It's probably the biggest cliche in the history of dating: You're looking for someone with a sense of humor. But since it has nothing to do with money, social stature or good looks -- things people are often most insecure about in dating -- why is humor such a big deal? The current science on the issue suggests that women are drawn toward men who crack wise, while men are attracted to a woman who will laugh at their jokes -- and never the reverse. That's a pretty convincing observation, especially when paired with online-dating stats and evolutionary-biology theories.
But how does this fit with the fact that most male comedians are hopeless at dating (or at least that's what they consistently rant about on stage)? If the basic function of your job is to exude what is (supposedly) the most attractive quality a single male can have, a sense of humor, why aren't these dudes cleaning up?
I do not like to stand in opposition to science. It is a very dark and lonely place, where your only friends are creationists and alchemists and you most likely know a lot less than the people you're disagreeing with. And yet, when it comes to dating and humor, I seem to have my primal instincts all backwards.
"Choosy women use humor as a sign of intelligence and weed out the less competent," writes Gil Greengross, a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Mexico. "Men use humor to impress women, and the funny ones succeed. . . . These attributes are distinct and sex specific. Men do not particularly care if the woman is funny."
Greengross reinforces his theory by citing a 2011 study that examined 260 carefully selected online dating profiles of men and women, concluding that "the results showed that for women, adding humor to the ad did little to attract the romantic interest of men. On the other hand, men's profiles that included jokes significantly increased the romantic interests of the women evaluating them." Setting aside the fact that Greengross makes no mention of same-sex dating, his central conclusion still feels bogus to me.
"According to that psychologist's study, I am a man seeking a woman," Denver standup comedian Jodee Champion said when I recently brought this up to her. And I can relate: Applying Greengross's theory to myself, I fit more in the female category than the male. One of the most appealing things in the world to me is a funny woman, and while it is nice if she laughs at my jokes, that's only because if she is stone silent when I'm ranting about Jesus's third testicle, it would be awkward.
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"I don't think it's as simple as: Man + funny = sex appeal," Champion continued. "Sex appeal can come from a dude being funny -- but only when combined with swagger."
By his own admission, Comedy Works regular Troy Walker has no swagger. While he may be one of the fastest-rising stars in the Denver comedy scene, according to his standup routine, his skills on the mic aren't the dating steroid you might think they are.
"I am a firm believer that when it comes to getting a girl to like you, being funny on its own will not do it," Walker says. "Like in college admissions, it's one factor among many. She's looking at all these applications; they're all college graduates, all good-looking, etc. But this guy is funny, so he's catapulted past all these guys. But you have to have game to keep her interested. That's one of my main problems: no game. I can get in to the school in some cases, because on paper I'm legit, but then everyone slowly figures out that I can't read. And that's when she stops calling me back."
When I began regularly reporting on comedy, the obvious conflict of interest forbade me from dating any Denver comedians. But this was nothing I was going to miss. I love comedians as people -- I can think of a few that are some of the finest people I've ever met -- but if you're drawn toward dating comedians because you love their comedy, there's a rude awaking when you see how the sausage is made.
I don't want to generalize, because there are exceptions to this, but in my experience, while comics are often funny on dates, the dark places he humor comes from drains all the life out of the jokes. It's like being given a six-figure sports car that can go from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye, but while you're driving it, a rabid peacock is screeching in your ear, and electrodes randomly zap you in the crotch.
But we're discussing science here, and my anecdotal babbling about being a man who loves funny women doesn't hold much water in the face of carefully researched data. I may be going against some preternatural dynamics of courtship by not wooing a female into submission with my (non-existent) Wilde-like wit, while sitting back and expecting her to be the hunter of humor. At the same time, those in the profession of making people laugh endure a weird irony in not being able to cash in on what is supposedly their most valuable dating asset. But this is the 21st century, and in this post-modern age, evolutionary biology travels through a weird pretzel before it begins to makes any sense.
And besides, I don't think any of those comedians I dated were seduced by my humor, either.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.