In the upcoming HBO comedy Crashing, creator Pete Holmes plays a fledgling standup comic in upstate New York who moves to the city to couch-surf with friends after his wife, Jess (Lauren Lapkus), leaves him for another man. In an early episode, Pete goes home to retrieve his belongings and finds that Jess’s new man actually thinks he’s funny — unlike Jess, who never appreciated his sense of humor. As Jess explains, “I’d be able to support you more if I were really in love with you.”
This conflation of humor and sexual attraction was perhaps best — and by best I mean just the absolute worst — demonstrated in a much-derided Christopher Hitchens essay in Vanity Fair, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” (Hitchens doesn’t get nearly enough credit as an early, model troll.) Published 10 years ago, in January 2007, the essay crushed me when I read it as a high-schooler who idolized Hitchens and also loved jokes. It finds Hitchens employing a rhetoric strategy our president has made all too familiar: Make a claim so outrageous and baseless, it triggers an inevitable backlash and forces your opponents to defend something so obvious it shouldn’t need defending. One day we’re debating how best to handle the fight against terrorism from abroad; the next we’re debating whether Islam is, by definition, violent.
So it is with Hitchens and his essay, which he claims is an attempt to figure out why men are funnier than women. That men are funnier than women is taken as a given, and as anyone who’s written about comedy can tell you, nothing sucks the humor out of something faster than trying to explain why it’s funny. So good luck trying to out-maneuver Hitch here; we’re on uneven ground before we’ve even begun.
Hitchens begins with the notion that women like a man with a sense of humor. To be funny is, first and foremost, to be a man wanting to have sex with a woman. In fact, it is imperative that men make women laugh, because their chief goal in life is to impress the opposite sex (gay people didn’t exist in 2007). If a man fancies a woman, Hitchens asserts, he should “loosen” her up and “stimulate her to laughter.” But women needn’t do the same for men, because men already chase after them, “if you catch my drift.” LOUD AND CLEAR, HITCH!
(Not incidentally, a great irony of the essay is that it’s terrifically un-funny. Witness this early attempt at a joke, an imagined response to hearing a female friend coo about her hilarious crush: “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 béarnaise.’” Har, har. Elsewhere, Hitchens is unintentionally funny, as when he asserts that women “have the whole male world at their mercy.” If that’s true, we’re doing a terrible job at consolidating all that power.)
It never strikes Hitchens that a man might sometimes be funny for reasons unrelated to sex, or that women might want to be funny for someone other than a man. He doesn’t consider that for professionally funny women and men, humor isn’t a mating ritual but a career. But then, this isn’t really an essay about comedy, an industry that remains, a decade later, dominated by men — nor does it attempt to explain the structural or even psychological reasons behind that gender imbalance.
Ten years later, we’ve come to realize a few things about humor and its potential uses, particularly in the hands of disaffected men. Humor is power. If you can shout longer and louder than your opponent, you can drown her out — particularly if even your critics find themselves drawn to your routines like moths to a marquee. If you can command even a hostile audience’s attention, you’re unstoppable. In the words of Adam Sandler’s sad-sack, freshly-dumped wedding singer, “I have a microphone, and you don’t. SO YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY.”
In Hitchens’s telling, humor has one basic function: To convince women to fuck men. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in a recent New Yorker column, we’ve seen a much different, far more nefarious side of humor since Donald Trump announced he was running for president. “Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth,” Nussbaum wrote of her long-running assumption that humor was a force for good — “a machine that killed fascists.”
Cut to 2016, and suddenly “it was the neo-fascist strongman who held the microphone and an army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office.” It’s as if Hitchens’ hordes of horny male joke-slingers metastasized over the course of a decade, spreading a rancorous ill will led by the man with the hot mic, whose supporters saw his attacks on “disgusting” women as a cathartic expression of the “truth” about the sexes.
Hitchens couldn’t see this potential abuse of humor, just as he couldn’t see past his own biases when writing on the subject. As the piece goes on, his swagger swells and his bravado reaches new, absurd heights. “My argument doesn’t say that there are no decent women comedians,” he asserts. “There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” The fact that Vanity Fair printed these words in 2007 still boggles the mind.
Women — “bless their tender hearts” — want life to be “fair” and “sweet,” and so they fail to understand or appreciate the aggressive streak in so much mainstream comedy, the filth of it all. Men, though, well, men have penises, which lead to wild urges that are beyond the understanding of the fairer sex.
Is this what humor is really “about” — the apparently fundamental truth of aggressive male sexuality versus passive female sexuality? Does comedy really boil down to the urge to mate? As Melissa McCarthy showed with her masterful impression of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live this weekend, sometimes even a gendered joke has nothing to do with sex per se.
McCarthy is the right woman for the job not because she’s a woman, but because Spicer’s combative tone is best matched by the kind of beleaguered brashness that’s made her a star, as demonstrated in movies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. As the New York Times’ Anna North points out, the choice to have a woman play the part is not totally irrelevant; given this administration’s hostility towards women’s rights (and women in general), putting a woman in Spicer’s ill-fitting suit is “a particularly astute way to needle the White House.” (Indeed, on Monday night, Politico reported that it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman — and not the suggestion that he’s incompetent — that really angered Trump.)
If Hitchens had been thinking with his brain and not his dick, he might have seen the radical potential of putting humor in a woman’s hands. In recent years, women-led comedy has flourished on the big and small screens. Girls, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City have swallowed much of the “conversation” about contemporary TV comedy, and clearly networks are noticing. Comedy Central’s Detroiters, which premieres tonight, fits squarely in the Broad City mold — a sweetly absurd comedy about two co-dependent (male) best friends traversing the city in search of opportunity and adventure. Just as women have emerged as the leaders of the nascent opposition-to-Trump movement, so are women behind some of the sharpest political satire of the moment — not because we’re inherently superior to men but because it’s easier to punch up when you’re already one rung down.
It’s telling how Hitchens interprets the data from a Stanford medical school study on how humor is received by men and women. The study found that when confronted with a series of humorous cartoons, “some brain regions were activated more in women” compared to men. The study’s author also wrote, “Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon,” and that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.”
You might read this and conclude that if anything, the women in the study proved more receptive to humor. Here’s how Hitchens interprets it: “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?” Har, har. It doesn’t occur to Hitchens that a woman’s diffidence might not be innate but calculated. As the oft-quoted Margaret Atwood line goes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
I think Hitchens did understand that humor is power; what’s so upsetting about his essay is how stringently it seeks to deny that power to women. In a video for Vanity Fair following the response to the article, Hitchens reiterated his position, and really, hearing it filtered through his plummy British accent is just the cherry atop this garbage sundae. “There’s only a dispute about what the answer is,” he affirms. “There is no question that for women, the need or ability to be funny is tremendously less than it is among men. Nobody has been found to deny that.” It’s the first time Hitchens has made me laugh.