It’s often said (or at least whispered) that women are not funny. The relative paucity of female comics (or the humorlessness of the few that are out there) is often cited as evidence, but rumor has it that there are women (feminists excluded, of course) with a sense of humor, even if they abhor the Three Stooges.
17th Century playwright Jean Racine famously said “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” Was he saying, consciously or otherwise, that women don’t do comedy because they don’t think? Well, of course, he is a dead – long-dead – white male, so that’s grounds for dismissal in some quarters. Yet a contemporary anecdote may illuminate the issue.
A few weeks ago I was hanging out with my next-door neighbor who has two children, a boy four years old and a girl less than a year and a half. My neighbor was lobbing whiffle balls to his son who swung at them with varying degrees of success. On one toss the kid connected and drove a line drive right back at his old man. Of course, it was a whiffle ball and it didn’t hurt, but the father pretended to be injured. “Oh, you got me, son! Oh, ag-o-nee! Oh, ag-o-nee…” The little girl, who had been standing by quietly, became distressed and almost came to tears. She clearly thought her father had been hurt. Of course, he immediately abandoned the ruse and took pains to reassure her he was all right.
Well, one wonders if she will be so concerned with her father’s welfare after she finds out about the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, but more to the point, does her behavior display some nascent maternal instinct, a sense of empathy that is so overpowering in human females that it renders them incapable of laughing at a human in physical pain.
Now if you’re a regular guy, you know how you would react if someone you knew had been struck by a flying object and possibly injured. You would rush to his aid and ask the eternal question, “Are you all right?” After a response in the affirmative, laughter is not only permissible, it is encouraged. How many times have you heard, “Oh, that’s gotta hurt!” from some sports anchor after he replays a video of a running back victimized by a particularly vicious gang-tackle or an outfielder running into the wall in pursuit of a flyball? Of course, the announcer wouldn’t say that if anyone were really hurt. “Oh, that’s gotta hurt” was said by no one ever after viewing the Zapruder film…with the possible exception of LBJ.
Remember the old Warren Farrell saying, “Women are human beings, men are human doings.” Slapstick is decidedly physical. It has been a staple of humor since…well, since the beginning of humor. I’m no physical anthropologist, but I have no doubt that millions of years ago some protohominid hurled a fistful of feces (great name for a spaghetti western) at a cohort, scored a bullseye, and inspired whooping, hooting, and howling among the rest of the troop. Hence the invention of laughter – a scene that surely belongs in the “Dawn of Man” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since men are human doings, their humor is often based on do-doings. With the advent of indoor plumbing, it became known as bathroom humor, which often overlaps with adolescent humor. Bodily functions are inherently humorous, and you don’t have to be Beavis, Butthead, or a medical student to crack jokes about them.
Comedy, of course, has always been a staple of theater. Slapstick was a key element of British music halls as well as American vaudeville and burlesque. And one of the staples of slapstick was a pie in the face.
Perhaps the earliest proponent of pieing in the cinema was Mack Sennett, whose Keystone Studio, founded in 1912, was in incubator of numerous silent comedians. The cinema was in its infancy so the comedies were unsophisticated, to put it kindly. Sennett’s shorts were largely non-stop horseplay. Psychologists agree (at least they used to) that rough-and-tumble play is more typical of boys than girls. Psychologists also agree (at least they used to) that girls excel boys in verbal skills, which put them at a disadvantage in silent films.
After sound films came along, the Three Stooges carried on the tradition of pieing. When TV took over, the king was surely Soupy Sales, who was pied thousands of times during numerous episodes of his show on local and national TV. As a contestant on “What’s My Line” in 1965, he explained and demonstrated the power of pieing (sounds like the title of a self-help book) by telling a corny joke which got a tepid reaction. Then, after telling another corny joke, he got hit with a pie after the punch line, and the audience reacted like the aforementioned protohominids.
According to Wikipedia, “Pieing or a pie attack is the act of throwing a pie at a person. In pieing, the goal is usually to humiliate the victim while avoiding actual injury.” So the humor is enhanced when the pieing victim is, pardon the pun, upper crust (we’ll get to verbal humor later). In 1935 the Three Stooges made a short called “Hoi Polloi,” in which two well-to-do men make a nature vs. nurture bet as to whether it is possible to turn imbeciles into gentlemen. The Stooges are introduced to high society with predictable results, namely, socialites getting pied. It worked so well the Stooges reworked this plot twice: “Half-Wits Holiday” (bittersweet in retrospect, as it was Curly’s last appearance as a Stooge) in1947, and “Pies and Guys” in 1958.
A few years ago when security was much less stringent, there was a brief trend of poohbahs getting pied by strangers in public (the Bill Gates attack can be viewed on the internet). Today I don’t think pieing would pass muster as a mostly peaceful protest, much less as an example of freedom of speech. Imagine a pie in the face of Klaus Schwab, Justin Trudeau, Mitch McConnell…oh, don’t get me started! Of course, one could easily pie a cleaning lady or a ditch-digger, but why bother? The comic impact would be minimal.
Though pieing qualifies as physical humor, no one gets hurt. A pratfall is something else, as it is possible to get seriously injured. This doesn’t preclude the possibility of comedy, however. As Mel Brooks once observed, “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” Shame on Brooks for making such an insensitive statement! Doesn’t he know “manhole” is sexist and “utility hole” is the proper phrase? Well, Brooks just turned 96, so I guess we must make allowances for someone who is old enough to be Joe Biden’s father.
Brooks’ dictum notwithstanding, strangers will rush to assist someone who has taken a tumble in public. The greatest risk, of course, is when an elderly person falls (when you reach a certain age and go in for your annual physical, your doctor will routinely inquire if you’ve had any falls in the past year). By contrast, a pie in the face never killed anyone, with the possible exception of a chubby chaser getting smothered by a hair pie.
Pieing represents an undeniable loss of dignity, which is anathema to the female façade, perhaps because women spend much more time putting on their face than men do. Imagine the uproar if a commoner dared to pie Queen Elizabeth. It would be tantamount to pieing the throne itself! Hillary Clinton getting pied would be an affront to all women! Even worse would be pieing Caitlyn Jenner! An affront to trans women worldwide! Hate crime charges would not be out of the question.
After the arrival of silent comedies, some of the more inventive practitioners, notably Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd (both were Sennett alumni), and Buster Keaton went far beyond pieing, utilizing intricate timing, athleticism, and acrobatics, often risking life and limb just to get audiences to bust a gut. To be fair, they often had female accomplices in their slapstick routines (Mabel Normand was a recurring accomplice in Chaplin’s films). On TV Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett definitely had a flair for slapstick, as did Imogene Coca, who is largely forgotten today, though she was a mainstay of Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. Note that we are not talking about contemporary television shows. Indeed, given the plethora of obese women these days, a pratfall was never less likely to result in a broken bone. Given their dress, their dayglo hair, and their neopagan body adornment, women have never looked funnier…yet been less humorous.
Those intricate gags in silent movies didn’t write themselves, and gag writers were not only invaluable (one of the best, though not a household word, was writer/director/actor Charley Chase), they were invariably men. After silent comedy yielded to sound, they were equally valuable in animated cartoons (all those classic Warner Brothers cartoons would have been unthinkable without gag man Michael Maltese). When TV became a fixture in American living rooms, Ernie Kovacs and his humor, largely based on sight gags, became a legend. This should be no surprise because psychologists also agree (at least they used to) that boys respond to visual stimulation more than females. British comic Benny Hill, whose show reveled in slapstick and scantily clad girls, surely understood this. In fact, he was so good at it, rumor had it that his show was cancelled due to its reliance on “sexist humor.”
Though acrobatic troupes certainly have their share of females, one would be hard pressed to name any who became comediennes of any renown. One might think those pubescent gymnasts who become too old to perform might turn to slapstick, but no. It’s just not their thing. While the female body could surely perform slapstick, the female brain isn’t comfortable with it. Female humor is almost exclusively verbal. Even so, men regularly outdo women at joke-writing and telling.
A lot of male verbal humor is also visual. It paints a vivid picture in one’s head. Consider gross-out jokes. Though verbal, they are based in the physical reality of the human body. Oftentimes, the effectiveness of such humor can be judged by its effect on a squeamish audience. A good punch line in a gross-out joke is as likely to inspire retching as laughter.
A lot of gross-out humor is denounced as sexist humor but in truth it should more properly be labeled anatomy humor. There are probably as many jokes out there about male anatomy as female anatomy. Such jokes, though verbal, depend on physiology. Female humor is pointedly personal but rarely physical. Female conversations revolve around relationships, as do their self-help books and their humor.
So we may well ask what is female humor? We concede that some women have a sense of humor, but do they create humor? Yes, but their brand of humor is overwhelmingly verbal. More to the point, women excel at catty humor. It is directed towards one person (usually not present). It is an offshoot of the female instinct for gossip. It is also the specialty of the male homosexual, who often outdid his female rivals. Paul Lynde, for example, was better at one-liners than any woman. On “Hollywood Squares,” he was once asked, “When a man falls out of your boat and into the water, you should yell “Man overboard!” Now what should you yell if a woman falls overboard?” Without missing a beat he replied, “Full speed ahead.” A woman would never say that, even if it popped into her head.
The foremost female exponent of catty humor was Joan Rivers. Almost every joke was a put-down of someone, sometimes a fictional entity, such as a low I.Q. boyfriend (“He saw a sign that said ‘wet floor,’ so he did!”), sometimes a real person, usually a celebrity, such as Mick Jagger (“He looks like he could French-kiss a moose.”)
Another successful female comic was Phyllis Diller, who mined her fictional husband “Fang” for humor. Her combination of waspish jokes, outrageous attire, and flamboyant personality made her a big favorite with male homosexuals, which may be a corollary of being a successful comedienne. Mae West, a true original, was the template for this syndrome.
Given a good joke writer, a comedienne could have a pretty good career based solely on cattiness. As skilled as many stand-up comics are, few can get by without writers. Indeed, many comics started out as writers (e.g., Woody Allen, Mel Brooks) before they got into performing. Bob Hope relied heavily on writers for his monologues. Milton Berle, often accused of stealing jokes, maintained an enormous card file of old jokes.
Today, however, we are told that we must provide a platform for voices that have been silent heretofore. So we have not just more female comics but more female comedy writers. Could this be the reason for the slow-motion death of Saturday Night Live? “It just isn’t funny anymore,” is a common observation.
Well, what happens to humor when you eliminate male input? Without a good writer, the female comic has little to offer besides sarcasm and snarkiness, which is what dominates humor today, male and female alike. How can we account for this? Other than lower levels of testosterone, that is.
Well, perhaps we could blame part of it on the sedentary nature of modern life. After all, physical humor burns up calories. It takes effort. And I don’t know if we have the gag writers today to conceive of complicated physical humor. In days of old, such writers were, of course, men. By embracing physical humor, they became the court jesters of Newtonian physics, which is also male-dominated. Of course, machinery was big during silent days. People worked with machines and wielded tangible tools. Today electronics trumps mechanics. You push a button and get results, but you don’t actually see gears grinding, fan belts turning, or pistons pounding away. You can’t come up with much physical humor in a cyberspace-dominated society.
This leads us to social media, which is blamed for many social ills…so why not the death/dearth of humor? Remember, I said gossip plays a big part in female humor. Social media is nothing more than high-tech gossip. Gossip was formerly passed from backyard to backyard, but now it travels instantly and reaches far more people. And as more and more women (and men) spend more and more time on social media, verbal humor reigns supreme. Oh, your phone may show video, but in terms of humor, the best you can do is tiresome and predictable variations of America’s Funniest Home Videos. You may on occasion receive a clever meme on your phone, but words are still the reserve currency in social media.
Given the dominance of verbal humor today, we must ask how much real wit is involved? Wit has long been the province of men. It is a creative use of language, and not just a put-down, although it can be. In fact, we can turn to Dorothy Parker, a certifiable female wit, to affirm it. She once said, “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.”
Parker was a member of New York’s famed Algonquin Round Table of the 1920’s. She matched wits with playwrights George S. Kaufman and Robert Sherwood, journalists Heywood Broun and Franklin Pierce Adams, critic Alexander Woolcott, and humorist Robert Benchley, among others.
One of Parker’s best known bon mots was “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” In an era when men give the air to girls with blue hair, this sounds pretty tame. Parker’s wit, however, was capable of much more, often at women’s expense. For example:
That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.
Ducking for apples – change one letter and it’s the story of my life.
If all the girls attending the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under the host.
A century later, still funny. Clearly, Dorothy Parker was an outlier, at home in the world of male humor. Of course, she was not above an occasional catty put-down. Famously, when informed of the death of President Calvin Coolidge (popular known as Silent Cal), she reportedly replied, “How could they tell?”
Today when almost every day brings us news of a new absurdity, outrage, or disaster, I am often reminded of her famous phrase: “What fresh hell is this?”
So while we may lament the state of humor today, and blame it on political correctness or wokeness, feminization cannot be ignored. There’s plenty of room for improvement in contemporary humor, but what are the prospects?
Well, I don’t foresee any upsurge in slapstick, since it requires planning, timing, and props. Stand-up humor is much cheaper…a small stage, a spotlight, a comic, and maybe a few props are all that’s required, and usually all the audience gets. It is possible to create memorable humor under such Spartan conditions (Steve Martin certainly excelled at it), but it often requires intelligence to create and appreciate such humor, and the national I.Q. is certainly not on the upswing. Easier to stick to sark and snark.
Thankfully, gross-out humor is still alive and well (thank you, Adult Swim Channel), but live action slapstick is all but dead. Pie throwing is also rare to the point of extinction, and that’s a shame. Mister, we could use a man like Moe Howard again.
We need not limit ourselves to contemporary humor, however. Thanks to YouTube and DVDs, it is not difficult to find examples of TV and movie humor from past eras. Only a hard-core progressive would assert that today’s humor is superior.
Of course, many would say that these days we have far bigger concerns than the state of comedy, but I disagree.
Contemporary comedy is no laughing matter.