Friday, December 10, 2010

Universal Humor

What is universal humor? Does it exist? Why is it an important concept?

In my opinion, universal humor would appeal to people regardless of culture, gender, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or race. Universal humor would appeal to some innate collective consciousness, and provoke laughter without regard to differences between people.

I think that universal humor is impossible to achieve. Humor emphasizes differences, tensions and incongruities. It ridicules “the other” and “the self,” exposes contradictions in belief, and makes fun of social customs or norms. Humor can shock us by not adhering to polite restraints. All of these – the differences, the social customs, etc. – differ greatly around the world, and within each culture. Even within races, genders and orientations, communities develop specific ways to use and interact with humor (some of which we’ve explored in this blog.) Age groups present their own challenge, as some experiences are more relevant, and therefore more or less funny, to individuals of a certain age.

Despite the elusive character of universal humor, I think that it’s an important concept to consider. Universal humor, is, if you will, the anti-humor. It opposes the nature of humor – the specificity of jokes and anecdotes that make them funny. This specificity is key to comedy. Without it, humor is meaningless, because humor is derived from identification and ridicule of a specific culture. Take “guy movies,” for example, which often rely on bodily functions for comedy. In a society that doesn’t regard bodily functions as undignified and shameful, fart jokes wouldn’t be funny.

So far on this blog we’ve discussed the divided nature of gendered humor. While this may seem to be negative, it is important to consider the fact that gender divisions create an opportunity for humor, usually of the in-group variety. The multiplicity of comedy genres around gender is evidence of the creative and all-encompassing field of humor. We use humor to understand and codify that which surrounds us – therefore it is no surprise that humor is used to identify and emphasize differences between groups.

Humor as a Social Tool: Difference in Usage between Men and Women

Both men and women use humor as a social tool. Among other things, humor helps to ease social awkwardness, form friendships, and find common ground between people. It can be used to assess the atmosphere of a place or group, diffuse tension, or cheer someone up. Humor is also used to make oneself more attractive to others. Both men and women say that they find humor an attractive trait in friends and significant others. This is evidenced by numerous studies, most notably a recent report by Scott Barry Kaufman and others entitled “The Role of Creativity and Humor in Human Mate Selection.” As Kaufman states, “research has confirmed that a good sense of humor is an important human mate preference worldwide.”

Interestingly enough, however, women are more likely than men to say that humor is an important trait in a partner. This may be because of the stereotype that we’ve explored earlier, namely, the idea that women aren’t funny. Furthermore, according to some, describing a woman as funny is akin to describing someone as having a “great personality” – it means that they are unattractive. In the words of Joan Rivers, “There was never a funny woman who was a beautiful little girl.” *

In addition to differences in how humor affects our choice of partner, however, men and women also use humor differently in social situations. For example, women are more likely to use and enjoy self-deprecating humor than are men, perhaps because of different social bonds between female friend groups and male friend groups. Some women are preoccupied with appearing modest, which I believe is tied to the prevalence of self-deprecating humor in female circles.

Women and men enjoy different humor, tell different types of jokes, and use humor in different ways. While there are key similarities between the way humor affects and is used by men and women, gender roles, and, arguably, gender itself, has clearly had a strong impact on how men and women interact with humor.

* This isn’t true, however it demonstrates a prevalent stereotype.

Feminist Humor: Vag Magazine

“Vag Magazine is not your grandma’s feminist magazine, though we support her as a woman.”

In the last post, we discussed humor that marginalizes men. While some might mistakenly term this feminist humor, this merely reinforces the notion that feminists are angry man-haters. * Feminist humor is diverse and varied in content, and emphasizes comedic creativity. It is largely a niche genre, and feminist comedians like Sarah Haskins and Marilyn Pittman have found success mostly online.

One recent example of feminist humor is the web series “Vag Magazine.” A six part series completely produced by female comedians from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre, “Vag Magazine” follows the founders of a third-wave feminist magazine. As evident in the title, the series pokes fun at stereotypical feminists, in addition to hipsterdom, roller derby, and women who take themselves too seriously. One-liners from the series include:

“No Megan, I don’t ‘look over’ anything. I wasn’t born with the power of the male gaze.”

“Take that skirt off. You look like a tool… of the patriarchy.”

“Feminism isn’t about being equal, it’s about women doing whatever they want.”

While at first glance it might seem that the show ridicules feminists, in fact it ridicules stereotypes of feminists, as represented by the magazine’s founders, Fennel, Sylvie, Bethany and Heavy Flo. These women are pretentious, easily offended and self-important. Megan, who ends up part of the Vag team almost on accident, presents an opposite view of feminism. She minored in Women’s Studies in college, a fact that the founders conveniently overlook in their patronizing explanations of feminism. Megan is smart, capable and independent – a positive example of a feminist woman.

Humor can be used to appeal to certain groups, used to marginalize individuals, or used to reaffirm the positivity of identities like that of “feminist.” Vag Magazine is a smart, funny portrayal of contemporary feminism, and provides an example of humor that is constructive in shaping public opinion and discourse.

*Feminists, in fact, are not angry man-haters. Just to clear that up.

Humor and Sexism – Part II

In the last post, we explored sexist jokes that marginalize women. Therefore, in the interest of fair representation, I’d like to examine a few examples of jokes that involve negative stereotypes about men. While these jokes are rarer, they certainly exist. Usually, jokes that ridicule men focus on their perceived stupidity, emphasize a lack of sophistication, and assume a general slovenly demeanor.

The humor site “,” which I don’t recommend,* offers a variety of jokes about men, many of which are critical. To offer a few examples:

• How are husbands like lawn mowers?
They're hard to get started, they emit noxious odors, and half the time they don't work.

• Why do men need instant replay on TV sports?
Because after 30 seconds they forget what happened.

The first joke characterizes men as stubborn, lazy and crude. The second compounds this with a description of men as unintelligent and confused. These are hardly positive characterizations. Instead, they play on negative male stereotypes. This, you will remember, is similar to sexist jokes about women, which usually depict them as domestics or harpies.

Jokes about men (or about women) also involve an opposing characterization of the other sex – the wife is practical and mature in contrast to her husband (and usually exasperated by his behavior). This multi-leveled representation of both sexes reinforces negative stereotypes, and might contribute to an “us vs. them” attitude between the two. To conclude our not-so-lengthy two-part series on humor and sexism, it is apparent that sexist humor, which usually involves the use of stereotypes, can harm both men and women. Resenting jokes that marginalize your gender while laughing at those that criticize others is hypocritical, and can create societal tension.

*I don’t mean to criticize the site – it delivers exactly what is promised – but it’s not really my type of humor. Also, it appears to have been created years ago, and features a stunningly minimalist (by which I mean unattractive) format. And lots of brown.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Humor and Sexism – Part I

Or, "Why did the Woman Cross the Road?"

Why do we laugh at certain jokes and not others? Often, what makes a good joke is an element of surprise – an ending that we didn’t see coming, a character that we hadn’t anticipated, or a play on words that we’d never noticed before. This element of shock is evident in comedy from knock-knock jokes to humorous anecdotes. In relation to gender, however, shock humor is usually sexist and degrading.

To offer an example, one low-brow joke begins with a query as to why a woman crossed the road. Already the woman is degraded by her inclusion in a joke that usually features a barnyard animal. The joke continues with, “why does it matter? She shouldn’t have been out of the kitchen in the first place.” It seems that, to the teller of the joke, women belong in the kitchen, serving men. Hilarious.1

However, I’m not so sure that this is true. Is every person who tells a sexist joke – or for that matter, laughs at a sexist joke – sexist? Plenty of my peers have told or laughed at jokes like the one above, and few of them truly believe that a woman’s place is in the home, subordinate to her husband. What they find funny is the shock value of the joke – the un-political correctness of it all.2 In this way, gender roles – or archaic roles, at least – become fodder for comedy. This is a new way that gender becomes engaged in the comedy world. We’ve examined comedy specifically targeted at gender, and now we see that comedy can also use gender to create humorous tension.

1. This is sarcastic.
2. That said, I think that those who tell sexist jokes should carefully reexamine their opinions and how they represent themselves to society. Sexism is alive and well – there's no reason to laugh at it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


This past month the Kennedy Center awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to Tina Fey, an extraordinary writer, comedian and performer. Starting at Chicago’s Second City Improv, Fey later joined the writing team of Saturday Night Live. She was promoted to head writer in 1999 (the first woman to ever occupy the position) and added to the cast the following year. Fey left SNL in 2006 to start her TV show “30 Rock,” but made brief return to play vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Her Palin impersonations (and uncanny resemblance to the political figure) increased her popularity, making “Tina Fey” a household name.

Why the biography? Fey’s success is far from typical for female comedians. A (misguided) belief persists in American culture that women are simply less funny than men. A Google search for “female comedians not funny” (I know, my Google grammar is poor. So sue me.) returns a slew of results supporting that statement, while the same search with “male” finds articles on why men are better comedians than women.

Clearly, this isn’t true. Contemporary comedians like Amy Poehler, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Silverman, and, of course, Fey, play to adoring audiences. Writers like Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally”) enjoy critical success. Going back further, literary wit Dorothy Parker amused readers in the mid twentieth century, and comedy legend Lucille Ball created and starred in the wildly successful sitcom “I Love Lucy.”

Despite these luminous examples, there are far more successful men on the comedy circuit than women. Fey’s accomplishments are made more notable by her gender, but, as she said in her acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize, after being the first woman to do things, hopefully soon we can “stop counting at what number [women are achieving] things. Dated stereotypes about female comedians exist in force, but examples like Fey bring comedy to a more equal balance.

Is the "Chick Flick" the Inverse of the "Guy Movie?"

Having examined the “guy movie” it’s only right to turn to the “chick flick.”

Often in the romantic comedy genre, “chick flicks” * are designed to appeal to a female audience. The typical rom-com features an oft-recycled plot, involving a man, a woman, and some complication that takes up space in the middle of the film before the characters end up together. While smaller details about the narrative can vary, for the most part romantic comedies don’t deviate from this outline.

Despite their repetitive nature, ticket sales show that movies like “The Proposal” perform well at the box office. The popular television show turned big screen feature “Sex and the City,” for example, opened to the tune of fifty-five million dollars.

Sales statistics show us another thing about rom-coms – they cater mostly to female audiences. This is, I’m sure, quite a shock. What’s worth considering here though is how the rom-com differs from the “guy movie.” Fart jokes, and crude humor in general, (principle ingredients of “guy movies”) are often downplayed. What replaces them however, is hardly more refined. Laughs revolve around embarrassing situations (like a spilled coffee drink, or a fall off of high heels) awkwardness between the characters or the cluelessness of the male characters. None of this seems like it should be remarkably attractive to a female audience more so than a male one (except perhaps the griping about men.) What seems more apparent is that unlike “guy movies,” which appeal to their target audience mainly because of their humor, rom-coms and “chick flicks” appeal to audiences because of their themes. Sure, comedy makes the recycled theme more palatable, but in the end, that theme is why women are there.

What does this mean about how American women consume humor? I’m not sure. Perhaps because so much popular humor is directed towards men, women have moved away from it as a source of entertainment. Instead, they focus on storylines that they find engaging, or at least distracting. *

*Some women object to the “chick” label, which infantilizes women, characterizing adult consumers as fluffy babies. But that’s another post. I use it here because it is a term in the popular vernacular for this type of film.

**Full recognition, of course, that some women dislike “chick flicks” and rom-coms, some tolerate them, and some find them occasionally enjoyable. In these past postings I attempt to address what stereotypically men and women find amusing, and what popular culture tells us about consumption habits.