Women and comedy

There is this weird idea among some people, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that women are not as funny as men. Christopher Hitchens put his foot in it in 2007 in an essay titled Why Women Aren’t Funny and though he got some well-deserved flak for what seemed like deliberate obtuseness, perhaps in order to buff up his self-image of being a contrarian provocateur, it did not seem to change his mind.

It does not seem to strike these people that professional comedy, like pretty much every profession, was largely the domain of men for a long time and so it should not be surprising that there were not many women comics until fairly recently. But now they are all over the place, writing and performing their own material.

The former head of Disney Michael Eisner now ventures into these waters and makes the claim that women who are both beautiful and funny are almost impossible to find.

That may well be true as an empirical matter though Eisner seemed to imply that there was more, some kind of innate negative correlation between looks and comedic talent. But what Eisner does not seem to realize is that the same argument applies to men too. Quick, think of a man who is both really handsome and also funny. Give up? I did. I cannot think of a single man who fits both descriptions. The reason is because of simple probability. By definition, people who are considered to really stand out on any quality are in the tail of the probability distribution for that quality. The odds of being really good looking are small and the odds of being very funny are also small. (If they were not small, we would consider these people to be ordinary.) So if those are independent traits, then the joint probability of being both very good looking and funny is tiny, irrespective of whether you are a man or a woman.

So why pick on women? It is because for women performers, and indeed women in general, looks are the driving characteristic. For a man, if you are funny (or indeed accomplished in any way), that is enough. Your looks are secondary. Does anyone care that Ben Stiller or Jerry Seinfeld or Louis CK are not exceptionally good looking? But for a woman, you have to be also physically attractive in a conventional sense. Furthermore, the idea of what is funny was defined by what men found funny and if women did not find the same things funny, that was taken as evidence that women did not have a sense of humor.

You would think that Eisner would be able to figure this out by himself before making such statements.


  1. says

    At the point when Hitchens did his “women are not funny” schtick, I realized he was just a troll. A well-spoken and incredibly articulate troll, but still just a troll.

  2. says

    I can, off the top of my head, name several women and men who are both really funny and whom I consider very attractive. If someone can’t find them then they are deliberately not looking.

  3. David Evans says

    The radio program that consistently makes me laugh more than any other is the BBC’s The News Quiz, chaired by Sandi Toksvig (female, for those who may not have heard of her).

  4. coragyps says

    Any idjit that can claim, say, that Carol Burnett or Lily Tomlin weren’t funny back forty years ago was not listening/watching. Now Glenn Beck may be almost that funny now, but his funny seems to be unintentional.

  5. says

    It’s not just comedy and movies, the same superficial judgement of women infects music. People used to choose music based on whether the perfomers could sing, play instruments and write music, not whether they were physically attractive. Now most of the music buying public and record industry are now guilty of choosing music by women solely based on attractiveness, completely superficial. Some women who were as popular for their looks as much as for their singing have gained weight (e.g. Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson) and suddenly the focus and criticism was solely about their appearance, not their music. They ceased to be seen as performers and were now “failures in need of help”.

    I miss the good old days when performers and musicians aroused audiences with songs, not their album covers and near-pornographic music videos. Nobody cared how people looked, they cared about the music (e.g. Sarah Vaughn, Mary Ford, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, The Weather Girls, etc.).

  6. david says

    He might be confused between beautiful and glamorous. There are many women who are beautiful and funny. I married one (setup: “Take my wife…”).

    But for a woman to occupy the visual space that movie studio heads think of as beautiful, she has to spend many hours forcing themselves to look a certain way. Perhaps spending so much time trying to achieve Disney’s ideal look is enough to drain people of their sense of humor.

    What a jerk.

  7. smrnda says

    This kind of reminds me of the ‘no women in science’ which usually just demonstrates that the person making the claim can’t name too many scientists since Einstein, and not too many before.

  8. doublereed says

    Well off the top of my head, Rachel Bloom and Sarah Silverman are attractive and funny female comedians and Stephen Colbert and Stephen Lynch are attractive and funny male comedians.

    I think the idea of the attractiveness -- funny thing is that we use comedy to compensate for other deficiencies. I think that whole premise is out of whack. Some people are just more drawn to comedy. It’s not like people consciously decide to be funny people.

  9. doublereed says

    I found Hitchens thought process to bizarrely circular. He sort of defines comedy as a masculine trait. Then says that of course that women are also funny but if they are, then they’re imitating men in some way. If comedy is masculine, then obviously women who are comical are being masculine by his reasoning. It seemed to me like a totally vacuous idea.

  10. leni says

    “Christopher Hitchens: Why Women Still Aren’t Funny”
    Watch the whole thing, Mano.

    Wow. That really did not help his case.

    He’s just retrofitting to explain an supposed evolutionary scheme wherein women don’t need to be funny. He actually said (paraphrase) “if you aren’t funny you don’t have a chance. You’ll never get laid.” This is absurd and he just asserts it evidence free. It’s irritating for a lot of reasons, but humor is something humans use to forge and maintain all kinds of bonds. Smiling and laughter develop before language, clearly it has other purposes which he just ignores. Purposes that don’t matter to half the freaking population, if you believe him.

    Aside from that, there is absolutely nothing new about what he’s saying. They only reason it’s provocative is because a lot of us are just sick of hearing it and are increasingly willing to say so. The list of things women don’t need to do because “evolution” pretty much encompasses all of human endeavor except possibly childcare, cleaning, and cooking. Women don’t need to be smart. Women don’t need to be strong. Women don’t need to be artists or musicians. Women don’t need to do or be anything typically “human”, because apparently it’s we’re like some species of animal that just badly mimics male behavior.

    It’s boilerplate crap and if I wanted to hear more of it I can go literally anywhere. I don’t even have to leave, I can just sit here and contemplate the innumerable times I’ve experienced the poison of those stereotypes in my own life.

  11. leni says

    Anyone who thinks women can’t be funny haven’t seen Fascinating Aida singing “Cheap Flights”.

    Well Hitchens didn’t really think that. He just titled his essay and responses that way and then got frustrated that people assumed that’s what he meant.

  12. fentex says

    Off the top of my head -- Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Shappi Khorsandi, Aisling Bea, and Katherine Ryan are all attractive woman who can be very funny.

    Adam Hills is probably the best looking male comic I can think of, though I think quite a few would be widely considered good looking.

    Want to see women being funny? Watch Psychobitches which is a tour de force of British comedians primarily being funny about historical women figures and stars, quite apart from a roll call of funny British men…

    Rebecca Front
    Sharon Horgan
    Samantha Spiro
    Katy Brand
    Selina Griffiths
    Frances Barber
    Michelle Gomez
    Julia Davis
    Zawe Ashton
    Kathy Burke
    Liza Tarbuck
    Catherine Tate
    Miranda Richardson
    Meera Syal.

    I mean if you’ve been watching British TV for a while and don’t know how funny Miranda Richardson, Meera Syal and Tamsin Grieg are you’re not watching the right programs.

    And speaking of good looking and funny -- Zawe Ashton, yummy.

  13. mnb0 says

    “women are not as funny as men”
    That’s a challenge. Dutch cabaret (only the ones I know and appreciate, which means that I’m outdated with 15 years) female stars:

    Jenny Arean, Hetty Blok, Ina van Faassen, Nelly Frijda, Carrie Janssen, Jasperina de Jong, Brigitte Kaandorp, Fien de la Mar (in the 1930’s!), Jetty Mathurin, Conny Stuart.

    They are/were all of them funnier than Hitchens, according to my totally subjective and patriottically biased judgment.
    Also I recommend the very funny French movie Huit Femmes (Eight Women), with an all star cast. Plus of course Absolutely Fabulous with it’s bizarre absurd humour, starring four women.

    “Quick, think of a man who is both really handsome and also funny.”
    No problem.


    “It is because for women performers …. looks are the driving characteristic. ”
    Well yes, but looking good and being handsome is for Dutch performers not the same.


    A young Brigitte Kaandorp, who made me almost pee my trousers a couple of times.

  14. Seth says

    In a slightly-milquetoast defence of Hitchens, he was a writer, not an editor. Journalists are almost never ultimately responsible for how their articles are titled, and due to Hitchens’s reputation as a contrarian (a title and epitaph with which he, perhaps fittingly, disagreed), eventually his editors began making his pieces’ titles as provocative as possible. Even so, his garrulous bull-headedness on the topic of this particular article was somewhat embarrassing.

    To the point of this post, of course women are funny. That the sexism in our culture demands that women also be (a very narrow kind of) attractive as well as twice as competent as a man to get even half of the credit is a disgrace.

  15. soren says

    Well it is just silly -- Catherine Hepburn was gorgeous and made a series comedies, where she was hilarious.

    In “pure” comedy, I for one think Amy Schumer is hilarious and she is quite stunning.

    But generally comedians are not beautiful. I just saw Midnight in Paris with Owen Wilson who is not a beatiful man in traditional sense, but he is a great comedy actor.

  16. moarscienceplz says

    He said “I don’t know man, ah she kinda funny, you know”
    I said “I know, everybody funny, now you funny too”

    George Thorogood

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