Beyond the differences in joke preferences between the sexes, Dr. Nancy Walker, a professor of women’s studies and author of A Very Serious Thing, suggests that women don’t particularly like jokes. In her study of women’s literature, she found that women tend to be storytellers rather than joke tellers. For women, humor functions as a means of communication rather than as a means of self-presentation, a sharing of experience rather than a demonstration of cleverness. Women more often prefer the spontaneous humor of everyday life, amusing stories, and anecdotes. They are more participatory. Walker identified the following common characteristics of women’s written humor: it embodies a we/they attitude, reveals a collective consciousness, and makes clear that a group other than ourselves has made the rules by which we must live.
The late Erma Bombeck’s writing exemplifies these characteristics. When women’s lives were centered in the home, that was the primary source of humor for them. Erma Bombeck capitalized on it, and women loved her column. Men, whose lives were centered outside the home, didn’t get Bombeck’s humor. Males who have assumed more responsibility in the home now have a finer appreciation for her writing.
“The harder a woman works, the more things go wrong,” Bombeck said about the perils of being a mother and a homemaker. According to Nancy Walker, Bombeck’s humor created a sense of community for women, building women’s confidence and identifying a social system that “makes women solely responsible for the functioning of the household and sets impossibly high standards for their performance.”
Bombeck simply used humor to point out some of the same cultural incongruities and inequities that scholars were trying to expose. For example, in Honey Hush: An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, editor Daryl Cumber Dance presents dozens of examples of the characteristics Walker identifies: the we/ they attitude, the collective consciousness, and the notion that a group other than African American women has made the rules by which they must live. She writes,
Humor hasn’t been for us so much the cute, the whimsical, and the delightfully funny. Humor for us has rather been a means of surviving as we struggled. We haven’t been laughing so much because things tickle us. We laugh, as the old blues line declares, to keep from crying. We laugh to keep from dying. We laugh to keep from killing. We laugh to hide our pain, to walk gently around the wound too painful to actually touch. We laugh to shield our shame. We use our humor to speak the unspeak- able, to mask the attack, to get a tricky subject on the table, to warn of lines not to be crossed, to strike out at enemies and the hateful acts of friends and family, to camouflage sensitivity, to tease, to compliment, to berate, to brag, to flirt, to speculate, to gossip, to educate, to correct the lies people tell on us, to bring about change.
How many people know what it’s like to be the only person in a relationship?
—Linda Moakes, comedian