Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

31 Jan 2001, 12:18 p.m.

The Arbiters of Funny

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I took notes at a lecture, learning about the factors that slow or hasten the formation of new ethnic elites. And then I went to a meeting of the school humor magazine, where white guys decided what was funny. I'm not some reflexively radical affirmative-action equality-of-results By Any Means Necessary gal. But I wonder what makes someone an agenda-setter, even in the realm of humor.

The magazine to which I refer is the Heuristic Squelch, the only intentionally funny publication out of UC Berkeley. And it is funny. It's funnier than a lot of rather sophomoric efforts I've seen. Sometimes it's just, well, sophomoric. But that's to be expected. Humor is, of necessity, a hit-or-miss proposition.

I've been to a few meetings. I've submitted a few articles, and ideas for Top Ten lists, both topics and content. I've gotten little or nothing in, but that's to be expected -- I haven't submitted that much, and editing happens. And my sense of humor is -- again, of necessity -- offbeat. More geeky, more obscure.

Maybe, then again, it's all because I'm an Indian female. What kind of privilege is operating here? Most of the people who work on the Squelch are white guys. I saw a smattering of Latinos and females. I was the only Indian -- I think a half-Asian or two participates regularly.

Maybe, if I had the time and inclination, I'd join the staff, and go to every meeting, and try to get my unique stamp on the humor that the student body reads pretty universally every month. And I'd get experience, and clips, and maybe someday I'd write for Saturday Night Live or a sitcom somewhere or "The Onion" or "Modern Humorist". I'm pretty sure those are mostly guys. Why?

The Kids in the Hall and Monty Python's Flying Circus get cited over and over as comic writers' formative influences. Neither troupe had a single female. Why? And what effect does this have on those who model themselves after them? No wonder sketch shows' casters feel content with a tiny fraction of their casts being multipurpose-workhorse women.

Is it true that women just don't have a sense of humor, or the sense of humor necessary to write humor consistently? There are some consistently funny female comics out there, like Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofalo. Is it a boy's club, where a person who doesn't readily spit out middlebrow tampon jokes doesn't get asked to come back?

I feel whiny. I probably just have to write more and try harder to be funny. I have to work at it -- it's a muscle. Hey -- the same people who don't think my spontaneous ideas are funny in the meeting are the same people who sometimes do laugh at my comedy-night open-mic stand-up routines. So there's probably no conspiracy out there.

I just get a bit annoyed when the prevailing humorous literature out there is banal, often slyly misogynistic, and manifestly unfunny. The free-market and/or punk answer is DIY: Do It Yourself. But I have little time and other, higher priorities. I wonder what I could do to accelerate the pace at which the arbitration of humor is more equally distributed among the truly and consistently funny, regardless of race and gender.



  • The Onion
  • Modern Humorist
  • Saturday Night Live
  • Observational Humor (
  • The funniest sitcom on TV (whatever you think it is)
  • BBSpot (
  • Brunching Shuttlecocks (
  • Segfault (

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at