The XX Factor

If a Woman Jokes in a Forest…

I probably shouldn’t have gone straight from the nightmare of trying to secure an appointment with a brand-new primary care doctor to read the backflips that admittedly well-intended Andrew Ladd goes through in his attempts to explain why there’s a cultural belief that women aren’t as funny as men. It only meant that I had to double my aspirin intake to handle the stress headache that erupted, and it’s hard to tell if it’s from the hold music that I was recently subjected to or Ladd’s assertion that men don’t think women are funny because women’s sense of humor is so different . I will say that Ladd did prove one of his arguments-that what is considered “funny” varies wildly-by simply calling the sitcom Friends a comedic powerhouse. If a woman’s sense of humor is different than that, thank the comedy gods for it.

Ladd’s backflips are impressive in both height and complexity. He argues that men tend to go for a more quick, punchy sort of humor, and women are more interested in what he calls “anecdotal” humor. Never mind that the punchiest, most quick-witted sitcom on television is the brainchild of a bona fide Vagina-American, Tina Fey. 30 Rock is all about absurdity, maximizing the jokes per minute, broad caricatures, and dick jokes-the very things that Ladd claims are “male” humor and not “female” humor. For all his good intentions, Ladd is being kind of sexist here. He’s so eager to paint women as the more mature, evolved sex that he can’t look past Fey’s gender to see that she’s the kind of person you who thinks “your mom” jokes are funny. (As do I, another woman who refuses to go kicking and screaming into the gentle comedy night.)

Ladd gets the closest to the truth of why women are characterized as “not funny” when he bemoans how funny women are considered skanks or bitches. I’d say the whole problem is actually quite simple. Our culture does believe there are female and a male senses of humor that differ. We tend to say that men have a sense of humor when they say funny things, and that women have a sense of humor when they know when best to laugh when men say funny things. This sense is so ingrained that I had a few occasions when I was younger where I’d say something funny and get blank stares, only to find a man stealing my joke a half hour later and getting giant belly laughs for it.

That doesn’t happen to me anymore, because once you get paid a couple times to write funny stuff, people start to put you into the category of exceptional, funny women who get to join that boy’s club. But even then, I suspect the reason it’s so hard for comedy shows to remember to hire women is that we have trouble recognizing jokes for what they are when they come out of female mouths.

Photograph of Tina Fey by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images.