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That’s Not Funny! Why Comedy Is Different for Men and Women

Am I too dumb, or too over-educated, or just not wired the right way to get The Three Stooges? I can never remember the trio’s first names, even though I could identify the Pep Boys (Manny, Moe, & Jack) and all the Marx Brothers, even Zeppo. I never found the Stooges funny. All that aggressive slapstick made me wince. Is it a girl thing?

My husband, on the other hand, joins those men (including Mel Gibson,
who produced the 2000 TV Stooges movie) who revere the Stooges. He can
repeat routines, make the clicking-clucking noises, and do the hand
gestures. When I curl my lip, he looks at me, the professional film
critic, as if I were someone who doesn’t get basic addition, or couldn’t
spell Mississippi.
My colleague Nell Minow suggested that there may be physiological roots for the difference in our senses of humor. She referred me to a study published in Nature in
which neuroscientists studied empathy responses using magnetic
resonance imaging. The results suggested that men and women are wired differently
in this key area: Women respond to seeing someone they dislike suffering
pain with empathy, and men with pleasure at another’s misfortune. In other words, women empathize with the
victim of violence (hence the wincing every time Moe pulls Curly’s hair
out by the roots), while men experience schadenfreude
when folks get their comeuppance. Men enjoy watching
someone get whacked — as long as it isn’t them. Maybe it’s because
every time someone else gets picked on, they get a reprieve.

It may simply be that women see pain where men see pratfalls.

science remains pretty iffy but, while women are less likely to laugh
at the physical misfortune of others, there’s still a lot of comedy out
there that satisfies, and not just prefab romcoms. A comedy like The Devil Wears Prada
appeals to women because they can identify with Anne Hathaway’s naive
college graduate and happily witness the comeuppance of her vicious
editrix boss, played by Meryl Streep. And yet what really made that
movie work was that even the villain had a moment of grace where we saw
behind her carefully constructed mask. It’s the humor of social, rather
than physical, discomfort that makes women laugh.

That doesn’t
mean that women don’t enjoy slapstick, or pratfalls; it’s the relentless
nature of these comic tools that extract the joy from certain styles of
male comedies.

It’s no surprise that the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb & Dumber)
have made a Three Stooges movie that appeals to their core,
predominantly male, audience. The Stooges’ trademark routine is
preverbal — a bully and his victims tied to him by blows of attention,
the schoolyard trinity. The movie captures these moments, and I wish my
laughter hadn’t been grudging at the sight of Larry climbing a ladder
armed with a buzz saw, knowing that it would cut the ladder in half and
there would be a world of pain for all involved, including pompous
innocent victims in nun habits. OK, I laughed. I got it. And so did the

My problem was that I couldn’t identify with the trio to
begin with. I just don’t find the stooges deeply funny, or worth
reviving. Whereas I enjoyed the male-driven The Hangover
because it was a comic assault on so many fronts: sight gags (a tiger
in the bathroom!), social conflict (outcast Zach Galifianakis’ desperate
attempts to assimilate), unexpected plot twists (the night from hell
told backwards), and sexual misunderstandings — alongside comic
putdowns and pratfalls.

The enormous success of The Hangover and bawdy buddy films like Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin
have ushered in the dawn of the age of female-driven comedies because
that relatively complex formula works equally well with women and men.
The Apatow-produced Bridesmaids
proved that there is a big market for the techniques of these witty,
sexual, and social comedies with female story lines. What I loved about Bridesmaids
was the zany comic interplay between the women, like the slapstick view
of sex from a woman’s point of view that opened the movie. The comedy
is every bit as antic, but the physical gags aren’t as relentless or
violent. In part, it may be because when women want to do damage, they
use their tongues. The flat-out flatulence and poop comedy was less
amusing, to me at least, even when it was a woman in a wedding dress who
lost control of her bowels on a busy street.

The funniest movie I’ve seen recently is part of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this week, and opens theatrically in August. Written, directed, and starring Julie Delpy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), 2 Days in New York is
a hilarious cosmopolitan comedy that combines awkward nudity, sausage
smuggling, and sex-act jests with the kind of light farce and snappy
dialog of early-career Woody Allen. (Featuring a terrific Chris Rock as
Delpy’s live-in, and her French father playing a cracked version of
himself.) And the jokes don’t hit the viewer on the head with a hammer,
rubber or otherwise.

Every woman who’s sat around a Scrabble
board, or bellied up to the bar with her girlfriends, or swapped stories
about swaddling babies, knows that our laughter bonds us. We have a
sense of humor, thank you very much. And an appetite for funny movies
that reflect our real experience beyond the Velveeta Cheese of
prepackaged romcoms. There’s room for the bawdy jokes of Bridesmaids, and the kooky cosmopolitan humor of 2 Days in New York, and the unexpected domestic comedy of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right.

We certainly have a lot to laugh about, and an abundance of potential story lines — as Bridesmaids proved so well. Just don’t expect us to howl at The Three Stooges, OK?

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