No Laughing Matter

The light-bulb joke is one of the tersest and most effective of all humorous forms. Always brief, in a few words it encapsulates some essential quality of its target, usually with stinging accuracy. For example:

Q: How many feminist authors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: That’s not funny!

The “inconvenient truth” exposed by this lighthearted quip is one that we men, or at least those of us in heterosexual relationships, have all learned the hard way: women, taken as a whole (ahem), just don’t seem to have anything like the sense of humor that men do. Indeed, I’m sure that amongst any women reading this post, some of you are already preparing a case for why the knee-slapper cited above actually isn’t funny, for this or that reason — which of course only proves the point.

In January 2007 Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay for Slate in which he tried to make sense of this awkward fact. Read it here.

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  1. Charles says

    Heh, I started reading this post and immediately thought of Hitchens’ article. Turns out this post was a lead-in for that very article.

    That joke, by the way, is hilarious.

    Posted October 12, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    You’re way ahead of me, Charles.

    Posted October 12, 2008 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    So, if a woman doesn’t get a man’s joke–say, she doesn’t think the 3 Stooges ae funny–she’s deficient in sense of humor, but if a man doesn’t get a woman’s joke, it’s because the joke wasn’t funny, because women don’t understand what’s funny. Did I get that right? Just checking–Hitchens is so witty and all, and since I’m a woman obviously I may be missing something here.

    Actually, women have a great sense of humor. Get a bunch of women together, and we’ll all be laughing in no time. Then a guy wanders in, and we stop–especially if the guy asks “What’s so funny?” which they often do. The problem is, the men often don’t get the joke if the women try to explain it, even if it isn’t on them. It’s not that we have no sense of humor, it’s that it’s different.

    Posted October 13, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, I knew this would be a provocative item. If I understand correctly, Addofio, what you are saying is that while Hitchens would represent the scope of our senses of humor like this:

    …or perhaps, like this:

    …you think he’s got it wrong, and it ought to be more like this:

    Is that about right?

    Posted October 13, 2008 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  5. Addofio says

    Something like that. I’d probably put the overlap larger–in fact we do all laugh at a lot of the same things. Perhaps that’s why the differences are so striking. Of course, sometimes when we’re laughing at the same thing, we’re laughing for different reasons. . .

    Posted October 13, 2008 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Ah, but here’s the rub: the worst reaction you’ll ever get out of a man (fundamentalist Muslims aside!) with any attempt at humor is that he won’t laugh, or won’t get it. But as we married men have all learned, tell the wrong joke to a woman and the consequences can be dire.

    I think the second diagram gets it about right, though perhaps the overlap could be larger. More like this, I think:

    Posted October 13, 2008 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  7. Addofio says

    To your first proposition, in a word, bull ****. I nearly got kicked out of a car in the middle of the mountains once (many years ago) because a man didn’t like a joke I made. And many women have been called ba**busters and worse, to their faces, for making the wrong kind of joke in a man’s presence. I presume you are too much a gentleman to do anything of the kind–but not all have your savoir faire.

    There is yet another Venn diagram you haven’t considered. . . For some men, at least, one that would be more representative. I’ll stick to my contention that overall, diagram #3 is the most accurate.

    Posted October 13, 2008 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Addofio, I love women, delight in their company — and yes, enjoy making them laugh! — far too much to put up much of a fight here. What Mr. Hitchens argues in his essay may seem like an obvious truth to a great many men, but even if is indeed true (and the underlying ontology is beyond our grasp here, I think), it would stretch the limits of gentlemanliness — and good sense as well — to press the point. If I would like to have more women joining the conversation here (and I would) the least I can do is refrain from gratuitously insulting them.

    Diagram #3 it is, and vive la différence!

    Posted October 13, 2008 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  9. I’ve know a few women who really enjoy the 3 stooges…More than I do!

    & that joke has a personal history for me-

    My sister is a very serious gay woman- when I posed the joke – Just lesbians not authors- to her and her friends one Christmas eve- she gave the response – as noted-

    I said oh you’ve heard the joke – she said “WHAT?”

    I said that’s the punch line -she was dumb-struck and her friends who have listened (ad nausium) to her politicaly correct discourse for years… fell about the place in uproarious gales of laughter- It was almost mean she was so taken aback – but it was nonetheless a perfect moment for that joke!

    humor is one of our greatest forces for enlightenment !

    Posted October 14, 2008 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  10. Addofio says

    Malcolm: As I said, you are a gentleman and a scholar. Well, I didn’t say the scholar part, but it fits well enough.

    No generalizations about large demographic groups are 100%. At least, one has to work very hard to come up with one. I just picked on the 3 Stooges because someone actually did the reseach once, and there’s a huge discrepancy (I forget the #s) between the % of men who like them and find them funny, and the % of women who do so.

    Humor has huge value. The ability to laugh at oneself from time to time is probably some kind of basic skill for mortal life. No argument there. But a lot of humor is also very culture or group specific; I’ve heard it said that one doesn’t really understand another culture until one gets its jokes. My point is and has been only that if one doesn’t get a particular joke, or even an entire class of jokes, that doesn’t necessarily make one deficient in humor in general.

    I could go on and discuss the fact–or at least proposition–that humor isn’t always benign, or used benignly–but I’ve probably said too much already.

    Posted October 14, 2008 at 10:40 pm | Permalink