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Slower to get it

Hitchens on women: not funny

Via the gimlet eye of Hitchens Watch, I see that in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens is addressing The Woman Question; or specifically, “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. He adduces many ingenious proofs of the earnest dullness of the weaker sex; and lest you suppose this to be fatuous dribble, he attempts to show that science is on his side. Hitchens refers to a Stanford University School of Medicine Study he read about in Biotech Week that used brain-imaging to argue for gender differences in humour. He summarises its findings thus:

Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?

“Slower to get it”? Where did Hitchens get that from? The study in question, to which Hitchens refers as though it was news (“we now have all the joy of a scientific study”), was the subject of a Stanford press release more than a year ago, in November 2005. All the material from Biotech Week that Hitchens cites appears in identical form in the original press release. We may suppose, indeed, that the Biotech Week article was simply the same press release. Yet nothing in what Hitchens cites implies that women are “slower to get” a joke. In fact, something perhaps quietly elided expressly says the opposite. Hitchens quotes only the concluding finding, that “women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny”, from a paragraph that, in the original press release, states:

In other findings, men and women showed no significant difference in the number of stimuli they rated as funny, nor how funny they found the humorous stimuli. Response time for both funny and unfunny cartoons was also similar, although women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny.

Hang on. “Response time for both funny and unfunny cartoons was also similar.” Passing silently over this, unless it was mysteriously omitted from the Biotech Week version, Hitchens assures us that the study concluded that women are “slower to get it”. Let us be charitable and put this down to mere befuddled incomprehension.

So much for his article’s brief flirtation with fact. The rest is mere guff and rant, leeringly picking a fight even when granting a concession:

There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.

“When you come to review the situation.” It is pleasing to imagine Hitchens, brow furrowed and puffing, reviewing the situation with scholarly dispassion, making little marks in his columns for “hefty”, “dykey” or “Jewish”, or scrawling horizontal lines for a “combo”, feeling perhaps something of the joy of a victory at Tic-Tac-Toe.

Proofs biological and sociological are abundant:

[B]ecause fear is the mother of superstition, and because they are partly ruled in any case by the moon and the tides, women also fall more heavily for dreams, for supposedly significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries, for romantic love, crystals and stones, lockets and relics, and other things that men know are fit mainly for mockery and limericks.

In a mood of greater clarity, one in which Hitchens would not allow himself the sort of slack, bloated prose in this piece, he might have remembered that “romantic love” was invented by, ah, male poets, and that Isaac Newton, for example, by all accounts a man, was obsessed with alchemy and “supposedly significant dates”. But let us not allow pedantry to get in the way of a daring recitation of conventional wisdom.

Generously, Hitchens does allow that there have been some funny women, while claiming that this does not spoil his “argument”, as he is pleased to call it. But those funny women – they’re not really funny either, are they?

(Though ask yourself, was Dorothy Parker ever really funny?)

Happy to take the challenge, I asked myself whether Dorothy Parker was ever really funny. I replied to myself: “Yes she was, you dolt.” The more melancholy question now is, was Christopher Hitchens ever funny? I seem to remember that he was, but it seems so long ago now.

(Update: see also Dennis Perrin’s fine post.)

34 comments
  1. 1  Michael  December 6, 2006, 2:41 pm 

    Bully!

    Didn’t your parents ever teach you not to pick on poeple who are incapable of defending themselves?

  2. 2  sw  December 7, 2006, 6:49 am 

    Steve, you’ve made some very good points above, but I cannot help but think you missed the significance of this piece. It may be nothing less than a sepulchre for Christopher Hitchens.

    When first I glanced at the piece, I thought it was a wicked parody of Hitchens, capturing his breezy confidence that so quickly becomes windy, the slew of references fluttering like so many leaves on a blustery day, the snide asides. And then I wondered if it was actually a blistering self-parody. When I finally sat down with the piece, however, I began to think that it is more – that it might be intellectual seppuku.

    Imagine right now that you are Hitchens. Eight or nine years ago, you had a reputation as a hard-drinking and bullish writer, slightly too taken by your own ability to whip off a whip-smart bit of polemic, but nevertheless energetic, expansive, and curious. Eight or nine years ago, you were not without journalistic chops and not above some devilish rabble-rousing, but you were also committed to feeding a ravenous intellectual appetite and committed to principles that you wrote about and worried about and spoke about and analysed, and which included national self-determination, intellectual independence, the value of challenging whatever is seen as holy, and skeptical non-alignment. You take a look at yourself in the mirror now, and realise that for the better part of a decade, you have done nothing but align yourself to a set of policies produced by a small group of incurious men, theocrats at that; a group of men who have no interest in anything you have to say, partly because you are an atheist; a group of men who have no interest in those policies and ideals that initially led you to support them; a group of men who were glad to use you and feed you lies that you gullibly reproduced and promulgated. And you see that those very same men are duly shuffling off their responsibilities in editorials in friendly journals, resigning to take lucrative jobs in the corporate world, denying that they said the things that you have yourself enshrined in print under your by-line. You’re staring in the mirror and realising that you have been an apologist for torture, that you have played a prominent role in supporting the destruction of a nation you once had hoped to save, that you have become a disseminator of lies for the petulant war-mongering of men who have never once had their own courage tested, and that as soon as the national mood changes, they have covered their arses, leaving you alone.

    Looking up at that mirror, you see what you have become, too tired to be desperate, too emptied of the ethical vigour that indubitably inspired the late contrarian. And you are left with exactly what Bush and his cohorts are left with when their nationalistic slogans and catchphrases lose their Fox News appeal: gay-baiting and the dull misogyny that says women are birthing machines.

    And so, left with some vague duty to write a piece on comedy for Vanity Fair, you plunder what you can from the remnants of the jamboree you joined, and piece together one last campfire, with the splinters and detritus your neo-con friends left behind, ultimately throwing yourself on the fizzling blaze.

    Perhaps, though, we can use a better image: this piece is not just the final distillation of what remains of his neo-con philosophy to the vodka of homophobia and reactionary fantasies about relationships. (And if you doubt this last part, look at the corny wholesomeness of that opening paragraph, packed with verbal flashbacks to the imagined decency of the 1950s with “squeeze” and “honey” and coy interludes about another man’s woman’s body being “none of your business”). It is also a matter of style – and this is why I think it might be intellectual suicide, because I think that Hitchens knows what he is doing. He is carefully, and in full view, dismantling everything he knows about intellectual honesty and integrity; again, not just in content, but by breaking all the rules, one by one. So let us call this what it is: a tragedy, disguised as comedy.

    The first rule of writing about comedy, the second rule of writing about comedy, the third and fourth rules – the top ten rules of writing about comedy: you never, ever, under any circumstance whatsoever, make claims about what a great sense of humour you yourself have. Never. It is not just gauche and humourless, it is an inviolable principle. Hitchens would know this. And yet he ardently points to his own comic skills no fewer than three times (and possibly more, depending upon how you read various passages). This willful violation of the golden rule not once, not twice, but at least three times, is a gorgeous act of excess, even heroic in its perversity. But he makes it even better, more cringe-inducing, by coupling these claims with intimations of his sexual success. It is brilliantly self-damning in its near-perfect vulgarity. It is tragic.

    The next ten rules, and Hitchens would know of these as well, are that as soon as you have written a piece about comedy, you immediately go back and edit out your own jokes. It is such a hard thing to do, but Hitchens would not be so careless as to let these comic solecisms slip through by mistake. The temptation to try to be funny is strong – for a number of reasons, including because one doesn’t want to seem to be out of the comic loop, drily parsing the comic moment – but it must be resisted. And this is not to say that people cannot be uproariously funny when writing about comedy, but it is never because they have left their clodding “comic” asides in (“All right – try it another way (as the bishop said to the barmaid)”) or strained to turn their prose into nightclub banter (“if you catch my drift”, “know what I am saying?” Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, go no further). Comedy is sly, surreptitious, surprising, and can never appear effortful; those writers about comedy who are funny never rely on jimmying one of their own jokes into their text. (With Hitchensian disdain for expanding on a name-dropped, let me just point to Kierkegaard as exemplary in this matter).

    There are other rules that Hitchens violates in this act of self-sabotage, this act of penance for his years of hubris and vanity. The only fervent adherents to the science of comedy are shilling something – and everybody, including the scientists working on this comedy, knows this. As you point out, the “science” he finds so joyful is hardly consistent with his arguments. But he hasn’t even bothered, really; a cursory glance at the psychological literature on comedy and humour would take in its weaknesses. While all human sciences flutter with confounding factors and limitations, what little research there is on comedy and humour is clearly the weakest, even amongst the complex behaviours. (By the way, I admire the researchers who have taken on this task; any conclusions, though, as they would be the first to admit, would be very, very premature.) It is, then, an unspoken rule (not an unspeak rule) that you don’t rely on science to talk about comedy. By this point, though, Hitchens isn’t even bothering.

    Perhaps the most important rule he violates, really more important than any of the above, is that he misjudges the nature of comedy: comedy is a cliché vanquished, and yet this entire piece is a regurgitation of clichés, not just caveman just-so stories about how men and women are different because women give birth, and not just smirking clichés about “queers”, but about comedy itself: that it is a defence, that it is about superiority, that life is really just a joke. Hitchens relentlessly strives to butcher this rule about the cliché, and if you attend to the piece closely, you realise that the piece just flows from one cliché to the next, frequently resulting in non-sequitors. It is a master class in how not to write about humour; it is a master class in how not to write.

    Peculiarly, he still manages to mangle some clichés. He says that “Jewish humor, boiling as it with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition”, and yet surely the opposite is true: Sander Gilman for one has made a career out of thinking about the feminised Jewish body and even the stereotype of Jewish humour that Hitchens evokes, a cliché, is of the least “manly” of Jewish stereotypes: the wilting neuroticism of Woody Allen, the lugubrious passive-aggression of Larry David. It is far more interesting to consider how their essentially wimpy personae can also be very sexy, specifically without being paradigms of masculinity. But Hitchens doesn’t get it.

    At the end, though, I have to return to one of my original conceits: that this is not intellectual suicide, the tragic mired in the comic, but is actually a brilliant parody. It’s not that Hitchens does not have the courage or the insight to commit intellectual seppuku; he might or he might not. But there is one particular line that convinces me that this whole thing is a joke. And because of that line, I suggest that he is here creating a caricature of what his detractors think he has become; he is parodying the image that others have of him as a boorish, disdainful, neo-con toy-boy, pandering to reactionary stereotypes about women and gays, with a cavalier attitude to name-dropping, both intellectual (Nietzsche, Mencken) and social (Fran and Nora). He has created a caricature, pure and simple, and is tempting us into thinking that he has just reached a nadir, tempting us into thinking that he is killing himself off. The whole point is that the piece is a joke . . . and the give-away line?

    “As every father knows, the placenta is made up of brain cells, which migrate southward during pregnancy and take the sense of humour along with them.”

    Of course, the placenta is not made up of brain cells. But Hitchens doesn’t say that it is. He says, “As every father knows . . . ” It is at once a delightful image of male awe and male obliviousness tinged with male over-confidence (the father “knows” this ridiculous falsehood). It sweetly conveys that confused male misunderstanding of, and charming male squeamishness about, those entrancing, worrying “things” that happen inside a woman to make a baby. Like everything else in this piece, there is a disconnect between what is thought to be known and what actually is true, and this disconnect is utterly unrelated to the confidence with which what is thought to be known is espoused. These lines are a synecdoche for the piece as a whole. The absurdity (that the placenta is like a gushy red brain in there; that women aren’t as funny as men) is taken for fact by a certain group of over-confident men (fathers; bigots) who are at once repulsed and amazed by this fascinating creature (women; women). Hitchens doesn’t hold any of the views espoused in this piece any more than he believes that a placenta is made up of brain cells that migrate. Failing to see this is simply failing to get the joke.

    Hitchens. What’s up with him?

  3. 3  Steven  December 7, 2006, 9:15 am 

    SW, it is a privilege to have comments from you, such as this one, that are longer and better than most blog posts. The observation that, once Hitchens gets off the Iraq topic, all he is left with is Republican misogyny and gay-bashing, is brutal but unarguable: somehow, rather than merely aligning himself with one political project, Hitchens has become one of them.

    I was enjoying the theory about “intellectual seppuku”, although your story of the bonfire recalled more the practice of suttee (ironically, of course, performed by women: figure Hitchens as a widow abandoned by her neocon male protectors). Still, sepukku’s self-disembowelling is also rather a good image of what Hitchens’s pen is performing in this instance.

    “Comedy is a cliché vanquised” – that strikes me as very true, and well expressed, about some comedy. But isn’t there also a comedy of cliché, families of jokes that derive some part of their effect from perpetuating a cliché? Racist and sexist jokes of course form part of this genre, and we may, on the grounds of our distaste, try to argue why they are inferior as comedy; but I am also thinking of New Yorker cartoons about doctors or lawyers and so on. Perhaps, though, these vanquish one cliché – a cliché about how a consultation with a “professional” is supposed to go – while perpetuating another: eg that lawyers are sharks, or that doctors are crassly unsympathetic, etc.

    You are right to isolate for scrutiny the thing about the placenta being composed of the women’s brain cells: apparently another attempt at humour. Re-reading the whole article, I cannot help but consider the possibility that it is a cry of rage directed very personally at the author’s own wife, who perhaps no longer opens her mouth quite so wide for him.

    Your alternative theory, that this is a brilliant parody, is admirably generous, and one I am often tempted to hold in other cases (when it is clear, for instance, that no rational person could sincerely hold the views expressed by “Melanie Phillips”). Still, we know from Dennis Perrin’s personal account that Hitchens’s own preferred brand of humour is what he calls in this piece “filth”. Indeed, Hitchens thinks:

    Filth. That’s what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth in lavish, heaping quantities.

    It is nice that Hitchens can still occasionally perform standing up. But who would argue that filth is not what he has here spread in generous quantities over the pages of Vanity Fair?

  4. 4  copernicus  December 7, 2006, 1:00 pm 

    SW whoever you are, get a blog and put this up there. I’m sure Steven will link to it. I know I will.

    Unless you’re a proper writer with a better forum for your stuff, in which case, apologies.

  5. 5  sw  December 7, 2006, 3:16 pm 

    Thanks very much for the kind comments – while I toy with the idea of having a blog, I can’t quite imagine actually doing so (if this sounds like a politician denying that he is intending to run for office, it shouldn’t!)

    Steve, I think that I deserve the gentle swatting you give me for my comment about jokes being a cliché vanquished: I was, of course, making up some rules that Hitchens had violated, and then went and violated another rule of writing about comedy myself, which is that one accepts that all rules about comedy are at best partial ones (and thus one should concede as much when stating any rules).

    As you point out, there is much humour that does indeed relate to cliché. John Lennon, who died 26 years ago tomorrow, had a number of good jokes based on clever verbal re-arrangements of clichés (“Women should be obscene, not heard.” A closer scrutiny of this line may reveal unpleasant underlying strains, but I’ve always enjoyed it as a generous incitement to sexual liberation). Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary consists almost entirely of acidic tweaks of clichés and platitudes about social norms and yet the reason why so much of it is so funny today is because those clichés and platitudes endure (suggesting, then, that a joke may not so much vanquish a cliché as tease it ruthlessly but then retreat from it before the kill).

    Certainly racist jokes and sexist jokes and all those jokes about “who they are” and “who we are” are based not infrequently on clichés, but I hesitate to dissociate myself from them too quickly and certainly think that those who argue that they are a lesser form of comedy (which happens in many, many books about comedy) are really just hoping very hard that they are a lesser form of comedy . . . as you put it, “on the grounds of our distaste”, rather than any other criteria. And this is despite all evidence to the contrary that they are a lesser form of humour: as evidence to the contrary, I’d point to Woody Allen and Larry David, again, as well as Wanda Sykes and Sarah Silverman (two good examples from Dennis Perrin’s list), as well as [insert almost every single comedian performing today]. These jokes about racial and sexual norms, expectations, clichés, are often very potent; it is interesting that people who insist that other people not be judged due to some perceived group characteristic nevertheless would judge jokes based on a grouping characteristic. I am sympathetic to the impulse, and the basic idea that we should be suspicious about such jokes is spot on, but the claim that there is a “lesser form of humour” should always be regarded with a harsh skepticism.

    Where you are really right is that in many circumstances, a joke does rely on one cliché while mocking another (for example, that a patient or a plaintiff should act one way, while the physician or lawyer remains “stable” as an uncaring or unsympathetic; or, more generally, on the idiosyncracies of one part of any dramatic cliché). Interestingly, Hitchens actually almost picks up on this point when he observes that all those cartoons about physicians always have a man in them: but I think he picks up on it for wrong reasons, both morally and intellectually.

    As for whether or not it is a cry of rage against his own wife: under some other circumstances, I would shy away from that argument, aghast. But these circumstances are different, and the last two lines of this piece may be the twist in the tale: “My beloved said to me, when I told her I was going to address this melancholy topic, that I should cheer up because ‘women get funnier as they get older.’ Observation suggests to me that this might indeed be true, but, excuse me, isn’t that a rather long time to have to wait?”

    It’s filth – but the real problem is, it’s just not funny.

  6. 6  Steven  December 7, 2006, 4:09 pm 

    The “blogosphere” needs you, SW. (I will pass in silence over Copernicus’s distinction, well meant no doubt, between bloggers and “proper writers”.)

    I am intrigued to hear that in many books about comedy people really do try to argue that, say, racist jokes are “a lesser form of humour”. It is open to us, if we like, to say we don’t like them because they are racist; to go further and argue that they are as a genre and in toto inferior as comedy seems quixotic. I suppose the phrase “No laughing matter” has something to teach us here.

    You bring up how Hitchens says that physicians in cartoons are always men. This is an interesting point: Hitchens appears to believe that this is more proof that men are funny. But of course, in a physician cartoon, the physician is not being funny; he is being sadistic, or unsympathetic, or inhuman. His line may the punchline of the cartoon’s joke, but as a man, the character is not being funny at all. Neither does the patient find him funny. No one is laughing in cartoon-world.

    A propos of which, one can see how this gender cliché, about which Hitchens ringingly misses the point, might be self-perpetuating. If a cartoonist were to draw a physician joke, but make the physician a woman, it might distract from the joke because the reader, so used to seeing male physicians in cartoons, would wonder if there is some extra point about the physician’s sex being made.

  7. 7  sw  December 7, 2006, 7:27 pm 

    Yes, I think that those are two reasons why Hitchens has missed the point.

    The first reason, though, is more complex than you offer: the figure (here, the stereotypical white male doctor or lawyer) may not be laughing and may be mean, but may still be seen to be a comic figure or engendering the comic moment. One reason for this stems from your second point, that he is the default archetype (and so any deviation from this would require of the audience that they register this difference and so they may assume that this difference is important to the joke, or even that the joke refers to this difference – this is comedy as amanesis, reminding us in some fresh way about some particular quality we already know about the figure of the doctor or lawyer, which, for various other reasons to do with comedy, must be evoked as economically as possible). This suggests then that there is actually something intrinsically funny happening here which will be obfuscated if the figure is not a man, if the figure is anything but an archetype. And this is a very common mistake, attributing this comic potential to something intrinsic in the object itself.

    Bergson asks, “And why does one laugh at a negro?” His answer would seem very strange to us (that dark-skinned people look like they have “ink or soot” daubed on them and so are actually like they are in “disguise”) – this “intrinsic” feature, this appearance of “a negro” (“a” is important: it could be any “negro”) provokes the laughing response, and yet actually this comprehension of what is being apprehended is not intrinsic but is socially constructed and, as you say, self-perpetuating. It is this failure to see how what we think is intrinsic is not actually intrinsic that permits comedy.

    And so, yes, of course the men in the cartoons are not laughing, because they are not seeing what we are seeing: that some (falsely) “intrinsic” quality ascribed to them is resulting in a comic moment (whether that moment is an incongruity, a defence, an act of superiority, what you will). In this way, Hitchens is simply utterly failing to see the way in which comedy depends upon – and in other ways, negates, mocks and up-ends – this notion of “the intrinsic”; and this is in a piece, essentially, about a comparison between intrinsic humour in men and women.

    As for whether writers have really tried condemning species of jokes in toto? Well, any writing about humour is quixotic, we must accept that. (Please do appreciate that sentence for all its richness.} Writers about jokes have really struggled with moral condemnation of jokes – beginning, at least, with Plato – and they tend to bang their heads against walls trying to comprehend what part of the (racist, usually) joke they are objecting to. Some get really mired in this problem (at the end of Ted Cohen’s book “Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters” he is so tangled up and overwhelmed by this problem that an image pops into my mind of Laocoon and the sea serpent). Simon Critchley appeases his more liberal self with “On my view, true humour does not wound a specific victim and always contains self-mockery”. Fortunately, in the rest of the book, he pretty much ignores his own definition of “true humour” (where here he has clearly and overtly associated the nature of humour with its intent and its content). I’m sure more examples will come to me. By the way, I do want to add: Bergson’s “Laughter” is a masterpiece, and our own socially-constructed (and legitimate) queasiness about what he said there shouldn’t distract us too much.

  8. 8  Steven  December 7, 2006, 8:39 pm 

    Well, of course the physician can be seen as a comic figure or the figure that “”"engenders the comic moment”"”. It is a given, if we are talking about a successful cartoon of the genre, that the physician may well be funny to us. But the cartoon physician qua man in cartoon-world is not being funny, much as we may imagine a patient saying to him: “Are you trying to be funny?” (A question rarely asked of incompetent comedians, and hardly ever expecting the answer “Yes”.) Hitchens is just confusing being funny (which is what the cartoon is doing) with being funny (which is what the man-physician is not doing). A schoolboy error. Of course, if there were a tradition of physician cartoons in which the physician tells his patient an hilariously filthy joke to put him at his ease, he might have a point.

    Well, any writing about humour is quixotic, we must accept that. (Please do appreciate that sentence for all its richness.}

    I am appreciating it like a fine wine.

  9. 9  sw  December 7, 2006, 9:31 pm 

    I’m not sure the italicised “of course” is merited there – you differentiate “being funny” and “being funny” by italicising one. It may be a schoolboy error (and one that is made all the time, including by people who aren’t now and never have been schoolboys) but explaining how the two are different without resorting to raising your voice (which is how I read italics) is fairly tough. I think. In the numerous letters we can see piling into Vanity Fair over the next month, I’d be curious if any one could condense this problem to a paragraph.

  10. 10  Steven  December 7, 2006, 9:51 pm 

    No, if I was raising my voice I would TYPE IN ALL CAPITALS. My italicising of one instance of being funny was, um, a joke. Sorry, won’t try it again.

    Let’s try it without the italics to which you are sensitive:

    It is trivially obvious that a character in a fiction can be amusing to the reader without being amusing to anyone else in the fictionworld.

  11. 11  sw  December 7, 2006, 10:07 pm 

    It quite charming that one minute you are breathing life into a cartoon character (“the cartoon physician qua man in cartoon-world is not being funny, much as we may imagine a patient saying to him: “Are you trying to be funny?”) and the next brushing off this problem like so much dog dander from your lap. The question stands: what does it mean to be funny? If you think it a trivial, stupid question, there’s not much I can do to convince you otherwise.

  12. 12  Steven  December 7, 2006, 10:23 pm 

    Obviously we have arrived at a misunderstanding, or have already been there for a long time. If the question is “What does it mean to be funny?” (though this is the first time you have posed it as such), then I agree that is a rather difficult question, to which I will attempt no answer here.

    Still, I have no idea what is so difficult about the statement I made in #10, which is a simpler version of what I said in #6, which however you said already lacked complexity. My instinct of course, when faced with invocations of complexity, is ruthlessly to simplify again. This may not be to everyone’s taste, and may indeed look to some like brushing off the problem as though it were a canine turd.

    Nonetheless it is trivially obvious that the statement is true. How it is true (forgive the italics) is an entirely different question. If that’s what you were asking me all along, then I apologise for getting the wrong end of the stick.

  13. 13  lamentreat  December 7, 2006, 10:34 pm 

    Brushing off a turd is itself quite a complex operation though, isn’t it? I mean, a lot depends on the consistency of the turd and the nature of the material which it’s on. If the turd is wet and clingy, brushing will only bring catastrophe. Wiping off…now that’s pretty simple in comparison.

  14. 14  sw  December 7, 2006, 10:53 pm 

    I was talking about dander, not turds.

    And yes, I am fascinated by those whose instinct it is to respond to invocations of complexity with scything simplifications. We generally call them ‘fascists’.

    That, by the way, was intended as a joke. Sort of. In any case, there may be a point of misunderstanding, but in all honesty, I will readily admit to being somewhat confused by this issue – not whether a cartoon character drawn on page 93 of the New Yorker has a rich emotional life and can appreciate and chuckle over what is happening inside his little box, but what it means to be funny. After all, this is the crux of the matter: Hitchens says that men and women are different on this account. I thought, in #7 above, I was approaching the (fallacious) “how”, but maybe I wasn’t. And perhaps I shouldn’t be stomping my feet saying that there is no difference if I cannot properly define what it is that I am seeing as identical in two populations.

  15. 15  Steven  December 7, 2006, 11:03 pm 

    Oh, I had assumed that “dander” was some kind of slang term for a turd. But wikipedia is my friend, and I now know better. Certainly dander is easier to brush off than many turds, as lamentreat pointed out.

    It’s an interesting question, what Hitchens thinks it means to be funny. Is it merely to tell jokes (filthy ones)? Unless a person regularly acts out New Yorker cartoons, I’m not sure that people are funny in the same way as cartoons are. I think your #7 was illuminating about certain aspects of cartoons and the archetypes therein, but it leaves open the question of what it means for a person (rather than a cartoon, book or film) to be funny. Funny ha ha, I mean.

  16. 16  lamentreat  December 7, 2006, 11:26 pm 

    Maybe this is waaaay too basic a distinction, but doesn’t something as simple as intention play a considerable role in the difference between a person being funny and being funny? Tommy Cooper, say, was funny, wanted to be, knew it. Whereas some others may be riotously amusing while not intending it and probably having no idea just how funny they are (say, Dominique de Villepin), or while by definition not being able to intend it (the cartoon guy). Subject, object, etc. Course you can be funny with the tension between the two – which is why TC would sometimes keep a straight face and sometimes not.

  17. 17  Steven  December 7, 2006, 11:39 pm 

    A good point – and interesting to compare with the case when you can be funny by accident, as when you say something not consciously meant as a joke and everyone laughs (I’m not talking about the cases when they laugh because they think you’re an oaf, mind you). The very fact that it’s possible to be funny by accident would imply that it is normally done purposively, which would tend to confirm what you’re saying. I suppose, though, that means we have to bring in the cartoonist to explain why the cartoon (rather than the man in the cartoon) is funny, and this might tempt some cries of “intentional fallacy”. I don’t know what I’d do then.

    Of course you can also intend to be funny, all the veins on your neck bursting with comic intention, and still end up like Christopher Hitchens.

  18. 18  SW  December 7, 2006, 11:58 pm 

    Now that last line about Hitchens is actually funny.

    The problem, of course, is that you are still using the term “be funny”: what does it mean to be funny? Is it that you are funny when you slip on a banana peel and, say, Alistair Campbell observes this and bursts into peals of laughter. He’d probably say, “That Steve Poole, he’s very, very funny. It was very funny the way he went cock over tail.” You, rubbing your sore rump, would not feel very funny at that moment, hadn’t intended to be funny, etc. Similarly, the “negro” in Bergson’s formulation above: people are walking around in Bergson’s company, laughing when they see a “negro”; Bergson wonders why. If he had asked people, they probably would have said, “Because they’re funny.” Or “funny-looking.” It is they who are being funny. In other words, they are doing something or being in some way funny (just by being). Bergson provides another explanation, one that entails the perception of the passersby, that they are finding the “negro” funny because the passersby think that he or she is daubed with ink and so as if they were in disguise (still based as it is on something in the “negro”, that is, the darker skin causing this association in otherwise innocent and straight-faced passersby).

    I don’t want to say, though, that funniness is in the eye of the beholder, shrug helplessly, and leave it that.

  19. 19  Steven  December 8, 2006, 12:43 am 

    Your latest examples, though, SW, are about people considered as objects: me slipping on a banana skin, or Bergson’s “negro”, as more or less cartoons to be scrutinised for their comedic content, but not to be interacted with. This is why lamentreat is right to bring up intention. I like to use this pregnant phrase, being funny, about people making others laugh intentionally (the accidental case I mentioned coming under this rubric, if paradoxically). I think that is also what Hitchens means by being funny, and it’s why he’s wrong about the doctor in the cartoon.

    Of course the beholder is important too, and probably we must construct a formula of intention + reaction: certainly whether a person is being funny will also depend on the expectations and reactions of other people in a particular situation, if to say so is not mere shruggery.

  20. 20  Iain Coleman  December 8, 2006, 1:01 am 

    Was Hitchens ever on The News Quiz?

    If so, was he thoroughly pwned by the late Linda Smith?

    It would explain a lot.

  21. 21  sw  December 8, 2006, 1:19 am 

    So what is the difference between the comic object and comic agent other than intention?

  22. 22  copernicus  December 8, 2006, 2:17 am 

    I was just rising the incumbent re the proper writer crack.

    In other news, blogger (and proper writer) stellanova points out that Hitchens recently cited Richmal Crompton’s William books as a major inspiration – Richmal was of course, a female humourist.

    http://stellanova.livejournal.com/472264.html

  23. 23  sw  December 8, 2006, 3:15 am 

    Yes, it is sadly evident that however much fun we may have had with Hitchens’ piece over the past couple of days, it is work of immense dishonesty and laziness.

  24. 24  Steven  December 8, 2006, 9:21 am 

    Iain, that would explain everything. Even if it didn’t happen, it must somehow be poetically true.

    Nice spot re Richmal Crompton, copernicus. I didn’t know she was a woman myself.

    SW, no doubt this is too simple, but we can perhaps begin by saying that we laugh at the comic object, and laugh with the comic subject.

  25. 25  sw  December 8, 2006, 6:32 pm 

    Yes, that would be a place to start: but isn’t it strange that we are identifying agency here by the audience’s determination of their own response? (That is, the audience perceives whether they are laughing with or at X, and that then determines X’s agency).

  26. 26  Steven  December 8, 2006, 7:45 pm 

    That would be strange indeed, but it’s not what I suggested. I was merely giving another criterion in addition to agency/intention etc.

  27. 27  Colleen  December 10, 2006, 5:58 am 

    The reason Hitchens “knows” women are not funny, is because none have ever laughed at him. His jokes anyway.

  28. 28  sw  December 10, 2006, 6:35 am 

    I suspect that Colleen is absolutely right. It is remarkable that Hitchens seems to think he can really make ‘em laugh, especially the women. And yet read that passage where he describes a woman laughing at his joke:

    “If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.”

    Isn’t it a little bit overegged here, even by Hitchens’ standard? And then, “I shall not elaborate further” – say no more, nudge nudge wink wink. Does he honestly expect us to believe that his sexual MO is to get a woman hee-hawing, and that once she is braying with laughter she is ready to hop into bed with him?

    There’s a lovely scene in the film, The Forty Year Old Virgin, in which the character played by Steve Carrell is trying to be ‘one of the guys’, bantering along with them as they describe their sexual conquests; it comes to his turn, and, of course, his descriptions become even more poetic and strange as he struggles to imagine what it is he is supposed to say to be one of the guys, ultimately describing a pair of breasts as like sand-bags. (It is an image of luminous innocence!)

  29. 29  dm  December 10, 2006, 11:34 am 

    Settle down now.

  30. 30  ozma  December 14, 2006, 5:33 am 

    Was he serious? He MUST have been joking. Maybe it’s all a joke: The support of the Iraq war and all the rest. Alas, it wouldn’t be funny. Or maybe as I woman I am too quick to find it unfunny.

  31. 31  George  December 14, 2006, 7:26 pm 

    Would you have enjoyed Mr Hitchens’ highly amusing Vanity Fair piece back when he was part of the mainstream left, or were you all a bunch of humourless bores even then? You can disagree with his decision to support the rather poorly executed ‘regime change’ plan in Iraq, but you shouldn’t misrepresent him as some sort of crazy gay bashing, woman hating, republican. He his quite obviously nothing of the sort, and to misrepresent him in this manner makes you look absurd.

  32. 32  Steven  December 15, 2006, 2:31 am 

    Would you have enjoyed Mr Hitchens’ highly amusing Vanity Fair piece back when he was part of the mainstream left, or were you all a bunch of humourless bores even then?

    To Hitchens’s credit, he was never part of anything that could be called, even lazily, a “mainstream left”. The article under consideration would have struck me as utter bilge at at any time. But this may be because (to speak only for myself in answer to the second part of your question), as I will freely admit, the public record shows me to have been a humourless bore for more than a decade.

    You can disagree with his decision to support the rather poorly executed ‘regime change’ plan in Iraq,

    Right! It was a brilliant plan, just “poorly executed”! The problem with magic war plans, of course, is that they are notoriously difficult to execute in the real world.

    you shouldn’t misrepresent him as some sort of crazy gay bashing, woman hating, republican

    When did anyone say he was a crazy gay-bashing woman-hating republican, exactly? For myself, I merely pointed out that he was wrong if not deliberately misleading on fact, and incoherent in argument.

  33. 33  sw  December 15, 2006, 5:54 am 

    I never suggested he was crazy. But I can cheerfully own up to implying most of the rest.

    While I don’t think Hitchens is crazy, his piece is sneeringly stereotypical about homosexuals and gropingly misogynistic, and would most likely appeal to a bunch of red-faced chortlers at the country club who love to explain with knee-slaps and guffaws what makes women inferior. The latter would, I suspect, tend to be Republicans, but no doubt would include a fair share of dixiecrats, independents, and, of course, some Dems. The point was, however, not about Republicans in general but about neo-cons, if you can discern a difference. What would be fascinating would be for you to bother to address how wrong these accusations are based on your explanation of the misinterpretations above, rather than lazily saying that there is “misrepresentation” and then wandering off.

    Accusations of humourlessness? Why not put this to the test with a witty, amusing post?

    Thought so.

  34. 34  Gregor  February 27, 2008, 7:55 pm 

    Hi Great site, I’ve only come across it, and I know this is a pretty old post. But I thought that Dennis Perrin’s first hand account was overlooked because it is so true, that Hitchens attempts to use obscenity in a mannered way, which is just embarrassing. Did anyone read that article for Slate that Hitchens wrote when George Galloway and Eve Ensler attended an anti-war rally?

    It was probably the most painful effort of a middle class Englishman to use American slang that I’ve ever read. He kept using strained and dismal jokes about the author of the vagina monologues being seen with George Galloway. So we got such witticisms as ‘the butthole monologues’.

    Also, from Johann Hari’s website I read that one of Hitch’s books contains the following joke about child sex abuse ‘no child’s behind left’. I thought that locating the unfunny was a woman’s speciality?



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