What’s So Funny?
For more than three decades, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English Literature Gina Barreca has been a prominent voice on humor and feminism not only on campus but worldwide. Barreca frequently shares her opinions with the public through her syndicated humor column, books, and lectures. Amidst a new wave of women fighting for equality and celebrities being “canceled” for saying the wrong thing, Barreca sat down with Julie Bartucca of the UConn 360 podcast to discuss the current landscape as it relates to comedy and what she’s learned throughout her career.
Q: Why, in 2020, are we still discussing whether women are funny?
A: About every five years, I’ll get a phone call from a magazine or someone writing an article and [they’ll] be like, “Men don’t believe that women have a sense of humor.” I don’t know if we need to put up plaques in different places or there need to be monuments. It keeps reappearing, and I think it’s in the same way that we have to be reminded to eat vegetables on a regular basis, or that fiber’s good for you, or that pets can help you live longer or that, violence is an issue in relationships … It’s really astonishing to me that we need to be reminded of this.
I do think that women’s humor is very different from men’s humor, and that’s what I’ve spent 35 years of my life writing about. I think things have changed in the time that I’ve been looking at it, but it does seem as if the point has not quite stuck in a way that continues to surprise me.
Q: You talk about these very deep issues in your columns: mental health, anxiety, your relationship with your mother, body image issues, equality. People think of humor sometimes as being kind of frivolous, but you’ve made a career of really studying it and understanding it and then writing about serious things with this humor lens. How do you thread that needle?
A: I think that’s a lovely question because I do think that the best humor, and not just women’s humor, but perhaps especially women’s humor, has always dealt with taboo subjects. What humor does is deal with topics that nobody else wants to touch. And so it deals with sex. It deals with death. It deals with money. It deals with trauma. It deals with misery. It deals with discomfort. If a comic is not making somebody uncomfortable, that comic is not doing his or her job.
And because what you’re supposed to do with comedy — and Mark Twain talked about this, Aristophanes talked about this, Sarah Silverman talks about this — is you make the comfortable uncomfortable and you make the uncomfortable comfortable, so that you switch around the balances of power, so that those who believe they are in a position where they’re secure are made antsy, and those who are anxious and nervous are made to recognize that they’re not alone, that other people feel exactly that way.
And so, by talking about what’s meaningful in life, what comedy does is to emphasize what’s significant and not dismiss it. It’s sort of run towards the things that we’re most afraid of as opposed to backing away. So it might be frivolous. I love the word frivolous, actually, because it literally makes light. It sheds light … on the dark corners of things. It takes things out of the shadows and makes them the center of discussion. The best comedy doesn’t trivialize. It emphasizes; it italicizes. It makes us remember and understand something from a different perspective.
And that’s why it’s important. And that’s why it’s always been part of every culture. Every culture has a version of the comic and uses humor. It is a fundamental human expression and way of thinking.
Q: How does this jibe with this whole ‘cancel culture’ thing? You’ve said women can have a great sense of humor and also assert their power by not putting up with offensive jokes. Is it that people can only joke about things they’ve experienced?
A: Humor at its best doesn’t attack what’s vulnerable or weak or defenseless, and so humor that’s going to be original, that is not just a repetition of nastiness, that is not something that is designed to shut somebody up, is never something that we have to worry about.
Humor that is a gag is a whole different category. Think about the word gag for a minute, because a gag is a joke that’s played on you. But a gag is also something put across your mouth so that you shut up. And when humor is used to silence somebody, to make somebody feel awful, to make somebody feel that they have no right to speak, to make them feel as if they are displaced out of the conversation, then that’s not useful. And that doesn’t mean that you have to whine, cry, or call a lawyer.
What it means is that you have to come up with an even better response. If somebody tells you a joke not only that you don’t find funny, but you actually find painful, that you find offensive, you can say, “If you forgive me for not laughing, I’ll forgive you for telling that joke,” and that way you’re not up all night. If you have the strength to say that and you can say it in a funny way, it allows you to keep your sense of self and not be erased.
Because the worst kind of humor makes people feel as if they’re diminished, silenced, or erased. And so learning how to use humor, not as a weapon, but as a tool, learning how to turn it back on somebody almost as a way of sort of martial arts gives you a sense of power. And that’s really important.
Q: What have you learned through all of this studying, teaching, writing, that has affected how you live your life?
A: [I’ve learned] that almost anything in the world that happens to you can make you either laugh or cry … That choosing how to tell your story, how to look at your story, really is how we write the script of our lives. It’s not that somehow to tell a funny story about a terrible thing that happened diminishes the importance of it, but it gives you control over it. It becomes your story as opposed to something that happened to you.
If there’s something like, depression, anxiety — both things that I’ve dealt with in my life and in my family — or you’re talking about the complex relationship with my mother who died when I was very young, or any of the difficulties of growing up poor or having to struggle in the earlier part of my life, telling those stories makes me not only examine them and understand them. [It also helps me to] be able, in the best ways, to help other people, especially other women and my students, who are going through difficulties where you feel like you’re never going to be able to get outside the other end to say like, this is how you get outside the other end.
And there is joy that can happen after this. All comics, anybody who has dealt with comedy, understands that pain plus time equals humor. And that’s because you do get a different perspective on it, but it’s not to go back and undo what’s happened, but to put a frame around it so that you can look back and say, “This was that moment. Things have changed. This was what I learned from it. This is what benefited me and this is who I am now because of that.”
Listen to an extended version of this interview to find out how Barreca decided to study women and humor, when she first discovered she was funny, and which comedians and humorists she enjoys:
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.