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Who's Laughing Now?

In February 2000, comedian Jerry Lewis told the world, "I don't like any female comedians." "A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me," Lewis clarified, "but it does set me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it." While Lewis was roundly criticized in the press, his sentiments may be unfortunately common, as revealed by Provine's data. Simply put, Provine found men get more laughs than women do, and women laugh more often than men do. Since Provine also concluded that laughter and humor are only loosely linked, the notion that men are simply funnier or make more jokes can't explain this laugh-getting and laugh-giving gender gap.

  Photo of woman laughing   Photo of man grinning
  Men get about twice as many laughs as women do

While the women of the ImprovAsylum get plenty of laughs, they know they are held to a different standard than their male colleagues.

"The feedback we get is that the women here are really funny," says Lisa Schurga. "On the one hand it's nice, but on the other hand it's unfortunate that it stands out."

Off-stage, too, the idea of a funny woman is met with incredulity.

"When I tell people I work at the ImprovAsylum, I get 'Oh you take tickets there?'" says Amy Roeder, a performer at the theatre since it's inception two and half years ago.

Though the performers suggest there's a cultural component to the gender bias, Provine looked at similar "laugh gaps" around the world and saw a pattern. In a 1960 case study, sociologist Rose Coser noted a relationship between status and laughter among the employees in a psychiatric hospital. While senior staffers often made junior staffers the target of humor, junior staffers never returned the barbs. Instead junior staffers teased someone of the same or lesser social status, such as patients or paramedics.

Photo of man laughing
For most non-actors, it is nearly impossible to laugh on command. Try it!  

Likewise, in southern India, men of lower castes are expected to giggle in deference when addressing men of higher social status. These examples of what Coser called "downward humor" illustrate how laughter can be interpreted as a "vocal display of compliance, subordination or solidarity with a more dominant group member," writes Provine. That men seem to withhold laughter from women performers might indicate the lower status of women in American society.

"As a male," writes Provine, "Rodney Dangerfield gets more respect than he claims."



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Photos: Christina Cohen

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