The Best Medicine

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

May 15, 2009 5 min read


Laughter has found great company with senior comedians

Vicky Katz Whitaker

Creators News Service

You're never too old to laugh -- and make others do it too.

A growing number of seniors are finding that out first hand, signing up for comedy workshops, writing their own one-liners and, in some cases, going on the road.

Just ask 76-year-old Mavis Pickett. A retired educator, she launched her show business career at age 68 and has become one of Canada's best known stand-up comediennes. Pickett performs at clubs and events in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Palm Springs, Calif.

"I'm surprised at how well my routine is accepted by young people at a comedy club," said Pickett, whose humor homes in on senior anomalies and is more frequently performed before large groups of retirees. Comedy clubs, which tend to be more intimate, are not venues that typically draw a 60-plus crowd less tolerant of the noise level, drinkers and raucous humor, she said.

But when she does a comedy club performance, she finds her act draws laughs from younger people, even though she bases her act on senior living issues such as elderly drivers, doctors visits, incontinence, even impotence -- themes that, she said, always draw a hearty laugh from fellow senior citizens.

"When I've asked young people why they find my routine humorous, they say their mother, aunt, etc., say those things," Picket said. She added that when it comes to delivering a comedy routine to older generations, virtually no subject is shielded from a look at the light side. "It's not the subject that seems to be taboo, but coarse language -- the F-word in particular."

Like many seniors late to the field, Pickett learned stand-up comedy by attending a comedy workshop -- in her case, studying with Canadian stand-up comedian and comedy teacher David Granirer, who gives an eight-week comedy course through Langara College in Vancouver. The classes provided a supportive environment in which senior citizens and others can learn joke formats, performance techniques, how to write and edit material, handle jokes that bomb and then perform their own routine in front of a live audience.

Comedienne Cherie Kerr is a founding member of the well-known Groundlings improv comedy troupe in Los Angeles and founder of the Orange County Crazies, a California sketch and improvisational comedy organization. She said it's not unusual to find several seniors among the students enrolled in one of the Crazies' eight-week improv and stand-up comedy classes, including some in their 70s and 80s.

"It's a great outlet, a wonderful way to keep their mental muscle sharp," said Kerr. At the end of the course, students are required to showcase their talent at the DePietro Performance Center in Santa Ana, Calif. Armed with jokes they've written about such things as aging, incontinence, and forgetfulness, the senior students "bring a sense of wisdom" and "have a lot more material to pick from" than younger performers, Kerr added.

The opportunity for seniors to learn to write and perform comedy extends from coast to coast, in smaller cities in the Midwest and major metropolitan areas.

Dr. Liane Colsky, a geriatric psychiatrist and professional speaker, got hooked on stand-up comedy after enrolling in a comedy course. After a stint performing in clubs, she applied her comedic talents to public speaking. Today Colsky speaks, writes and gives seminars on the importance of laughter and finds senior audiences love to hear humor about getting older.

"In fact," she said, "they typically try to steal the show because they all have their own jokes they want to share."

Cruise ships that target a senior market have become a popular venue for comedy, she added.

Karon White Gibson, an award-winning Chicago area TV producer, cable show host, author and registered nurse, discovered that fact while taking a recent cruise, one that attracted a large number of older passengers. The cruise line, she found, "provided comedians as night entertainment as well as games that evoked laughter during the day. I laughed every day, as did the entire audience."

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