The representation of old people on television does not have a good history. Most of the time, when we are included at all, we are portrayed as goofy stereotypes, always forgetful and none too bright.
Undoubtedly there are others, but two exceptions immediately come to mind. Golden Girls gave us some great, good jokes about being old without demeaning the four elder women or the idea of age.
The other was the character of Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. As played by Harry Morgan, he was grumpy and snarly and also a good officer with a terrific sense of humor – a role model for the unruly younger members of the medical unit. Morgan, who said Potter was the best role of his life, died in December at age 96.
Speaking of people in their tenth decade, Tuesday was Betty White's 90th birthday and elderblogger Elaine Frankonis of Kalilily emailed to ask my opinion of her new show. I thought Elaine was talking about Hot in Cleveland, but no.
Surprise to me, a new program premiered this week on NBC, Betty White's Off Their Rockers. Sort of like the old Candid Camera or the contemporary MTV show, Pranked, Betty and her elder cohorts play jokes on unsuspecting younger people for, of course, laughs. Well, the cohorts doing the pranking; Betty provides inter-prank commentary.
Although the apparent intention is to show elders in a fun-loving, positive light (some PR material describes a “cast of sassy septuagenarians who are hip, sexy and ready to party”), Elaine has some reservations and after watching the show, I am ambivalent too. Take a look at this segment from the first episode that was broadcast earlier this week:
If I ran into that in the supermarket, it would be amusing and probably worth a mention on this blog but it's a subpar comedy scene – lame, actually. Whatever you think of its quality, however, the humor is not dependent on the age of the man. You would laugh (or not) whatever his age.
Now take a look at another segment from the episode:
This makes me uncomfortable and moreso knowing that three or four of the total dozen or so pranks in the premiere episode involve elder women coming on to young men. Another:
This kind of behavior creeps out young people which is neither right nor wrong – it just is. More important is that sex in the same sentence with elders has been a bad joke forever and pranks like this one reinforce the idea that somehow elders interested in sex are dirty old men and worse, much worse - dirty old women.
The best segments in the program would be, like the cake scene above, amusing whatever the age of the participants.
Below is the full 21-minute episode. If you have time for it, watch for the genuinely funny, and charming, balloon prank along with the unresponsive hot dog/soft drink cart attendant. That one, too, would be funny even if she were a teenager.
Overall, I'm uncomfortable with this program as representative of elders because aside from the sketches that do not need to rely on old people for the humor, it is designed to ridicule elders' foibles and failings. If there were more of us on television, more of us like Betty White's character, Rose, on Golden Girls and like Colonel Potter, it wouldn't feel so offensive.
On the other hand, maybe my funny bone is broken. Off Their Rockers is an adaptation of a hit Belgian TV series, Benidorm Bastards, that has won a boatload of awards in Europe.
What do you think?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Barbara Sloan: Irons and Mangles