Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The World of Funny According to Christopher Hitchens

Did you read the piece Hitchens wrote on why women are not funny? If you didn't have the time or the interest or the ability to understand funniness, here are some snippets:

Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: "He's really quite cute, and he's kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he's so funny … " (If you yourself are a guy, and you know the man in question, you will often have said to yourself, "Funny? He wouldn't know a joke if it came served on a bed of lettuce with sauce bĂ©arnaise.") However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: "She's a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make 'em laugh."

Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.

All right—try it the other way (as the bishop said to the barmaid). Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.

Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift. Indeed, we now have all the joy of a scientific study, which illuminates the difference. At the Stanford University School of Medicine (a place, as it happens, where I once underwent an absolutely hilarious procedure with a sigmoidoscope), the grim-faced researchers showed 10 men and 10 women a sample of 70 black-and-white cartoons and got them to rate the gags on a "funniness scale." To annex for a moment the fall-about language of the report as it was summarized in Biotech Week:

The researchers found that men and women share much of the same humor-response system; both use to a similar degree the part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition and the part involved in language processing. But they also found that some brain regions were activated more in women. These included the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting a greater emphasis on language and executive processing in women, and the nucleus accumbens … which is part of the mesolimbic reward center.

This has all the charm and address of the learned Professor Scully's attempt to define a smile, as cited by Richard Usborne in his treatise on P. G. Wodehouse: "the drawing back and slight lifting of the corners of the mouth, which partially uncover the teeth; the curving of the naso-labial furrows … " But have no fear—it gets worse:

"Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon," said the report's author, Dr. Allan Reiss. "So when they got to the joke's punch line, they were more pleased about it." The report also found that "women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny."

Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?


Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit. (Men can tell jokes about what happened to John Wayne Bobbitt, but they don't want women doing so.) Men have prostate glands, hysterically enough, and these have a tendency to give out, along with their hearts and, it has to be said, their dicks. This is funny only in male company. For some reason, women do not find their own physical decay and absurdity to be so riotously amusing, which is why we admire Lucille Ball and Helen Fielding, who do see the funny side of it. But this is so rare as to be like Dr. Johnson's comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs: the surprise is that it is done at all.

Very funny, our Hitchens is, hammering away at this other sex he knows so very well without obviously ever bothering to spend any brain cells he still might have on that trivial and uninteresting and unfunny topic. "For some reason, women do not find their own physical decay and absurdity to be so riotously amusing". For some reason? Why doesn't Christopher offer us some sort of a quasi-theory on this assertion which he in any case rejects in the next mouthful?

The weirdest part of the whole rant is when Hitchens decides that to bash all women as unfunny, unintelligent and vain he must put in something slightly less negative, so we get this:

For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle. This womanly seriousness was well caught by Rudyard Kipling in his poem "The Female of the Species." After cleverly noticing that with the male "mirth obscene diverts his anger"—which is true of most work on that great masculine equivalent to childbirth, which is warfare—Kipling insists:

But the Woman that God gave him,
every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue,
armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue,
lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be
deadlier than the male.

My cup runneth over. First I get bashed for not getting jokes, for not being able to make them, for not being intelligent, for being vain, and then I get told that this is because I'm my uterus and in any case women are deadlier than men even though prisons are chock full of men for some reason and even though wars are a guy thing.

It's pretty awe-inspiring to think that someone like Christopher Hitchens can get up one morning (or whenever he gets up) and write something like this and then feel smug about it because he has explained Everything! Except that when I was a child I read a book my father had, called something like Speeches For Every Occasion, and it had a speech to Honor Women which said all the same things Hitchens said here, and this book was published in the 1920s. Pretty awe-inspiring, and pretty arrogant and also pretty stupid.

Why should I go through Hitchens' rant step-by-step, to correct all the stuff he hasn't bothered to study at all, because the Christopher Hitchenses of this world don't have to understand such lowly creatures as us baby factories? I'm not going to, because I'm pissed off and totally unfunny. But I can do the explaining, even spelling it out in simple terms and great detail, and if this is needed I will. But perhaps a short example will do:

I used to take my dogs for an early morning run at a local dogpark and there I used to meet the Jokey Guy with his dogs. He would eagerly grab my arm to tell the newest of his jokes, and I would politely listen and laugh at the appropriate point before getting away as nicely as possible.

One morning he accosted me with this joke:
"Why do women have shorter feet than men?"
"No idea," I said. "Why?" (See how nice I was.)
"Because evolution caused them to shrink so that women got closer to the sink. Hahaha!"

Funny how those large, florid men always turn out to taste stringier than you'd expect.
Thanks to g for the link.