My best friend in high school and I communicated almost entirely in catchphrases from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and SCTV. While not a comedy nerd like me—if Mel Brooks was a scheduled guest on Dinah Shore, I feigned illness to stay home from school—my friend was the funniest girl I knew: a flawless mimic with broad frames of reference and exquisite timing.
So when we both moved away to Toronto, I nagged her to study improv at the place that had spawned Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and so many others.
Naturally I was there when her class made their public debut. They accepted the first premise shouted out from the audience, and the guy onstage turned to my friend and made the offer. We all waited.
She choked. She stood there, frozen and blank-faced. I started sweating. Surely she’d recover, I thought. She didn’t. Other cast members came onstage and revived the premise while she faded into the background. I forget what I said to her after the show. Maybe it should have been, “Sorry.” She never went onstage again.
We finally “split up” after 9/11. She turned further leftward and is now a “bedroom community” mom. (On our first and last visit to her new suburban home, my future husband and I found it easily, thanks to her oversize orange New Democratic Party lawn sign.) Meanwhile, I’d retained our youthful bratty libertarianism, now with a heavy dose of “hawk.” And children bore me.
Time and distance revealed aspects of her personality I’d tried not to notice, such as her penchant for self-sabotage and how eager she was to be liked. Those were two of many feminine characteristics I never managed to acquire—like a maternal instinct or a pleasing personality developed to help compensate for my physical shortcomings. Though she was balls-out and bawdy among friends à la Rusty Warren, onstage my friend couldn’t “commit”—the improv term for the willingness to do anything, no matter how humiliating, disgusting, offensive, revealing, or absurd.
Due I suppose to their lower IQs and a factory setting of “nice,” hardly any women can.
And that’s why there are fewer female comedians.
As Christopher Hitchens put it in his widely discussed 2007 essay on this topic:
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.
Try imagining an all-female Marx Brothers. (OK, “Sisters.”) Can you? Really? Until last year’s shameless gross-out mega-smash Bridesmaids, I couldn’t, although Anna Farris’s cringe-inducing fearlessness in the Scary Movie franchise had already softened my stance. (I watch her with a twinge of guilt—is it possible the part of her brain where shame resides has been damaged?)