Yes, it’s a bloody awful topic which you’re probably sick of reading about. Yes, I think the whole discussion is, to a large extent, a waste of time. But I’d like to come at it from a different angle (or, I’d like to discuss a related but more interesting issue). Rather than giving lists of female stand-ups, or pondering the different ways in which the comedy industry might favour men, or getting involved in debates about social roles or evolutionary psychology, I’d like to ask, what’s meant by calling someone funny?
To help get clear on this, let’s start the post again, with a slightly different title:
Are Men Funny?
Yes, it’s a bloody awful topic which you’re probably sick of reading about… no you’re not, are you? (Which is itself interesting.)
If someone asks you this question, the obvious response is to ask for clarification, on at least two points: which men? And funny how? Oddly enough, neither of these questions admits of a simple answer. We could, if we wish, limit the question to male comedians, but this isn’t at all the obvious move it might seem. Not only do we all know non-comedians who we would say are funny (some of them are even male) and comedians whom we would say are not (some of whom are, let’s face it, female), but we’re making a pretty substantial assumption that anything useful about funniness can be read off from what happens in a particular workplace. Yes, it’s a workplace where laughter plays an unusually large role, but that only leads to the question, what’s the connection between being funny and making people laugh?
Let’s consider two bad answers. First, someone is only funny if they make people laugh (or more generally, if people find them funny). Second, anyone who makes people laugh pretty consistently is funny. Neither answer seems right (though there’s obviously something right about each). With each answer, it seems reasonable to ask who is laughing, and why; or if they do not find the person funny, why that is? Is it what the person is saying, or how they are saying it, or their general manner? Does it matter that the person has come up with their own jokes or way of behaving, or that they have stolen or commissioned or adapted them from other sources? Does it matter that you are watching them perform on stage, to an audience of dozens or hundreds, as opposed to listening to them on the radio, on your own (yes it does – you’re more likely to laugh if everyone around you is laughing as well)? Does it matter if you know the person (it seems to – we find it easier to get a friend’s sense of humour)?
So things are rather more complicated than a straw poll of ‘Who do you think is chucklesome?’ would allow for. And we can complicate matters further, by pointing out that there are different ways of being funny. Someone who is very quick-witted might have no sense of how to plot a comic play or film; a master (or mistress) of visual slapstick might not be much use if locked in a room and told to write fifty one-liners. A warm and engaging performer might look lost on television; likewise, an act who depends on their onstage persona might struggle on a panel show. I don’t think that Miranda is a funny show, but I think that Miranda Hart is a funny actor, and probably a funny person to boot (she reminds me of a striker making good runs, bereft of a playmaker to pick her out with the right through-balls.)
Yes, yes, yes, but are men funny? This question makes about as much sense as asking whether men are musical, or boring, or have an aptitude for mathematics. Show me a specific man or group of men, in a specific context, trying to be funny in a certain way, and I’ll be able to give you my opinion. Until then, it’s not a question one can sensibly attempt to answer at all.
Apply this general lesson to the first question asked as you see fit.