Culture

It’s about time we ask why men aren’t funny

We got a group of female comedians to sound off on the elephant in the room: men are rarely challenged in comedy and often end up speaking from a place of limited perspective.

March 5, 2019

Obviously, not every single man is unfunny. But most of them are. Most men are painfully unfunny, even the professionally funny ones. So when I say that men aren’t funny, what I mean is that, in general, most men don’t seem capable of writing and performing comedy in a way that appeals to anyone besides other men. Their sketches, sets, and jokes are all about and for men. And when anyone who isn’t a man appears in the material, they’re often flimsy, forgettable, or half-baked characters with no role in life other than their relationship to the men — crazy mothers-in-law, overbearing wives, nagging sisters, sexy seductresses, coworkers who are either irredeemably ugly or frustratingly fuckable. It may not always be the case, but it is almost always the case.

Even the so-called edgy comedy of big name male comedians is somewhat formulaic. Think of the guys who had big careers years ago and are now enjoying a Netflix special revival. Is any of it truly new material? Is any of it actually funny? Or is it just kind of rude and a bit too loud? Men tell jokes are about how everyone else is easy to offend, hard to understand, difficult to like, or simple to dismiss. They’re often aggressive, even angry-sounding. Men stand on stage and yell. They berate the audience. They claim space, and they stick out their elbows to keep anyone from nudging their way in.

But can you blame them? Not being funny has actually worked out pretty well so far for most professionally funny men. Here’s a prominent example: famously male comedian Louis CK was exposed as a serial sexual harasser of his female colleagues in 2018. He was back in the limelight within that same year. And in that time, he had completely abandoned his dopey “women are people” low-effort male ally schtick, and replaced it with new material featuring racist jokes about Asian women and rants about how kids these days don’t know their genders.

More likely than not, people who are offended by an act aren’t offended because you’ve challenged them, but because you hurt their feelings instead of making them laugh.

These jokes are offensive, but they’re not even the funny kind of offensive. They don’t make audiences uncomfortable or challenge our preconceptions about what humour is, or some other nonsense that men think people want to experience at a comedy show (Spoiler alert: no one goes to a comedy show to be “challenged,” and more likely than not, people who are offended by an act aren’t offended because you’ve challenged them, but because you hurt their feelings instead of making them laugh).

Honestly, these jokes are just boring. The phenomenon of weird neopronouns is probably the least interesting thing to make fun of trans people for, but you wouldn’t know that unless you actually knew trans people personally. And white guys have been saying mean things about Asian women since before the Opium War; racist jokes about other people’s bodies are just about the most played-out form of comedy you can think of, short of a pie in the face. Sure, it’s “offensive,” but my opposition isn’t based on some arcane doctrine of what can or cannot be said —I just don’t want to hear the same bad schtick for the hundredth time from a man who shouldn’t even really be there in the first place. I don’t have too many rules in life, but one of my most closely held opinions is that if a man is going to be a serially abusive predator, he should at least be funny. Louis CK can’t even handle that, and it’s literally his job.

I wanted to get more perspective on this. To understand the subject better, I reached out to funny women.

Many male comedians seem to have an issue with extending themselves emotionally to understand people unlike themselves.

Jourdain Searles, co-host of the podcast Bad Romance

“Many male comedians seem to have an issue with extending themselves emotionally to understand people unlike themselves,” said Jourdain Searles. In addition to being a comedian and writer, Searles co-hosts a podcast with Bronwyn Isaac called Bad Romance where they dissect bad romantic films.

“Male comedians also tend to be overly nostalgic to past comics, especially male comics from the 70s,” Searles told me via Twitter message. “They lean on recognizable tropes like “overbearing mother” and “ball-busting girlfriend” that can make their work feel dated.” She also added that because men are typically given more social allowance to be bold, brash, and outgoing (and receive positive attention for doing so), men are more likely than others to assume they’re funny from the get-go and resist critique or feedback.

In contrast, women generally get the opposite social training — women are generally not told they’re funny growing up and not encouraged to take on outgoing social roles, so they may need to actively push themselves to believe in their own abilities. To address that disparity, many women comedians look out for each other and provide moral support.

I feel that most non-male comedians have to be 10 times better than the males they’re performing with. You have to jump through hoops.

Mia Cheathem, comedian

“When I started comedy in 2015, I did it because an older female comedian would call me and coach me through gaining the courage to believe I could be funny,” said Searles. “She talked about how women are less likely to try stand-up because comedy is often coded masculine and society does not give us the boost to make us feel like we have funny and interesting things to say. If it wasn’t for that kind lady comic, I probably would never have started comedy — even though I’ve been studying comedy my entire life. I still didn’t feel qualified.”

Another comedian, Mia Cheathem, told me that she finds men are rarely challenged in comedy. Cheathem is a newcomer to her comedy scene and has only been active for about a year. But in that short time, she’s noticed a clear double standard. “I feel that most non-male comedians have to be 10 times better than the males they’re performing with. You have to jump through hoops,” said Cheatham via message.

She also noted that male performers can be very hostile to their colleagues. At her first gig, one of her fellow performers sat in the audience and heckled her throughout her set. It was super distracting, especially for a beginner, but she was expected to just work through it. “Comedy is a huge boys club,” said Cheatham. She raised the example of Louis CK as a clear instance of this problem — men make the rules, and they face few consequences when they break them.

“I find that men are universally unfunny because as a collective group of artists they have little to no interest in the experiences outside themselves,” said Joan Summers, a media critic who co-hosts the comedy news podcast Eating for Free and writes Jezebel’s weekly tabloid roundup. “Masculinity as a state of existence has been so played out in popular media for centuries, and stand-up comics will push women out of the way and then stand on stage complaining about traffic, the weather, and why nobody wants to look at their dicks.”

The vast majority of male comedians fall into one or more privileged categories, and it’s usually from those positions that they end up speaking.

Summers suggests that the heart of the problem is a sense of selfishness. Men often consider their insights to be groundbreaking and novel, without actually coming up with new material or refreshing angles of critique, when in fact, “everything has already been said.” She says that generally she’s only impressed with the work of men who draw from some unique or marginal experience in their work — as she puts it, these men usually don’t include the white straight guys who often end up being the default. “The only funny men are those whose experiences lay outside the traditional boundaries of heterosexuality, class, and whiteness,” said Summers via Twitter message.

I don’t think that male unfunniness is purely a matter of privilege alone. After all, there are some white straight men whose comedy I enjoy, just as there are some gay comedians and male comedians of colour who bore me to tears. But in general, I had to agree with Summers’ point. The vast majority of male comedians fall into one or more privileged categories, and it’s usually from those positions that they end up speaking. My issue might not be with men as a whole, but with the sort of entitled masculinity that it encourages — the same kind of entitlement that produces the bad behaviour Cheathem describes or the tired material Searles pointed to.

Other people said similar things. I chatted back and forth with two other women comedians and a woman who works in theatre, and they all raised the same concern: men are rarely challenged in comedy and thus often end up speaking from a place of limited perspective. The result is that they are clouded by their own privileges, to the point that they don’t feel a need to innovate or update their material and techniques. One woman described men’s comedy writing as “formulaic vernacular.”

It’s the same material with the same delivery done over and over again. And because men are typically the ones in positions of decision-making authority, these narrow male perspectives are seen as the norm and remain unchallenged. That’s why so many male comedians go on stage and yell about the women in their lives, so many male writers churn out scenes with meaty male roles and barely realized female characters, and so many male casting directors hire women with the goal of preying on them.

…men are funny when they understand their audiences and themselves as participants in the joke. Coming from a place of knowledge and trust doesn’t happen overnight; it requires self-awareness and self-reflection.

Let’s be honest. Of course some men are funny. No generalization is ever really true, and even the least funny men are probably funny sometimes. Besides, there are plenty of men that I find funny. My boyfriend is funny. My male friends are funny. There are even some men on Twitter who are funny, though I would never tell them that to their faces.

These men aren’t somehow more funny than others because they’re always just playing it safe, checking their privilege, and questioning their assumptions. That’s not how comedy works. Instead, I’d argue that men are funny when they understand their audiences and themselves as participants in the joke. Coming from a place of knowledge and trust doesn’t happen overnight; it requires self-awareness and self-reflection, and not every man has the motivation to do that kind of work — especially not in an industry where men are rewarded for just the opposite.

Put it like this: I don’t find my boyfriend funny because he says what I want to hear. He’s funny because he understands me and I understand him. If he jokes about something offensive to me, I can trust him enough to laugh about it without taking it personally. Most random men don’t have that intimacy with another person, let alone an entire audience. And if were to go up onstage and tell jokes that purely draw from my own experience, I doubt they’d be funny either.

The difference is that I probably wouldn’t do that, because I’m not a man and, for the most part, that’s not how I’ve been socialized to act. But with most men, they assume that the trust is already there even though they haven’t done the work to build it. And that’s why male comedy ends up coming across as aggressive and contrived, rather than genuinely edgy or incisive. In general, men speak from a place of assumed expertise instead of earned knowledge.

The result is that male comedy registers more as a violation than a connection. In other words: men aren’t funny.

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