As long as there have been jokes, there have been people saying that women can’t tell them.
It can be tempting to dismiss recent “women aren’t funny” firestorms as yet another by-product of our internet era, where we are instantly alerted the second that anyone—from Adam Carolla to some yahoo with a Reddit account—makes an inflammatory statement about anything.
But the claim that women aren’t funny isn’t just new to our times. Here I’ve compiled a brief, totally incomplete history of people publicly peddling this line of bull:
- 1695: Playwright William Congreve noted in his treatise, Concerning Humor in Comedy, “I must confess I have never made an Observation of what I Apprehend to be true Humour in Women…Perhaps Passions are too powerful in that Sex to let Humour have its course; or maybe by reason of their Natural Coldness, Humour cannot Exert itself to that extravagant Degree, which is does in the Male Sex.” Congreve was also the mind behind the popular quote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” which just goes to show that it was easy to make a career out of generalizing about women even before the advent of Fox News.
- 1884: Richard Grant White, one of the most powerful cultural critics of the 19th century, wrote in the journal The Critic that a sense of humor is “the rarest of qualities in a woman” (rather than, say, the ability to shoot lasers out of her eyes). Not only did the remark yield two separate counter-essays in 1884 by critic Alice Wellington Rollins, it also led to the 1885 publication of The Wit of Women, the first-ever collection of women’s humorous writing, which sassily name-checks White and his comment on the book’s first page.
- 1975: John Belushi’s belief that the women of Saturday Night Live weren’t funny is well-documented. Though Belushi never took to a public forum to make his opinions known, in Yael Kohen’s We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, SNL writer Anne Beatts notes, “John Belushi used to regularly ask for us to be fired. ‘Fire the girls!’.” Similarly, in a 2011 Oprah interview, original cast member Jane Curtin claimed that Belushi tried to sabotage skits penned by female writers by performing them poorly in rehearsals so that they would never make it to air.
- 1998: Jerry Lewis told a group at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, “I don’t like any female comedians…a woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.” The stunned audience walked out (but at least a decade or so later, we got a funny Tina Fey quote out of it!).
- 2007: Christopher Hitchens’s infamous essay, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” answered the non-burning question, “Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women?” with the eye-rolling reply “Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be.” (In order to procure the sex, don’t you see? Sex with women! ). Hitchens’s essay inaugurated the most recent leg of the “are women funny?” debate, though Vanity Fair itself seemed to apologize for running Hitchens’ piece with a 2008 cover stor: “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” Hitchens, with all the class of a schoolyard bully who wants to know why you won’t stop hitting yourself, wrote a follow-up essay that same year about how you ladies getting all huffy about his article just proved his point.
- 2011: The prestigious peer-reviewed journals Askmen.com and PsychologyToday.com both peddled evolutionary psychology “research” that “proved” that men had a biological reason to be funnier than women: since women are evolutionarily “choosier” mates, potential male partners today still must make more visible displays of their desirable traits, such as intelligence and sense of humor (presumably whilst the women around them forage for berries and fend off mastodons right in the middle of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour).
- 2012: Adam Carolla told the New York Post, “The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks.” His comments were immediately shouted down by many of his (much funnier) peers. Meanwhile, in a jazzy little variation on the theme, Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that “most pretty girls aren’t funny” during a publicity appearance for his film Looper. After a few days of internet outrage, Gordon-Levitt walked the comment back.
The nature of beliefs about women’s deficient wit has changed very little in over 300 years. Then, as now, the claim was used to write off women who were actively trying to be funny, as well as declare that under-developed comedic capacities were simply another sign of women’s natural inferiority.
Through the years, the claim that women aren’t funny has also transmuted from a fairly mainstream opinion to an “edgy” one. Clearly, utilizing an opinion that predates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in order to prove that you’re “edgy” is just sad.
But, as you can see, things are a little different than they were in William Congreve’s day. When these women-aren’t-funny comments come up nowadays, they’re followed by an immediate public outcry and can be countered by listing off examples of numerous women who have built careers being funny on TV and in movies. Nowdays, “women aren’t funny” quotes are used to troll for internet clicks, but they’re not keeping women off our stages. As Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead said to Forbes.com, “[T]hose that believe [that women aren’t funny] are becoming the exception. But sometimes the exceptions have the loudest mouths.”
This post is the first in a series on feminism and comedy. Stay tuned!
Completely unfunny photo via Maria Media.