Vivian Vance  and Lucille Ball, in "I Love Lucy."

Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball, in "I Love Lucy." Credit:

Contrary to popular opinion, women are (almost) as funny as men! Lucille Ball and Gilda Radner would be delighted. But seriously, folks, why are we still asking this question?

Psychologists at the University of California at San Diego conducted a study in which an equal number of men and women were asked to supply captions to New Yorker cartoons and then rate them on their funniness. The results of the experiment were released this week: The men won by a mere 0.11 points on a 5-point scale.

What's really funny is that we're still relying on studies -- even limited ones like this -- to answer this question. Can't we just accept that some women are funny and some aren't -- same as men? And why do we still care, anyway?

In 2007, Christopher Hitchens controversially wrote that men are funnier than women largely because there's a biological imperative for them to be. While a woman would never try to attract a male mate with her ability to inspire belly laughs, men, he said, do. We all have that female friend who likes a guy because he's just so darn funny, but most of our men friends look for, ahem, other qualities in the women they date.

The San Diego psychologists claim that their results debunk this "evolutionary sexual selection" theory by proving that the real humor differential between men and women is small enough to be negligible.

But more important, wouldn't it be refreshing if the old stereotypes about what attracts women to men and vice versa weren't so valid anymore? Maybe the assets men look for in women aren't the ones we think of with winks and nudges.

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a study showing that more men than ever before were marrying women who outearned and had outstudied them. In an era when more women than men are graduating with professional and graduate degrees, when more and more women are rising the corporate ladder, there are plenty of marriages where women are the primary -- or even sole -- breadwinners. The Pew study inspired many snarky think pieces about alpha women and beta men, perhaps highlighting that we aren't quite comfortable yet with these changing economic realities. Financially successful, powerful women are still more likely to be seen as humorless harpies.

Meanwhile, the aggressive funny men of years past -- think of the Richard Pryor and George Carlin types -- have given way to a generation of Judd Apatow-spawned man-children: well-meaning, hapless jesters who seem to be trying to distract women with their jokes, not attract them. Think of many of Seth Rogen's characters, for instance, and Louis C.K., or Phil Dunphy on "Modern Family" and Tim Allen in "Last Man Standing." Whether their love interests are glamorous, smart women, harried executives or taskmaster housewives, these men use humor to deflect and cope with female disapproval.

It seems that humor has become a kind of passive-aggressive battlefield in the gender war -- where men can vent possible feelings of hostility toward the slight shift in the power balance in women's favor.

It may be some time until we are fully comfortable with changing gender roles at home and power dynamics in the workplace. But in the meantime, take my "are women funny" question . . . please. And give it a rest.

Kavitha Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, is the author of "Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West."


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