So it seems that Jerry Lewis, who famously said 15 years ago that he's uncomfortable watching women perform comedy, has doubled down on that controversial opinion.
Lewis was attending the Cannes Film Festival last week to promote his new movie, "Max Rose." He was asked if the advent of comediennes like Sarah Silverman and Melissa McCarthy had brought him around at all to the idea of female comics. "I can't see women doing that," he replied. "It bothers me. I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator. I just can't do that."
This reply interests me because he's not really talking about humor; he's talking about the kind of uber-crassness that has so substantially replaced humor among so many comics (and audiences) that it has come to redefine it. The laughter seems to arise out of amazement that a phrase or sentence actually emerged from a fellow human's mouth, rather than out of delight over the wit of the phrase or sentence.
Christopher Hitchens believed that genuine, root-level humor is actually slob humor, and slob humor is (as Lewis clearly believes) essentially a male province, not a female one. In 2007, Hitchens wrote an essay for Vanity Fair on the subject of female humor in which he argued that men are undeniably the funnier sex and have to be, since they have to attract mates:
The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.
Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.
Hitchens hastened to add that women can in fact be very funny, but that contra male humor, female humor is defined by its intelligence:
Wit, after all, is the unfailing symptom of intelligence. Men will laugh at almost anything, often precisely because it is—or they are—extremely stupid. Women aren't like that. And the wits and comics among them are formidable beyond compare: Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, Ellen DeGeneres. (Though ask yourself, was Dorothy Parker ever really funny?)
Again, as I mentioned, male humor seems to be often characterized by an injection of pure -- in the sense of wit-less -- shock value. In between the genuinely hilarious bits by Louis C.K. are tossed-in shock-lines that always leave me baffled, both by the lines themselves and by the shrieks of laughter from the audience. For me -- female that I am -- those lines act as an instant buzz-kill. Men in the audience, meanwhile, are howling so loudly it sounds as though some of them are having seizures.
Now, female comics have waded well into this territory. Are Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer inherently less funny than male comics would be delivering equivalent material? Their success seems to say otherwise. Or is their very success attributable to the freak-of-nature quality of a woman delivering "male" humor?
Humor has always contained a thread of cruelty within it, too, which Hitchens uses as further evidence of the gender demarcation:
Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone's expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste. Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough...Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is. Jokes about calamitous visits to the doctor or the shrink or the bathroom, or the venting of sexual frustration on furry domestic animals, are a male province. It must have been a man who originated the phrase "funny like a heart attack." In all the millions of cartoons that feature a patient listening glum-faced to a physician ("There's no cure. There isn't even a race for a cure"), do you remember even one where the patient is a woman? I thought as much.
Hitchens also posits that men want women to be their audience, not their rivals, so they are not inclined to appreciate hilarious women. But the crux of his argument lies in the apparently monumental humorlessness of motherhood:
[T]he explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women. Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates. This is the unspoken compromise...
Childbearing and rearing are the double root of all this...Is there anything so utterly lacking in humor as a mother discussing her new child? She is unboreable on the subject. Even the mothers of other fledglings have to drive their fingernails into their palms and wiggle their toes, just to prevent themselves from fainting dead away at the sheer tedium of it. And as the little ones burgeon and thrive, do you find that their mothers enjoy jests at their expense? I thought not...
Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can't afford to be too frivolous. (And there just aren't that many episiotomy jokes, even in the male repertoire.) I am certain that this is also partly why, in all cultures, it is females who are the rank-and-file mainstay of religion, which in turn is the official enemy of all humor.
Hitchens's main point is that the existence of funny women here and there does not prove that women are equally funny to men; indeed, they highlight the opposite. So I ask you: is he right? Think about the funniest people you know. Are any of them women?