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Are women funny? That’s the wrong question

Updated: July 21, 2012 6:22AM

Last month a scientific report proved, once and for all, that women are less funny than men. Sound familiar? It should — because this happens every year or so. You can pretty much set your watch by it.

Every 12 to 18 months, someone in the public sphere asks, “Are women less funny than men?”

People ask this question in private, too. During the five years I performed with Second City I heard it repeatedly from friends, relatives and audience members in the lobby after shows.

The latest brave soul to ask it is Dr. Judith Baxter of Aston University in England. As reported by the London Telegraph, Dr. Baxter found in a recent study that 80 percent of jokes made by female bosses in boardrooms were met with silence, while 90 percent of jokes made by male bosses received raucous laughter.

And from that one piece of data, the media has spent the past few weeks drawing the only possible, logical conclusion: Women are less funny than men.

But this conclusion is wrong.

Why? Three reasons. First, it fails to acknowledge that humor is linked to social status, not to gender. The male bosses in Dr. Baxter’s study may not have gotten all those laughs because their jokes were better, but because men enjoy higher status in our society than women, which makes their jokes more likely to be well-received by both genders.

It also ignores the fact that there’s a difference between laughing at your boss’ joke and actually thinking it’s funny.

Most significantly, it overlooks an important study by psychologist Paul McGhee. In 1976, McGhee discovered that before the age of 6, little boys and little girls make the same number of jokes. After age 6 — and from them on — girls make fewer jokes than boys. Basically, McGhee revealed that women are born with the same capability to be funny as men. And then, somewhere in the first six years of life, they get the message that they should suppress it.

But the worst part of Dr. Baxter’s study isn’t its conclusion — it’s that it has everyone asking the wrong question.

The question “Are women less funny than men?” is old and tired and irrelevant and sexist. It’s like when people used to wonder if a woman could be president, because what if she became irrational during her time of the month? That is exactly how outdated the women-and-funniness question is. So let’s stop asking it.

When it comes to gender and humor, instead, let’s start asking the right questions.

Questions like: How can we stop sending girls and women the message that they should stifle their sense of humor?

How can we dispel the myth that women aren’t funny and encourage women to use the sense of humor they were born with?

And how can we close the status gap between men and women, which is the larger problem at the root of all this?

I live in Manhattan now, where I take the subway to get around, which means few of my friends here have ever seen me drive. But none of them doubt that I’m able to.

What if we give women the same benefit of the doubt? What if, instead of constantly wondering if women are funny, we just assume that they are? And then redirect our energy toward asking those deeper, tougher, more important questions?

If we find the answers, we’ll all benefit from a society where both men and women feel comfortable expressing themselves any way they want to.

Plus, we’ll get to hear more jokes.

Jenny Hagel, a comedy writer in New York, is head writer of MTV’s weekly show “10 on Top.” She studied and performed improv for 10 years in Chicago, including at Second City.

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