In the comedy world, 2010 is the year of Betty White. The collective fawning over the 88-year-old funnywoman reached fever pitch when she hosted “Saturday Night Live” earlier this year. Her performance was critically acclaimed as fearless, and the result has been the unlikely rekindling of her career.
Unsurprisingly, much of White’s appeal can be traced to her willingness to riff on her advanced age, and play the role of a brazen, uncensored grandma. At the risk of violating the cardinal rule of comedy and explaining the joke, White’s humor is effective because she’s a seemingly sweet silver-haired old lady using language from the proverbial truck-driver lexicon. And while much has been made of White’s resurgence as a victory for the portrayal of the elderly in media, the stereotypes her work taps into are nothing new to comedy (see John Mahoney’s turn on Frasier, Granny from “The Beverley Hillbillies“, Sophia from “The Golden Girls“, etc.). And for all the chuckles, isn’t there something kind of mean in the subtext of Betty White’s performance on SNL? Aren’t we joking about senility here?
Today, Scientific American points out that although senility is no laughing matter, it does have an upside. Technically speaking, it’s called the decline of “executive function,” and according to researchers, it’s common for people of advanced age to experience at least some of it. A new study from The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology indicates that while grandpa or grandma’s sometime tactless words can be hurtful, it actually makes sense to listen to them. The experiment took college students and seniors and showed them a photograph of an obviously obese person complaining of fatigue, and asked them what advice they would give her. Those with declining executive function were a lot more harsh. Four out of five seniors in cognitive decline mentioned her weight, while the other groups skirted that issue by much larger margins. It should be noted that the bluntness the seniors displayed was tempered with real empathy and frequently came with a measure of sensible advice like a better diet and more exercise.
So while we may feel a tinge of guilt when we chuckle at Betty White’s antics, take at least a little solace in knowing that senility isn’t completely a bad thing, at least when it comes to telling it how it is. That said, this still doesn’t let Madea fans off the hook.