Funny men have always been attracted to Liz, a 30-year-old banker. Liz first realized this when she was working as a bartender at a comedy venue in Atlanta, where she first met, dated and hooked up with a string of comedians and other self-described funny men. Back then, the attraction was mutual, as she loved engaging with witty people who could verbally spar with her. But after sleeping with funny guys for the better part of a decade, Liz has retired from class clowns.
“There always seems to be some validation-seeking in funny men that’s rooted in insecurity, and that’s so unattractive to me,” Liz says. “When a guy thinks he’s funny, there’s usually a lot of emotional labor involved that’s just not worth it.”
Men use jokes much how women wear expensive clothes to impress other women: They talk trash to compete and motivate each other, and engage in humor to advance in the workplace. Social scientists suspect this is because from childhood, boys are brought up in an invisible hierarchy, where masculinity has to be proven and performed in order to obtain and maintain status. Men do so in obvious ways like sports and brute physical strength, but also via success, competence and laughter.
Moreover, as experts identify more traditionally masculine traits as toxic, being funny has become invaluable to men because it allows them to assert dominance without being seen as aggressive. The American Psychological Association went as far as to list humor as one of 11 domains of “positive masculinity.” As such, men might need to be more funny than ever before, especially when they feel insecure or emasculated.
But women like Liz are picking up on that neediness — and it’s not exactly a green flag. “All humor has a threshold. If, for example, someone can’t have a serious conversation, that’s going to quickly become a turn-off,” marriage and family therapist Nicole Arzt explains. “If someone is always using humor to deflect their discomfort, it’s often a sign of emotional immaturity — and this can undoubtedly create problems later in the relationship.”
That’s what happened for Kate, a 33-year-old teacher, when she dated a real-estate agent by day and improv performer by night. At first it was cute, then it was corny, and finally it was exhausting. “Him and his friends were always on, doing bits. They called performing ‘playing.’ It was all so gross,” she explains. After a two-year relationship, not only will she never date another such funnyman again, she’s written off humorous dudes altogether. In fact, she recently stopped seeing a guy because he texted too many funny gifs. “If they need to find something funny in everything, I’m out,” Kate says.
While Kate might seem picky, part of the reason why evolutionary biologists believe a sense of humor has historically been considered attractive is because back in the day, there were more risks associated with mating (namely, death from pregnancy and childbirth). And so, females had to be pickier about their mate choice and evolved to consider other personality characteristics like intelligence and humor, in addition to physical traits and ability to provide.
This seems to play out in modern research, too. While men and women consistently rate a sense of humor as an important quality in a potential mate, they mean very different things. Specifically, women want men who are funny, and men want women who laugh at their jokes, multiple studies show. As gender roles become less rigid, however, there’s evidence that men may not actually be the funnier sex, but rather, that nice ladies have just led them to think that. Along those lines, new research suggests that most gender differences in humor are probably more rooted in long-term gender biases than reality.
In other words, it’s possible that Liz and Kate aren’t outliers, but that their preferences represent a shift that’s just now showing up. “I feel like it’s just a lie we’ve told ourselves that all women want funny men and men don’t care about women being funny, when maybe it’s the opposite,” Liz speculates.
Still she acknowledges that there’s something universally appealing about funny men, which in the end is probably why she actually quit them — i.e., she could never trust them. “It’s hard to feel secure with someone who’s always trying to get attention from everyone,” Liz recalls. “Like if I can’t hang out, are you going to go be the funny guy to another girl at the bar?”
Now that she’s several years removed from funny guys, Liz has made room for other attractive traits like ambition and drive. Plus, the time she used to spend laughing at mediocre jokes can now be put toward worthier pursuits — like warning other women about funny guys. “When my friends are into funny men, I’m just like, ‘Remember that funny comes from darkness.’”