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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

Why do funny ladies like the ladies? The over-representation of lesbians in comedy

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Recently I noticed a queer pattern—something that appears, for whatever reason, to have eluded serious academic consideration. Jerry Seinfeld might have opened up this can of worms by saying, "Have you ever noticed how female comedy is dominated by lesbians? Not that there’s anything wrong with that."

Not all comediennes, of course, find men as arousing as sidewalk pavement. Sarah Silverman, Elayne Boosler, Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin, for example, seem to prefer the company of men. But they are crowded out on the roster of female comedy all-stars by a long list of Sapphic wise-girls: Jane Lynch, Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Judy Gold, Sandra Bernhard, Wanda Sykes (pictured above), Lily Tomlin, Kate Clinton, Paula Poundstone, Carol Leifer, Kathleen Madigan, Margaret Cho …

Now, without reaching for your nearest Google search bar, name a single gay male stand-up. The only one I could come up with is Ant. Who? Sure, there are plenty of gay male comedic writers behind the scenes, and also character actors on comedy sitcoms, but in terms of heavy-hitters in the world of comedy, lesbians put us gay males to shame. (By the way, now you may Google away, which will tell you that Ant is that guy from Last Comic Standing.)

It’s all rather curious indeed, because although there are over four million LGBT Americans, we’re still relatively rare specimens, hovering at around 2-3 percent of the total population. Yet, you wouldn’t know this by crunching the gay numbers among the comediennes’ roster. Although no hard stats are known to exist for the respective orientations of comediennes, the proportion for that group is at least anecdotally much higher. It would be easy enough to brush off this peculiar fact with some casuistic postmodernist explanation, such as saying that disenfranchised groups find empowerment through humor. But if this were the case, then where are all the big-name gay male comedians? For that matter, where are the armies of visually-impaired stand-ups, the rank and file of popular little-people comedians, the overrepresentation of paraplegic humorists with their own HBO comedy specials? Many other stigmatized demographics, after all, outnumber lesbians in the general population.

I’d be misleading you by saying that science has a clear answer to this profound mystery. There is, however, a compelling theory that may or may not help to shed some light. Let me preface this by saying that psychological science deals mainly in terms of statistical probabilities, not proof theorems (individual differences are normal and expected). Still, one of the hottest findings to emerge from contemporary humor research is the fact that while both men and women say that they value a "good sense of humor" in potential partners, the two sexes mean vastly different things by this. Men prefer women who find them funny ("humor receptivity"), not funny women per se ("humor production"). Women display the opposite trend in their dating preferences. These were the basic findings reported in a 2006 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior by psychologist Eric Bressler and his colleagues.

The authors interpret these data, and similar data, by drawing from psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s ideas about the evolution of humor. Miller has argued that ancestral males’ ability to produce entertaining humor demanded a set of heritable cognitive skills, including intelligence and creativity, and thus was a hard-to-fake signal of genetic quality. Due to the sexes’ differential investment in reproduction (just at a coital level alone, about 90 seconds versus 9 months), women would have evolved to be more receptive to signs of genetic quality than males. Men, meanwhile, would have been on the lookout for women who responded positively to their humor.

Researchers who study homosexuality have discovered that the brains of many lesbians were over-exposed to male hormones during prenatal development, influencing not only their adult sexual orientation, but also masculinizing other behavioral and cognitive traits in which there exist innate sex differences. This is not true of all lesbians, but it is especially true for those who exhibit male-typed profiles. So it is not implausible that some lesbians’ courtship strategies would largely mimic opposite-sex-typed patterns, including a differentiated capacity for humor production that attracts female attention. This would not be a conscious strategy, it must be emphasized, and indeed this is what many critics of evolutionary psychology repeatedly fail to realize. So, for heaven’s sake, don’t mistake this as me saying that lesbian comics go on stage just to score chicks. Gene replication is simply a mechanistic means to an end; if it works, it works. Many evolutionary psychologists, including Miller, believe that our minds are often just epiphenomenal interpreters.

It’s noteworthy also that so many successful comediennes are on the "butch" rather than the "femme" side of the scale (this even applies to those who aren’t lesbians, such as Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo and Whoopi Goldberg), leaving one to wonder how much currency this evolutionarily informed theory of humor may in fact have.

About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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