Even Some Elders Are Boors
A New Golden Age of Television

Humorless Elders?

“They” have been saying all my life that in literature there are only seven basic plots. In the past decade – or maybe more – I’ve come to believe that there are only seven basic jokes.

Like many women I’ve known, I can’t remember jokes to be able to repeat them myself, but I am a good appreciator. For me to laugh out loud, however, a surprise is usually required, a punch line that was not anticipated and hits me out of the blue. I love it when that happens.

But there don’t seem to be many those these days. More and more frequently, it’s an old punch line attached to a new circumstance and I can see it coming in the early set up. Thus, my theory that there may be only seven basic jokes and I’ve lived long enough now to have heard them all too many times.

Now comes a study from Washington University at St. Louis that suggests

“…because older adults may have greater difficulty with cognitive flexibility, abstract reasoning and short-term memory, they also have greater difficulty with tests of humor comprehension.”
Washington Post, 10 July 2007

Let’s ignore the fact that recent brain studies I’ve read report that because old people make greater use of both sides of their brains simultaneously than younger folks, their abstract reasoning gets better with age. But this was not a brain study. It was a test asking participants in multiple choice questions to choose the correct punch line, and to “choose between [sic] four panels to find the funny ending” in Ferd’nand cartoons. The results

“…showed that the younger adults did 6 percent better on the verbal jokes and 14 percent better on the comic portion than did older participants…”

Although I’m not much impressed with six and 14 percent differences between young and old, could it be that the participating elders just didn’t find the jokes or Ferd’nand (which was never a particularly clever cartoon) funny? It’s not possible to know since we don’t have the jokes or the cartoons to make a judgment. However, one of the researchers said,

"This wasn't a study about what people find funny. It was a study about whether they get what's supposed to be funny…"

It has been a too-common joke in sitcoms for decades that old folks don’t get it, what ever “it” may be. Maybe it’s true and we just can’t help it because of all the brain dysfunction these joke researchers believe elders are afflicted with. But I still think there are few jokes I haven’t heard before.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jo Ann tells of a trend she has uncovered in "Tick Epidemic - Nude Humor Everywhere".]


I hear a lot of 20-something humor. It isn't that I don't get the jokes so much as that I don't think they're funny. I think most humor is subjective to some degree, and we do have a level of experience that colors our perceptions.

I'm with AQ -- there are a lot of things that young people find funny that I find either sick or disgusting. And they don't find things I think are hilarious funny either. As you said, Ronni, it's subjective. That study obviously wasn't funny.

I saw that study. I never found the same things funny when I was young as others. I don't like humor that makes fun of someone else, don't care for slapstick that seems cruel and never did whether I knew why it was supposed to be funny or not. Humor might also be somewhat a generational thing and if we grew up when certain 'things' are simply not right, we won't find them funny regardless.

Not sure if this is one of the 7 major jokes, but it hit me in a certain way ... (thanks to rec.humor.funny)

Rear Ended

I rear ended a car a few days ago.......

I tell you, it was a REALLY bad day!

The driver got out of the other car, and he was a friggin DWARF!!

He looked up at me and said "I am NOT happy!"

So I said, "Well, which one are you then?"

I want to see the study that shows that the sexes think different thinks are funny.
Flatulence is funny to guys.
Slapstick is funny to guys.
and so on.

Re: 7 basic jokes, that's why I like topical humor, the late night comedians, Jon Stewart, Colbert. Rita Rudner cracks me up because of her impectable timing. You may see it coming, but it's still funny.

Ferd'nand? Give me a break. Ferd'nand is one of the lamest, least amusing cartoons of all time! Right up there with Nancy. There is, of course, no accounting for taste. And sometimes there is REALLY no accounting for it.

Well -- I'm female and I find good slapstick very funny. Then again, I used to be a clown, so that might have something to do with it. And my mother (age 96) makes a point of telling her doctor a dirty joke every time she sees him.

True story - just happened
I had a problem with my wooden window blind - called repair man - he was able to fix it then and there.

Just told Steve that the blind man came and fixed the shade.

He said "How was he able to find the place?"

Corny, but funny!!

Corny, maybe, but you got me, Millie, I laughed out loud. Love it.

I love one liners which is why I always enjoyed Rodney Dangerfield.

Two fleas going out for the evening."Shall we walk or take the dog?"

"I knew my parents didn't love me when they gave me a toaster and a radio for bath toys."

"The Smithsonian wants my shirt and tie. I guess they need it to wipe down Lindberg's plane.I get no respect."

I saw this story on CNN and cringed. As you point out, humor is subjective and this "study" is as useful as asking people what their favorite color is and then announcing , since most people picked it, that blue is the best color in the world.

Perhaps out taste in humor changes as we grow older ? I love one liners as well-Dodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngmna as prime masters of the one liner. :)

Oops, a typo;I meant the great Henny Youngman !

The ability to appreciate humor is one of the highest language functions. The ability to discern humor is a significant window on aspects of our language skills and how well our brain is working in that area. I can register humor being present, but not ncessarily think it's funny for reasons you and others have described above.

I'd be interested in knowing more about the specifics of that research study, too. The conclusions may have reached too far, or been interpreted too broadly.

Story picked up by the BBC here:


So this 80-year old lady goes to her doctor for a physical check-up because she was losing her sexual desires. When her doctor asked her when she first notice this, she answered, "Last night and then again this morning."

The Washington University study is bunk. I describe why in my blog

yesterday. My reasons for dissing the Washington University study on humor and aging are not just opinions. They are rooted in other studies of the topic as well as in the tenets of adult development psychology, of which the WU researchers apparently know little.

I just hope not too many people who read about the study put much stock in it -- least of all older folks for whom laughter really is one of the best medicines.

For example, laughter can diminish the vulnerability to blood clot formation resulting from vascular stasis. Dr. William Fry, who founded gelotology, the study of humor and laughter, and its effects on the human body as well as on the psychological dimensions of human life, says "humor, mirth, and laughter have some impact on most, if not all, of the major human physiological systems."

So, I know the researchers were not trying to get into such issues, and that they were only trying to find out if there were any differences in how quickly people "get" jokes" by age bracket, but unless they have a deeper insight into the role humor plays in people's lives in various seasons of life, they can't help but "not get it."


I don't judge a person's sense of humor by how they respond to jokes. To me it's more of a light-hearted approach to the little annoyances of life. I make it a point to laugh out loud at least once or twice a day.

I still remember when my husband and I were both threatened with downsizing in our jobs. We drove to work with one another, and when we got in the car at night we would share our stories of the day and laugh. It was a scary time, but it was also one of the best times of my life because of the laughing and sharing.

This is just wrong. I've worked with international graduate students for years, and one of the first things you learn is that humor is cultural to a very great extent. It's also a given that humor is regional, even across the US. It has nothing to do with whether or not someone "gets" it. I "get" Foxworthy, but jokes with puerile, scatological punchlines don't particularly stimulate my ticklebone.

The WaPo article reveals the tendency of mainstream media toward archaic beliefs and biases. Perhaps we elderbloggers can help bust those myths by doing exactly what we're doing: setting the record straight through blogging.

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