John Tierney over at the NYTimes - one of the bright spots in that wasteland - has an article on The Laugh Gap, the phenomenon of men telling more jokes, women laughing at them, as a window into evolutionary psychology. He quotes heavily from Robert Provine, who has done a fair bit of research into the matter.
Professor Provine demonstrated this difference by analyzing more than 3,000 personal ads in newspapers in eight American cities, keeping track of how often people sought someone with a sense of humor, and how often they advertised themselves as being funny. He found that women sought laughter more than they promised it, whereas for men it was the reverse: they were more likely to advertise their own sense of humor. “The evidence is clear,” he writes in “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation,” his 2000 book. “Women seek men who make them laugh, and men are anxious to to comply with this request.”
Dave Barry has revealed the secret that men actually have a special joke-storage area in their brains that women lack. The Joke Proper is a skill seldom mastered by women, for whatever reason. I know men who cannot tell a joke, because they always leave out a key component of the setup, or don't get the phrasing of punchlines quite streamlined enough to be funny, but I know far more women who can't get this right. I don't see anything of a general mental ability lacking in women that shows up in other areas that would explain the butchering of jokes. There may be some subtle interaction of brain differences which would give males some slight but innate advantage that leads them to expand upon this skill from a young age, but it's not obvious to me, at any rate. The better working hypothesis would be that it is a skill valued more in men, by both men and women, and thus attracts more effort. I don't buy that it is predominantly a mating strategy, as it shows up very early, and first comes to great prominence in males in latency.
Admittedly, an evolutionary psychologist would claim that this suggests there is an innate difference in male and female brains, because the ability expresses long before it is needed, granting the necessary development time for the skill. I have no good argument against that except to claim that such innate abilities would show up in other areas as well. Unless Dave Barry is right and there is a joke-remembering area of the brain.
More can be learned by regarding humor not as a separate phenomenon - because not everyone finds the same things funny - but as a tool one uses to advertise other aspects of one's personality. Outrageousness, cleverness, wordplay, insult, wryness, self-mockery, silliness, irony - these all telegraph different underlying personalities. A man who wishes to be funny might use all of these, but will gravitate to those he does best, advertising his other characteristics of courage, intelligence, self-control, self-confidence, or whatever he thinks will get him a job, or a meal, or a mate.
My wife finds that making me laugh is enormously gratifying. She has said it often enough that I accept it, but it seems odd to me, as I laugh at so many things. Perhaps because laughter is so important to me, she wishes to have the concrete proof that she is valuable to me. But quite frankly, I look to my sons and my male friends for laughter, with only a very few females seen in that role. When women attempt to be funny I do laugh often - they have commented on it at work, with mixed gratitude and surprise. That people would even wish to be funny I regard as a liberating signal in conversation. If people want to joke, that is a signal of relative safety, if you keep your wits about you.
Skimmer alert: And this brings us to one of the survival aspects of humor. Men use it to discern aggression. A male who is a potential competitor or adversary in any sense signals by humor that he is less likely to resort to violence or underhandedness. Certain types of male humor, in fact, reveal in their clumsiness that the speaker will in fact resort to violence or dishonesty. That male attempts humor as a mark of cooperation, but the falseness of it leaks out. Misogynistic humor, for example, is common among men. But there are enormous variations, and men who are not violent or exploitative can pick up quickly the humor of a male who clearly is a threat to be violent or exploitative to women. The attempt at humor reveals simple cruelty or complete misreading of social cues. Such men are dangerous. We might smile at the humor in politeness, but we file that information away: this male is not a competitor for females in my group - he's too stupid - but he may be dangerous to females in my group. Be alert. It's really irritating, BTW, when females in your group fall for such dangerous clowns, even if you have no particular stake in that particular female as wife, sister, friend, daughter, etc. Perhaps that is quite primal and tribal - a warning sign that we have among us a woman who doesn't pick up the cues.
I imagine that women have similar complaints about the men of their tribes, with similar justice. We, in some inchoate sense, are endangered by such things.
Men's laughter with each other is an experience of solidarity beyond mere pleasantness. If Camille Paglia is right about Dr. Lionel Tiger's theory of Men in Groups, most what propels a group forward is the collective behavior of its males - hunting, building bridges, exploring. Women's behavior, in this theory, is preservative and maintenance behavior of the day-to-day. In this model, behaviors which promote cooperative among males are beneficial for the tribe long-term, and humor is one of those behaviors.
Women's laughter with each other seems to these outside male ears to be of a different character: the solidarity sought is not the same thing. Thus, laughter and humor mean different things to men and women, and are rewarded differently - in the family, in the gender-group, in the age cohort, in courtship.