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« Hitchens, Amis, and Waugh, and the laws of natural selection | Main | Stuff the ballot box »


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I think a lot of humor springs out of boredom... trying to entertain yourself when the environment you are *stuck* in is less than stimulating. Lord knows women, throughout history, have spent plenty of time in situations that would bore oatmeal. Wouldn't it follow that we might develop and use humor as a way of dealing with the day-to-day monotony? Oh, I forgot... women are always supposed to be thrilled with these situations where we fulfill our calling.


Here's the thing: If women aren't funny, why is it any time groups of women get together, there is usually wild, shared hilarity? Surely, everyone has been in a restaurant where the air is pierced repeatedly by loud laughter coming from the women over at table 4. This is my experience of women in private as well.

And then there is the assumption that all the women laughing at men's jokes are doing it because the men are truly funny. Get thee to an interpersonal communication class, Hitch. And I'm just talking 101.


Victoria- I think women cackling together doesn't count as *real* humor. I am guessing the experts (cough! Hitchens)would say it was a lesser form of humor that would bore a man, capable of real humor, to tears.

One other thing I thought of... but why are gay men so notoriously funny and funny to women? What does the gay man have to gain from making a woman laugh?


You certainly summed up a few types quite well: the woeful phenomenon of young radicals turning into nasty middle-aged conservatives, the young radicals turning into bitter middle-aged leftists, and my personal favorites in real life, those who "blithely go their own way and don't give a damn what anybody else thinks." I definitely aspire to the latter, and yes, having a blog helps.

Humor strikes me as a kind of intelligence, like easily being able to learn languages or to dance well or see three-dimensional objects through math. We're all given different combinations of intelligence at birth, which we use or we don't, and gender has absolutely nothing to do with most of them. In fact, over 50+ years, I've known more brilliantly funny women than I have funny men.

As for Hitchens, he's hardly worth the trouble to even scorn. Evelyn Waugh, though, was given great gifts. The corrosive "Vile Bodies" and the early travel writing are never going to leave my library.


One of the things about funny people:

They never claim, or write, that they are funny. You don't become funny by declaring yourself funny. even making yourself laugh, useful as it may be, isn't enough.

The funny is defined by other people. It is only by making other people laugh that you can be defined as funny.

Something Richard Cohen, Michael Richards, and Hitchens seem unable to grasp.

Bill Altreuter

Still, the number of women who are professionally funny is, and really always has been, much smaller than you'd expect if you believe that funny is an attribute shared equally by both sexes. There are women comics, of course, but how many women are there that write stuff like Benchley, or Thurber, or Calvin Trillin or Chris Buckley? Erma Bombeck. Nora Ephron, sometimes, kind of. Fran Leibowitz, briefly. This may be more due to the expectations of publishers ("Women aren't funny, sister. Come back when you've got something like 'Big Blonde'")-- it seems to me that there are a fair number of women writing on the internet that are pretty funny. It does seem odd, but I am inclined to mistrust arguments about personality traits based on evolutionary biology, so I'm with you in disagreeing with Hitchens.

Mark Smeraldi

Two good and thought-provoking posts ( it's why I have you bookmarked).I have always believed that a sense of humor is, at its purest, a decision to view the caprices of fate as a joke by the presumed controllers of such things.It is a primal response; you can laugh uproariously or scream and throw things, depending on how you're rigged. I recall reading in a great book on Inuit culture (Kabloona , by Gontran De Poncins), how, after waiting all day by a seal breathing hole in hopes of feeding your hungry family,if the seal that you spear sinks and is lost, the only truly Inuit response would be to laugh and go home. To do less would not be fully human. If you were a woman trying to decide who to commit to spending the rest of your life with, who would you choose, the complainer, or the one who laughs and tries to go forward. Clowning is not this humor, but does aspire to it.

Mark Smeraldi

I can't believe typepad ate my comment; gotta laugh. Good post though.



His article was incorrect, and insulting, on so many levels, and I'm glad to see such a passionate deconstruction of it.

(I'd leave a funny comment, but then, am I capable of humor? of learning humor? Do I even need to be funny?) ;)


I thought humor was invented so Mr. Sideshow could make me laugh every time I was just about to kill him for some ghastly and criminal thing he had done in the kitchen. Fortunately, he's really good at making me laugh.


I think I've often witnessed Svengali humor getting the job done.

Jeff Fecke

Still, the number of women who are professionally funny is, and really always has been, much smaller than you'd expect if you believe that funny is an attribute shared equally by both sexes.

But that assumes that the drive to perform as a professional humorist is even across the sexes (which it may or may not be), and moreover, that actual funny women are "accepted" on the same curve as men. (They aren't. Period.)

I think men are encouraged to perform and women are encouraged to shut up. This is of course a fairly recurring theme and not limited to humor.

harry near indy

btw, vanity fair was called "tiger beat for people with post-graduate degrees."

that's from, a website devoted to stand-up comedy. i'd recommend that you go to it at least once.

as for jeff fecke's comments -- i do amateur stand-up comedy in and around the indianapolis area, and there are few women who participate in the amateur night performances. i believe it's because of nuture -- women aren't encouraged to go up there solo and perform -- at least in the social atmosphere of indiana, a red state.


The mystery is why VF would publish that piece of excrement instead of, say, an essay on moral philosophy by Jenna Bush?


I thought I read somewhere that humor was sometimes a way of asserting power or control when other ways (physical, economic) were not available. Women are not "supposed" to assert power, or else they're a "bitch". Maybe it's more of a cultural selection issue.


My take on this is that humor has a good deal of aggression in it, and women are actively discouraged from being aggressive. Until the last 20 years, most female comics made fun of themselves (Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller, for instance). Joan Rivers was a groundbreaking figure in that she made the world safe for smart assed women, and many actively disliked her for that. To be a funny woman means to be aggressive to everybody impartially, and unless you are already an outsider of sorts (what was it Hitchens said, "Jewish, fat, lesbian"? I forget his exact words), it takes some nerve.

Nezua Limón Xolagrafik-Jonez

This article is not funny.


not to be the contrarian here but hasn't science shown time and time again in the last decade or so that it's "nature" not "nuture" in a lot of behavioral instances? i mean, the one that springs to mind of course is the long study they did that showed no matter how they were "nutured" boys preferred "guns" and girls preferred "dolls."

now, this is NOT a defense of hitchens but i also don't think that it's only white, conservative men who have used the "nature" vs. "nuture" argumment. again, there's a lot of science out there saying so...

btw, i think hitchens is a shell of his former self and this article of his is poor, for sure.


It is easy to discredit the whole category of evolutionary psych arguments by dismissing them as tautologies.

Yet the axioms of mathematics and logic are tautologies, and I don't hear any call to abandon algebra (except, tellingly, among those who are confronted with the task of at least understanding something they have no desire to actually use.)

There are valid--if tautological--hypotheses to be made using evolutionary psychology. Just because there are also invalid ones (e.g., women aren't funny) should be a motivator to find out how to make an effective argument using evolutionary and ethological evidence.

M.A. Peel

It's too bad that Hitchens doesn't have a friend as his editor at VF, who could have said, ya know, you really don't want to put this out there. There was a piece in the New Yorker a few years ago by a well known women scholar, talking about how she had been cyber-stalking her ex. I could see why she needed to write the piece, but I was sorry for her that it was published. Hitch needs a literary intervention.


Hitchens seems to believe that humor=jokes. Women's humor, to wildly oversimplify, tends to be more collaborative in nature.

I can also say in all honesty that he lost me in the first paragraph; I've never, ever heard a woman say of a potential love interest that "he knows all kinds of stuff." (I've certainly heard women say that a potential love interest was intelligent, but then again I'm one of those "lady intellectuals," as Hitchens so charmingly calls us, so perhaps my population sampling is skewed.) That he imagines that his representative woman would say anything so simple-minded about a man gives his misogynist game away right there.


Y'all over-analyzing this like a bunch of damn English professors.

At the expense of biological determinism, here's what went wrong with Waugh, Amis and Hitchens: the ravages of late-stage alcoholism.

Hard to be anything but an egomaniacal misanthrope when you're a wet-brain with a perpetual hangover whose bodily organs are shutting down, one by one.


Great writing.

Molly, NYC

Premise A: Hitchens uses humor to get laid.

Premise B: Hitchens' idea of humor is giving the finger to booing audiences.

Conclusion: Left as an exercise for the student.


I've long considered tackling Hitch's dissolution on my own blog. Thanks for saving me the work, Lance. At first, I went with the kneejerk reaction, that Hitchens, and he is not alone here, was thrown off-balance by 9-11 (or, to put it less kindly, went nuts). In his case, I don't think it's an impulse to hate on sectarian and racial grounds, or to have a war to use as a political weapon--that is, widespread conservative reactions to the event. It seemed to me Hitchens really did see Iraq as a grand crusade against fascism. Dismiss the logic behind this motive as you will, and I do, but I thought, at least for a while, that it set him apart from a lot of war cheerleaders.

As time has passed, as Hitchens' writing--and more importantly his thinking--have gotten sloppier, I have to agree with poster Jethro: the man is ill, and the illness is serious alcoholism. Hitchens looks/sounds/writes like he needs more than an editor to intervene. From the New Yorker profile I gather the man has a few friends left who might want to do something for him. But, then again, I know from experience that you can't make an alkie see the light unless he wants to see the light.

Years ago, and not that many years, either, Hitchens was interesting to read. He had real talent. It still shows through sometimes. I mean, it's easy to bash the guy (and I do, too), but compare reading him to 98% of the punditocracy out there. Even in decline, and excepting weird and offensive articles like the VF essay in question, he has chops. Fading now, but in evidence.

I'm not saying we all should weep for the guy. Clearly he thrives on his image as both a drunk and a contrarian. So be it. My point is, there was something there once. Wasted talent, no matter what the context, is a sad thing.

A. Citizen

I agree with your analysis of Hitchens. But...your pop take on evolutionary psychology and neurology is deeply flawed. I suggest you do read some of the basic material in this field as you are off base quite a bit in your statements about learning, survival and not only how these happened but what the implications are for us now.

Take one example. The reason we are the most feared predators on the planet is because we act in a group. Tools are fine and dandy but group action makes us not the smallest of predators but one of the largest. This is confirmed by research on early groups of hominids and current studies of chimps. Not the Presidential kind.

That's just one example. Take note that research done in the last 10 to 15 years shows our behavior to be hard-wired in significant ways. Ways we must be aware of if we are to understand ourselves.


A. Citizen:

The reason we are the most feared predators on the planet is because we act in a group.

What? There's a message-board for the rest of the animal kingdom, some kind of FBI's ten most wanted list, with us at the top?


Good job.

Appropo that Hitchens writes for Vanity Fair.

Sadly, this article is not the most vile he has written.

Potato Head

Not all ev psych hypotheses are tautologies (I think the phrase you are looking for, BTW, is "just so stories") in the sense of being unfalsifiable. For example, one can look across disparate cultures and see if the same behavior appears in all or most of them. If it does, you can assume a) it's a remarkable coincidence, b) all the cultures have some underlying force in common that yields this culturally determined behavior despite the radical dissimilarities between them, or c) it's a product of evolution. Psychologists have done just that. identifying over a hundred human behaviors that can be labeled 'universal'.

You can also test across species. For example, you can observe the behaviors of our close relatives like the bonobo and chimpanzee, which have radically different social structures, to see which mating strategies dominate and if so, whether they coincide with other behaviors that occur together in human societies. If theories about the interplay of human reproductive strategies and social organization are valid, one would expect to see the same or similar behaviors in related species with similar social organization, and not to see them in species without them. To a great extent, we do.

And so on.

The annoying thing about these glib put-downs of ev psych from otherwise educated people is how much they resemble the glib put-downs of evolution by the Religious Right: "oh, it's just a theory," "they are just-so stories," "you can't test evolution," etc. Same shallow arguments. The reason, to me, is that both groups of people have their own pet dogmas about our own species (the religious nuts about our origins, many secularists about the plasticity of human nature), and don't appreciate the unflattering picture that science shows them instead. So they try to sneer it away. Too bad. Science is not here to flatter us, which is one of its greatest virtues. We could all use a little more humility--especially Hitchens, who, I agree, is an ass.


Sure women are funny. Men resort to saying we are not funny because they suspect we are laughing at them. And very often we are.


"What you see here is a picture of men as ridiculous, pusillanimous, under-equipped, incompetents who have pretty much no usefulness and no interest in life outside of getting laid."

Well yeah, and why the surprise? I mean, are you sure you read "Lucky Jim"?

Anyway, I've come late to this exchange, but let me say that I have known only one woman my whole life whom I found funny, several women who tried hard to be funny but didn't make it, and many women who would make the occasional little joke but didn't think of humor as something they did. Whereas I have known many, many men who considered themselves top-class wits or clowns and spent a lot of energy trying to live up to the assignment. Very often they tried hardest when around women. Work in an office with people in their 20s and you'll see a lot of male clowning for female attention. Of course the male clowning usually isn't funny either, but for the 90 dorks who make asses of themselves there are the 10 guys who make worthwhile jokes.

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