The late Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair arguing that women aren’t funny has done a lot of harm over the years, lending pedigreed intellectual credence to an argument made by lots of incredibly dumb comedians and commentators everywhere. But one useful thing the response to the piece has accomplished is to push Vanity Fair to do somewhat better at covering female comedians. There was the 2008 feature “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” The “What Tina Wants” profile of Tina Fey from 2009. And now, even better than separating out female comedians from the pack, the magazine is doing its first ever comedy issue, putting female comedians, including non-white ones and non-tiny ones, on three separate, great-looking covers.
And even more than that, it’s published an interesting poll, conducted through CBS facilities, of 1,132 adults, that suggest some revealing things about how audiences view comedy. More men than women think sexual assault is the one topic they’d most like to see comedians put off-limits: it was the choice of 38 percent of men, and 32 percent of women, ahead of “September 11,” “the sick and disabled,” and “religious figures.” The second most-popular response for women, at 28 percent, was “all of them,” the choice of only 14 percent of men. So maybe women do have a sensitive streak when it comes to humor generally. But among everyone else, men may be just as uncomfortable with bad jokes about sexual assault as women are, even if they aren’t as vocal about it. Comedians who assume they’re on safe ground in mostly-male audiences might want to check their set lists twice.
Both men and women in the survey think men are funnier than women—65 percent of men said male comedians were funnier and 54 percent of women agreed. 30 percent of women said women were funnier, compared to just 13 percent of men. And 18 percent of men and 12 percent of women said that there was no difference. Some of this may just be a result of who men and women see being funny in our media environment: there are a lot more extremely famous male stand-ups than women, and more male sitcom stars than female sitcom stars. Or maybe it’s Hitchens, and Adam Carolla, and everyone else. But that perception does suggest that women going into the comedy business face some hurdles in convincing audiences that they can be just as funny as men.
I’d recommend taking the survey with a grain of salt—after all, its best sitcom of all time question didn’t even offer up the option of I Love Lucy. But it’s still nice, in a debate that is on a lot of levels completely and utterly ridiculous, to see an organization that has a record of Not Helping, at least pulling together a little data that can help us have more productive conversations.