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November 08, 2005

That's not funny!

Q. How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. That's not funny!

Probably the oldest question in the universe, the meaning of life being second-oldest, is why women don't think things are funny that obviously are. Last January, I wrote about whether men are funnier than women -- really a different question -- but, via The Volokh Conspiracy, I've now learned that CNN has taken up the issue of why women view humorous things differently.

Here's the answer, or, at least, the answer of some researchers:

Women seem more likely than men to enjoy a good joke, mainly because they don't always expect it to be funny.

* * * * *

"Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon," said Reiss. "So when they got to the joke's punch line, they were more pleased about it."

I'm not sure whether this notion that women like jokes because they don't expect them to be funny is condescending to women. It's counter-intuitive at the very least. But guys, if you haven't figured this out yet, the idea that women enjoy things more when they have low expections has a number of other useful applications.

Back to the "science":

Men are using the same network in the brain, but less so, he said, men are less discriminating.

"It doesn't take a lot of analytical machinery to think someone getting poked in the eye is funny," he commented when asked about humor like the Three Stooges.

While there is a lot of overlap between how men and women process humor, the differences can help account for the fact that men gravitate more to one-liners and slapstick while women tend to use humor more in narrative form and stories, Reiss said.

The funnier the cartoon the more the reward center in the women's brain responded, unlike men who seemed to expect the cartoons to be funny from the beginning, the researchers said.

I don't know about the theory about women, but the point about the Three Stooges seems wrong to me. What men go through in watching the Three Stooges is actually highly analytical, if you'll let me get technical here for a moment and use a logical syllogism.

Major premise: Eyes are highly sensitive to pressure.

Minor premise: Moe just poked Larry in the eyes with his index and middle fingers.

Conclusion: It would have been even funnier if he had kicked Larry in the groin.

I've been thinking about the gender gap in humor myself for the past couple of weeks. Recently, I watched The Naked Gun on DVD. In case you haven't seen this movie, the first of the trilogy, you should realize that it's the official movie of Pillage Idiot.* Watch it. Now. Seeing O.J. Simpson get the stuffing kicked out of him at every turn is alone worth the price of admission.

I saw The Naked Gun with Mrs. Attila in the movie theater when it first came out. We had been married for about five years at that point, but I still had things to learn. She didn't think it was funny at all, whereas I would have been literally rolling on the floor if my shoes hadn't been stuck to the floor in a Coke spill. (Since then, I've let her pick the movies we see, and I've learned one important thing, namely, that all Merchant and Ivory films are basically the same.)

Anyway, what I don't get about the theory that women are more analytical about jokes than men is that everyone knows that men are more analytical in every other subject. It's analytical talk that perennially gets men in hot water with their wives or girlfriends. You're supposed to understand their feelings, guys, not explain why she shouldn't be feeling the way she is. If she's upset with someone, you commiserate rather than come up with a solution.

My last rumination on the subject is why married men and women can't tell jokes to other people. They're always interrupting each other and correcting the way the other is telling the joke. I know I do this. Even though I stink at telling jokes, and therefore let my wife tell them, I can't sit there and listen quietly. I have to interrupt her along the way to correct her. Back in my college days, when I took two years of German, I thought this short story was the funniest thing I had read: Ein Ehepaar erzählt einen Witz (a married couple tells a joke), by Kurt Tucholsky. The narrator listens as the man and woman tell a joke, exchanging corrections, re-tellings, and insults, until they finally blow up and storm out of the room, leaving the narrator to wonder what the punch line is. For days, we begged our German instructor to tell us the punch line. Then we finally heard it.

It just wasn't funny.

So if high expectations lead to poor humor, maybe there's some truth to the idea that if you expect nothing, you'll find the joke funny.

* The official classic movie of Pillage Idiot is A Night at the Opera.

UPDATE: Ann Althouse wonders whether the results were purposely written up in a way that makes women sound superior.