Laugh It Off: Hurdling the Humor Gap
How to combat your comedy critics.
Posted Jan 26, 2021
“Women aren’t funny.”
If you have any type of social media account, you’ve probably read some version of this comment under countless posts.
It’s a simple and harmless comment, albeit a little harsh, that drifts in the sea of social media. Three words, no big deal. Don't worry, we can take it. Comments like this, however, are indicative of a larger issue at hand, and it’s one that doesn’t just affect women.
The Joke’s on Me
As far as I’m concerned, I like to think I have a pretty good sense of humor. Flattering myself, I know, but I can laugh at just about anything and in return can fire back with some witty one-liners.
However, after each joke I tell and each laugh I let out, my thoughts sound something like this: Oh no, am I being too loud right now? Maybe I need to tone it down, I’m probably getting annoying. Laugh a little quieter and wait a minute or two before saying anything else so I don’t seem so over-the-top.
I rarely think about, much less worry about how I come off when I’m just talking in a social setting. But as soon as I start cracking jokes, my fear of judgment and rejection never fails to come to mind.
I know I’m not alone on this front. Susan Prekel, a comedian based in New York, once began a stand-up set of hers by pointing at a random man in the audience. “If there was a chance he’d find me attractive,” she said, “as soon as I’m on the stage, it’s over.”
LOL: Social Media and Its Effects on Humor
Online and offline, women’s humor is placed under scrutiny. As Regina Barreca wrote in her book, They Used to Call Me Snow White…but I Drifted, “while men are assumed to be funny, women must prove they are funny.” It’s a catch-22 in a way: If you don’t make any jokes, you’re not funny. Make a joke and you’re a girl, and you still might get told you’re not funny. Not only that, but you might also get labeled as annoying, loud, attention-seeking, or even unattractive for exercising your sharp tongue.
Humor is a very nuanced social quality, and it is already a tricky thing to use effectively in face-to-face conversations. In an online setting, this becomes even more difficult without any of the visual cues that you might use to gauge how your humor is being received by others.
A study on social media’s effects on humor focused specifically on how online humor is far more vulnerable to criticism in the absence of real-time laughter and visible emotions from others. What this means is that someone commenting on a post that you’re not funny, regardless of whether or not they actually feel that way, has the same effect as someone in a face-to-face interaction responding to your joke with a condescending frown and not even attempting to fake a laugh for you—uncomfortable and embarrassing, to say the least. A joke made online is only as funny as its responses, and just like real life, you start to believe the rejection you're hearing.
Seen, Not Heard
Women especially are subject to these harsh online critiques, but the more subtle critiques offline have deeper roots. Short online comments and casual sentiments about women not knowing how to be funny are indicative of the double standards that are so ingrained in everyday life that they almost go unnoticed.
A study done on how men's and women’s humor is received differently in an office setting shows the “humor gap” that exists between men and women. The study had a man and a woman record two presentations each, one in which they infuse some jokes and one in which they avoid using humor entirely. All four recorded presentations were then shown to the study’s participants.
Although the woman’s two presentations were nearly identical to the man’s counterpart presentations, the results showed that the participants found the man’s humor to be a means of breaking up the monotony of the meeting while displaying charisma and likeability, whereas they found the woman’s humor “disruptive” and considered it a means of distracting her audience from her lack of professional knowledge.
The dilemma is what to make of all of this. Caught between trying to be funny enough to be seen as charming, friendly, and fun, but not so much as to be deemed loud, annoying, and unattractive, there seems to be nowhere to go. We grow, but we can only occupy a certain amount of space before we are told we take up too much of it. With no other choice, women grow inwards instead—into our inner criticism, into a quieter social presence, into the confines of what is too funny and what isn’t funny enough. Put inside a room of yellow wallpaper and told you are too loud, too bold, too much, you will also start to believe it eventually.
All Jokes Aside, Men Can Face This Too
While there are arguably more stereotypes that put these limitations on women than on men, this social dilemma is in no way exclusive to females. These self-inflicted inner judgments and fears of being labeled as too loud or desperate for attention are something that everyone deals with.
Despite the popular online quip that “women aren’t funny,” plenty of men can likely relate to worrying over whether your jokes are actually just the butt of everyone else’s jokes when you're not around. No matter your gender, this is a social anxiety that many people face, and social media certainly hasn’t helped the matter. Log onto any media platform, and everyone’s a critic.
That isn't to say anything goes. A good rule is, don't give it if you can't take it. Follow your funny compass, but know what is going too far. The other side is also being okay with being on the receiving end of a joke every now and then—know your worth, but be able to laugh at yourself too. Not everything written online is meant to be serious (in fact, most of it isn't).
Humor is more organic and complex than a simple snap judgment made online. After all, you can go spend your days rehearsing jokes you’ve read and still not be funny. But the worries of being that friend or that girl shouldn’t stop you from being yourself. Man or woman, it’s time to stop growing inwards because you’re paranoid of the rejection that might await you on the other side of a punchline.
Tell your jokes anyway. Be so damn funny they can’t help but laugh. Laugh at what you find funny even if your laugh is loud and obnoxious and reminiscent of a hyena. There is something so heartwarming and endearing about a person who is so genuinely loyal to their character and what they find funny that judgments can’t even come to mind while you watch them enjoy their own company.
Not everyone will find you funny and not everyone will like you, but that’s okay. It’s hard to drop the fear of rejection and it’s easier said than done. But hey, when the criticism comes, you can always just crack a couple of jokes about it and (loudly) laugh it off.
Evans, J. B., Slaughter, J. E., Ellis, A. P. J., & Rivin, J. M. (2019). Gender and the evaluation of humor at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(8), 1077–1087. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000395
Weitz, Eric. (2017). Editorial: Humour and social media. The European Journal of Humour Research. 4. 1. 10.7592/EJHR2016.4.4.weitz.