Seeing a Gender Disparity in Funny Plays

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A female reader in Washington responds to my article on The Plight of the Funny Female.

I run a comedy play festival each year in which I ask playwrights all over the world to send me humorous 10-minute scripts. I receive about 300 a year. Over the past 10 years, I've read 3,000 supposedly funny plays. My only rule to make it to the maybe pile is to make me laugh, not smile but laugh. Less than 10 each year do that. I usually end up selecting a few plays written by women, but most are written by men.

I have asked myself every year why this is so. Other people read these scripts and help me select, so it's not just my opinion. Why don't I find more funny scripts written by females? Or, why don't I find female writers as funny? I don't know.

I have noticed that women write more about domestic issues. Their topics are almost always about marriage, children, pregnancy, men who suck, suicide, etc. They can be mildly amusing or even sort of cute, but that's just not enough to push them through to the next round. Audiences don't laugh at plays with a few cute bits scattered here and there. They laugh at pain, but when it's delivered in an ironic way.

Assuming that no one in the selection process is willfully discriminating against female writers, this might fit with the “men take more shots” theory of gender disparities in humor.

Also, assuming (once again) that she’s right about the female writers mostly sticking to banal subjects, I wonder if there’s societal pressure for women to avoid raunchy or otherwise heated topics. I don’t know of that many women who regularly tell dirty jokes. (Though those who do are national treasures.)

The reader added that she does “make an effort to include women and writers from other countries in the ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’ pile because diversity is important.”