Many of us, at the end of a busy day, just want something light and entertaining to watch. For many individuals, this rules out watching anything to do with older adulthood; any film dealing with aging and growing older would not, by definition, be an entertaining film. However, with 10,000 people a day crossing over a widely recognized chronological border (age 65) into elderhood territory, films and TV programs representing the lives of older adults are gaining a much wider audience.
Many of these films and programs are laced with heavy doses of humor, and that can bring us into some tricky terrain. Humor can cut two ways; it can, overtly or covertly, denigrate, or it can encourage a healthy camaraderie. So the question here is: Can we have fun with (be entertained by) the inevitable and common experiences of aging?
To explore this, let’s take a look at the recent series, The Kominsky Method (on Netflix). The series portrays the lives of two older friends in Los Angeles, one of them an actor, and the other, his agent. The show revolves around their attempts to deal with the foibles of their aging bodies. The premise here offers great potential for laughs about some universal complaints around aging. But the show quickly becomes an example of how humor about aging can become jaded and trite.
The show’s dialogue is peppered with one-liner jabs and zingers that are the stock and trade of so many sit-coms. The Kominsky Method attempts ramp these up with the zest of “mature adults” humor. Early in the first program of the series we are introduced to the two characters as they greet each other with this repartee:
“So right out of the gate you want to bust my balls.” Reply: “They are a low hanging fruit.”
When I started watching the program, I found it to be annoyingly shallow and tinny. Then something shifted. In my review of this show for The Gerontologist, I related what happened for me as I watched the entire series.
“Can we have fun with (be entertained by) the inevitable and common experiences of aging?”
By the eighth program, I found that I wasn’t as perturbed at the shallow tone of the programs. The two-dimensional characters, dismissive dialogue, and thin stories were growing on me! Was it because I simply became accustomed to the tinny tone of the dialogue that I finally capitulated to its banality and inanity? Seduced by its comfortable shallowness? My sensitivities overwhelmed by its persistent dullness? Yikes!
Then, something else happened that I found equally strange and hard to decipher. When I showed excerpts of the program to a class of young adult students in a course that I was teaching (Looking at Elderhood Through Film), they greeted the program with laughter and delight. And I began to laugh along with them!
The students and I then had some robust discussion: can flippant humor about aging augment the already flourishing ageism in our culture? We also talked about the distinction between laughing at and laughing with, particularly around aging-related humor. The first is often derisive and harmful; the latter can be communal and bonding. Sometimes the line between these two can be very thin. And the context within which we experience the humor can make a big difference. When I watched The Kominsky Method by myself, I was quickly annoyed with the flippant and shallow nature of the humor. When I watched excerpts of the same program with young adults who were enjoying the humor, I got caught up in their response to it and began to laugh with them.
In further reflection on this, I realize now that most of the humor in The Kominsky Method is not overtly ageist. It does not have us laughing at these two older characters. Rather it asks us to laugh with them as they laugh at themselves. The problem I have with much of the humor in the show is how trite, shallow, and flippant it is. And, in a culture already rife with ageism, I do wonder if this type of tinny humor can subconsciously reinforce ageist stereotypes when watched by those who are not tuned in to the more subtle expressions of ageism.
Humor can sometimes inadvertently nourish a stereotype that we might otherwise not condone. So when you watch films and TV shows about older adults, exercise your antennae!
I’d love to get your thoughts on humor about aging, and on The Kominsky Method. (Leave a comment below.)
– Jim Vanden Bosch