The Humor Gap

Men and women may have different roles when it comes to comedy, but laughter is crucial from flirtation through long-term commitment

When comedian Susan Prekel takes to the stage and spots an attractive man in the audience, her heart sinks. “By the end of my gig he's going to find me repulsive, at least as a sexual being,” she says.

In more than a decade of performing on the New York City comedy circuit, the attractive, tall brunette has been asked out only once after a show. But male comics get swarmed. “They do very well with women. I see it all the time,” Prekel says.

Comedians, it turns out, may simply be experiencing an extreme version of the typical romantic interplay between men and women. Although both genders consistently prefer a partner with a sense of humor, there is an intriguing discrepancy in how that preference plays out. Men want someone who will appreciate their jokes, and women want someone who makes them laugh. The complementary nature of these desires is no accident. Researchers suspect humor has deep evolutionary roots—in 1872 Charles Darwin noticed chimpanzees giggling as they played—and many argue that the laws of natural selection can help explain the complex senses of humor we have today.

Men and women use humor and laughter to attract one another and to signal romantic interest—but each gender accomplishes this in a different way. And as a relationship progresses, the way men and women use humor changes; it becomes a means of soothing one another and smoothing over rough patches. In fact, humor is rarely about anything funny at all; rather sharing a laugh can bring people closer together and even predict compatibility over the long haul.

Humor in all its forms—sarcastic, witty, anecdotal, ironic, satirical—is as complicated and evolved as language. It can be a weapon used to alienate and a means to communicate interest and intelligence. So at the risk of unweaving a rainbow, it's time to take a serious look at humor.

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