Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
What Grumpy Old Men missed at the Oscars, it made up for in accolades and guffaws from Mississippi River Rats
The Grumpies are classic examples of a form of American senior film comedy which celebrates the rejuvenation of life and sexuality in senior characters,
If the Roman senex is an inadequate model for the new senior hero, can we find that model in the senex amator of Aristophanes?
It is generally agreed that Old Comedy is distinct from what we think of today as stage or film comedy.
Growing out of Dionysian rites, Old Comedic plays are replete with phallus and other sexual body part references and puns.
Another curious feature of the religious ceremonies from which Old Comedy evolved is invective.
To the sexuality, invective, and grossness of religious practice, Old Comedy adds a protagonist. And the typical hero of Aristophanic Old Comedy was, according to Erich Segal, the senex amator, or “lecherous oldster.”
Certainly elements of Old Comedy abound in the Grumpies.
The films are replete with sexual references, puns, and epithets.
The films are heavily seasoned with invective, insult, and name-calling.
Reminiscent of the rustic setting of Old Comedy, the Grumpies are set in rural Wabasha, Minnesota.
Like the lecherous oldster who “gets fired up by an idea,” John and Max in the original film are continually scheming to get back at each other.
What makes the Grumpies different from Old Comedy?
For starters, it’s the women. They speak.
The Aristophanic idealization and deification of the female character, like the Delphic oracle, effectively grants license for the unbounded exercise of the male phallic drive and strips the woman of all personhood.
In contrast, Ariel and Maria have minds, personalities, self-respect and power.
Furthermore, while sex is a driving force in the Grumpies the dramatic goal in the films is marriage.
The Grumpy Old Men films affirm the value of marriage itself. They also affirm the value of marital and relationship fidelity.
Unlike Old Comedy, the Grumpies carefully avoid politics.
The worldview of the Greeks was essentially despairing.
Within a Judeo-Christian worldview, there is hope. Despite life's trials, its wars, and its grossness, humans live in a world that is good, worth celebrating, where there is love, and caring, and life.
Erich Segal, Aristophanes, and Grumpy Old Men
Presented at the 15th International ISHS Conference
Chicago, Illinois 2003
Edited for web publication.
In presenting a paper on Grumpy Old Men and its sequel, I must acknowledge up front that I have a peculiar, extra-academic interest in these Lemmon-Matthau comedies. They take place on my home turf. Winona, my hometown, is just 27 miles from Wabasha, the setting of the film. The voluptuous Ariel Truax, played by Ann-Margaret, is cast as a professor at Winona State University, not surprisingly since the script was written by a former WSU student. In fact, before the film hit the local theatres, everyone with any connection to the University had quite confidently identified the theater department model for the film’s history professor. And while we all knew that the movie was actually filmed in several Minnesota locations other than Wabasha and that the real Slippery’s bar on the Mississippi River is several notches up scale from the movie version, Ramer’s fish market which supplied the film with famous fish still displays photos of the key cast mugs, fish as well as humans. When the film played in Winona, we all laughed as much at the winter driving and ice fishing follies as at the raunchy phallic jokes of the credits. What Grumpy Old Men missed at the Oscars, it made up for in accolades and guffaws from Mississippi River rats.
But coming out of the Mississippi River backwaters and back into the world of comedy criticism, the Grumpies are classic examples of a form of American senior film comedy which celebrates the rejuvenation of life and sexuality in senior characters, John Gustafson, played by Jack Lemmon, and Max Goldman, played by Walter Matthau. Culturally and financially, this celebration has spelled box office success. Critically it has challenged traditional comedic theory and the Roman senex. In previous papers I have shown that senior films such Driving Miss Daisy, On Golden Pond, and Whales of August, and indeed Grumpy Old Men can best be analyzed within a vitalist theory of humor and comedy articulated by Bergson, Langer, Watts, and Paul Grawe.
And indeed vitalism pulses through both Grumpy films, expressed in the joi de vivre of Ariel Truax played by Ann-Margaret and the feisty determination of Marie Raghetti played by Sophia Loren. It is also heavily expressed through sexuality—senior sexuality—as well as in childish pranks and bawdiness--particularly emphasized in the credits, which are replete with sausage jokes. Typical of the blooper scenes of credits, these scenes seem to take the vitalist spirit of the film over the edge and thus should not in themselves be taken to completely embody the spirit of the work. However from a critical perspective they are reminiscent not of Roman comedy, even in its bawdiest, but of Greek Old Comedy. And this similarity raises the critical question: if the Roman senex is an inadequate model for the new senior hero, can we find that model in the senex amator of Aristophanes?
For this investigation, I will rely heavily on Erich Segal’s recently released The Death of Comedy and his description of the “lecherous oldster” of Aristophanes. Working from Segal’s description of the Aristophanic model, this paper will conclude that despite many superficial parallels between that model and the Lemmon-Matthau comedies, these comedies have not resurrected Aristophanic comedy. And further, the departure of the Grumpies from the Aristophanic senex amator á lŕ Erich Segal speaks volumes for the culture to which these films play
The Origins of Old Comedy
It is generally agreed that Old Comedy is distinct from what we think of today as stage or film comedy and distinct even from Roman comedy and Greek New Comedy. Somewhat akin to Saturday Night Live, Old Comedy flourished during the Peloponnesian War until the end of that war and as well as of free speech in 404 BC (Duckworth, p. 22). While numerous plays were written and produced during the period, only those of Aristophanes are extent. Classical scholars, most recently Erich Segal, have tried to fill out our understanding of Athenian Old Comedy by studying remaining snippets of other plays in light of Aristophanes and other non-dramatic sources.
Old Comedy, it is agreed, grew out of worship of Dionysus, the god of the vine. This worship featured, according to George Duckworth, “a procession of revelers, often masquerading as animals, who danced and sang and uttered impromptu lampoons against bystanders or important public characters” (20). Segal emphasizes the rural setting of these processions, as the country was a place for revelry, nighttime rowdiness, and general letting down of inhibitions. Prominent in these religious processions was the phallus, the male sex organ. According to Segal, it was not only a symbol of fertility but also an active element in the revelry which closed the ceremonies in the bushes. Segal reports phallus celebrations by fraternities, such as the “straightrods” who would carry the phallic emblem into the theater singing:
“Get it up, get it up
Make a great wide space
For hale and hardy Holy Him
Whose rod may overflow the brim
Would like to march right through the place.” ( p.19)
Another curious feature of the religious ceremonies from which Old Comedy evolved is invective. It was common, even into Roman tradition, to evoke torrents of scurrilities, obscenities, and curses on agricultural fields and at weddings to insure fertility. While time does not permit a full explanation of the psychology of these ceremonies, they clearly are reflected in what we have remaining of Old Comedy.
The plays of Aristophanes’ and his contemporaries, summed up by Duckworth as a blend of “fantasy and satire, beauty and indecency” (22), heavily drew on these religious themes and practices. These plays are replete with phallus and other sexual body part references and puns. Tool jokes abound, as well as fruit and vegetable jokes, all with sexual references. And plays typically culminate in the festival celebration which we all know ends in the bushes. Actors frequently wore leather straps between their legs, with strings attached so that the straps could be raised at appropriate times during the play. Transvestitism and cross-dressing were also common elements.
Old Comedy also abounded in invective—some of it political satire, some of it sheer insult, bombast, and name-calling. Coupled with verbal beatings were physical beatings. A particularly common target of vilification was the Athenian wife, characters and choruses overtly justifying, even encouraging wife-beating. An Aristophanic fragment has a chorus of women say,
It should be remembered that female characters were played by men. Other common elements of Old Comedy included references to farting, excrement, and vomiting.
To the sexuality, invective, and grossness of religious practice, Old Comedy adds a protagonist. And the typical hero of Aristophanic Old Comedy was, according to Segal, the senex amator, or “lecherous oldster:” “a dyspeptic old man who gets fired up by an idea and in pursuing it turns the world topsy turvy.” Normally the hero succeeds in altering reality and additionally on the side finds “sexual rejuvenation” (p. 45-6). Segal illustrates the formula with Aristophanes’ first play, The Acharnians, whose hero, Dicaepolis, opens the play grumpy, fed up with the Athenian wars, and sexually dysfunctional. By the end of the play, he has negotiated his own private truce, is preparing to celebrate the Anthesterian feast, has acquired at least three party girls and has found sexual rejuvenation. A wedding celebration is observed—never mind that Dicaepolis is already married—lots of obscene songs, and all the males in the cast, as well as the audience are, well, rejuvenated. Segal finds the lecherous oldster in various forms in five other Aristophanic plays: Peace, Clouds, Knights, Wasps, and Birds.
The question arises: Does the bawdiness and sexual rejuvenation of Grumpy Old Men and similar oldster films signal a return to the senex amator of Old Comedy? Certainly elements of Old Comedy abound in the Grumpies.
Old Comedic Elements
Most obviously, the films are replete with sexual references, puns, and epithets. The films are a virtual delicatessen of sausage jokes, with extra helpings in the credits. Fishing provides a running analogy to the sexual sport with puns on bait, mounting and the like. There is also considerable crudity, with lines such as these: “What’s wrong with you? Do you have a fart in your brain?” "I’d rather kiss a dead moose’s butt.” And “You can wish in one hand and crap in another and see which gets filled first.” There is also cross dressing when John emerges from the shower wearing Maria’s robe.
Similarly, the films are heavily seasoned with invective, insult, and name-calling, such as: “Dickhead,” “Ass-wipe,” and the like. There are running name-calling spats: Max calls John, “Putz,” and John calls Max “Moron.” Maria and Max begin their relationship with a name-calling bout—“Ox!” “Nag!”—and when they meet at the altar to marry, they whisper to each other the same epithets.
The following clip illustrates some of the bawdiness and name-calling that peppers these two films: The scene takes place in a grocery store, where John’s old old, lecherous father hits on Maria’s elderly mother who is picking out a cucumber. John offers to show her his cannelloni. From there routine insult and name-calling follow, along with sexual teasing, punctuated by a dramatic sausage encounter between two extras. (Run clip.)
Reminiscent of the rustic setting of Old Comedy, the Grumpies are set in rural Wabasha, Minnesota. Fishing replaces agriculture and becomes the occasion for much competitive invective, directed both at other anglers and at the fish. Maria’s restaurant is in the country, sitting atop the richest nightcrawler bed in the state—now there’s fertile ground for you. We also have the rural drinking festival in Octoberfest, (actually a La Crosse, Wisconsin beer-drinking occasion). We might even argue that the animal procession is reenacted in the Halloween scene.
Given all these shared elements with Old Comedy, elements which admittedly reappear in farce through the ages, what then of the Aristophanic senex amator, the dyspeptic, impotent oldster who pursues a wild idea and finds sexual rejuvenation? The original film Grumpy Old Men opens focused on two grumpy seniors, John and Max, both widowers, who have been neighbors for life and competitors just as long. Their sex lives extend no further than the dirty jokes and insults they hurl at each other. But by end the of the first film, John has found sexual rejuvenation with Ariel Truax, and by the end of the sequel, Grumpier Old Men, Max finds sexual rejuvenation with Maria, in the bushs—or rather the night crawler bed.
Like the lecherous oldster who “gets fired up by an idea,” John and Max in the original film are continually scheming to get back at each other: Max remotely changes John’s TV channel just as the lottery numbers are announced, and John throws dead fish into the back seat of Max’s truck.. At a less public level, John is scheming to evade the IRS. Even more in line with the Aristophanic model, in the sequel Max, who is still dyspeptic (hardly surprising when the milk in his frig comes out in chunks) and single, drags John into a scheme to block development of their deceased friend’s bait shop into an Italian restaurant. And as a result, the world is turned “topsy-turvy,” Marie dumps a vat of spaghetti sauce on their heads, Ariel locks John out of the house, and invective abounds.
New Comedic Spirit
So what makes the Grumpies different from Old Comedy, so different that we must absolutely reject the Aristophanic lecherous oldster model?
For starters, it’s the women. They speak. Within the lecherous oldster form of Old Comedy, typically women, unless they were deities, had no substantive lines, only ogled-over bodies. Even recognizing the limited character development of Old Comedy, the female was hardly a character, more of a prop needed for sexual rejuvenation. Segal assures us that these women were extremely voluptuous. (One wonders how male actors played them, but that’s a technical issue.) For example, the hero of Peace, Trygaeus, having been given two females by the goddess Peace, a payment for her rescue from captivity, has decided to keep one, Opora, for himself and give another, Theoria, to the Senate. Presenting her, Trygaeus instructs Theoria to “take off all these clothes” (Oates, 703), which she does, and then tells his servant to display her in a manner reminiscent of some of my unsolicited email, with accompanying comments about her body parts, again more unsolicited email. From there Theoria literally becomes an “it,” offered over for an Olympic team orgy. Even remembering that the actor playing Theoria is a man, (more technical difficulties) such a scene would be totally out of keeping in Grumpy Old Men. The Achanians closes with a marriage celebration between Dicaeopolis, who is, of course, already married, and Diallagē, whom, Segal assures us, the audience would recognize as “Reconciliation,” “the companion to Aphrodite and the Graces” (55). However neither an idealized name nor a heavenly pedigree elevates her above being the object of sexual aggression; her own preferences count as much as those of a cantaloupe. The idealization and deification of the female character, like the Delphic oracle, effectively grants license for the unbounded exercise of the male phallic drive and strips the woman of all personhood.
In contrast, Ariel and Maria have minds, personalities, self-respect and power. Ariel is a professor, an artist, a gourmet cook, a gardener, a chess player, and a hard bargainer, willing, in the sequel, to kick John out of the house until he apologizes for trying to destroy Maria’s restaurant and willing to walk out on him when he persists in infantile pranks. Far from a sex object, Ariel is a sex subject: she is actively seeking a sexual relationship. Maria is an entrepreneur, and although five times divorced, in no way a prostitute. She has the feistiness to come at a man with a baseball bat and the decency to try to spare someone she really cares about from what she has decided is a curse on her love life.
Although the women do appear in luring costumes, it is a man, John, who appears in the nude, posing for Ariel as she sculpts him. In fact this image is broadcast on 30 TV sets at the local appliance dealership when Max, having secretly videotaped the scene through his window, decides to get even yet again. But the body we see is not from Playgirl but the “before” of some fitness add, no phallus visible. Symbolically, it represents John’s submission to his wife, a stark contrast to the female subjection to the lecherous oldster.
Furthermore, while sex is a driving force in the Grumpie, the dramatic goal in the films is marriage. Both films end in weddings, and not just window-dressing weddings. In fact in the first film Ariel is, in the tradition of old-fashioned women, seeking a husband, fishing for one, we might say. In the sequel, it is Max who pursues Maria for a wife, Maria being a bit gun-shy after five disastrous marriages. And then there is the sub-plot between John’s daughter Melanie and Max’s son Jacob. In the original, Melanie is just closing out a bad marriage and working through her reluctance to commit to Jacob, who has been in love with her since they were kids. In the sequel, the strain of a wedding for the two of them being planned by, of all the unlikelies, John and Max, nearly blows the relationship apart. So they eventually elope but return to Wabasha and participate in the wedding of Max and Maria. The only couple that does not marry is Grandpa Gustafson and Mama Raghetti. Rather John’s father dies suddenly, but his death becomes the turning point for reconciliation in the other two faltering relationship. In contrast, in Old Comedy, weddings are an excuse for a party. We should note that the heroes of both The Acharnians and Peace already have wives and children, but a wife has nothing to do with sexual rejuvenation and being married does not stop Trygaeus from wedding Opora. Marriage itself seems to be one of those unfortunate necessities of life. But a man could manage by confining his wife—at times Athenian women were confined to the house to all but three days of the year—no wonder there was a lot of invective—and by investing his sexual impetus elsewhere.
The Grumpy Old Men films affirm the value of marriage itself. They also affirm the value of marital and relationship fidelity. As voluptuous and sexually practiced as Ariel and Maria are, there is no indication that they cheat on their husbands, or that Max and John will cheat on their new wives. And In the sequel, when Ariel, now married, and Max, now dating, suspect that John has slept with Maria, they join forces to avenge the wrong in a good farcical brawl, ended only by the disclosure that it was the doddering Grandpa Gustafson and the shriveled Mama Raghetti who have been sleeping together. Pre-marital sex, yes. Infidelity, no.
Another predominant feature of the lecherous oldster not replicated in John and Max is the political satirist. The Grumpies carefully avoid politics. While Jacob Goldman runs for mayor and wins, we know virtually nothing of his politics. And a Jewish mayor in an overwhelmingly Catholic and Lutheran town? Sure, this is Minnesota.
All these features—the depth and character of women, the value of marriage, and the value of fidelity—stand in stark contrast to the values of Old Comedy. And not surprisingly, because they flow from an entirely different worldview. The worldview of the Greeks was essentially despairing. They lived at the whim of a pantheon of deities, all petulant, arbitrary, mean-spirited, constantly at war with each other, and quite willing to make humans their pawns in their grand animosities. In this grander scheme, humans had little value. Do you want your fields do grow? Curses should be as effective as prayers. Are you tired of war? Beat your wife, find a whore, and get it up. Goddesses may be on an even playing field with their male counterparts in the heavens and even may be in charge of fertility, but they do nothing to raise the position of women out of abject degradation.
In contrast, Grumpy Old Men and its sequel assume a culture and worldview in which women have strength, dignity, passion, intelligence, weaknesses, but most important standing. In fact, all humans have standing and value because the grander scheme includes a God who is one, who is just yet merciful, who endows his creatures with rights and worth, and who, by some accounts, sacrificed a part of Himself for the sake of humans. Within this Judeo-Christian worldview, there is hope. Yes, life will have its trials, its wars, and its grossness. Even a pre-ordained marriage will have dead fish and dog breath. But ultimately, humans live in a world that is good, worth celebrating, where there is love, and caring, and life.
Aristophanes, The Acharnians. Oates, Whitney J. and O’Neill, Jr., Eugene, eds. The Complete Greek Drama, Volume Two. New York: Random House, 1938.
Aristophanes. The Birds. Oates, Whitney J. and O’Neill, Jr., Eugene, eds. The Complete Greek Drama, Volume Two. New York: Random House, 1938.
Aristophanes. The Clouds. Oates, Whitney J. and O’Neill, Jr., Eugene, eds. The Complete Greek Drama, Volume Two. New York: Random House, 1938.
Aristophanes. The Knights. Oates, Whitney J. and O’Neill, Jr., Eugene, eds. The Complete Greek Drama, Volume Two. New York: Random House, 1938.
Aristophanes. Peace. Oates, Whitney J. and O’Neill, Jr., Eugene, eds. The Complete Greek Drama, Volume Two. New York: Random House, 1938.
Aristophanes. The Wasps. Oates, Whitney J. and O’Neill, Jr., Eugene, eds. The Complete Greek Drama, Volume Two. New York: Random House, 1938.
Bergson, Henri. “Le Rire.” Tr. Fred Rothwell. Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1956: 61-192.
Duckworth, George E. The Nature of Roman Comedy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Grawe, Paul H. Comedy in Space, Time and the Imagination. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1983.
Langer, Suzanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.
Segal, Erich. The Death of Comedy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Watts, Harold H. "The Sense of Regain: A Theory of Comedy." University of Kansas City Review 13 (1946): 19-23.
Related ITCHS works: Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle: Humor in American Film Comedy. “Grumpy Old Men, On Golden Pond, and Driving Miss Daisy: Senior Comedy and Comedic Innovation in Rapidly Changing Times.”
Driving Miss Daisy. Based on the play by Alfred Uhry. Zanuck Company. 1989.
Grumpy Old Men. A John Davis/Lancaster Gate Production. Warner Brothers. 1993
Grumpier Old Men. A John Davis/Lancaster Gate Production. Warner Brothers, 1995.
On Golden Pond. A Mark Rydell Film. ITC Films/IPC Films Production. 1981.
The Whales of August. Based on a play by David Berry. An Alive Films Production with
Circle Associates Ltd. 1988.