To misquote Samuel Johnson, Hillary Clinton attempting to make jokes on television is like a dog trying to walk on its hind legs: really awkward for everyone involved. Since everything Hillary does feels like the result of at least eight focus groups, there must be some reason she has decided to subject the American people to this. Perhaps Huckabee’s exodus from the ring has left the Late-Night Comedy Demographic rudderless and open to suggestion. Yet watching Hillary’s efforts to wangle a laugh out of the American people serves as a reminder of the closest parallel between modern politics and comedy: both are startlingly devoid of women.
Why is this? There are few holdout “man’s jobs” nowadays. The priesthood? University presidency? Women demolished those glass ceilings eons ago. So why do female comics and female politicians remain rare enough that there are still forums on how to get more of them?
Comedy and politics have a lot in common. Both are great ways to pick up chicks—just look at Governor Spitzer. Or Ellen Degeneres. Both require spending time on the road meeting strangers who often have the desire to throw things at you. Both are difficult, if not impossible, to do all alone. And both rely heavily on personality.
In an era when our main exports are entertainment and democracy, comedy is practically a function of the presidential office. George W. Bush has dutifully, if not intentionally, provided Americans with laughs for nearly a decade. He has also made them cry, sometimes for the same reason. Americans have many bizarre criteria by which they select their next Commander in Chief, and a sense of humor is definitely one of them. Although no one explicitly wants a president who could have a reliable fall back career in stand-up comedy, everyone shudders at the thought of a Rutherford B. Hayes or John Kerry. The reason so few women are in politics may be the same as the reason so few of them do comedy: people just don’t think women can be funny. Popular belief seems to locate the sense of humor in an anatomical region conspicuously absent from the average female.
Indeed, in 2007, researchers found that women expect less from jokes than men do. They laugh more and at weaker punchlines than their male counterparts, although, when pressed, they admit that they find fewer things actually funny. There are, apparently, evolutionary reasons for this—for males competing to pass along their genes, a sense of humor belonged in the arsenal right next to mammoth-hunting and the ability to make strange noises with their armpits. The strength of a man’s material was linked to the strength of his genetic material. This finding would seem to put women at a disadvantage when it comes to making jokes themselves. Not only are men less predisposed to laugh, they may even fear that women are trying to push them out of the gene pool.
There are, of course, exceptions: Sarah Silverman. Tina Fey. Ellen Degeneres. Rosie O’ Donnell. But the fact that I have to include Rosie O’Donnell in a list of funny people should suggest how slim the pickings are. At Harvard, too, women in comedy are few and far between. Improv groups, humor magazines, tv shows, the stand-up comedy society: each features no more than a handful of women, if that. This isn’t because these groups are fighting off droves of talented women out of some kind of prejudice; the applicants are also overwhelmingly male. No one makes the same kind of concerted effort to get women into comedy that they do to get them into politics. The positive stereotypes—women are great connectors and have lots of caring and feelings—tend to backfire when applied to comedy. All that compassion makes it difficult to tell a joke.
And once they do get involved, there is the problem of the unstated dress code. Women in politics have similar issues—Hillary has to wear pantsuits and short hair not because they are the best look for her figure but because of the image she has to present. Masculinity translates, to some degree, into competence. By contrast, if you are a female comic, you have to try not to look too much like a man, unless you are Rosie O’ Donnell, in which case you don’t have much choice in the matter. Being funny isn’t enough. If you are straight, you must also look fairly attractive. Male comics can be sexy because they’re funny. Women have to be both, but not so much that it’s distracting. Evolutionarily speaking, every time I go on stage I try to wear an outfit that exclaims “Don’t worry! Although I am attempting to make you laugh, I hope you will not cease to view me as a sex object.”
Yet all the bizarre hurdles to women in comedy have an upside: Only the strong survive. There are more mediocre male comedians than mediocre female comedians. If you can make it against the assumption that women aren’t funny because of evolution, or excess compassion, or whatever, then a lot of people must think you are really funny. Notably, the female comedians who have broken out into the mainstream are the ones who talk about other things than the fact that they are women. This is something Hillary needs to learn. Being a woman can be a hassle, but it’s no excuse. Just because “women aren’t funny” doesn’t mean she shouldn’t hone her material.
Indeed, during the last Clinton humor blitz, a former colleague recounted the following anecdote as evidence of Hillary’s sense of humor: once, when a coworker removed a slice of pizza from her desk, Hillary sent out a memo asking who took the evidence she was saving for a poisoning trial. Speaking not as a woman but as a human being, let me ask: Do we want a president who thinks that this is a good joke? Maybe Rosie should run.
Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is a joint English and American literature and languages and classics concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.