Choking on Forced Laughter

I love laughing. I do it frequently and loudly, with a laugh some friends have described as a bark. I have laughed outside restaurants with such force that people from inside looked to see what was the matter. Often people say they knew I was in the building because they heard my laugh. Heck, just look at my initials if you don’t believe me. (LAF)

But lately, I’ve been laughing less.

Here’s an example where I did not laugh:

Male Customer: Oh wow, thanks a latte.

Laura: Yep.

Male Customer: Well, I guess someone hasn’t had their coffee yet today.

Laura: Sure.

Male Customer: What’s your problem?

Glad you asked. My problem is that I’m tired of laughing at jokes that I don’t think are funny.

I have felt pressure my whole life to laugh at not funny jokes made by men, in order to be accepted, be seen as “harmonious” or attractive, to do well in school etc. etc. etc. And I almost guarantee that every other woman in the world can remember a time they laughed at a joke, not because it was funny, but because they were afraid not to.

The problem is complex, of course, because men want us to laugh when they think it is funny, but not when they don’t think it’s funny. Here’s a whole essay about the politicization of laughter if you’re interested.

I have often wondered about male comedians. We have been told that women aren’t funny. I think it is instead that women are conditioned to laugh at men’s jokes. And men are conditioned to expect it. That men are funny is taken for granted and if someone isn’t laughing at a man’s jokes, it is not because the jokes aren’t funny, but because there is something wrong with the audience. Think how often you’ve seen women being criticized as thin-skinned, told that they “couldn’t take a joke”.

But the crux of humor is its unexpectedness. The surprise of a comment jolting free nervous, excited energy into a spontaneous release. I’ve seen literally dozens of white male comedians, and male comedians in general. It’s awfully hard for them to say something that hasn’t been said a million times before.

Often, male comedians hide behind the idea of “political correctness”. As in, “all these women can’t take a joke, they don’t realize that nothing is out of bounds.” Meaning that the male comedian in question wants to make jokes about sexual assault and harassment and doesn’t understand why the women in the audience aren’t laughing.

But for women, sexual assault and harassment isn’t unexpected. We’re on the edge of our seat every minute of every day waiting for it to rear its head. In our commute to work, at our place of work, on the commute home, in the media we consume when we relax, and often in our romantic partners. Even when we close our eyes at the end of the day, the trauma of our harassment remains to haunt our dreams.

See, to us, sexual harassment isn’t funny, it’s lived experience.

Perhaps, you think, talking about it in a public place is unexpected.

But again, it isn’t. How many women have in a public place, with their female friends, sat around telling their stories. You know the ones I mean: being followed home, being harassed at work, the things men have said etc etc etc. We’re used to these discussions, almost a right of passage to unburden them with newfound female friends.

Just because you have never thought about harassment before, doesn’t mean we haven’t.

This is why I’ve never cared about Louis C.K. I’ve heard his jokes a thousand times before. This is why I didn’t care about Breaking Bad. I had all I needed in a tormented anti-hero from Hamlet. Or heck, even before that, Oedipus Rex. I’m tired of hearing the same stories over and over again and being expected to applaud.

And I’m tired of hearing the same jokes over and over again and being expected to laugh.

It if I don’t laugh, it’s not because I don’t have a great sense of humor. It’s just that you aren’t funny.



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