving in an upper-middle-class world, absorbed ideas about female respectability that allow ladies to express sexuality only as the passive objects of his attraction; otherwise they had best shut up and fix him a drink. While conceding that female comedians exist, Hitch snarled that "most of them... are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three."
Certainly not nice pretty girls he'd want to sleep with! In Hitchworld, men express their manliness by laughing at life's slings and arrows, but "women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is."
The problem for the Hitch crew is that the funny woman doesn’t sit well with the insecure man. She’s smart and savvy, and might not think your jokes are funny. Still more terrifying, she may find you an object of humor. (One of Hitch's male buddies once tried to seduce me by reading Proust aloud by the light of a candle which turned his balding pate into a giant glow-lamp, which, I confess, was pretty funny.)
Author and screenwriter Robin Epstein, a former standup comic, had this to say when I asked her about the funniness of women: “Of course women have senses of humor. How else can you explain our willingness to have sex with men?”
The funny female is not only too bold and brainy, she may be too sexually powerful for the ego-challenged male. Going all the way back to Greek courtesans, men have associated humor in women with sexual subversiveness and potency. Think of Mae West, whose remark, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” is the kind of repartee that can be either exciting or emasculating, depending on your confidence level. Bawdiness isn’t nice — it might be unclean, or downright scary. A smiling, laughing woman is taboo, disruptive. She might want to eat you, blast you with her crazy, or snap at your with her toothed vagina. (French feminist Hélène Cixous examined this paralyzing fear in The Laugh of the Medusa.)