Gaping at the humour gap

Gaping at the humour gap

The battle of the sexes was never a joke but it is also not funny enough unless there’s a victim and a sting in the tail. Indu Balachandran looks at what tickles the funny bone of men and women

The other day, I watched a male stand-up comedian talking about the woes of being a newly married man. He began with generalisations, like his wife’s blunders in running a home, evoking a few smiles. But when he got to this one: “Last week, before coming home from the office, I called and asked my wife what she was burning for dinner?” Every male in the audience was chuckling; some women rolled their eyes. But the comedian continued, after the right pause: “All your belongings dear, my wife replied.” This time the women were the ones whooping and clapping the most.

It got me thinking. It was a witty joke all right, but the first part was being received so differently. While men were warming up to the joke, women were already making sexist judgements: why is the woman expected to get a man’s dinner ready? Would he do the same, if she was out working? That’s why the wife’s comeback was so funny — and got such a huge applause.

Laughing till it hurts 

All humorists know, particularly stand-up comedians, that a joke isn’t a joke until it has a victim, and funny isn’t funny enough unless it has a sting in the tail.

In that joke above, both genders were ‘victims’ with men perhaps thinking — oh this newly married wife doesn’t know a basic wifely duty, cooking; no wonder the man asked what she was burning up... But when the joke suddenly turned around to making the man the victim, women laughed louder, thinking — serves that stupid man right, expecting a new bride to make a perfect dinner.  

But later on in the show, another male comedian said this one: “How did the medical community come up with the term PMS? Because Mad Cow Disease was already taken.”  Women, I noticed, grimaced, while men guffawed right out of their seats.

And that makes me think of the changing ways men and women find what’s funny, and what isn’t. In fact, there’s often a big difference to even how different genders make others laugh in public. There’s hardly a male stand-up comic whose repertoire doesn’t include sex, body parts, bodily functions (many times smelly emissions, yes). Yet I have seen the most hysterically funny women stand-ups who can hold a show with no sexual depravity whatsoever.

A sense of humour: sexy or sexist?

Ask any young man or woman — what quality do you find most attractive in the opposite sex, enough to be married to the person? You can be quite sure they are going to include ‘a sense of humour’. And yet gender experts tell us this desirable, sexy trait means quite different things to males and females: a woman will define it as ‘someone who makes me laugh a lot’. A man will say: ‘Someone who laughs a lot at my jokes.’

But after marriage, it tends to reverse, say, experts. Humour can even cast couples asunder. Men, no longer concerned with wooing and winning, tend to get cruelly funny — wisecracks about women drivers or her relatives, for instance, are distinctly unfunny to her. Or men laughing at grossly sexual comedy on TV (you find that funny? Give me a break…) Invariably, the woman now becomes the creator of true wit, self-deprecating and hilarious, even if it’s mostly in conversation with her woman friends.

According to many psychological spin-offs that sprouted after the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus best-seller, gender differences are primarily about our brains, not just body parts, and how our minds are genetically structured to respond to fear, joy, challenge,…and of course, humour.

The early man just went out and clobbered something on its head, whether it was a beast or a woman he fancied. Early woman, however, was thinking instinctively about protection — both herself and her young ones. Fast-forwarding several centuries later, early man evolved into the class clown. He played pranks, hit, got what he wanted, and became a hero. The female of the species evolved into the protection-conscious thinker, wary of aggression.

Now humour is largely aggressive and pre-emptive — certainly not a basic feminine trait. Femaleness is ‘thinking’ things through…will I be harmed? Will I get into trouble? What should I be feeling here?

And that’s how some men thoughtlessly end up rubbing women up the wrong way (ladies, pardon the physical nuance to that expression) with not just sexually exploitive humour; but also gender-biased jokes that are annoying.

Consider this one:  Bob: Hey Joe, I heard you got a new dishwasher. Joe: Yes. I got married again.

Hearing this, men will laugh at the sheer wit of it; (it is indeed a cleverly crafted joke) but the woman, following her female hard-wired brain to ‘think through’ an issue, may dwell on her own life for a flashing moment, and recall that the jerk she married never ever helps out in the kitchen. And not really laugh that much.

Anatomy of a joke

Nowadays, I have started looking at stand-up comedy itself in a new light. It is no longer just the scruffy guy with a mike in the pub (a place largely populated by men), but funny women comics storming the stage and giving it back — in TV shows, in parties, even at weddings. And the clever or ‘sensible’ humorist is the one who makes a victim of neither men nor women, but himself/herself — always a trick that works.

But most men continue to be gross as hell, even about their own body parts. So increasingly, I find that ‘gender-free’ jokes, even those that talk about classic, popular topics like man-woman relationships (always a sure-fire attention getter) but done with a fresh and witty connection — these are the ones that get me rolling on the floor.

Like these ones I noted down, from that same comedic line-up I watched on an OTT platform:

Someone asked me the other day, “Hey, aren’t you wearing your wedding ring on the wrong finger?” Yes, I replied. That’s because I married the wrong person...”

“ Oh darling, I feel so incomplete without you...”  “ OK, then let me finish you,” I said.

Hard to tell if a man or a woman said that, isn’t it? 

While some overdone tropes about mothers-in-law no longer figure in a stand-up show, and gay relationships seem to draw big laughs, classic themes like romantically-inclined women versus physically inclined men, always find new humorous takes. Indeed I recall most the simple ‘clean’ joke that seemed to bring the entire house was by that newly-married man, mentioned at the start of this piece:

 “This morning, my wife said to me, “Our neighbour kisses his wife every day at the door before going to work. Why don’t you do that too?” I replied, “I wish...but how can I? I barely know her”.

(He said/She said is a monthly column on gender issues — funny side up. The author switched to a career in advertising/writing, as world markets may have collapsed if she ever became an economist. Her dream is to do stand-up someday, at staid family weddings. Reach her at