Senior Power: Who Laughs at What, and Why

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday May 31, 2011 - 06:02:00 PM

Who laughs at what… and why interest me.Mainly, laughter by-for-about the aged and aging. 

Theories of humor have been divided into 3 groups. In general, they are theories of (1) superiority or degradation, (2) incongruity, frustration of expectation, and (3) relief of tension or release from inhibition. Humor supposedly plays a safety valve role, providing institutionalized outlets for hostilities and for discontent ordinarily suppressed by the group. Like ageism, racism, sexism... 

Humor may be verbal, visual or physical. Although it is ultimately decided by personal taste, the extent to which an individual finds something funny depends on such variables as geographical location, culture, maturity, education level, intelligence and context

Ageism is discrimination based on one’s chronological age-- especially prejudice against, and disparate treatment of, the elderly. It manifests itself in unacceptable behavior that occurs as a result of the belief that older people are of less value than younger people. It lends itself to satire, sarcasm, ridicule and stereotyping. Fear has a lot to do with it too. 

Disparate treatment negatively impacts older persons’ ability to obtain employment and to receive serious consideration in many places in society. The ease with which people make fun of older Americans trickles down to the workplace. Casual comments that would never be tolerated if directed at a member of another protected class are acceptable, even routine. Here are some examples of this type of pejorative usage: Little old lady / “We need some new blood around here” / Fuddy-duddy / “You’ve had # years, and that’s enough” / “We need new energy” / Not a good cultural fit / “I’m not sure we want a grandpa working with our students.” 

When a late night talk show host makes fun of an African American or a gay politician, there may be nervous laughter, followed by a public discussion and the inevitable apology. There are no such taboos with age. Completely acceptable by society at large were some of David Letterman’s snappy remarks about John McCain (age 75) in the last presidential campaign: “John McCain looks like a guy whose head you can barely see over the steering wheel.” “John McCain looks like the guy who thinks the nurses are stealing his stuff.” Chuckle chuckle. 

An email has arrived from a “youngish writer in New York City,” who has “a lot of issues with ageism in the entertainment business” and feels “our stars should be men and women again, not fancied-up 25 year-old and under children.” Remember The Dick Van Dyke Show, the American television sitcom that ran for 5 years in the 1960s? Created by Carl Reiner and staring Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, it won 15 Emmy Awards. Remember The Mary Tyler Moore Show that ran from 1970-1977 and garnered 3 Emmy Awards? That email also reminded me of The Gin Game, originally a two-person, two-act play by D. L. Coburn that premiered in 1976. 

In May 2003 Moore and Van Dyke appeared together again. Van Dyke was 78 years old and Moore was 67 when they co-executive produced and starred in The Gin Game. 

Broadcast on PBS, it was described as “a bittersweet comedy” about a relationship that develops between two prickly, senior citizen-nursing home residents during a series of card games. It is more bitter than sweet, and not humorous. Each discovers that they are both gasp “on welfare.” The nursing home is unrealistic. Moore’s character is pictured as having her trunk delivered to her single room! (Unfortunately, the DVD is not closed captioned.) 

Now seventy-five, Moore has reportedly gone into a facility for surgery to remove a benign tumor on the lining of her brain. People magazine reports that meningiomas are extremely common and usually occur in older adults. Mayo Clinic staff describes a meningioma as a tumor arising from the membranes that surround one’s brain and spinal cord. Most are noncancerous (benign), though, rarely, a meningioma may be cancerous (malignant); they occur most commonly in older women, but a meningioma can occur in males and at any age. 


I was already old when I first recognized ageism in cartoons. Right there in front of me, a 1984 cartoon in the Mainichi Daily News, a Japanese English-language newspaper. It was captioned “Gaijins can’t believe that little old ladies are waiting to clean the urinal while they’re using it!” and accompanied by an admittedly humorous drawing of exactly that… a babushka’d little old lady waiting, mop in hand, next to an embarrassed gaijin (foreigner) partially facing the urinal. 

An advertisement arrived in the U.S. mail. It’s for Assisted Living; The Musical. It features songs like “Help, I’ve Fallen for You and I Can’t Get Up.” “The Uplifting Viagra Medley.” “The Lawyer’s Lament.” “Organ donor.” “AARP.” “Goin' To The Chapel and We're Gonna Get Buried.” Audiences are said to be laughing so hard, they cry. Am I the only one who finds this stuff offensive? This satirical revue is said to have opened to a standing ovation in Florida and will be in San Francisco in July. Meantime, go to

Is it not possible to think positively about old persons in humorous terms? “…the best cartoons not only produce laughs, they tell truths. And laughs last,” writes editor Mort Gerberg in his introduction to Last Laughs: Cartoons About Aging, Retirement… and the Great Beyond. Most of these full-page cartoons are original, made to order for the collection, although several have appeared in The New Yorker. They are indeed clever. But many negate aging and aged persons. I searched in vain through 133 pages of this trade book (Scribner 2007) for humorous truth-telling cartoons consisting of positive images or that acknowledge ageism. At best, there’s bland indifference. Like… Male M.D. to male patient: “You know what might be fun? An M.R.I.” Like… Two old males chatting in their club as decrepit tray-carrying waiter passes by: “Five hundred dollars Hodge dies before you get your Martini.” Like … Male M.D. to seated dowager-type female, “When he goes, should we tell you directly, or is there some euphemism you prefer?” 

For years The Bulbul Cartoon Service has been providing pithy humor that is both powerful and entertaining while underscoring ageism and its ally, sexism. Like… stylish granny reads to a child from a picture book, “The Easter Bunny joined a coalition of the egg decorators union, the jelly bean workers action committee, and the spring time mobilization for a living wage.” Like… a diverse group of old ladies study the DeLuxe Menu while displaying a People’s Hunger Project picketing sign; the caption is “Congressman smugly voted against our food stamps so we’re joining him for his expense account lunch.” (A scheduled display of some Bulbul single panel and strip cartoons was inexplicably cancelled at the North Berkeley Senior center.) [POB 4100, Mountain View, CA 94040.

English researchers report that people in general are mentally healthier in their later years despite problems associated with old age and impending death. Far from dwelling on a halcyon view of the past or a bleak future, pensioners (English senior citizens and elders are sometimes referred to as “pensioners”) have learned to live in the moment and adopt a "life is too short" attitude to negative feelings. Their problems may be greater—due to ill health and age-related decline—but researchers claim they are better able to deal with them because of experience. (How old are those researchers, one wonders.) 



Older men may be at risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, earlier in life than older women, according to information from the National Institute on Aging. A Mayo Clinic NIH-supported study suggests gender differences in cognition problems. MCI development and progression are more common in older men than in older women, and it is consistently higher in men than in women across all age ranges. 

“Some Observations on the Social Consequences of Forgetfulness and Alzheimer's Disease: A Call for Attitudinal Expansion” is a plea for change in the way Alzheimer’s disease is both publicly and professionally understood. N. Shabahangi, et al highlight the way in which the human process of forgetting as we age has been pathologized into a symptom of dread disease. They contend that age-associated cognitive changes such as forgetfulness are an essential aspect of growing older. 

A group of elderly Japanese engineers is prepared to come out of retirement for their final mission -- to fix the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Hiroaki Koide, the courageous Japanese antinuclear activist (See May 18, 2011 Senior Power column), and other age 60+ civil engineers are planning to set up a Skilled Veterans Corps to assist in restoring control over crucial cooling functions at the tsunami-hit nuclear Fukushima power plant. Decades of professional engineering expertise combined with a desire to protect younger workers from radiation exposure unite them. The idea was masterminded by Yasuteru Yamada, 72, a retired engineer alarmed by reports of young subcontractors undertaking the high-risk work. "Young people, especially those who have children in future, should not be exposed to radiation." Organizers dismiss potential comparisons with World War II kamikazi suicide pilot fighters. The proposal is supported by a number of politicians. 

Email your Senators by June 3 to oppose Medicaid cuts; go to for an easy email. The National Council on Aging is a nonprofit service and advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. It warns that Medicaid (California’s Med-I-Cal) is a prime target in current deficit reduction talks. The House of Representatives has already approved a budget that would cut Medicaid by almost $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years. This would be devastating to the millions of vulnerable seniors who rely on the program for long-term care and Medicare low-income protections. Now many believe that the focus of entitlement cuts is shifting to Medicaid. 




MARK YOUR CALENDAR: June-July-August 2011 Call to confirm, date, time and place: 

Wednesday, June 1 Noon. Playreaders, Central Berkeley Public Library, 2090 Kittredge. Meets weekly to read aloud from great plays, changing parts frequently. Intended for adult participants. Free. Also June 8, 15, 22 and 28. (510) 981-6160. 

Wednesday, June 1 10 A.M.-Noon North Berkeley Senior Center Advisory Council, 1901 Hearst. (510) 981-5190. 

Wednesday, June 1 9 A.M. – 1:30 P.M. Mastick Senior Center, 1155 Santa Clara Avenue, Alameda. AARP Driver Safety Refresher Course specifically designed for motorists who are 50+. To qualify, you must have taken the standard course within the last 4 years. Preregistration required; $12 per fee for AARP members; $14 for non-AARP members. Registration is payable only by check. (510) 747-7510. 

Thursday, June 2 10 A.M. Computers for Beginners. Central Berkeley Public Library. Free, Drop-In Classes - Relaxed Atmosphere - Self-Paced. Learn how to use the mouse, use the keyboard, set up e-mail and search the Internet. Also June 9, 16, 23, 30. 510-981-6148. 

Friday, June 3, 12:30 p.m. Downtown Oakland Senior Center, 2000 Grand Avenue. Movie-Lecture Series continues with Suddenly, Last Summer. Center Director Jennifer D. King will present this controversial 1959 classic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn and lead a discussion of the themes explored. Free but required RSVP by calling (510) 238-3284 or signing up at the Reception Desk. Refreshments. 

Saturday, June 4. Giant community flea market to raise funds for senior programs. North Oakland Senior Center, 5714 MLK, Oakland. For information: (510) 597-5085. 

Monday, June 6 6-6:50 P.M. Evening Computer Class. Central Berkeley Public Library. Free drop-in beginners’ computer class. (510) 981-6148. Also June 13, 20, 27. 

Thursday, June 6 5 P.M.,6 – 7:45 P.M. Lawyers in the Library, West. West Branch Library. 1125 University Ave. at San Pablo. Free legal advice. Sign-ups begin at 5 P.M. . “Names put in random order at 6 P.M.” Also June 23. (510) 091-6270. 

Wednesday, June 8 10 A.M. Emeryville Commission on Aging. Meets monthly on 2nd Wednesday, at the Senior Center, 4321 Salem St. Confirm (510)596-3730. 

Thursday, June 9 5 P.M.,6 – 7:45 P.M. Lawyers in the Library, South. South Branch Library, 1901 Russell St. Free legal advice and help. Referrals to Alameda County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service, or to an appropriate free or low-cost legal service provider, if necessary. Wheelchair accessible. In-person sign-ups only, begin at 5 P.M. . Names pulled by lottery at 6 P.M. 

Thursday, June 9 7 -8:45 P.M. Café Literario. West Branch Library. Part 2 of facilitated discussion in Spanish of Julio Cortazar’s Rayuela. Cortazar (1914-1984) was an Argentine poet, short story writer, and translator whose pseudonym was Julio Denis. Rayuela, es la gran novela de Julio Cortázar. El libro donde el escritor argentino supo condensar sus propias obsesiones estéticas, literarias y vitales en un mosaico casi inagotable donde toda una época se vio maravillosamente reflejada. 

Tuesday, June 14 10 A.M. Mastick Senior Center. “V A Benefits and YOU!” Michael Ennis, Alameda County Veterans Service Officer, will provide an overview of VA Benefits. To reserve a seat, sign up in the office or call 747-7506. 

Wednesday, June 15 World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Advocates from around the world set out to promote awareness, in an attempt to prevent elder abuse, the “silent epidemic” that is unacceptable in any language or circumstance. More in June 8 and 15 Senior Power columns. 

Wednesday, June 15 1:30 P.M. Berkeley Commission on Aging. Meets on 3rd Wednesday at South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis. Confirm. (510)9081-5178. 

Thursday, June 16 12:15 – 1 P.M. Central Berkeley Public Library Art & Music Dept. James Joyce & Jazz. Celebrate "Bloomsday" with Celtic/jazz vocalist Melanie O'Reilly and pianist Frank Martin, in a concert of original music inspired by Joyce's works, as well as contemporary arrangements of traditional works cited by Joyce. 

Saturday, June 18 11 A.M. – Noon. Landlord/Tenant Counseling, Central Berkeley Public Library. Housing Counselors from the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board offer free, one-on-one counseling sessions. (Third Saturday each month) They assist both tenants and landlords by answering questions and making referrals on housing related topics-- including security deposits, rent control, evictions, unpaid rent and other difficult issues. Contact Jacquelyn Morgan for more information at 510-981-7368 Ext 4917. 

Tuesday, June 21, 10 A.M. Mastick Senior Center. “Victoria’s Legacy on the Island.” Judith Lynch serves on the City of Alameda historical Advisory Board. She will provide an overview on Victorian history and culture, highlighting the 19th century building of Alameda. This program will meet for 6 weeks, and include 4 slide presentations and 2 walking tours. Sign up in the Mastick Office or call 747-7506. Class limited to 25 participants. 

Wednesday, June 22 1:30 P.M. - 2:30 P.M. Albany branch of the Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Ave. Great Books Discussion Group meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month. This month's book is A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Rosalie Gonzales facilitates the discussion. Come to one meeting, or all meetings. Books are available at the Library. (510) 526-3720 x16 

Thursday, June 23 1:30 P.M. Mastick Senior Center. Music Appreciation Class discussion and performance “Leroy Anderson: American’s Master of Light Music” 

Tuesday, June 28 3-4 P.M. Tea and Cookies at the Central Berkeley Public Library. A book club for people who want to share the books they have read. (Monthly on the 4th Tuesday ) (510) 981-6100. 

Tuesday, June 28 1 P.M. Mastick Senior Center. California Relay Service & YOU! 

A representative from Hamilton Relay (one of two providers of the California Relay Service (CRS) free service offered through the California Public Utilities Commission) will explain the various programs available. Register in the Mastick Office or call 747-7506. 

Wednesday, June 29. 2 – 3:30pm Become a genealogical super sleuth at the Berkeley Public Library, ready to research your family history. Electronic Classroom of the Central Library for the very popular introduction to, an online resource that offers searchable census tracts, immigration records, photos, stories and more. (510) 981-6100. 

Friday, July 15 8 A.M. – 2 P.M. Compassion & Choices of Northern California is a participant in the Healthy Living Festival. Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links Road. For information, email 

Wednesday, July 20 1:30 P.M. Berkeley Commission on Aging. Meets on 3rd Wednesday at South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis. Check to confirm (510)9081-5178.  

Wednesday, August 10 10 A.M – 2 P.M. Compassion & Choices of Northern California is a participant in the Healthy Aging Fair Festival. Chabot College, 25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward. Email 



Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at, no email attachments or phone calls.