A Linguist Explains Why Female Award Show Hosts are Funnier.
I’m making myself a cheese plate for the Golden Globes. Blue cheese, manchego, a truffle flavored varietal. There’s just something about watching an awards show that makes you want to splurge. I’m hoping a handsome man trips, or that Tina and Amy offend someone wearing diamonds. It is their last year hosting, after all. I almost put on a dress for this.
I’m plucking a glazed fig off the counter, the voice of Savannah Guthrie in the background probing Amy Adams to tell her who she’s wearing, reminiscing about my favorite Globes gone by, when it occurs to me that I’ve never seen two dudes, as in two people with penises, host an awards show in tandem like Tina and Amy have for the past three years. My instinct is to assume this was set up on purpose with the logic that two lady comedians are the equivalent of one guy; but I understand the cynical view is my default. My boyfriend thinks Tina and Amy prefer it this way.
“They’re best friends, you know?” he says. “A team.”
Tina and Amy do make a great team, especially at the Globes. If you listen closely, you’ll realize how impressively horizontal and seamless their delivery is — they share jokes, finishing each other’s sentences, carrying one another forward with the timing of one brain.
“We should explain to all the Hollywood people in the room,” begins Amy in the middle of last night’s opening monologue, “that Cake [in addition to the title of Jennifer Aniston’s new movie] is like a fluffy dessert…” (“Right,” Tina affirms) “…which people eat on their birthdays…” “…Oh and birthdays,” continues Tina, “are like, a thing people celebrate when they admit that they have actually aged.”
The beautiful people erupt.
Nevermind that this joke is funny and well-timed — the noteworthy part is that it’s revealed by two people over the course of two evenly split bits. Neither host dominates the joke, neither one is the butt of it. You don’t see that often. Maybe it’s true, they prefer it this way.
It’s no surprise that over the years, the demographics of awards show hosts, from the Globes to the Emmys to the Oscars, have been dominated by white dudes. Bob Hopes and Billy Crystals, sprinkled with the occasional Ellen or Jane Fonda. But that’s to be expected, Hollywood’s a man’s world (though there’s promise of that changing!). No new information there.
What is interesting, however, is that in the past four decades, neither the Oscars nor the Emmys nor the Globes have been hosted by two people of the same sex — not until Tina and Amy. There is one exception: Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin hosted the Oscars together in 2010. But they weren’t invited back, and I think that’s important. Since then, a same-sex couple has never thrown the party.
You’d think there would have been plenty more funny man-on-funny man pairs over the years — Martin Short and Will Ferrell, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. People would have loved to see that. But there haven’t been. And I think the reason for this all comes down to one thing. A thing having to do with language.
The scholarly study of gender and language hasn’t been around long. It basically started with a badass linguist named Robin Lakoff who published a book in 1975 called “Language and Woman’s Place,” which analyzed the effect of language on women’s roles in society and vice versa (It’s fascinating and important — if you’re a student, I encourage you to JSTOR that shit).
Robin Lakoff talks about the observed characteristics of “women’s speech,” which range from the semi-ridiculous, like using flamboyant names for colors (aubergine for purple, scarlet for red) to examples I have noticed abundantly in my own speech, such as a rising intonation at the end of declarative sentences (ending a non-question in the upward tone of a question) and peppering one’s conversations with tag questions (“I kind of want pizza for dinner, don’t you?” “That movie completely sucked, right?) — I dare you to look back at the last text exchange you had with someone of the opposite sex. Who asked more questions? Admit it. Admit it to yourself. I swear, half your convos would end eighty percent sooner if it were up to the dude’s declarative texting skills.
In the 80s, this other linguistic rockstar named Sally McConnell-Ginet determined that women subconsciously employ many of these features in order to “reinforce conversational connections, and to help establish mutality.” It’s “a much more horizontally connected kind of talk,” she says.
In other words, all those “that’s right, Amy”s and finishing of each others sentences from the Globes last night are actually part of a pattern, a thing that women do “to orient themselves towards conversation as a cooperative enterprise, as a mutually constructed product.” No wonder T&A were so seamless. Science.
So what does that have to do with guys being terrible at hand-in-hand awards show hosting? Sally went on to observe that “men in turn tend to view conversation as an arena for individual achievement, a place to exhibit individual prowess and control.” A 1999 study of young men at a brokerage firm accounted for the techniques used to accomplish this, including “intense bantering, bragging, boasting, and bravado.”
Take Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter, for instance. Talk show hosts. Can you imagine those two sharing jokes, finishing each other’s sentences, inviting each other to play a game of “Who Would You Rather?”
Of course not. Conan is the dominant, Richter the subordinate. And who would ever want to see that on stage at an awards show? We expect our hosts to slay the nominees, not their co-hosts. In fact, look back at Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin’s Oscars opener from 2010, and you’ll see that the first joke they make has Martin belittling his partner. At some point it just looks like a couple arguing in front of guests at a dinner party.
I don’t claim to know anything about comic timing, but I’ve heard that in improv, actors are encouraged to adopt the phrase, “yes, and…” They’re never supposed to put down what the other player just said; instead, they’re supposed to listen and connect, “horizontally,” in order to produce the funniest, most forward-moving scene. This may have been Tina and Amy’s last time hosting the Globes, but if that’s the key to successful comedy, we should expect to see a lot more lady duos up there.