Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
Modern senior comedies demand that we reexamine our conceptions of what is funny, what is comedic, and what is the role of the aging in comedy.
Northrop Frye sees comedy as the triumph of youth over age, where the senior is a blocking figure who must be overcome by the next generation.
For senior comedies, we need to look to the concepts of vitalist critics such as Henri Bergson, Suzanne Langer, Harold Watts, and Paul Grawe.
Vitalists see laughter as a response to life—to the elàn vital.
Harold Watts argues that comedy elicits a restoration of balance and a sense of regain. Grawe argues that comedy asserts a faith in human survival.
Modern senior humor celebrates the restoration of balance and the survival of the aging.
As we apply these vitalist concepts to senior humor, we must be prepared not to laugh very heartily.
Miss Daisy herself is dramatically transformed from a traditional blocking figure into a comedic heroine.
Even as we laugh at Miss Daisy's blocking traits, Boolie is becoming the butt of Miss Daisy's jokes.
The very traits which would seem to make Miss Daisy a blocking figure work to assure her survival.
In On Golden Pond, Norman starts not as a blocking figure but as an "old poop."
The film celebrates the triumph of the forces of life over the forces of death in all three generations.
Instead of laughing at the machine-like movements of Ethel's body, we smile inwardly at the inner suppleness of her spirit.
In order to embrace life, the aged, like children, must risk stumbling, getting lost, or looking foolish.
Both Driving Miss Daisy and On Golden Pond depict ways in which a life force works with the mechanicalness of old age, daily creating rebirth, restoring lost balance, and reasserting a future.
Vitalist Humor in American Senior Film Comedy:
Driving Miss Daisy and On Golden Pond
Presented at the Midlands Conference on Language and Literature,
Omaha, Nebraska, 1994 and the
International Humor Conference of the International Society of Humor Studies,
College Park, MD, 2001.
Edited for web publication
[Ed. note: This paper was the first in a two-part presentation on senior comedy, the second paper investigating the more fragile, subtle humor and comedic structure in Whales of August.]
In the past few decades American culture has seen a change in what it means to be old. Modern medicine, social security, and the post World War II economic boom have combined to create a longer-living senior citizen. The resultant gray power has leverage not only with governmental bodies but with the box office as well. Responding to the spending power of America's seniors, film and television industries have over the last few decades come out with numerous works dealing with our aging population, some more worthy of discussion than others. Despite the fact that the march toward death would not seem to be inherently funny, many of these films employ humor, Grumpy Old Men and its sequel being well known recent examples. The use of humor, however, frequently asks us to see senior citizens and the aging process in a new light and to update our critical theories of humor and comedy in order to accommodate aging comedic heroes and heroines. Films such as Driving Miss Daisy, On Golden Pond, and The Whales of August demand that we reexamine our conceptions of what is funny, what is comedic, and what is the role of the aging in comedy.
The aged are no neophytes to theatre which evokes laughter. As far back as Roman theater, the senex (“old man”) had a key role in comedy. But it was mainly obstreperous. The aged were seen as inflexible yet formidable figures of power and authority, blocking youth and its vitality from assuming its rightful leadership in a community which must, in order to survive, transfer power to the next generation. Comedy's answer to the senex was to overcome him with youth's vitality and eventually laugh him off stage, or at least far from the footlights. Such drama fits well into Northrop Frye's description of comedy in his “Mythos of Spring" (Anatomy of Criticism). Frye sees comedy as the triumph of youth over age, where the senior is a blocking figure—either a father or a power figure—who must be overcome by the next generation.
There is certainly a large corpus of comedy which fits under Frye's rubric. But it is not very useful in elucidating comedy in which the senior citizen is the hero and the triumph of the drama is to keep the aging hero alive and on stage. Characters such as Miss Daisy, Norman and Ethel Thayer of On Golden Pond, and the aging community in The Whales of August must be seen not as blocking figures to youthful heroes and heroines, but as heroes and heroines in their own right. And their stories can hardly be seen as the triumph of youth over an older generation. To understand the humor and underlying structures of such serious comedies, we need to look to the concepts and theories of vitalist critics such as Henri Bergson, Suzanne Langer, Harold Watts, and Paul Grawe.
Vitalist Humor Theories
In "Laughter," Bergson articulated a concept which has become key to vitalist theories of humor: that laughter arises out of our perception of "something mechanical encrusted upon the living" (474). Laughter is intricately connected to a sense of life, of vitality, of the élan vital--and notably a sense that the nonliving has overcome or supplanted what should be living. Bergson's concept would seem to have much to say about the aging process. He argues that when the supple vitality of life is overlaid by the rigid, when the physical calls attention to itself though it is the moral which matters, or when the living are reduced to things, we have the potential for laughter. From a Bergsonian perspective, aging has the potential to be uproariously funny—at the expense of the senior citizen. But thus far all we have done is to laugh the aged off stage.
To understand sympathetic senior characters and senior humor, we must move through Bergsonian vitalism to that of Suzanne Langer. In Feeling and Form, Langer points us to a broader and deeper sense of vitalism in which laughter is seen as a response to life—to the élan vital—itself. She points us to the laughter which is elicited by babies and puppies or by a fish which has lost part of its tail to a predator and swims with a list but survives nevertheless. And the underlying feeling of comedy, she argues, is "the immediate sense of life." (331). Comedy, Langer claims, is informed by a comedic rhythm, a rhythm of perpetual rebirth, of repeated restoration of lost balance, or continual reassertion of a new future.
In a similar vein, Harold Watts in "The Sense of Regain: A Theory of Comedy" asserts that comedy elicits in the audience a restoration of balance and a sense of regain, even if illusory. A later vitalist critic, Paul Grawe, builds on Langerian theory in Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, where he defines comedy formally as "the assertion of a faith that the human race will survive" and emotively as "the celebration that the human race is destined to survive" (59).
Seen in vitalist terms, traditional comedy has celebrated the survival of society or community through means of generational rebirth and restored balance, even as—notably as—those forces blocking societal survival, including the aged, are swept aside or overcome. Comedic survival has traditionally been symbolized by the marriage of a youthful, presumably procreative romantic couple.
Yet Langerian/Gravian vitalist theories of comedy and laughter can equally be applied to the aged themselves. For modern senior comedy celebrates the survival of the aging. It asserts the comedic rhythm in the life of the individual senior: repeated recovery from repeated disease, literal restoration of lost balance, and a daily reassertion of a new future. In fact, for the aging, each day can represent a new triumph of the life force over increasing limitations and impediments, the mechanical ever more encrusting itself on the living soul, yet the soul repeatedly asserting its own vitality.
As we apply these vitalist concepts to senior humor, we must be prepared not to laugh very heartily. There are many scenes in senior comedy which are too fragile for outright laughter, evoking more what George Meredith termed a "humor of the mind" (470 ). We are likely to recall, for example, the acrobatic dives of the newly regenerated heroes of Cocoon as funny. Yet reviewing them on the screen, we are not likely to laugh out loud. And much senior humor is more subtle than Cocoon. For in senior comedy, we know that death waits back stage, muting our guffaws to chuckles and our laughs to smiles.
Driving Miss Daisy
For an examination of vitalist humor in senior comedy, it is useful to begin with Driving Miss Daisy, because Miss Daisy herself is dramatically transformed from a traditional blocking figure into a comedic heroine in her own right. At the outset of the film, Miss Daisy, a southern Jewess (played by Jessica Tandy) can be seen as a female senex figure standing in the way of her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd), an up-and-coming business leader. Miss Daisy stubbornly refuses to admit that, too old to drive, she needs the black chauffeur, Hoke (Morgan Freeman), whom Boolie has hired. Over two decades, Miss Daisy is forced to accept the increasing limitations of age and her increasing dependence on Hoke, so that in the final scene Hoke feeds her her dinner. Yet the triumph is not Boolie's but Miss Daisy's. For in the struggle with age, which she must eventually lose, she has taught Hoke to read, she has taken steps towards overcoming racial prejudice, and she has retained self-respect. Miss Daisy is no longer an impediment to a comedic hero but the heroine herself.
Part of the reason this transformation is possible is that Boolie is not qualified to be a traditional comedic hero. He is childless and unsympathetic, and married to a Jewess who competes for the gaudiest Christmas light display in town. Humor is a key indicator that Boolie—well-meaning, dutiful, responsible, and loving that he is—will not become the comedic hero he seems set up for originally. At the outset of the film, Miss Daisy's refusal to accept Boolie's plan creates traditional senex humor. She reminds Hoke that as children, "we ate grits," and she reprimands Hoke for going as fast as 19 miles per hour. Such lines are typical of senior blocking figures and reflect a mechanical thinking that will not make way for new times or adapt to new realities. Yet even as we laugh at Miss Daisy, Boolie is becoming the butt of Miss Daisy's jokes: when Miss Daisy snipes that her son is all too anxious to have her in "perpetual care,” Hoke laughs as his employer's expense. His laughter and ours make the deviation from traditional senex humor which the film will follow and foreshadows Boolie's exit. By the end, Miss Daisy, who is confined to a wheel chair and unable to feed herself, dismisses Boolie, telling him to go flirt with the nurses. Boolie is laughed off stage, and Miss Daisy triumphs.
Traditional senex humor typically arises from the elder character's refusal to admit the legitimacy of youth's vitality in the face of the growing limitations of age. Such pride and stubbornness can be seen as a form of the mechanical encrusted on the living, a rigid view of oneself and of life which will not adapt to changing realities. In fact, Miss Daisy is never completely reconciled to the aging process. She stubbornly resists admitting her limitations. Yet inwardly, surreptitiously, on second thought, she adapts and grows. And herein lies the key to a new kind of senior figure and to Miss Daisy's vitality. Through a combination of stubborn pride and inner adaptability, Miss Daisy can triumph. And in this pattern also is the potential for double-edged humor: we may laugh at Miss Daisy's stubbornness, but as the movie progresses, we are more likely to laugh—or rather smile—In response to the life force asserting itself, growing out of stubbornness and then overcoming it. This pattern is well illustrated in the scene in which Miss Daisy gives a gift to Hoke at Christmas time. She insists that she is not giving Hoke a Christmas gift (because Jews don't do that). Yet the gift of a writing manual represents growth of character far more powerful than Miss Daisy's adherence to tradition.
In a later scene, Miss Daisy bristles at Hoke's suggestion that she turn down the heat under her fried chicken, but behind his back she turns it down anyway and later boasts, "Hoke and I know how to make fried chicken." The expression of stubbornness makes way for adaptation and growth.
The very traits which would seem to make Miss Daisy a blocking figure work to assure her survival. We laugh finally not only because it is futile to stubbornly resist the growing limitations of age, mechanical as such denial is, but rather because even as she resists, Miss Daisy adapts, the will to adapt growing out of the refusal to suffer death gladly. Miss Daisy turns buffoon traits into heroic ones. In doing so, she must allow herself to become technically laughable and thus vulnerable. Yet through her vulnerability, she survives, affirming life even in the face of approaching death.
On Golden Pond
In On Golden Pond, Norman Thayer also learns to risk vulnerability in affirming life. But unlike Miss Daisy, Norman (Henry Fonda) starts not as a blocking figure but as an "old poop." A retired professor, Norman, who has been brooding about death for some time, has relegated himself to being an inconsequential grouch whose chief ability is to ruin everyone else's good time by shoving all of his limitations and theirs down their throats. Through the course of the season at the New England summer house, Norman learns to affirm life's possibilities rather than his own limitations. The catalyst for growth is a thirteen-year-old potential step-grandson, Billy Ray, left in Norman's and his wife Ethel's care while daughter Chelsea and boy friend go off to Europe. The movie ends with personal growth and tentative reconciliation in all generations.
"Old poop" that he is, Norman nevertheless can not be seen as a blocking figure. His daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) has her own life, admittedly not all that put together, and Norman is powerless to block her trip to Europe and subsequent marriage to Bill. The triumph of the film is not in the younger generation over the older as it is in traditional comedy or even in the older generation over the younger as it is partially in Miss Daisy. Rather it is the triumph of the forces of life over the forces of death in all three generations: Billy Ray, cynical and pseudo-sophisticated, becomes open to the wonder of life; Chelsea, self-deprecating and single, becomes self-appreciating and married; and Norman, preoccupied with dying, becomes enamored with living. Structurally On Golden Pond fits squarely in the vitalist tradition.
And the humor of the film is equally vitalist. The sense of the life force overcoming the mechanicalness of age is graphically demonstrated in Ethel's quivering. Katherine Hepburn's constant shaking and unsteady voice are overcome by her unwavering optimism and her steady love for Norman. And instead of laughing at the machine-like movements of her body, we smile inwardly at the inner suppleness of her spirit. Her quaking, instead of focusing our attention on her physical age and rigidity, accentuates the aliveness of her spirit.
Norman's mechanicalness is no more laughable than Ethel's but for an entirely different reason. Norman's rigidity is primarily moral or spiritual. He automatically responds to life—whether loon calls or a letter from his daughter—with cynicism and bitterness. Like a machine grinding out a product, Norman grinds out bitter jokes at his own expense, jokes which insist on proclaiming his growing limitations and the imminence of death. For example, when asked if he'd like to "watch the boat" at the dock while Ethel goes for the mail, he responds that he thinks he is "qualified" for the job. Norman's jokes are not likely to evoke laughter or even smiles from the audience because they so insistently deny any vitality in him or the world around him, so vehemently affirm death, we can find little humor in them.
The senior humor of On Golden Pond resides in the affirmation of life through risk-taking. The aged in order to embrace life must risk stumbling, getting lost, or looking foolish—to themselves or others. Ethel routinely risks looking foolish and thus becoming laughable. When the loons cry, she cries back. She makes up songs about the morning. At one point she is caught in her foolishness by her daughter when out in the woods she is dancing, in a jerky manner, and singing, in a tuneless voice, about Golden Pond. Chelsea, however, does not laugh derisively at this foolishness but smiles in recognition of Ethel's vitality, and so must the audience—again the laughter of the mind.
Norman, early in the film, defenses himself from failure by refusing to risk. No one can laugh at his foolishness if he has preempted laughter with his own bitter joke. But as the movie progresses, he learns to risk looking foolish in order to live. Near the end of Billy Ray's stay with the Thayers, Norman and Billy sneak off like young children to go fishing, trying to avoid Ethel's detection. Norman is here deliberately acting child-like, if not childish. The vitality of this scene is all the greater because we know that on his last fishing expedition, he nearly killed himself trying to navigate Purgatory Cove. Knowing that the choice to live may for the aged result in death enhances our appreciation of their vitality and at the same time mutes our laughter into smiles.
In a sense On Golden Pond, like traditional comedies, does conclude with a triumph of youth over age, but this is not a generational triumph. Rather it is the triumph of the child and the educator in Norman over the grouch. Norman learns that to live out old age means to find, in vitalist terms, daily rebirth, repeated restoration of lost balance, and the reassertion of a future. In the final scene, Norman recovers from a collapse that appears fatal and makes a vitalist joke about himself. He has survived. And he celebrates. He chooses to be laughable in order that youthfulness and life might triumph over age and death.
Both Driving Miss Daisy and On Golden Pond depict ways in which a life force works with the mechanicalness of old age, daily creating rebirth, restoring lost balance, and reasserting a future, if only for the moment, evoking in the audience a cerebral laughter. And both transform characters who might have been laughable as traditional senex figures whose demise is to be applauded into vitalist heroes whose survival is to be celebrated.
Critical Works Cited
Bergson, Henri. "The Comic in General." Laughter. Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company. 1965. 471-477. Reprinted from "Laughter" . Fred Rothwell, tr. Comedy. Wylie Sypher, ed. Doubleday & Company, 1956.
Frye, Northrop. "The Mythos of Spring: Comedy." The Anatomy of Criticism. Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965. 141-162. Reprinted from The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. 163-186.
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.
Meredith, George. Excerpts from "An Essay on Comedy." Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965. 466-470. Reprinted form "An Essay on Comedy" , collected works first published by Chapman & Hall, 1885-1895.
Watts, Harold H. "The Sense of Regain: A Theory of Comedy." Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Publishing Company, 1965. 192-197. Reprinted from University of Kansas City Review, Vol. xiii, No. 1 (Autumn, 1946), pp. 19-23.
Cocoon. A Zanuck/Brown Production. Twentieth Century Fox. 1986.
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.
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.