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The real reason why men think women aren't as funny

Sir Michael Parkinson has said that women aren't as amusing as men, but his comment says more about him than women

Sir Michael Parkinson
In hot water: Sir Michael Parkinson

In a Telegraph interview, Helen Mirren once described the Michael Parkinson of 1975 as a “sexist old fart”. Is the Parky of 2020 an improvement?

Perhaps a little. He may not not have become a feminist, but these days he seems more cautious about putting his foot in it. At the weekend, in an interview with an Australian magazine, the former chat show host said: “Most men I know are [...] very sensitive and also very funny. That’s the thing I like most about men. It’s a very contentious statement, but they’re much better than women in their sense of humour. There you are, that will get me – if I were on [social media], I would be in trouble right now.” 

He was half-right, in that he did get in trouble on social media, reigniting the tiresome “are men funnier than women?” debate which seems to flare up at least once a year (though usually in a slow week for news). Various columnists have weighed in, arguing both sides of the question, namedropping various TV and radio comedians of the past as if to back up their opinions.

But anyone claiming that male comedians once had a monopoly on the airwaves should listen to a curio which came to light last week, discovered in the loft of comedy writer Alan Stafford. It’s the oldest surviving recording of a comedian performing for the radio – and she’s not half bad. Helena Millais, who wrote and performed jokes as the cockney character “Our Lizzie”, appeared on London station 2LO in October 1922. You can hear a clip of her on the podcast Britain’s Broadcasting Century.

But what about the more distant past? Were cavemen funnier than cavewomen? A book published today, The Comedy of Error by Prof Jonathan Silvertown of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at Edinburgh University, sheds some light on the topic. A sense of humour correlates with the desirable trait of intelligence, says Silvertown, who explores the theory that a good gag allows the teller to display intelligence to attract potential mates, just as the peacock displays its brightly coloured feathers to attract the peahen. In Lily Tomlin’s phrase, it’s “survival of the wittiest”.

But, Silvertown adds, “people are not peafowl”. In homo sapiens, sexual selection for intelligence “operates in both directions”. Also, crucially, humour is used in contexts other than seduction. It has been shown to have an emotional bonding function among same-sex test subjects. Perhaps, when Parkinson says his male friends are “very sensitive and also very funny”, he’s saying the same thing twice.

Silvertown also raises the idea of “hidden” female humour. “There is a preconceived idea that men are funnier than women. It is generally men who believe this,” he notes, “but they don't experience humour between women, who actually laugh more in conversation than men, especially when in all-female company.” (He cites a 2001 study that supports this.)

From this, it’s tempting to conclude that some men claim women don’t have a sense of humour for the same reason that some men claim women don’t enjoy sex: they’ve just never witnessed the evidence first-hand, which might be a poor reflection on the quality of their company.