“In general, men have a stronger, or at any rate a more comprehensive sense of humor than women, just as men have a stronger physique, and for much the same reasons.’
Men are funnier than women — or so goes the well-worn cliché. Showing strength and intelligence helps men attract the best quality mates, so good intelligence is just as beneficial to them as well-toned abs. In return, all the women need to do is look pretty and laugh at the men’s jokes.
But as any woman who has ever sat down to chat with her friends about their partners’ peccadilloes knows, women are hilarious: rolling on the floor, tears streaming down their faces at the fun. Why are so few female wits listed in the history books alongside Voltaire, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain? Is it that women’s humor is personal and not universal? Is that why no one thought his jokes were worth writing?
It’s certainly true that men have dominated the ranks of professional comedy, whether as stand-ups or comic book writers. they still do in the 21st century, with women making up only 15 percent of writers on top sitcoms, according to one estimate. But that doesn’t make women any less funny. it just means they haven’t been encouraged to be funny for a living. Comedy was not seen as a “women’s” profession.
Jessica Kirson on Bill Burr, Robert de Niro and Being the Wrong ‘Kind’ of Female Comedians
Few women in past centuries were distinguished for their wit: Nell Gwynne, mistress of King Charles II, was noted for it. Aphra Behn wrote comedies that were very popular with 17th century dramatists. And Jane Austen’s dry humor endures two centuries later, with such gems as: “It is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse a proposal of marriage.”
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that we find some pioneering women taking to the stage with stand-up routines. Moms Mabley, a gay African-American, started out in vaudeville in the 1920s and developed her comedy with material about husbands, children and domestic life: “They say you shouldn’t say anything about the dead unless it’s good . He is dead. Good!” She was an attractive woman, but she learned to play down her sexiness, adopting the “Moms” persona, complete with coat and floppy disk, to make the audience focus on her words rather than her looks.
Stand-up can be an aggressive arena, with male comedians aiming to control the audience and oppress fans with unscrupulous one-liners – behavior that isn’t traditionally ‘feminine’. Self-deprecation became a common trait among female comedians, almost as if they were apologizing for entering a man’s world. Fanny Brice quipped: “Do you think pretty girls will stay in style forever? I would have to say no! He’ll be out at any moment. Finite! Then it will be my turn.” Phyllis Diller often joked about her plain looks and lack of domestic talents: “My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor.” Joan Rivers later took up this mantle. Self-deprecation makes female stand-up seem less aggressive and more recognizable, so she runs less risk of alienating her audience.
Dorothy Parker’s humor ran the gamut from sophisticated and worldly to cynical and self-deprecating. In 1917 he was hired as Vanity fairtheater critic and wrote some extremely scathing reviews. In one, she invited the audience to bring their knitting to the show to pass the time, suggesting “If you don’t knit, bring a book.” She was fired in 1920 after upsetting an influential producer, but by then she had established herself as a talented writer of short stories, poems, and frank insights into the weakness of relationships between the sexes, drinking, and writing itself. At times she directed her wit at others—“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were indifferent, I wouldn’t be a little surprised”—but more often she addressed herself: “Making a duck for apples—change one letter and it’s history of my life”.
Could you be an attractive woman who makes jokes about sex without being self-deprecating? British-born comedian and singer Marie Lloyd tried it out, favoring risqué double-entendre material such as the song ‘She’s Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ and the famous line ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’. She paid a price in the moral fervor of the day, with fierce criticism for her wickedness from both male and female dramatists. In 1913, she was detained at Ellis Island and charged with “moral turpitude” for traveling with a man she was not married to and ended her career depressed and dependent on alcohol.
A few decades later, Mae West successfully used her sexual independence as material for her witty comics and saw no need to downplay her natural abilities. Her one-liners were shocking for the time – “Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you better have a good hand.” — and he didn’t get away with it without killing. In 1927 she spent ten days in prison after being prosecuted on a moral charge, and during the 1930s her ribald dialogue was often censored, while her personal life was checkered. But she remains much loved and admired today for daring to speak out against the hypocrisy and misogyny around sex.
All of these women were trailblazers for today’s generation of brilliant female comedians: Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall, Miranda Hart, to name just a few. Some of them still use domestic material, such as wives, children and housework, in their acts. some are ditsy; but no topic is off limits, from politics to penises, and they no longer have to worry about being “strangers” when they stand up to play.
Gil Paul’s novel Manhattan girls It’s about Dorothy Parker and three friends navigating life, love and career in 1920s New York.
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