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February 07, 2005



Your post is a perfect illustration that Matt is right. Don't quit your day job.



Merrill Markoe, the inventor of the Late Night Top Ten list, in her recent epistolary roman a clef The Psycho Ex Game, talks about how she was once hired to bring a 'female perspective' to an ensemble sitcom set in a gym, the writing staff being composed of what class clowns who follow their bliss end up doing, few of whom actually go to a gym. All guys of course.

She introduced a lot of relatively subtle humor about gender relationships to the scripts. It all got cut during staff meetings, except for one bit that was modified out of recognition into a typical "what comedy guys think jocks act like" joke.

In the novel, she won an award for that episode.

Incidentally, for a novel that looks like it was constructed by the co-authors saving their early relationship e-mails, and then searching and replacing thoroughly enough to avoid British libel laws, it's pretty good.



So Steve, it's not every day that someone deliberately puts himself in a no-win situation, but either you're kidding, in which case, that's not a funny joke; or you're serious, in which case it is a funny joke, but you're a big dummy.

Fontana Labs

I have to admit, with some trepidation, that what cracked me up about this post was
because one swallow does not make a spring
since even though I'm TEACHING that right now I was all "wait, is that a fat joke?"

Another explanation: standup comedy, like philosophy, seems to be full of fragile, combative egos; thinking about humor as like a physical confrontation might be less conducive to women. Or something.


Matt is wise beyond his years except when he is being infantile. I know more amusing women than I do men so I'm solidly in your corner, Belle. Or maybe there's a distinction between witty and funny for these women usually gifted in rapportee.

There's alot of facets to sexism but it occurs to me that pathetic is funnier in men than woman (am I expressing one of those facets now?). Irresponsibility is funnier in men than in woman. Pratfalls are funnier with men than with women. It may be because we are such a pathetic, irresponsible, clumsy group.


Some ugly, plump, or at least weird-looking women who have been in comedy movies or TV:
-Gilda Radner
-Alex Borstein (MadTV, Cat Woman, Family Guy (guess animation doesn't count?)etc. very cute, but plump)
-Lucille Ball
-Rosie O'Donnell (some crappy movie I can't remember. I know she's not really funny, but that shouldn't matter.)
-Sandra Bernhard (Hudson Hawk)
I'm sure there's a bunch more. It may be true that their numbers are fewer, and don't come to mind as easily as the Jackie Gleason's and Chris Farley's of the world, but certainly non-hot female comedians can get into movies and tv if they're funny.


I think I have an explanation for the phenomena noticed above by LowLife:
There's alot of facets to sexism but it occurs to me that pathetic is funnier in men than woman (am I expressing one of those facets now?). Irresponsibility is funnier in men than in woman. Pratfalls are funnier with men than with women. It may be because we are such a pathetic, irresponsible, clumsy group.
In each of these cases the humor operates by portraying as undignified a subject who is assumed to have a pretty substantial reserve of dignity. I'm not saying that men are, in any objective sense, more dignified than women. But they are granted dignity as a matter of course, and that gives them something to work with.

Don't believe me? Try to imagine a disabled comic whose schtick relies heavily on pratfalls. Not very funny.


Lucille Ball was weird-looking? That's just nuts -- she was a physical comedian who pulled faces a lot, so you're probably picturing her grimacing, but look at any picture of her where she isn't making a silly face, and then come back here and call her weird-looking. She got her start as a model and a starlet in Hollywood movies (e.g., "Stage Door") -- not as a comic.

That you went for Ball as an example of a funny-looking female comic just shows how high the standard for women performers is -- you looked at a woman who, if you saw her on the street would be unambiguously stunning, and remembered her as ugly because she makes faces.

Sandra Bernhard less so -- probably couldn't have started out as a model, like Ball did -- but stacked up against the woman-on-the-street? Still remarkably attractive. Gilda Radner and Rosie O'Donnell probably make it down to average attractiveness, and I don't know your last example. Your post completely supports Belle's point.

PZ Myers

You know, it's OK to talk about all those good female comics that goose the female average up, but all I've got to do to refute Yglesias is mention two words.

Colin. Quinn.

Watching that guy in action is enough to convince you that no male could possibly be funny ever again. He takes our average and single-handedly hammers it down into the ground.

Ken C.

There is some notion that for men, fat equals funny; I think Gleason lost weight at some point, and had to put it back on, for such a reason. Hardy (or was it Laurel?), W.C. Fields, Gleason, Belushi, Farley, John Goodman, maybe Will Sasso, maybe Jason Alexander, Neumann-on-Seinfeld, Horatio Sanz: part of their funny is being fat.

Why isn't fat==funny for women, except maybe when they're opera singers? Sexism, maybe, but I don't feel like that's the only explanation. I don't even understand why it might be seen that way for men.


I'd also question the wisdom of drawing conclusions about the humorousness of the sexes by counting standup comedians on different grounds--by and large stand-up comedians aren't funny. No points for men here.


Look, we can come up with all of the Whoopi Goldbergs and Janeanne Garofalos in the movies we can, but it still isn't going to equal the number of men comedians in movies because there are simply more men in the movies than women. Now THAT is due to sexism, surely. But it doesn't tell us anything empirical about whether men are funnier than women.

Richard Cownie

>Now, it's undeniably true that there are fewer
>professional female comedians. Let's think for 5
>milliseconds about why this might be true. I don't
>know, maybe sexism?

While a certain amount of active sexism may be at
work, I can think of other factors which make
professional comedy unappealing as a career choice
for most women in our culture:

1) Anti-social hours
2) Need for continuous travel
3) Need for relentless self-promotion
4) Much comedy involves an element of cruelty

Plus, speaking for myself, when I found a very
funny woman I married her, rather than encouraging
her to become a comedian :-)


I was going to back up the posters maintaing that men are, indeed, funnier than woman until the name of Horatio Sanz jolted me out of my comfortable, sexist delusion. Could a woman with such mediocre talent persist on SNL? I don't think so.

Also, Janeanne Garofalo is not unattractive. And Lucille Ball was hot!

Larry Summers

Richard's allusion to career pressure is one of many possible explanations; I prefer to think that I'm so fucking hilarious because countless generations of natural selection tend to produce smug assholes such as myself.

John Isbell

Women are funnier than men. It's wit, not humor, though - men sit around trading other people's jokes. That's my 41 years of experience.

Scott Lemieux

P.Z. Myers has made the definitive argument, I think. The fact that Tough Crowd With Rupert Pupkin survuved for two goadamned years pretty much destroys any arguments from quantity of comedians.

In addition, compare Quinn's Weekend Update with Fey/Pohler. Anyone want to make a case for the former?


Colin Quinn was pretty funny on Remote Control. Whatever happened to Keith Ober anyway?


Let's quote some of the comments in this discussion.
"I know more amusing women than I do men so I'm solidly in your corner, Belle."
"pathetic is funnier in men than woman (am I expressing one of those facets now?). Irresponsibility is funnier in men than in woman. Pratfalls are funnier with men than with women. It may be because we are such a pathetic, irresponsible, clumsy group."
"Women are funnier than men. It's wit, not humor, though - men sit around trading other people's jokes. That's my 41 years of experience."

Presumably, my comment offended because it could have actually accepted the argument that men are just funnier than women. The others don't offend even though they posit that women are just funnier than men. You must be an academic (or a wannabe). Noone else is so smugly and casually hypocritical.



It might be useful, so that people who should know better don't fall into a bizarre aesthetic abyss (eg Colin Quinn), to separate out the people who come up with the material from the people who deliver it. Sometimes, they are the same person. Other times, often, they are not.

I say this as someone who has been in close orbit around Teh Funny of his generation for the last goddam fifteen years.


Richard Cownie

BTW, while accepting the "fat-guys-are-supposed-
to-be-funny" theory - because really, how else do
you explain Horatio Sanz ? - I would also note that
this carries through as a huge obstacle to fat guys
in serious roles. The only one I can think of in
current TV shows is Edgar on 24, and he only ranks
as a minor character, even though last week he
reprogrammed half the nuclear reactors in the
country in half an hour from his desk, with his boss
and the Secretary of Defense helpfully looking over
his shoulder (just like my own everyday life as
a software engineer).

So, there's plenty of discrimination to go round.

Richard Cownie

Of course, the charge of active sexism could be
proved or disproved by research into the ratio of
male:female comedians at each level of the pyramid
of success. If we start at the bottom with a
70:30 ratio doing stand-up at open mikes, and we
end up with a 90:10 ratio in sitcoms and movies,
then that would be pretty clear evidence. But if
you start at the bottom with a 90:10 ratio, and
you end at the top with a 90:10 ratio, then it
would seem that there wasn't pro-male bias in the
promotion criteria.

You can see this kind of thing pretty clearly in
the NFL, where the coaches are almost all former
players, and the pool of players is heavily black,
but the at the top of the pyramid are very few
black head coaches (maybe 5 or 6 out of 31).

Anyway, I don't know what the figures are for
comics - the charge of sexism is plausible, but
numbers to back it up would be interesting.


Ok Steve, you are pretty funny. I don't care if people think that men are funnier than women; I think that's wrong, but unsurprising. Your comment offended because it came packaged as a gratuitous dig at Belle for what is, in fact, a very funny post.


It seems to me that another argument from the same premises is that women are, on average, so much more intrinsically less talented at comedy that only those women who are also beautiful can succeed at it. That is, women are so entirely less funny than men that only those who can augment their impaired comedic sense with beauty are able to succeed.

I don't think I like this idea, but there it is.


Incidentally, it's been my observation that angry right-wing white men have much more poorly developed senses of humor than, well, everyone else.

Part of that Brain Eater thing, I guess.



No offense taken, Steve. Except on the point where you deliberately insulted Belle. That was kind of offensive. But are you claiming the men are funnier than women? Where's your data? What's your criteria? What's your methodology? How the hell can you say that and it have any meaning?

Matt listed the 3 Stooges as being funny (I think they are a riot). Most women I know don't think so. Do we have a situation that men think men are funnier? Maybe men are funnier because you have faith that men are funnier. This is a topic for idle conversation as it's hard to construe a test that would be objective. But it's not a question for idle minds so maybe you should sit this one out, Steve.

Matt Weiner

I believe Alex Borstein is the one in the middle. Jeez, Mark.


I'm with Ogged on this one: Stevie boy's initial post was gratuitously insulting.

But forget the insults, what about the material? The old "Your efforts to prove X wrong just prove him right" is hackeyed enough, but then "Don't quit the day job"?

Come on, Stevie, who's writing your material? If you're going to be needlessly insulting, at least put some sass into it.

On to more important matters, yes, Belle's post was funny, but guys are funnier. How do I know?

Henny Youngman was a guy. And nobody's funnier than Henny.

Matt Weiner

I would also like to take offense at the one where Steve called academics smug and topped it with hypocritical. And they gratuitously insult people on their own websites, I hear.


Whatever. A man, Bill Hicks, was funnier than everyone else. So clearly that means any man is funnier than every woman.


I just want to throw in my two cents here:

  1. Sexism is certainly at work in the professional comedy business. Some of Margaret Cho's best and funniest work is about her encounters with Hollywood at the start of her career. Producers spent a lot of time trying to pull 'Roseanne' off the air, even when it topped the ratings for years on end. Network brass hated the show, which was beloved by many women.
  2. Men and women often don't have the same sense of humor - how many women do you know who hate Jim Carey or the Three Stooges, or Chevy Chase or most the male SNL cast, for instance? Tons. Similarly many men hate brassy female comedians such as Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhart, and Margaret Cho. My straight male friends have no interest in watching Ab Fab with me. It wouldn't be at all surprising if men and women disagreed about which gender was funnier because we often don't laugh at the same things.
  3. Sandra Bernhart, Janenne Garafalo, and Lucille Ball are gorgeous. Tina Fey is damn cute. And Margaret Cho is pretty cute herself. Cute male comedians? Er....Chris Rock?


Making the mistake of my life, let me jump in and speak up for Matt.

Matt says that society creates incentives all out of proportion to reality for men to try and funnify themselves.

This is true, but I think Matt misses the true thrust of the observations. It is not so much that men are funnier, it is that try harder, and more frequently, to be funny. This does not make them funny, it just makes them clowns.

Men, such as myself, are simply too thick, and a bit too whorish, to realize when to quit. We have troubled realizing that we are not humurous, but merely humored.

Matt is correct: Men are funnier, just in a crying on the inside sort-of way.


Matt, Alex is a friend of mine. I only cited her b/c Belle said that chubby women couldn't get comedy roles. I think Alex is very pretty, but a little chubby, as she would be the first to admit (and, very very short).
Sorry, I still think Lucille is weird looking. I see now how I am trapped in a bind. If I try to give any counterexamples, I'll get accused of something-or-other.
But Sandra Bernhard? Weird city. Gilda Radner...very odd looking.
I don't know what can explain Horatio Sanz's still working.

Matt Weiner

So you could introduce us? (Not really--that selfsame picture provides evidence that she has been in a movie with Hilary Duff.)

Matt Weiner

I retract the parenthesis. Sheer hypocrisy about pickiness.

poop ruiz

In each of these cases the humor operates by portraying as undignified a subject who is assumed to have a pretty substantial reserve of dignity.
I think this is a very interesting take, but I don't know if it's true. A fat person is not assumed, relative to someone who is fit or particularly attractive, to have a reserve of dignity. And think of the Farrelly brothers' body of work. A lot of comic exploitation of the "undignified." I could be very wrong here, and subject to rebuke as sexist, but I think part of the gender disparity comes from having a predominantly male audience for comedy, at least of the stand-up and sketch variety. If I'm right about that, I think it makes sense that men prefer comedy from those with whom they identify. I have to side in some way with Mathilde. Different sorts of comedy have different audiences.

Tough Crowd With Rupert Pupkin

Why isn't fat==funny for women, except maybe when they're opera singers?
I don't know that it isn't. Rosie O'Donnell, Roseanne, Janeane Garofalo, and Margaret Cho, all very successful female comedians, have all been identified with weight issues, even if, in the case of Garofalo (who, correct me if I'm wrong, is no longer overweight) and Cho, we're talking about chubby rather than fat.


genders aren't funny, people are funny. occasionally. also, steven wright was cute 20 years ago, and oscar levant was way funnier than henny youngman, but not as funny as sandra bernhard, who's also cuter than steven wright. or was that 30 years?


How about a more subtle argument than "show biz is sexist omg": men are perceived as funnier because we live in a world where the "default" point of view is more often than not male. For example, female comedians often get criticised for doing "chick humor" (tampons, PMS, a good man is hard to find) whereas male comedians never get accused of an equivalent crime even when most of their repertoire is about penises, the crazy chicks they've dated, etc.

Why? Because the female POV is marked, whereas the male one is unmarked. Women have to work extra hard at their chick humor, or avoid it altogether and stick to gender-free humor about airline peanuts etc., to get past the gatekeepers, whereas for men the bar is set lower. (Yes, there's a bar across the gate. Shut up, it's a perfectly good metaphor!)

Just an idea, I'm not suggesting this is the entire explanation.


a couple other examples come to mind, as far as the 'wonky looking as Michael Richards' criterion:
-Carol Burnet
-Lily Tomlin
-Amy Sedaris
-Rachel Dretsch
-Phylis Dyler
And, what is the name of that really funny actress whose sketch show first hosted the Simpsons cartoons as shorts?
When I come to think of it, MOST of the famous female comediennes are at least unconventional looking (versus, say, actresses who act in funny roles).
I am hard put however to find an example of a famous female comedien with looks on the level of Sam Kinison.


Thank you, rilkefan. And marksteen, I think you're thinking of Tracy Ullman.


Your post made me think about the fact (also told in Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink) that for the longest time many classical musicians in orchestras were white men, even though the conductors who hired them may not have deliberately tried to be sexist. Then they started auditioning musicians from behind a screen, and suddenly women were getting the jobs. Sometimes it's possible to get a result that's sexist even if those involved aren't setting out to be sexist.

Also, Sarah Silverman is one of the best comedians around, regardless of gender. But she definitely doesn't count as an "ugly chick".

dave heasman

I thought about posting yesterday, but expected someone else to come up with something clearer. In England this doesn't obtain. Lots of not-conventionally-pretty women comedians here get fair exposure - Dawn French, Jo Brand, Kathy Burke, the godlike Victoria Wood; they're often more than "just" comedians, though.


This whole debate is missing the point. The fact that someone is funny in show business says very little about whether he or she is funny in real life. If you're an actor or a stand-up comic or even a writer, you're still just performing. You have a talent for recognizing or coming up with good jokes, but that doesn't mean you have a funny personality. As I mentioned on Matt's blog, John Cleese is one of the dullest, most boring interviews I've ever seen - yet he's a brilliant comic performer. The real question is, who's funnier among people you actually know personally? Of course, this is subjective and anecdotal so you're never get a conclusive answer. But in my own personal experience, men are funnier by a lot. I find that in general, men tend to have much more of a capacity for self-deprecation, or mockery, or insult, or general frivolity. This stuff can be silly or stupid at times but when executed well, they are the cornerstones of funniness. Women are much more likely to be earnest and unwilling to say things that aren't "nice." I already know plenty of counterexamples - I'm not saying that all men are funny or all women are unfunny - so don't bother citing Tina Fey (who I think is great, btw) or whoever else. But the general tendency is there, and clearly so. But again, that's just me.

I don't know if blogs fall into the "performance" category or the "personal" category. But for the record, I think Belle is hilarious - that post from last year about her sister and the WW2 renactment is one of my all-time favorites. But that still isn't going to change my mind. There are also lots of funny male bloggers out there, including John, as well as Matt Y., the Unfogged guys, Kieran and Daniel from CT, and so on - and their senses of humor are hardly "Three Stooges"-esque.

Another Damned Medievalist

Re fat = funny for men:

cf. Falstaff

Fat guy comedians are riffing on Falstaff. Falstaff was funny. Sometimes. He was also there for the pathos, I think. And he's funnier in some incarnations than others -- so, for example, see Robbie Coltrane as Falstaff -- he's the funny fat man who really is the pathetic fat man.

And Robbie Coltrane himself -- started as funny fat man, now known as well or better for his dramatic work.


A little bird tells me that at least one of Fafblog is a girl.

Julian Elson

Ah, thank you. Alright, you're back up ahead of Jesse now.

Nordette Adams

Poignant observations. I noticed on last comic standing, the pretty girl went away fairly fast. Comedy's about pain usually and pretty girls tend to have life slightly easier unless they run with a rough crowd.

As for there being fewer female comedians, I'm sure that's a function of us simply not having caught up with the vestiges of the good old boy network. Plus, being on the road is tough even for the men. Perhaps women just aren't as prone to put up with that much hell. I have yet to hear of a comic who didn't have to pay his or her dues doing the road, touring for peanuts.

Laughing in the Deep End by Nordette Adams

Matt Weiner

Fametracker, which I usually take to be definitive, says of Tea Leoni

she is cursed with the seemingly lucky but actually unlucky combination of good looks and comic talent.... it's nearly impossible to name even one conventionally beautiful, very successful comedian, man or woman.

If this were true, it might suggest:
(1) Attractive people find it hard to become famous comedians
(2) Women who are not attractive find it hard to become famous
You can draw the inference.

Except I think that Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is conventionally beautiful by any reasonable standards, though she did pull lots of faces in Seinfeld. Will Smith, ditto, but perhaps comic actors are different from comedians here (or perhaps black actors are typed differently). Tina Fey, definitely. So maybe argumentum ad Fametrackerum won't work here.

Steven Davies

Good post.
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Funny girl

Great sharing.........

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