Patrick West

Michael Parkinson is right: men are funnier than women

Michael Parkinson is right: men are funnier than women
Michael Parkinson (Getty images)
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As befitting his public persona of a plain-speaking Yorkshireman, and making the kind of devil-may-care social transgression that is the privilege of the very old, Sir Michael Parkinson has declared that men have a better sense of humour than women.

In a interview with the Australian Daily Telegraph, the veteran broadcaster, 85, was asked whether men found it hard to express their emotions. 'Most men I know are the opposite, they're very sensitive and also very funny,' he replied. 'That's the the thing I like most about men. It's a contentious statement but they're much better than women in their sense of humour.'

Such gender essentialism, especially that in favour of males, is taboo these days. So many unfashionable truths are. Thus we should be thankful to Parky for reminding us of something most of us know, but now dare not say.

A report published in October last year did indeed appear to conclude that men are funnier than women. Researchers from Aberystwyth university and the university of North Carolina analysed 28 studies which looked at how funny around 5,000 people were. Looking at the results of various studies in which people were asked to rate men and women's humour – without knowing their sex first – they found that 63 per cent of men were funnier than the average woman.

Men are funnier than women because, as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, humour is mostly based on incongruence and the disruption of reality: horses never walk into bars, and their long faces never actually suggest they are unhappy. While evolution has made females, the primary nurturers, the conservatives of the species who are typically concerned with very real every-day matters, male humans are by contrast often less grounded in reality, and more given to flights of fancy and mental adventures into imaginary incongruous worlds. Think Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Paul Merton or Noel Fielding. Men's propensity for inner mental escapades has made us more prolific comic authors, science-fiction writers, artists and composers (and more likely to be psychopaths).

It has long be noted – most recently in The Comedy of Error, Why Evolution Made Us Laugh, by Jonathan Silverton – that, from an evolutionary perspective still replicated in our culture, women seek men who make them laugh. Men reciprocally look for 'a woman who will find them funny'. The ability to detect incongruity and make a joke from it is a sign of intelligence, writes Silverton, so that funnier people are adjudged to be cleverer people: an obvious evolutionary advantage in the mating game.

The differences between women and men explains the latter's propensity for humour in other ways. Second only to incongruity as a source of laughter is cruelty, or taking malicious delight at those less fortunate than us – he who has suffered a prat-fall in public (think Charlie Chaplin or Jackass) or embarrassed himself in a social situation (think Alan Partridge or David Brent).

If you are a traditional gender essentialist you will hold that men in general can be more violent than women. No wonder so much humour involves cruelty, contempt, superiority, anxiety, aggression and accidental taboo-breaking. 'Throughout the ages, cripples, mental defectives, and court fools have been injured and perhaps even killed in a crescendo of teasing, laughter, and violence. Laughter scorns the victims and bonds and feeds the wrath of aggressors,' wrote Robert R. Provine in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (2000), 'dark laughter has sometimes accompanied the looting, killing, and raping that are among the traditional fruits of war'.

Humour is inextricably connected with the pursuit of power and dominance, traits also connected with masculinity. Plato and Aristotle linked laughter with superiority over others. And in his 1650 work, Human Nature, Thomas Hobbes agreed, stating that laughter is the expression of a 'sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others or with our own formerly'.

In connection to this, men are also more competitive than women, which is why Mock The Week was funnier when it had more obnoxious, laughter-chasing male-dominated panels. Robert R. Provine noted that males engage in more proxy-competitive laughter-evoking behaviour than females in most cultures, a behaviour that begins at about the age of six. Among children viewing cartoons, girls laughed more often with boys than with girls, and girls reciprocated boys' laughter more often than boys reciprocated girls' laughter.

Of course, to say that 'men are funnier than women' is a generalisation, like saying 'men are taller than women'. Just as some women are taller than some men, many women are funnier than many men. But it doesn't make the generalisation less true, even if it takes an octogenarian Yorkshireman to say it.