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Why Women Aren’t Funny

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a great story about celebrities trying to win the New Yorker magazine’s cartoon-caption contest.

And the operative word is “trying.”

Zach Galifianakis got so frustrated, he finally gave up. Roger Ebert tried 107 times. Maureen Dowd wrote at least one caption I think was funnier than the winning caption. Remember that as you read the rest of this post.

I entered the contest once and never again. The more I tried, the less likely I was to come up with not just a funny caption, but anything at all. My mind would go blank.

According to University of New Mexico anthropologist Gil Greengross, that means I’m not a funny person.

Greengross and psychologist Geoffrey Miller conducted research designed to explore humor ability as it relates to mating success, and they used the cartoon-caption contest as a way to judge participants’ humor ability.

I contacted Greengross to talk about his research, and confessed that I am a big loser in the caption contest.

It’s not easy at all to come up with a decent caption but from my experience in the study, it’s a good separator between people with good sense of humor and others,” he said via email.

Bummer. I consider myself funny. Not hilarious, maybe. But funny.

Maybe it’s my chromosomes. Greengross’ article further asserts that humor ability is more important to males than females for mating success. In other words, the ladies love a funny man. That makes sense to me. My husband’s bone-dry sense of humor has definitely contributed to our 25 years together. And when I asked my mother why she married my father, she said, “He makes me laugh.”

And the researchers contend that “humor ability” is higher in males than females, and suggest this is an evolutionary development.

Woah, Nellie!

Let’s break this down.

To test humor ability, the researchers gave 200 male and 200 female psychology students three New Yorker caption contest cartoons. Participants were instructed to write as many funny captions as they could for all three in 10 minutes.

The captions were then rated by six judges, four female and three male (the article incorrectly states the opposite). The captions were mostly not funny, the researchers reported, and even the funniest people managed to crank out only a few mildly humorous captions.

After crunching the numbers, the researchers concluded that men produced funnier captions on average than women. Therefore, men are funnier.

So many ways to shoot this down. Where to start?

How about the way our culture supports male humor over female. Consider just one example: Of 30 comics booked at this year’s SXSW conference, one was a woman. This excellent post about that was written by my friend Andrea Grimes, who is a stand-up comic with an MA in cultural anthropology from UT Austin. She also writes and edits a feminist blog called Hay Ladies.  I sent her the article and asked for her thoughts about women and humor.

“One of the most frustrating parts about being a woman in stand-up comedy is hearing this from a host before you walk on stage: ‘And now, a female comic!’” she said via email. “Or, if they’re feeling a little classier, ‘Are you all ready for a lady comic, now?’ People are demarcated in comedy based on their sex first. The comic default is male. Nobody introduces a ‘male comic’ to the stage, and while occasionally you might get a smart-assed remark about a comic’s ethnicity, those introductions are almost always tongue-in-cheek.

“But the ‘female comic’ introduction isn’t tongue-in-cheek, it’s an alert. It says: here is something that is different, out of the norm. You’re not necessarily starting in a lower place than male comics are, but certainly a different place. And the female comic experience is, in many significant ways, marked by their marginalized status as the ultimate ‘other’ of comedy.”

Consider this too: The movie industry was shocked and amazed by at the success of the chickcentric comedy Bridesmaids. Because, you know, women aren’t funny.

I adore Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph and loved the movie, though I could have lived without the diarrhea scene. My husband enjoyed it too but said, “It’s definitely a chick flick.”

It is. And I’m cool with that. I can see how women would connect with one of movie’s most compelling themes: competition for friendship. “Who’s your best friend?” is a game women play with each other from the moment they make their first friend. This is not a  great thing, which is why satirizing it is.

And I wasn’t surprised to read that director Judd Apatow was responsible for the explosive diarrhea scene, not the screenwriting team of Wiig and Annie Mumolo. Even before I knew that, I knew that.

Men and women are socialized so differently, wouldn’t it follow that their perception and production of humor would be different?

Greengross denies genders of judges affected the research because the judges all rated cartoons from both men and women in the same way, and didn’t know the sex of the writers.

But isn’t it possible, I pressed, that cultural differences affect men’s and women’s sense of humor ? Or that women are conditioned to laugh at men’s jokes more than vice versa? I wondered if people might be able to correctly guess which captions were written by men and which by women.

Greengross explained that he used captions for the study (rather than, say, someone telling jokes) so that social clues were removed.

“…women couldn’t really think that men’s jokes were funnier just because they were men, because they didn’t know the sex of the writer,” he said. “One prediction that you can make is that men will use more sexual and aggressive humor because that what we see in real life. But you will be surprised how many hostile captions came from women, maybe because of the anonymity of the task and because they weren’t constrained by cultural expectations.”

Ah yes. We are all secretly seething.

Or maybe the women tried hostile humor in order to be funny like men. After all, society says women aren’t funny. What choice do we have but to try to emulate guys?

Or, more to consider: The New Yorker publishes few cartoons or articles by and for women. (This is common among “general interest” magazines.) Therefore, women were being asked to succeed in a medium more familiar to men. “I wonder what would have happened if they’d asked the men to write humorous Cosmo-style top ten lists about relationships,” Grimes  said. (Remember Maureen Dowd’s losing caption that I liked? It was chick-funny.)

Or maybe the judges, both male and female, have been culturally conditioned to respond more strongly and/or favorably to male- over female-style humor, even when they only pick up differences subliminally.

Or, fine, OK, maybe the women actually weren’t as funny. Tying this to evolution is a stretch when you factor in the drubbing female humor has long received from our culture.

“Women in our modern, Western society are just not socially conditioned either to consume or produce comedy,” Grimes said. “That they would produce fewer funny captions than men isn’t surprising to me. But it says literally nothing to me about whether women or men are naturally funnier for any reason, evolutionary or otherwise.”

That’s what she said. And I agree.

Why Women Aren’t Funny

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Why Women Aren’t Funny. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Sep 2011
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