Humor Sapiens

The laughing ape and other insights into the nature of funny.

“You Suck!” and “Show Me Your Jugs!”

The difficult life of female comedians

One of the most intriguing, and controversial, questions regarding comedy is why are there so few female comedians? While there is no agreement on why that is, I would like to provide some explanations that have been proposed, and also offer some of my thoughts on this subject. I would be happy to hear what others think, so everyone is welcome to chime in on this interesting topic.

There is no doubt that female comedians are a minority. How many male comedians exist for every female comedian? We do not have an answer to that since no official registry of comedians exists. Even if we did have something like a comedy guild, the answer might depend on who we count as a comedian. Do we include amateur comedians and open mics, or do we just focus on professional comedians? Nonetheless, all indications are that there are overwhelmingly more male than female comedians. Past studies seem to indicate that the percentage of female comedians hovers around 10-15%. In my own study of professional stand-up comedians, over half a year I recruited 31 comedians, only 3 were women, almost 10%.

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The disproportionally low number of women in comedy is only one example where there are fewer women in a humor related profession. A comprehensive study of professional cartoonists, where researchers made every effort to include as many female cartoonists as possible, searching magazines, books, journals, special volumes, internet databases and personal contacts, found that out of a total of 1519 cartoonists from 61 countries, only 9% were women.

Why is it then, that there are so few women working in stand-up comedy? There are certain stereotypes and cultural barriers that no doubt affect women in comedy. Christophe Hitchens famously expressed one prevalent and persistent stereotype that “women are not funny”, a sentiment shared by many people, mostly men. This is clearly not true as evidenced by the many funny and successful female comedians such as Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Chelsea Handler, Wanda Sykes, and the list goes on and on. So obviously, women could and certainly do become successful comedians but not anywhere close to the number of men in the business. Why?

Cultural Factors and Sexism

There are certain factors in the business of comedy that work against women and create obstacles that most men do not have to worry about. George Carlin put it nicely: “Specifically, an individual woman is as funny as any specific individual man. The difference is in the enculturation and conditioning that people go through, and for a long time there weren’t many female stand-up because it was somehow too masculine a job, too aggressive job” (all quotes on this post are from the documentary “History of the joke”). Aisha Tyler said it more blatantly: “Women are not socialized to be aggressive. We are very much kind of told by culture to be precious, be pretty, be cute, and comedy is not precious, or pretty, or cute.”

These are some observations from comedians regarding how society might deal differently with men and women, ways that can affect how they perform but also how they are perceived by the audience. If our culture discourages women from being aggressive but rewards aggressive humor, then women are placed at a disadvantage. It is important to note that men are naturally more aggressive than women on average, which can increase the bias.

But even if men use more aggressive humor compared to women, not all comedians follow their gender typecast. The problem is that there seems to be different reactions and consequences for a man using a clean act, compared to a woman telling dirty jokes. Women who turn into what is perceived as a more masculine act, using sexual and more aggressive types of humor, may not succeed as much as their male counterparts. It is considered less appropriate for women to behave like “alpha males”, where they are perceived to be out of line, while male comedians can do whatever they want and no one will question their choices. In fact, a profane act is sometimes considered edgy for male comedians.

Compare for example, Jerry Seinfeld with his very clean act that doesn’t seem to hurt his popularity, to Sarah Silverman who uses profanity in most her acts. Lately, her use of foul language landed her in the hot seat. After watching her latest HBO special “We Are Miracles”, critic Brian Lowry expressed his concerns that by trying to imitate men’s humor using vulgarities and crude humor, Sarah Silverman was hurting her career. I think that the view that there are styles of humor that are appropriate to use by men but not women is quite sexist and preposterous. For me, a comedian is either funny or not, regardless of whether he or she curses or tells dirty jokes. You can be very funny with an R-rated program or you can bomb, and you can have a clean show that is funny or boring, and that has nothing to do with your sex. This is not to say that there aren’t some styles of humor that might appeal more to men than women and vice versa. Women audiences might prefer cleaner and less aggressive shows, but in most cases it has nothing to do with the sex of the performer. This is also related to a claim I heard from numerous comedians that women’s humor might appeal only to women while men’s humor appeals to both sexes. I am not sure how much truth there is to it.

The concept that female comedians should not curse is just one example of sexist attitudes and double standards in the world of comedy. Female comedians are also perceived to represent all women while male comedians represent only themselves. If a female comedian is not funny, people might say that women are not funny. But if a male comedian is really bad, people would tend to say that John Doe isn’t funny and not that all men are not funny. As Kathy Griffin uttered: “When you get heckled as a woman, it’s never just ‘you suck’, it’s ‘you suck’ and ‘show me your jugs’ combined. And that just doesn’t happen to guys. No one is going to heckle them and say ‘show me your balls’, because nobody wants to see them”.

Problems with Comedians’ Lifestyle

Beside sexism and cultural factors, there are also other, more objective obstacles that hamper women’s road to success in comedy. One of the biggest problems with a comedy career that affects women more than men is the constant travel. In order to be a good and a successful comedian, one must travel constantly. Performing in front of diverse crowds helps comedians to furbish their comedy act. This is especially important early in the career, when comedians want to establish themselves in the business. Many female comedians do not like to go on the road, or the road doesn’t like them, as traveling poses certain risks and costs for women that are not much of a problem for men. For instance, traveling alone raises the risk of sexual harassment and sexual assault, a problem faced almost entirely by women. Most weeks, comedians live in a condo owned by the manager of the club in which they are performing. Living in a condo can be very uncomfortable for a female comedian, especially considering that in most cases there are two male comedians staying with her.

Then there is the issue of family. Generally speaking, it is much easier for men to travel when they have a family. Both culture and biology limit the amount of time a woman can travel with a baby, while a man can often rely on the help of his partner at home to take care of the baby. This creates an unequal opportunity for mothers to succeed in comedy. The end result of all these constraints is that more women than men prefer performing in local clubs and not to go on the road, something that impedes the development of a comedian’s career. Kathy Griffin summarized it well: “It’s definitely harder for a woman on the road, and guys will never admit this, but what do they know? “

Evolved Sex Differences and Comedy

I think we all can agree that there are obvious societal barriers and stereotypes that prevent women form getting into or succeeding as stand-up comedians. Nonetheless, the overwhelming skewed disproportional number of men and women suggests that there might be something more than just culture involved. As mentioned earlier, there seems to be a very low number of women in all humor professions. Estimates of the percentage of female cartoonists and comedians are eerily similar, about 10%. Can something other than culture explain this?

Evolutionary psychology is the field of study that explains human behaviors, preferences, and emotions based on known evolutionary mechanisms. Some of the most egregious sex differences in comedy fit well with the most important evolutionary force known to shape sex specific behaviors and preferences, sexual selection theory.

According to sexual selection theory, different life histories for males and females helped shape their mate preferences and behaviors and resulted in some disparities in the way they enjoy and use humor today. These differences arise from asymmetry in their reproductive costs and the amount of time and energy devoted to parental investment. In humans, as with most other mammals, women bear the heavier costs of reproduction, such as pregnancy and child rearing, while having a shorter reproductive span. This leads women to become choosier in selecting a mate, since the consequences of selecting the wrong partner could be much more costly (e.g., raising a child alone). Thus, women should be more attentive to cues that indicate high mate value, while men would try to signal that they are high quality mates.

Sometimes, mate quality can be directly observed, as in the cases of masculinity in men, youth in women and symmetry in the face and the body of both sexes – all direct indicators of reproductive value and health. Other times, assessing mate quality of another individual cannot be attained directly and has to rely on advertisement. Humor might be such an indirect fitness indicator, a signal for underlying individual genetic quality. This is similar to the peacock’s tail which is a very heavy, colorful ornament that requires much energy to develop and support and is easy for predators to spot. Peacocks with the bigger and more colorful tails, ones that are more symmetrical and costly, attract peahens because the tails are an honest, hard-to-fake indicator of fitness.

The same mechanism might manifest itself with humor. Humor can be a good way to advertise intelligence and mate quality. Because women are choosier than men, we should expect men to use humor more often and more creatively to signal their mate quality and attract women, while women should be more sensitive to men producing high quality humor when choosing a mate. Numerous studies on humor support this tendency of men to try and be funny as an honest advertisement and women to choose men who are funny.

In regular conversations, men are much more likely to crack jokes, especially when women are present, while women tend to laugh more especially in response to male speakers. If you check personal ads on dating sites for example, you will see that men show a proclivity to advertise their humor ability by the sheer number of ads containing humor compared to those of women. Men also put more effort into producing high quality humor in their ads, while women recognize that humor creativity is important, and seek men who offer it. Evidence also shows that men who used humor in their ads were more likely to be successful in finding a date, but it made no difference for women using humor, as men do not particularly care if a woman is funny (though they would like her to laugh at their jokes). The emphasis that both sexes put on the humor production abilities of men, and the reverse role it plays in mate choice, is a recognition of the significance of humor creation in signaling mate quality and the fact that women are choosier than men.

My own research, described in detail here, shows that on average, men had slightly higher humor production abilities than women, humor is correlated with intelligence, and people with a great sense of humor enjoy better mating success. All these findings point to the same conclusion: that humor might be a vehicle for mating success, mostly for men but not for women. Males’ greater tendency to use humor to make others laugh also seems to begin in childhood and adolescence, as more men than women report being the class clowns.

Now, let’s go back to comedy. What in the comedy world can suggest that men are more prepared by evolution for the path to success? For one, men might use comedy to enhance their mating success. This can be done either directly or indirectly. I don’t have data on the frequency of sex in the comedy world, but from what I have heard, male comedians enjoy quite an active sex life, especially on the road where there are no strings attached. In fact, casual sex with many different partners fits well into men’s evolved psychology. For women, the cost of casual sex could be big, and they have to be careful who they go to bed with. This is why women comedians are much less likely to have sex on the road or casual sex in general. In fact, one female comedian once told me that if a comedienne sleeps with other comedians, rumors about it spread quickly and would give her a bad reputation. Male comedians do not have to worry about this and sometimes even compete for who gets more sex.

Another way that comedy fits into male evolved psychology is that being a successful comedian can enhance one’s status. Male comedians are more likely to be interested in gaining higher status through comedy, which indirectly can lead to more sexual partners, as high status men are more desirable for sex. In light of sexual selection theory, high status is favored by women when choosing a mate because it gives them access to resources which are valuable for survival, food and health, and can help raise future offspring. Thus, men’s pursuit of high status and women’s desire for such men as mates could motivate more men to look for a career in stand-up comedy, while for women, being a professional comedian may not enhance their mate value by much. It is worth noting that humor itself can increase mate desirability just because it is associated with another, sexually dimorphic trait, such as status. One of my own studies found that individuals with higher status increased their attractiveness by using humor but the effect did not work for lower status individuals (it was especially strong when using self-deprecating humor, which can be seen as a form of handicap, similar to the peacock’s tail). This is another evolutionary mechanism that favors men in comedy, because the motivation for getting high status is stronger for men.

Men are also known to be more competitive than women, again, partially because of biological tendencies. Stand-up comedy is a very competitive profession and not everyone is willing to put all the effort into succeeding in it. Women might show less desire to pursue such a competitive job, while men’s ambition for high status would drive them to seek what is considered to be a highly sought-after profession.

This competitive nature in men might often lead them to take more risks compared to women. Men might be more willing to sustain the bumps in the road to glory. More men than women might be inclined to live an uncomfortable life with little job security for a long period of time, while traveling from place to place endlessly. The large uncertainties of comedy, the low pay, the competitiveness of the profession, the long wait to breakthrough – all of these seem to better suite men’s psychological adaptations.

Another issue that men might be better suited for, or at least more willing to embrace, is the long and lonely hours a comedian needs to spend alone. Writing is a solitary process, as is practicing the routine. Women are more social creatures than men, preferring to be around other people, either at work or in social situations. Comedy does not offer much time for human interaction, with one big exception, the night of the show. It is possible that fewer women are willing to pay this price to succeed.

Lastly, there is the issue of men’s superior humor ability at the extremely high end of the spectrum. If the average man does have slightly better humor production ability than the average woman, it might be plausible to think that when we look at the highest level of humor production, i.e., stand-up comedians, we should find more men. This is also due to the fact that the distribution of humor ability is likely not the same for men and women. In math, for example, many studies have shown that at the top 1% of math ability, we find 8 men to one woman. This is exactly the same ratio we find among comedians. It’s not that women are not funny, but that in the very extreme level of humor production there are more men than women. If we look at the highest possible level of humor production, the one that includes the greatest comedians of all time, the picture is exactly the same. For example, on the list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians published by Comedy Central a few years ago, only nine were women.

Overall, comedy life seems to better fit with male psychology than that of women, but there are a couple of things to also consider. Even if men are better suited for comedy life, and more men succeed in comedy than women, that does not mean that women cannot be successful comedians as evidenced by the many great women in comedy. If we make comedy life easier for everyone, maybe more women will turn to this profession. On the other hand, we should not expect that the number of women will equal that of men anytime soon, and that shouldn’t necessarily be a problem.

Also we should remember the number of failures in comedy. Most people who try comedy do not become famous and should expect moderate success at best. Only a few can become very successful and famous, and that’s the nature of every profession. But just as more men succeed in comedy compared to women, so there are many more men who fail. Just because men tend to be risk takers, have higher motivation that is relevant to comedy, have an easier time to travel and so on, does not guarantee that they will succeed. In the end, many more men fail than the one that makes it big.

There are also some possible benefits for being a female comedian. Because women are quite a rare breed in comedy, they are sometimes paid more. Since the audience is usually divided equally between men and women, and women want to see more female comedians, owners try to supply this demand by booking more female comedians. I don’t know how prevalent this practice is, but I heard it from a several comedians. 

In sum, there are probably many reasons why there are disproportionally fewer women in comedy. Simply put by Lewis Black “Female comics have a harder job than male comics”. Some of the problems lie in cultural barriers and sexist attitudes, but other factors might be more related to different evolutionary mechanisms that shaped men’s and women’s lives. In my view, this is a good case where culture and biology interact. There is no doubt that more research is needed on this topic, and I hope to be able to contribute to it soon. 

This is my last post in this series on stand-up comedians and comedy. I have always been impressed by stand-up comedians and their work and know how hard it is to succeed in the profession. I would like to thank all the comedians who participated in my study, shared their experiences, and provided me with valuable information that I was happy to share with you all. Special thanks to all the comedians and lay people who read and responded to my posts.

Gil Greengross, Ph.D., is a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Mexico.

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