Leave it to a German academic —Helga Kotthoff of the Frieburg University of Education— to conduct research establishing that, as a headline in the Telegraph puts it, “Humor is an act of aggression.” (Which, as headlines go, is in the category of “Dog Bites Man.”)
The decidedly humorless gender-oriented study, published in the Journal of Pragmatics, argues that “the ability to make others laugh confers a degree of control which dominant people exploit to show they are in charge.”
“Those ‘on top’ are freer to make others laugh. They are also freer to be more aggressive and a lot of what is funny is making jokes at someone else’s expense,” she said.
“Displaying humour means taking control of the situation from those higher up the hierarchy and this is risky for people of lower status, which before the 1960s meant women rarely made other people laugh — they couldn’t afford to.
“Comedy and satire are based on aggressiveness and not being nice,” she said. “Until the 1960s it was seen as unladylike to be funny. But even now women tend to prefer telling jokes at their own expense and men tend to prefer telling jokes at other people’s expense.”
The differences between men’s and women’s ability to become comedians starts very young, she said. Boys as young as four or five tell more jokes, frolic and clown about while girls tend to be the ones doing the laughing.
But in later age women tend to become funnier because they feel freer to not be seen as ladylike.
She said humour, including teasing, was a mix of ‘bonding and biting’ and women often use humour to form social bonds with their friends while men often use humour to vent frustration. But both sexes use comedy as a means of controlling others.
She said: “For example, doctors sometimes use humour to comfort patients but also to silence them if, for example, the patient displays too much knowledge of a medical condition.
“Nurses and midwives tend to tell jokes about patients but not when the doctor is present. And when someone initiates a joke they tend to be ignored if they are in the presence of someone of a higher status.”
Until the sexual revolution of the 1960s women rarely became comediennes in public or private because most humour is an act of aggression, she said. “A study in the late 1980s showed that men use sexual jokes as a way of verbally undressing a woman who rebuts his advances; his humour was aggressive in essence.”
Me, I prefer not to think much about it and just adopt what might be called the French approach: I surrender to laughter.