The difference between women's humor and men's humor is the difference between revolution and revolt. It's the difference, in other words, between Erma Bombeck and The Three Stooges.
I've worshipped at the Bombeck altar since reading her three-times-per week columns in the newspaper when I was a kid, so to have delivered the keynote speech at the conference held in her honor two years ago was such a privilege that I decided to go back and give three talks this year.
This year's 2014 conference at The University of Dayton was so much fun many of the sessions, filled with hundreds of women (and dozens of men) were probably illegal in Ohio.
Not that it takes all that much to get women laughing. When you put three women together for more than thirteen seconds, we're hilarious -- and we're unstoppable. We're laughing so hard we have to wipe away our mascara and cross our arms under our bust for extra support. Yet there are guys all over America going around saying "Whatsamatter, honey, can't you take a joke?" when his female companion doesn't laugh at the work of Adam Carolla ("The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks"), Jerry Lewis (When asked about his favorite female comics, Jerry Lewis responded "Cary Grant... Burt Reynolds... I don't have any") or The Three Stooges.
Believe me when I say that women really do not like the Three Stooges. If you're sitting next to a woman who's cooing, "Oh, darling, I simply adore the Three Stooges," she's faking it. In fact, I believe you can eliminate blood tests at the Olympics by merely showing The Stooges: you laugh, you play on the men's team. Women do not do the eye-poking, head-banging, butt-slamming humor that the Three Stooges do so well.
Have you ever seen two women go up to each other at a conference, a wedding, or networking event and, by way of greeting, say, "Pull my finger?"
Men do it all the time. In the Three Stooges paradigm, men insult each other by way of indicating affection.
"Hey Frankie, you've had that jacket since 1992. I'll buy you a new suit just so I don't have to look at those stripes!" That's their way of saying, "Hi, how ya doing, how's the family?" And it's impossible to insult Frankie because he's going, "Suit's still good. Can't button it, but it fits all right."
If you say to a woman, "Barbara, you've been wearing that suit since 1992," Barbara will lock herself in the bathroom until she can order new clothes from a catalog. She won't think it's a funny joke.
Actually, men often think women don't have a sense of humor because women rarely tell jokes.
Instead, like Erma Bombeck, women tell stories.
We have totally different ways of communicating. When a woman says, "Let me tell you something funny," you better sit down and pour yourself a cup of coffee. You're going to be there for quite some time.
Erma Bombeck wrote humor challenging the underlying assumptions of traditional domesticity. While some of it can be placed in the self-effacing tradition ("After marriage, I added thirty pounds in nine months, which seemed to indicate that I was either pregnant or going a little heavy on the gravy"), her essays often contained less sympathy and more bite than the conventional "good mother" was meant to possess ("So you swallowed the plastic dinosaur out of the cereal box. What do you want me to do, call a vet?").
When Bombeck quipped "I don't think women outlive men... It only seems longer," she challenged the system that would have us believe women live easy lives.
Women's humor at this last conference, where the brilliant Patricia Wynn Brown was the MC, went from the riotous yet moving stand-up of Judy Carter to the erudite inspiration of author Suzanne Braun Levine, Ms. Magazine's first editor, Ilene "Gingy" Beckerman, author of Love, Loss and What I Wore and dozens of panels and talks in between. The casual conversation -- the heart of the conference -- was about everything from politics, crowd-sourcing, blogging, publicity, deadlines, time/work/sex balance to chin hairs, a topic about which I had a few words to offer.
Humor, the conference proved, is everywhere. And Bombeck taught women to forage for humor -- to find it, to hunt for it, to gather it up in its raw state.
Author of When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time to Go Home, A Marriage Made in Heaven ... or Too Tired For an Affair and All I Know About Animal Behavior I learned in Loehmann's Dressing Room, Bombeck's column ran in over 900 newspapers and she became the best friend of every harried, fraught, overworked, and imperfect woman in the world.
I'll take Bombeck's fresh laugh over Moe's whack to the forehead any day.
Follow Gina Barreca on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@TheGinaBarreca