Comedy in a New Mood




Comedy in a New Mood







Chapter 9


Grumpy Old Men, On Golden Pond, and Driving Miss Daisy

 Senior Comedy and  Comedic Innovation in Rapidly Changing Times




Comedic Tenor,  Comic Vehicle:  Humor in American Film Comedy

Chapter 14



Comedy has been the dominant form of dramatic art in the film age.  By the definition of comedy we have used, most Westerns, most detective stories, most love stories, most stories of growing up, most stories of successful couples, even most horror movies and tales of space invaders are formed in America’s film industry into comedies, at least minimalist comedies.  Even television sit-coms, which from episode to episode may luxuriate in comickedy, have as a “show” some basic comedic form which may find at least miniscule elaboration from episode to episode.


And since comedy is so closely associated with the American film industry, it is easy to denigrate both as crass commercialism.  Without denying either the crass or the commercial in Hollywood, there is a second side to the coin. If Hollywood is commercial, it is also a vast industry.  And in particular, it is an industry (blatantly borrowing the phrase) of united artists.  In America since the Roaring Twenties, Hollywood has been the obvious destination of bright and ambitious artists.


In this sense, Hollywood has a seemingly unlimited endowment for supporting creative artists in developing their art.  No one can doubt what that endowment has done for motion picture technology, film technique, and the advancement of cinematographic artistry both at the personal and at the industry level.  There should be no reason to doubt that the same kind of endowment has allowed for the development of dramatic story-telling arts of all descriptions.


Some of that endowment and some of that personal artistic education gets turned into dramatic experimentation.  If the ratio of Class B trash to experimental advance is 10,000 to one, it is still artistically important to look for the one advance. And in fact, comedy as a genre has been advancing mightily throughout the film era, constantly experimenting in comedic plotting, concomitant humor, comedic symbolism, and a host of other related topics.  In the last three chapters, we have looked at a small part of the experimental success of A Mighty Wind, Forrest Gump, and Rain Man.  That all three are experimental is beyond question.  That all three have gained significant honors in the film industry is objectively provable.  And that all three were financially successful heavily implies that their experimental successes will not be ignored, that they will widen the range of talent and inspiration available to comedy in the future.


A fast-growing, constantly technologically super-charged film industry, in other words, has embraced a development of comedy beyond that of any other age since the origins of New Comedy itself.





Thus, we come to our final caveat for studies of the relationship between comedy and humor which we look forward to in the years ahead:  New wine needs new wine skins. The sensitive analysis of comedy and humor in the future depends not on re-identifying comedic clichés of the past but on recognizing new techniques and new modifications of comedic definition as formal comedy responds to very rapidly changing  social realities with rapid, protean changes within itself.


We live not only in times of rapid change in drama but also change in one demographic and political area after another.  All these developments put pressure on traditional conceptions of comedy and the kinds of humor that best provide its texture.  Comedic criticism must be quick to sense and investigate these developmental changes in comedic story-telling. For criticism to remain hide-bound risks increasing errors in judgment and ultimately an inability to define, consider, and articulate seminal trends in the theatrical arts.


In this chapter, we would like to epitomize this urgency for updated criticism by considering how the film industry is step-by-step developing a new comedy, the comedy appropriate for people who are living to be much older than normal life expectancy just a hundred years ago, a life expectancy of a totally different order from that with which playwrights from Plautus to Shakespeare dealt.


The demographics are necessarily approximate for earlier ages.  Nevertheless, for Shakespeare’s age, a life expectancy something around 45 years for men and somewhat less for women reflected much higher maternity mortality, much higher infant mortality, but also a generally short adult life  span.  Shakespeare retiring at age 48 strikes most of us as reasonable for a successful and preeminent dramatist, though an enormous loss to the storehouse of world classics.  For Shakespeare himself, it probably appeared quite differently, his affluence having come from being a theater partner rather than from being a superlative playwright, and his “early” retirement being at a date beyond the average male life expectancy of his age.  We don’t think that someone retiring at 75 is sloughing off in early retirement.  We shouldn’t think of Shakespeare retiring at mid-life.


For Roman times, male life expectancy little over 30 has been responsibly estimated. Again, infant mortality rates were very high, and therefore many males surviving infancy were going to be significantly older than 30 when they died.  That said, death at 30 or earlier was very far from unlikely.




So if we think of dramatic comedy as we know it (that is, as a descendant of New Comedy) being something like 2200 years old as a genre, the first 1900 of those years saw something less than a 15 year increase in male life expectancy compared to well over 30 years increased expectancy in the last 400 years most of the increase coming in the last 150 years.  There are few facts that more dramatically change social roles and expectations.


As we have already mentioned, in the age of Shakespeare, it was typical for comedy to work with a stereotypical senex (“old man”) figure, who typically had outlived a number of wives, gaining wealth from one dowry after another (in years, that probably made him somewhere between 30 and 45).  In the process, he had become a potentially very threatening antagonist for the young hero (who was typically young, virile, and marriage-inclined, probably 17 or a little older.)


Today, virile young actors don’t normally get lead parts until they are senex-aged themselves.  And with vast declines in maternity-related death, our young hero as actor probably has to worry more about the number of divorces eating into his asset base than about approaching death. The senex conventions of Shakespearean comedy are still romantically understandable but socially irrelevant to modern audiences.


At the same time, people living into their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s with much better health and vitality are themselves a new potential audience for comedy.  The movies for Americans have traditionally had audiences dominated by dating couples.  But the demographics of retirement have long since meant that legitimate stage audiences are overwhelmingly retiree audiences.  And such audiences eventually demand art that at least sometimes recognizes their own real concerns.  And their real concerns clearly have nothing to do with being senex suitors for the hands of college coeds or starting careers under inauspicious circumstances or winning wars and brides at the same time or building a new homes and a new lives in the demanding presence of overbearing in-laws.  That means that not only plot structure but traditional symbols within comedy must adapt or wither on the vine.  And the same need for adaptation clearly applies to humor texture as well.


A quick consideration of three Senior Comedies, Grumpy Old Men, On Golden Pond, and Driving Miss Daisy, can at least suggest the experimental direction of an entire new sub-genre.





Of the three, Grumpy Old Men lies closest to the long-run techniques of comedy.  It is definitely in the light comedic tradition, and it treats young-old protagonists who can still be interested in romantic marriage and rough-house competition with one another.  In contrast, On Golden Pond, and Driving Miss Daisy, move into dark comedic definition, borrow techniques from older dark comedic experimentation, and create new character types, techniques and symbols for progressively older protagonists.  The protagonists of On Golden Pond are 70 and 80, but they are still a couple, still deal with each other in romantic terms, still wrangle over inter-generational problems with their daughter, and haven’t as yet dealt with problems associated with a grandchild.  Driving Miss Daisy addresses a more advanced stage in life with Miss Daisy no longer part of a couple, removed and alienated from the concerns of her middle-aged son, and by the end of the movie not just restricted in mobility  and thus needing a chauffeur but now needing advanced nursing home help.   Perhaps it is inevitable that these later stages of old age, if they are to be at all realistic, must move toward somber comedic techniques and associated altered humor textures and conventional symbols.[1]   


For Grumpy Old Men, as light comedy, there is little need to reject conventional light comedy symbols, little need to redefine basic terms of the comedic definition, and little change in dominant humor forms.  For example, marriage is a conventional symbol of comedy, particularly romantic comedy.  In the traditional light comedic pattern, marriage serves as a substitute for the happy-ever-after children’s literature tag line.  And in cinema, marriage itself is often abbreviated simply to a close-up kiss across a very wide screen, á là Rock Hudson-Doris Day.


Marriage is a traditional symbol partly for itself—there is a success in getting someone to commit to you and join his or her life fortunes with yours.  But marriage is also the abbreviated symbol of having children and raising them.  From a secular perspective, this fact of child-bearing is the embodiment of survival for humanity, the promise of a new generation to erase some of the errors of the past but also to simply move forward toward marriage, more children, and an infinite regress away from failure to survive.


In Grumpy Old Men, we see a subtle definitional change in the symbol but no need for rejection of the symbol itself.  Ariel Truax  (Ann-Margaret) comes to town (she’s a professor over there at, would you believe it, Winona State University and evidently commutes up river to Wabasha because of her desire to live closer to nature).  She is past child-bearing years, but she is still a vivacious, terribly alive woman who arouses what’s left of John and Max’s hormones and immediately becomes irresistibly romantically attractive to both of them.




The marriage symbol, in other words, can no longer be plausibly argued to be abbreviated, to stand for child-bearing, and thus the entire comedic import necessarily shifts away from the sense of societal survival and toward personal relationship and personal success, a personal success that is augmented by the competition between John (Jack Lemmon) and Max (Walter Matthau).


So even in its light comedic variant, there are necessary shifts in comedic symbolism as we move into Senior Comedy, but these shifts are accommodated within traditional comedic import, typically with a somewhat restricted range of meaning compared to their meaning for young protagonists at the top of their game.


By the same token, the definitional elements of comedy do not need modification or restatement.  John is the clear winner.  Max is the clear loser. (Comedic patterning has Max as the master prankster but also the greater slob, not survival skills with women.)  Winning and success are equated.  So much so in fact that the sequel to Grumpy Old Men, Grumpier Old Men, immediately sets about rectifying the clear win/loss situation by Max finding a wife of his own (Sophia Loren). Max has to mellow some.


Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, of course, had perfected a couples comedy routine many years before as the Odd Couple.[2]  That couples comedy did not depend on children and didn’t even depend on romance.  It was a very old form then with antecedents at least back to Homer’s portrayal of the two Aiases. Couples comedy fundamentally celebrates the very old idea not only that two work better than one but that two may complement one another, make up for one another’s incompetencies, and perfect one another’s strengths.  Grumpy Old Men takes the long tradition of couples comedy and experiments with the next stage: what happens when the couple becomes avowed competitors to one another.  The answer in Grumpy Old Men is that they remain largely complementary figures anyway, especially when the object of their competition sees the value of their complementarity. 


This is a rather tense conclusion. Typical light comedy prefers unadulterated uplift as an abiding impression.  The sequel, therefore, can be seen as accepting the experimental success of Grumpy Old Men but, following the commercial rule of giving the audience what it wants, moving past the tense ending to a fuller reconciliation in Max also finding romantic success. (The impending wedding of John’s daughter and Max’s son also lessens the tension of competition and is yet another somewhat experimental use of the marriage symbol for culminating comedic success).


Needless to say, the senex convention of traditional comedy has been entirely done away with for Grumpy Old Men.  Almost all the action is restricted to Max and John’s generation, with the hilarious exception of Burgess Meredith as Grandpa Gustafson, so there is virtually no younger generation for the older to block, (and in Grumpier Old Men the theme of the older generation pushing the younger generation toward marriage rather than blocking them starts to turn the senex blocking technique on its head). 




Less obviously, the older generation is now no longer scoffed at as obviously impotent and obviously disgusting. These wouldn’t sell, of course, in Hollywood’s attempt to gain a new audience.  But also in many ways it wouldn’t move with the times and recognize in practical terms the wonderful advances in human vitality over the last century and a half.  If John and Max are, say, 68 at the opening of Grumpy Old Men, compared to adjusted life expectancy that might make them the equivalent of  38 at the time of Shakespeare or 28 at the time of Plautus.  And both these men are surprisingly spry, surprisingly vitally alive, and surprisingly unaware of their age in all their acts.


The new comedic role for young-old characters in Grumpy Old Men necessarily affects its humor texture, which again shows itself to be on a continuum with traditional light comedy.  There is a great deal of all four types of Humor of the Mind running throughout Grumpy Old Men.  John and Max are continually dueling each other quip for quip, so Word Play is obviously present and vying for a lead role.  The Incongruity of the two lifetime friends, the very differences which make them complementary to one another is also without question.  The rivalry between John and Max is simply a reason for them to intensify their practical jokes against one another, and the primitive Gotcha of the stinking, formerly frozen fish in the trunk provides some of the lightest and funniest moments.  And throughout, there is enough sympathetic pain for both John and Max to ensure humor based thereon as well as a sequel to get Max out of the pain of having lost to John.


There is enough Humor of the Mind, in other words, for just about anybody’s taste, but there are such strong arguments in favor of any of the four as lead elements that humor-or-the-mind texture embodying any two forms of humor as leads seems somewhat arbitrary and off the mark.


The humor that hits us over the head, of course, is Humor of the Body.  Grumpy Old Men is replete with slapstick body humor and heavily seasoned with sausage jokes, especially in the credits, as well as with sheer invective. Its bawdiness, which limited the film’s use for family viewing, (for mature audiences) at first blush might suggest a flimsy comedic message reinforced by cheap laughs. Grumpy’s body humor by itself could even suggest a return to Old Comedy’s heavy use of sexual innuendo and invective  (R. Grawe, Erich Segal).  


While Humor of the Body, especially sexual humor, is a powerful tool for staying in touch with our drives all through life, by itself body humor is typically adolescent. It reflects a sometimes eager, sometimes uncomfortable awareness of a fast-maturing body, expressing sexual braggadocio, rebellion, delight in shock value, as well as refusal to accept adult responsibilities.  At the outset of Grumpy Old Men, John and Max’s body humor is very suggestive of adolescent irresponsibility.  Most of us outgrow pranking, and most of us learn that the rewards for who can create the longest and most varied string of obscenities are pretty thin. Their use of adolescent humor suggests a return to childhood. And in fact the feud itself started in youth.




Yet as young seniors, they have their own discomfort concerning maturing bodies.  Sexual humor covers for lack of confidence in sexual ability and practice as well as awareness that their digestive systems, hearts. and musculature are not what they used to be, and that their memories are likely to start slipping. The rotting fish thrown into the back of the car symbolizes not just childish vindictiveness but deteriorating human bodies. And in fact seniors commonly laugh at their deteriorating bodies and brains as a way of coping, shucking decorum in favor of genuineness.  Additionally, seniors typically are shucking responsibilities, or are looking to do so:  their children are raised, their careers are behind them, and society is going to go its own way anyway. And thus they can enjoy expressing that freedom by lifting inhibitions that adult responsibility earlier imposed.   So while bawdy humor is by no means a sine qua non for Senior Comedy and its humor, bawdy and body humor is not at all inappropriate, and can be used by women as well as men.


We might then need a humor-of-the-body quadrilateral to do Grumpy Old Men justice. But that too would be inadequate precisely because a third humor group, humor evidently not analyzed at all before Henri Bergson’s seminal work, Laughter, in 1900 has increasingly come to the fore in Senior Comedy.


This new kind of humor investigated by Bergson is called Vitalist humor and was first championed in English literary circles by George Bernard Shaw.  It was further explored at mid-century by Susanne Langer, the American philosopher, in Feeling and Form.   Vitalist humor is humor derived from simply appreciating life and from choosing life over death. Of the two, it is Langer who most insightfully explores the positive humorous appreciation of life itself.  Langer emphasizes the humorous response from watching the extraordinarily alive, life winning out when it seems that there is no win possible.  Her great example is a fish who lost part of his tail in a close-call evasion of a large predator way back in, let’s call him Charlie’s, youth.  Now, Charlie is the biggest fish in the pond.  He swims with a decided list, but this seems to make him all the more deadly as he preys on the young and innocent who haven’t factored in what a list can do for his attack. Our delight in Charlie winning out over adversity is Vitalist humor. And it is positive Vitalist humor.  It results typically in light smiles rather than deep guffaws, and for that reason can be difficult to recognize.


The Bergsonian side of Vitalism is easier to recognize.  Bergsonian Vitalism doesn’t focus on the superlatively alive but on the “mechanical encrusted on the living”—the all-too-real tendency for death to begin before life ends, to encrust itself on us as fixed habits and ideas that are anything but supplely alive.  And according to Bergson, we love to laugh such death-in-life off stage, our very laughter thus helping us to stay alive ourselves, to defy death.  This basically satiric and scourging laughter often comes in deep guffaws and is thus easier for both scholars and the general populace to admit.





Bergson is routinely deferred to among humor scholars.  Langer is largely neglected.  And ordinary people often absolutely refuse to admit that they ever succumb to Langer’s positive Vitalist laughter.  To get around this incredulity, we often suggest that people consider a nursing home, really consider it in its great unpleasantnesses of lost abilities and hopelessness.  Into this environment, bring a child of under 18 months (Robin did this with our children, so we speak from experience).  Without our experience, what do you expect?


If you are uninhibited enough to flow with human instinct, you know the answer.  The infant comes in; smiles break out.  The child is a magnet.  Little old ladies suffering from dementia can remember “kitchy, kitchy coo” perfectly well.  And someone will come up just beaming simply to feel infant skin.  Life responds to life.  And it responds humorously.[3] For similar reasons, hospitals and nursing homes now often have fish in tanks, birds in cages, and maybe if they are courageous a visiting puppy dog.  All produce a healthy, positive, uplifting humor that makes the grim a great deal more bearable for everyone. Colts, kittens, bear cubs, and lion cubs—all are vitally alive as only the newborn can be, and they all possess enormous potential to be centers of Langerian humor.


When this line of attack fails to make believers in positive Vitalist humor, Paul typically moves to bars in Wisconsin and football games, not for the beer but for the example.  You are in a bar on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.  The Vikings are playing the Packers at Lambeau field.  The bar is filled with laughter.  Why?  It is a high-vitality moment, one in which a Minnesotan is wise not to be wearing purple.


Move on to a less tense situation: the Packers are playing anybody else other than the Vikes.  Brett Favre has been playing poorly, there is no running game, and the Pack is losing by too much to catch up.  But then Farve throws a long bomb, caught by one of his favorite wide receivers, who manages to pull the ball down from the fingertips of one hand, to drag his second foot in-bounds and to hold onto the ball despite a vicious tackle.What’s happening in the bar? If you are still in denial, the right answer is that the bar will explode in laughter.  And the laughs will likely be just as great or greater for the instant replay.


And one more football example for the hardened, I-don’t-laugh-at-life crew.  You like Paul are a graduate of Northwestern.  You know they are the dog meat of the Big Ten in everything.  But then, mirabile dictu, somewhere back in the ‘90’s they manage to go to the Rose Bowl.  They are soundly trounced by the Pac 8 representative.





Do any grads remember who the Pac 8 representative was?  Very few.  Are they still laughing? Yes.  Why?  Because in the brilliant sunshine of Southern California, what was clear to them was they might be dog meat, but they were still alive, still kicking in the Big Ten.  The laughter among NU grads around the world probably still reverberates.


Even with all these examples, we hit repeated incredulity with respect to Langerian laughter, which led to our designing a Vitalist humor test.  With the help of always wonderful volunteers first at Winona State and then throughout Winona and the Midwest, we were able to test whether Langerian (life-affirming) laughter could ever hold a candle to Bergsonian (death-defying).  We found that there was a quite normal curve of preference for Langerian over Bergsonian humor and vice versa.  In other words, in real world testing without preconceived ideological positioning, Langerian humor can as easily be preferred over Bergsonian as Bergsonian can be preferred over Langerian.   Moreover, preference between Langerian and Bergsonian humor has yielded many of the wonderfully unexpected kinds of real world correlates we had already found for Humor of the Mind (R. Grawe, Congregational). 


So if you don’t want to believe in laughing at, or rather with, exceptional life, don’t.  It is philosophically impeccable in Langer, it has been demonstrated in repeated empirical tests, and you can test it for yourself at your local nursing home or sports bar.


In Grumpy Old Men Vitalist laughter comes into its own.  John and Max are both Bergsonianly funny in their fixed idea of eternal competition and never-ending feud. Their competitiveness has become mechanical, their insult exchanges are knee-jerk, their eating habits are rigid (as well as unhealthy), and their love of ice fishing is obsessive.


At the same time, John and Max are strong figures of Langerian Vitalism.  Neither one knows or acts his age, and from a Langerian perspective this is immensely like the life force that doesn’t allow Charlie as the big fish in the pond to know that he is a hopeless cripple.  These two, precisely because they defy senex-identification and do so precisely in testosterone and libido, are death-defying in the best Bergsonian tradition but also extraordinarily alive in life-affirming Langerian fashion.  And thus Humor of the Body becomes an expression of both forms of Vitalism. Grandpa Gustafson pushes the positive Vitalist joke a full generation further.




The purest example of Langerian Vitalism, however, is Ariel Truax, who absolutely refuses to conform to societal expectations, who finds life and joy everywhere and who luxuriates in things like making snow angels and snowmobiling at breakneck speed. She’s the kind of vitally alive, in-touch-with-nature person who catches the trophy fish ice fishing, admires its beauty and throws it back before the saner (?) males can stop her.  Ariel reminds us all that being child-like is not a sin but instead is that much closer to Garden-of-Eden innocence and liveliness,  to having “the world before them” as John Milton noted some three centuries ago.  If you are not smiling at Ariel Truax, you are missing something.[4]  


Thus the humor-of-the-mind textures quite typical of quality American film light comedy start to become less profitable for humor analysis in young-old comedy like Grumpy Old Men.  Instead Vitalist humor emerges as the dominant humor form, overshadowing mental humor and transforming body humor from the purely tawdry to the affirmation of life in all its functions. And Vitalist humor is essentially Humor of the Spirit, a celebration of life as well as a defiance of death. Such celebration springs not from the mind but from the human spirit. Vitalist humor can be ethereal. (There is something a little bit ethereal about Ariel.) Yet in Grumpy Old Men, we find not merely an etherealizing into Humor of the Spirit but rather a blending of both Humor of the Spirit and Humor of the Body. (There is something extremely down to earth about Ariel!)



Thus, Grumpy Old Men and similar young-old comedies can be analyzed in traditional light comedic and humor-of-the-mind terms.  But the critical results are not so much misdirected criticism, as increasingly myopic criticism.  Subtle transformations are taking place, a few conventions like the senex figure have been entirely discarded, standard forms of light comedic humor are still prevalent, but Vitalist humor is coming on strong, and Humor of the Body is introduced in far more artistically serious ways than what we find in lampoons or stand-up comedy, in ways in fact reminiscent of dark comedic experimentation from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The combination in Grumpy Old Men creates a buoyant celebration of life and in the new adventures possible for the young old. The on-going costs associated with age are overcome, minimized, or made light of through death-defying Bergsonian laughter, life affirming Langerian laughter, and rejuvenating body humor.  


But at some point, we must cross almost imperceptibly into dark comedic Senior Comedy. In Grumpy Old Men, as in light comedy generally, the audience has little trouble accepting a happy-ever-after ending without a virtual future in which on-going costs play an artistically determined major part.  That is true for Grumpy Old Men in part because the protagonists do not look forward to death or predicate any of their actions on a perception of death’s approach. (Max’s heart attack and Grandpa Gustafson’s sudden death act as turning points for plot and attitude, but they do not seriously darken the virtual future. Death happens.) With Shakespeare’s Prospero, however, there has to come a point when every third thought is on death. (Prospero’s admission just as he gives his young daughter away in marriage, is a stark example of the demographic changes we have been at pains to emphasize.)




For thoughts on death, we turn to On Golden Pond, where as the film opens, certainly more than one third of Norman Thayer’s expressed thought seems to dwell on death, resulting in a  profound change in humor texture.  Norman constantly tells “jokes” focusing on his own growing failings and on the inevitability of imminent death.  The quotations around jokes are an important and necessary qualification because Ethel does not find them funny nor do those on stage less closely associated with Norman.  And most importantly, we don’t as audience.  The jokes, if they are jokes at all, are interior jokes with the teller being equally the only receptive audience for the humor.  It is tempting to call this mirthless laughter, but with the qualification that it is the hearers who aren’t finding it funny. We can’t know for sure whether Norman himself is laughing.  


What happens to an audience psychologically when such a breakdown of conventional laughter is displayed on stage?  Anton Chekhov at the turn of the twentieth century experimented with just this question in plays like Uncle Vanya and Cherry Orchard.  But then Chekhov was annoyed when his upper-class directors, Stanislavski and Danchenko, didn’t seem to get the humor or the comedy involved and instead seemed to produce Chekhov as unmitigated tragedy (Magarshack). Similarly, we can expect that disintegrating humor will leave a normal audience disconcerted and confused.  On Golden Pond has benefited from the dark comedic experimentation of the legitimate stage, and it clearly anticipates the disconcerted and confused humor response to be used artistically and forcefully for its own purposes. 


Chekhov has been generally thought of as originating a “stuttered rhythm” of humor. While Shakespeare’s romances.anticipate this experimentation, the phrase is apt, and especially through the first half of On Golden Pond, there is a clear stuttering between Norman’s cynically self-satiric humor and Ethel’s unconquerable Langerian vitality.  Ethel laughs at the mechanical in both herself and Norman, characteristically referring to him as an Old Poop, which certainly starts to bring in senior body humor.  But while she laughs at herself, she also laughs with herself as she calls to loons, dances in the woods, sings camp songs, however brokenly, and relishes every moment for wild blueberry and strawberry picking.  In short, she is visibly amused both by Bergsonian and Langerian stimuli.




When Billy Ray enters Ethel and Norman’s life (as a discarded annoyance by his father whose interest is fully centered on Norman’s vivacious daughter), yet another new humor is introduced through him.  Norman is a former professor whose life had been bound up in words.  He finds a good many of Billy Ray’s words to be pretentiously ill-mannered and uncivilized in a 13-year-old, phrases like “sucking face” used for “kiss,” for example. So we have not only adolescent body humor but also the mature adult reaction to it. Adults know rebellion and braggadocio when they hear it.


As a word pro, however, Norman isn’t into direct word confrontation.  When Billy Ray turns back on Ethel and Norman as his father’s car drives off toward a European vacation cum lover, he viciously repeats the word “bullshit” to express his general disgust and particular sense of careless abandonment.  Norman picks up the word and throws it back, asking if Billy Ray has a particular fondness for it.  Billy Ray of course does.  Norman stops for a moment, then assents that bullshit is a fine word.  The moment brings a tense laugh which might be analyzed as a form of Word Play but goes much beyond just Word Play.


Later, Billy Ray again accosts the elderly couple verbally, indicating that he will not be pleased with suggestions of enjoying nature or going fishing with Norman, ultimately calling the oldsters “turkeys.”   To the extent that this temper tantrum can be considered funny, it seems to evoke the senex , taken out of the Latin and Americanized as “turkey.” 


This time, Norman almost immediately counterattacks, a delayed hit carefully and professionally planned.  His opener is “Bullshit!” rapidly followed with a witty  commandeering of the turkey epithet, and ending more or less with a direct order for Billy Ray to get his ass in gear down to the dock.  Humor of the Body is exerting itself here, but interestingly it is the oldsters who are the past masters of this sort of thing, and Billy Ray is solidly outclassed for very definite, older generation purposes of reestablishing authority.


There is a degree of mirthlessness  in this humor, which is fully integrated with important practical purposes of an aged word master.  A certain amount of humor in Senior Comedy revolves around sudden recognition that they may be old, but the oldsters are also long-time pros with high-class survival and success talents of their own.


At the same time the battle of wits between Billy Rae and Norman, with humor-of the-body weapons connects Norman to Billy Rae and to his own adolescence. If John and Max in Grumpy Old Men were acting like adolescents, Norman takes on adolescence in order to master it.  But in doing so, he begins to take on the better part of youthfulness—vitality, playfulness, and enjoyment of life. What starts as confrontation grows into camaraderie, and eventually the two become co-conspirators in affirming life. In both Grumpy Old Men and On Golden Pond, body humor expresses a certain youthful, even immature, attitude and simultaneously an awareness of age, and in both films body humor, along with Vitalist humor, becomes incorporated into the survival formula. It takes a child to turn Norman from a bona fide senex into a comedic player whose success and survival we can celebrate.




There is a progression of humor in On Golden Pond, from Norman’s mirthless humor through youthful body humor, flowing into Ethel’s Vitalism, and it parallels a progressive plot where Ethel is finally forced to take a strong hand with her husband rather than brushing him off with a vitality-laden “Old Poop”; where she is finally forced to slap her daughter, Chelsea,  to break her of an incurable Norman-like fixation with her complaints, evidently based in reality, about childhood traumas with Norman; and where ultimately she has to take Billy Ray aside to tell him the basic facts of life for comprehending and judging other people.


As Ethel matures, Norman has few options other than outright war or a growing maturity of his own. Fortunately for Norman, Billy Ray provides the catalyst for Norman’s revitalization. As Harold Watts has so brilliantly argued, one of the major directions of sophisticated, artistic comedy is the Comedy of Regain. And that comedy is quintessentially the comedy of On Golden Pond.  Norman regains a zest for life that he has been sophisticatedly rejecting in his wife.  He regains a youthful and positive perspective partly through Ethel’s love and her growing determination not to let the evils around her ruin the good that life still has.  And he regains youth and perspective through Billy Ray, through the son he never had, through trying to make a success of thrown-away vitally young material, and by accepting himself as the old fool he has become.  Norman starts the movie denying that he hears the loons that Ethel hears welcoming them to the northern woods.  He ends the movie hearing the loons and telling Ethel that they are calling their autumnal goodbye.


And as the crowning symbol of Norman’s success, Billy Ray and he of course do catch Walter.  (Ethel’s success is more complexly symbolized in a family vacation that doesn’t end in a fight, in her daughter living up to the challenge of doing a back dive, and Norman and Billy Ray obediently fishing right off the Thayer dock.)  Equally significant with Norman’s success, we never see Walter in full profile because Billy Ray and Norman figure that if he has lived this long, he deserves to live longer. (If Old Walter were a senex, he would be expendable. The notion that if one has lived a long time, he/she deserves to live longer turns the senex model on its head.)


Thus On Golden Pond demonstrates  high creativity and experimental use of modulating humor, beginning with the stuttered rhythms of disillusioned dark comedy and moving to the conventional rhythms of light, positive vitality, and along the way body humor for generational combat and communion.   This modulation in humor announces an entirely separate experimental triumph of On Golden Pond.  The plot very neatly is a fivefold comedy in that Norman’s success is not Ethel’s success, is not Chelsea’s success, is not Billy Ray’s success, and certainly isn’t Walter’s survival.  And yet, all five comedic actions are real, patterned, and interwoven, and all are examples of Watts’ great perception of comedic regain.  Shakespeare managed to write multiple comedic plotlines successfully, particularly in Twelfth NightOn Golden Pond is very extraordinary comedy in coming so close to Shakespearean standard in this area.





Five comedies interwoven is work enough.  Making any of them dark comedic is an added tour de force.  Both Ethel’s and Norman’s successes are played out against a constantly darkening landscape of approaching death.  Norman turns 80, still recognizing in oration the inexorable slide toward death.  And almost at the end of the film, he has an angina attack hard to distinguish from a stroke, and that attack finally forces Ethel to take death seriously.  It is Ethel’s and Norman’s joint comedy that they are now able to face growing dusk together, determinedly vitalistic in Ethel’s tradition without denying reality issues that have been Norman’s forte.


The fundamental darkness of On Golden Pond is the recognition that the golden sunset does after all have a relatively short moment followed by night.  There isn’t a spiritual dimension of this screenplay looking to any brighter day.  And therefore it is impossible to believe in a future for Ethel and Norman that doesn’t have death as every third thought, that doesn’t recognize coming night in brilliant sunset moments, that isn’t threatened with another angina attack at any moment, that isn’t accompanied by even more advanced forms of the quaking that provides the Bergsonian mechanical balance to Ethel’s Langerian exuberance.  These are all certainties.  The realities of the virtual future can only be less positive.  If these darkening agents are not enough, Norman in particular could always start to consider the justice behind Chelsea’s long-term resentments, and it is not clear that Norman has clear enough perceptions of repentance and forgiveness to make anything more positive of a seemingly irremediable past.


For Chelsea, the comedic victory is considerably more positive, and she still has years ahead to appreciate a new marriage with Billy Ray’s father, her professional conquest of Los Angeles, and the like.  But it has been repeatedly demonstrated in the movie that she has an inner bent that dwells on what she didn’t get as a child.  Ethel’s reprimand has gotten her on a much better track.  We can hope she will stay on that track, but it is only realistic that her virtual future will at least be faced with repeated temptations toward bitterness, recrimination, and personal failure that outward success will be at pains to overcome.


Billy Ray’s success is lighter still.  He has regained the youth a 13-year-old should have.  He has learned to put aside a hard-shell sophistication which is just its own version of Bergson’s mechanical encrusted on the living. He’s learned to enjoy nature.  He’s learned to be loved. He’s learned to love in return. On Golden Pond is another transitional work toward full Senior Comedy because Billy Ray keeps a good deal of the focus on giving youth a chance to live, which is the typical thrust of traditional comedy.  There are darker sides that tinge Billy Ray’s virtual future, but they are lightly sketched and not insisted upon, so let us not insist on them here and mar the lightness Billy Ray’s success brings.





And that leaves Old Walter.


He’s a survivor, that crafty Old Walter—sneaking right back to Norman’s front door while Norman and Billy Ray look for him everywhere else, even in Purgatory Cove.  Walter’s still out there, still swimming around, still the target of choice for Golden Pond fishermen.  Life’s tough that way.  So he has a tough virtual future.  But rejoice with Walter that he’s still swimming.  Survival’s like that, one day at a time.


On Golden Pond is an intensely personal, here-and-now comedy.  The shortened time horizon of aging in a sense forces that here-and-now character whether the success and survival is Ethel’s, Norman’s, or Walter’s. It also creates an odd sense of urgency despite the peacefulness of the woods and the loon calls, an urgency to accomplish much in the short span of the summer.


 As we turn to Driving Miss Daisy, we see not one short summer in old age but rather decades of progressive aging, a long transition from independence to near-total dependence.  Reinforcing the passage of time, the film weaves many themes that clearly move well beyond the here-and-now. Throughout the screenplay, we are repeatedly drawn back to Boolie Werthan’s office where changes in exterior, changes in interior decorating, and most of all changes in mechanization of the textile industry give a brief economic history of Atlanta from post-war to almost the Carter administration.


Similarly, the film dwells on changes in ethnic relations and highlights a seminal definition of Southern realities by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The changing political complexion of the South is epitomized in Boolie’s family and his wife Florine’s rise to be National Republican Committeewoman from Georgia.  And of course the film sensitively considers Jewish realities in Atlanta and across the South during the entire historical period otherwise covered.


All these themes deserve extended treatment.  For our purposes here, discussing comedy and its relationship to humor, much of that extended discussion is outside our immediate concerns.  But selected parts of each of these themes are important to the comedic import and formative to some of the humor.


With respect to comedic import, it is important to recognize that everyone in the household of Daisy Wertham (played by Jessica Tandy) is a believer.  Miss Daisy’s Judaism is lived out in synagogue and its associated women’s groups.  Idella and Hoke are believing Christians, whose faith easily intermingles with their daily discussion—for example, Hoke comments to Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) that it only took six days to get Miss Daisy to accept his chauffeuring, the same time it took the Lord to create the universe.  At Idella’s funeral, Hoke and Miss Daisy can sit as fellow mourners, the only time they sit together until he sits beside her in the nursing home.  In contrast to On Golden Pond, this emphasis means that we cannot limit ourselves to the here and now in considering what Miss Daisy might mean when she says to Hoke that “Idella was lucky,” evidently referring to her sudden and relatively early death, and Hoke’s thoughtful reply, “Yes’m.”





It is also important for comedic import to recognize that Hoke’s self-assertion grows with the Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King era.  Miss Daisy consistently claims that she is not prejudiced.  Hoke moves wisely and slowly to make her boast a reality and an American triumph in its most vulnerable weakness.  In many senses the film’s climax comes when Miss Daisy, having just snapped out of a delusional episode, takes Hoke’s hand and says, “You are my best friend.”  The closing scene in the nursing home, in which Miss Daisy is no longer able to lift a fork to her mouth and more than allows Hoke to hand-feed her Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, presents Hoke as friend in the image of his Master—what a friend we have in Jesus, as the choir sings at Idella’s funeral.


Without even nailing down the import that derives from such redundant elements, it should be absolutely clear that Driving Miss Daisy forcefully asserts that there is important work to do in old age, work that should be a fulfillment of the best directions of the past.  In comparison to On Golden Pond, the difference here is only that On Golden Pond does not refer back to very good directions in the past.  It seems to suggest that despite very bad directions in the past in virtually everything except Ethel’s Vitalism and love, good things are still possible, important work still offers itself, and it will be a shame if that opportunistic work is not done well.  Driving Miss Daisy, on the other hand, is at pains to show the beginnings of very important work, foundations laid still within Hoke’s normal working life and continuing in both Miss Daisy and Hoke throughout the rest of their lives. (In all this, it is easy not to notice Boolie’s success—he took the risks, laid the foundations in opposing his mother and setting directions for her life, and paid Hoke year after year in a consistently more successful enterprise.  Boolie’s long-suffering humiliations in service to his mother complemented by his obvious support for his wife and care for his business and employees certainly deserves the title of friend in the same ultimate sense as the word is appropriate to Hoke.)


And thus, if On Golden Pond is a five-fold comedy, Driving Miss Daisy is at least threefold.  And this suggests yet another propensity of Senior Comedy to assert that senior success comes in multiples, not as isolates.  Traditional comedy often has an isolated hero climbing to success in business without really trying or some variant.  Traditional comedy has often also been couples comedy, two against the world with something of Milton’s Edenic vision of the world before them.  Neither On Golden Pond nor Driving Miss Daisy is anywhere close to either of these traditional patterns.  Hoke and Miss Daisy do indeed make an odd couple, but the world is not all before them; their challenge is to close out with grace if possible and with forbearance as necessary.




At the same time, Driving Miss Daisy is very much Miss Daisy’s story—a woman’s story. Because of another demographic fact—that while the entire populace is living longer, women tend to outlive men—comedy about the truly aged has to focus a great deal on women.  And herein lies the necessity of another new comedic convention.  Traditional comedy has been frequently, though not invariably, a man’s or men’s story, with the woman or women often the prize. But an aging female population (along with the feminist movement)[5] has shifted the focus of comedy to put women more at the center of concern. In some cases the scarcity of men can make the male the potential prize, as in The Whales of August. While the title of Grumpy Old Men focuses on males, Ariel vies with either of the men for protagonist; On Golden Pond as a five-fold comedy gives considerable attention to the stories of both Ethel and Chelsea; and Driving Miss Daisy, though creating a duo in Miss Daisy and Hoke, is a story focusing on Miss Daisy.


It is also undeniable in any fashioning of comedic import that Driving Miss Daisy is a success story, as opposed to a survival story.  Miss Daisy, Hoke, and Boolie all age from incident to incident throughout the screenplay.  And it is the humble Boolie who most articulates this in prefacing his remarks on winning the Chamber of Commerce award with references to his growing girth.  In other words, while film can easily manipulate its images to create the feel of indefinite agelessness and often does so for romantic heroes and heroines, the march toward death is ruthlessly visualized in Driving Miss Daisy.  But what is important is the crucial work that needs to get successfully completed in the time that has been allowed.  This sense of limited time to achieve crucial success is equally apparent in On Golden Pond in Norman’s relationship with Billy Ray and derivatively in his relationship with Chelsea.


The darkening agents of Driving Miss Daisy are varied but of course are all related to the virtual future.  Miss Daisy herself emphasizes her disgust with Boolie and his wife for their constantly minimized Judaism.  Florine’s rise to Republican Committeewoman by the end of the movie suggests a total switch in partisan identification and allows nothing in the virtual future that might reverse the trend toward at best nominal Judaism.





Throughout the screenplay, America’s enormous vulnerability on race issues is always allowed expression.  And in Martin Luther King’s speech, there is a clear virtual future, that in the final judgment, there may be more bad to say about the weak behavior of the “children of light” than about the bad behavior of the “children of darkness.”  In a context of believers in the same eternal God, this is dark comedy virtual future in starkest articulation.


And of course, there is no denying for the virtual future that the sands of time are inevitably running out, that the victories achieved are final victories, and that a great deal else—Miss Daisy’s clearly misguided relationship to her son, for example, and her unrepented-of superiorities and insensitivities to Hoke and Idella—are unlikely to be meaningfully corrected in any virtual future that may be left.


With survival so clearly the issue, and  with the march toward death so much at the surface in Driving Miss Daisy, it is hardly surprising that the old conventions of light comedy have been replaced with new treatments for the old-old and that humor in Driving Miss Daisy is very much subdued.


In fact, 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 can be seen as a female senex standing in the way of Boolie’s hiring Hoke as a chauffeur to provide for her growing needs. 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 allow the next generation to come on line.  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 at his employer's expense.  His laughter and ours mark the deviation from traditional senex humor which the film will follow.  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.  From Miss Daisy’s perspective, Boolie is laughed off stage, and Miss Daisy triumphs. Miss Daisy is no longer an impediment to a comedic hero but a heroine, a success story, herself.





Traditional senex humor typically arises from the elder character's refusal to admit limitations and the legitimacy of youth's vitality.  Miss Daisy’s pride and stubborn resistance to admitting her limitations can be seen as mechanical.  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 affinity with the life force asserting itself, growing out of stubbornness and then overcoming it. 


This pattern is well illustrated when Hoke suggests that she turn down the heat under her fried chicken. At first she bristles, 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. Bergsonian mechanicalness evolves into Langerian vitality. This vitality and Vitalist humor are reinforced in the rollicking clarinet theme, evoking the rolling wheels of Miss Daisy’s car, that opens and closes the film, carrying a much-challenged comedic optimism even beyond the nursing home.


The study of formal comedy always starts with Aristotle, and there’s a certain appropriateness in ending where it all began.  Aristotle saw comedy as the domain of trivial writers, writing about trivial people.  His view was predicated in part on his aristocratic sense of important and significant actions being matters of state.  It was also predicated on his having only Old Comedy to analyze and his sense that the sexual earthiness of Old Comedy and its one-line jabs at political opponents were appropriate sources of the ludicrous but totally inappropriate vehicles for serious thought on important matters.


Now 2300 years later, the world faces an overwhelmingly powerful dominant film comedic genre, but not a genre derived from Old Comedy.  It is instead, dominantly, a genre derived from New Comedy with a central formal, not humorous, definition.  That dominantly powerful genre is often represented by clearly second-rate, mechanically-created, unthoughtful productions which certainly merit Aristotle’s censure as derivative from trivial minds.  At the same time, modern formal comedy is capable of enormously elaborated artistic achievement and extremely thoughtful commentary on the issues which form our lives, guide our judgments, and inform our times.


Comedy today is a rapidly evolving genre.  It is still confused with work whose essential definition depends on humor, work which we have tried to give separate respectable identity under a new title of “comickedy.”  And while formal comedy has never been dependent on humor for its definition, we hope as we close this study that the amazing range of symbiotic artistic relationships between humor and comedy is at least somewhat elucidated and more likely to be appreciated, including the darker symbioses of some of the most successful of recent experimental comedy.






[1] For a more in-depth discussion of humor in Senior Comedy, see R Grawe, “Vitalist Humor in American Senior Comedy” and “Humor and the Comedic Restoration of Balance in The Whales of August.”

[2] The award-winning film, The Odd Couple, based on Neil Simon’s play and screenplay, was released in 1968. It was followed by an ABC TV series (1970-1975) of the same name starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (The Internet Movie Database, Odd Couple).

[3] In fact, Calderdale Royal Hospital in England has found that babies so routinely elicit such reactions from even strangers that it has posted signs asking for respect for babies’ personal space.  Outcry over the signs has provoked political bloggers to consider the rights of babies, the responsibilities of mothers, and on and on (“Hospital Bans”).

[4] Ariel Truax has a very real special relationship to the real Winona State, an in-joke that makes all WSU Warriors smile and that the author of the screenplay has specifically cited as inspiration for his work.  The positive vitality of a single faculty member, in short, can become an institution within an institution for itself and becomes its own proof of the power of positive, Langerian Vitalism

[5] In the last several decades American film comedy has produced numerous films that in Shakespearean tradition give women strong or central roles.  From our own limited case studies, Janet in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels turns out to be the great behind-the-scenes con, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding is Toula’s story.



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