Barreca, a humorist herself, puts it simply. "Women lead with their vulnerabilities," she says. "This is how we get men and other women to like us."
Humor, Barreca explains, is in itself an act of power and aggression; audiences are known to be intimidated by comedians, especially at live venues. (That's why nobody sits in the front row, she says.) "When women in are in comedy, there still needs to be a certain mitigating factor for the ferocity that goes with any kind of effective humor," Barreca says. "So if we show someone our neck, rather than our squared shoulders, we'll be more appreciated--and they'll permit us into their company."
Robert Lynch, a cultural anthropologist from Rutgers University and a part-time stand-up, agrees: "Maybe women have to go overboard with the self-deprecation because comedy can be an alpha thing," he says--the alpha being the class clown, the attention-grabber, the presence dominating the room. "Women alphas in general tend to be disliked. They can sometimes be distrusted, I think. And they're not sought after."
"The female stand-ups I know," he admits, "they don't get a lot of dates out of it."
That can be traced back to evolution, according to Lynch. Citing a 2005 study that aimed to distill how humor was prioritized in the selection of friends and lovers, Lynch explains that men and women both look for a "sense of humor" in companions--but define that phrase in vastly different ways. "What men mean by 'a sense of humor' is that they want someone who laughs at their jokes," Lynch explains, "and what women want is [someone who's] funny."
And thus, "Self-deprecation probably does work better for women," Lynch says--but he points out that guys like Ricky Gervais employ it, too, and just as effectively. "Gervais jokes about what an elitist asshole he is, because he realizes you've got to be an everyman, not an elitist [jerk]," Lynch says. "A big part of humor is rearranging hierarchies, and putting other people down." So comics of both genders, he says, often self-deprecate early in the routine to, one could say, come down to the audience's level.
And according to Barreca, that's why Diller's formula worked, and continues to work, so well. Already in a doubly threatening position as an uproariously funny woman as well as an attractive one, Barreca says, "She stooped to conquer."
Stooping to conquer wasn't a new tactic, of course. Rodney Dangerfield and Milton Berle had mastered ityears before Diller came along. But it was Diller who first turned that approach onto the notion of womanhood--and in so doing, she managed to disguise a distinctly highbrow point in distinctly lowbrow humor.
"She used herself as the target of her humor, yes," Barreca says. "But when you really listen to what she was talking about, she sort of systematically undermined the institutions associated with traditional femininity." Like the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Barreca says, Diller demonstrated that femininity is performative; or, in other words, that women are only as "feminine" in behavior as they decide to be."So Simone de Beauvoir and Phyllis Diller were absolutely on the same page," Barreca says with a laugh. "Straight trajectory."