I struggle with writing humor. What I find funny is often too close to real life for others to comfortably laugh at it. What others find amusing may irritate rather than entertain me. Once I heard a bit of advice spoken by one adolescent boy to another. “Do you want to know if a girl likes you? Tell a really stupid joke, the stupider the better. If she laughs, she likes you.” It has been obvious for eons that laughter has a sexual side. I am not referring to sex as the subject of humor, but the differences in the way people perceive what is funny.
So when topics mystify me, I do research to try to wrap my mind around the concept. Allan Reiss of Stanford University studied the response of male and female brains when reading comics. To a large degree they used similar parts of the brain–the part that makes sense of semantics and juxtaposition of ideas. The difference is brain function between genders existed but barely. It was not possible to tell who was male or female by viewing the response results. The part of the brain that deals with executive processing was activated more in the women’s brains than the men’s. The reward center in the female brain was also more active when they found a comic funny. But, again this difference was minimal.
If an adolescent boy told a stupid joke, a female laughing in response would indicate approval. His male peers would be more likely to respond with a kind of laughter known as scoffing…
Let’s return to our first example. If an adolescent boy told a stupid joke, a female laughing in response would indicate of approval. His male peers would be more likely to respond with a kind of laughter known as scoffing, to show him how stupid the joke really was. Boys, and even men, commonly use humor as a kind of competitive social tactic. We ignore the way males poke fun at other males. However, when adolescent girls laugh at other girls in a ridiculing manner, they are considered “mean girls,” the kind of cliquish queen bees who use cruel humor to maintain their superiority over others.
Women’s humor is expected to be socially supportive, whether they are laughing at a man’s not so funny joke, or laughing with their female friends about a common situation. Don Nilsen, a linguistics professor at Arizona State University, discovered that women who employ the aggressive or competitive male sense of humor will find both men and women not laughing at her. Humor is not affected as much by the way genders perceive what is funny, because their brain functions have very minute differences according to the Stanford study. The difference in how they show amusement over a humorous piece is determined by the role that they assume men and women play in society.
So what is occurring when men laugh in the way that society prescribes for women. They may chuckle softly in an appeasing manner to show support. According to Don Nilsen, that is the way that men laugh in front of their bosses. I find myself writing male characters that do this from time to time. However, unlike society, I do not view them as weak. So exactly what are we seeing as differences in the response to humor between people? A funny action for a person in charge is not the same as one for a lackey. People often laugh at humor based on what their society sees fit and let other people shape their idea of what is funny.
A. Reiss, MD, the Howard C. Robbins Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. Dean Mobbs, Nov. 7 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
W. Lawson, “Humor’s Sexual Side” Psychology Today, article 200508, published on September 1, 2005 – last reviewed on December 20, 2012