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Hey, John Mulaney and ‘SNL': Your Ageist Jokes Are Getting Really Old (Guest Blog)

We know it’s OK to mock older people because we’ve seen stars do it and people laughed, writes David Gittins of Age Inclusion in Media

Congratulations to John Mulaney on his return to hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Mulaney has been through a well-documented personal struggle, and we all wish him well. He seems like a good guy. Talented, decent, and definitely not a bigot.

Of course, Mulaney’s not a bigot. If he were, someone would have canceled him. We can see he isn’t a bigot because he doesn’t make jokes about race or gender or gender identity. He just likes to make jokes that are ageist.

Ah, ageism. And that’s not even a real bigotry, like racism, sexism or anti-Semitism because, after all, Collins Dictionary defines bigotry as “the possession or expression of strong, unreasonable prejudices or opinions.” Clearly, therefore, the expression of ageism is reasonable.

In his last “SNL” appearance, for example, Mulaney joked about silencing his grandmother because of her age. He said older people should not be listened to because they’re “about to leave the restaurant.” He then told us how close he was to his grandmother — only to then dismiss her wish for a new driver’s license photograph. And that was funny because it’s laughable for older people to experience vanity, desires and emotions — you know, like real people.

If Mulaney had told someone to shut up just because she was a woman, or because she was Jewish or Black, we would know he’s a bigot and no one would have laughed. But he only dismissed her because she was old. And in the current climate for comedy, that’s OK and everyone laughed.

And people do laugh. Mulaney won praise for another previous sketch, “Toilet Death Ejector,” which sent up the humiliating deaths of older people for wanting to live and die with dignity. Netflix proudly described Mulaney and Nick Kroll as playing “two delusional geriatrics” in his stage show “Oh Hello, Broadway.”

Of course, “SNL” has a history of denigrating older people. For years, Bill Hader portrayed Herb Welch as an out-of-touch and inept TV reporter who is habitually racist and sexist. In these sketches, Herb’s racism and sexism stems from the fact that he’s old, and that’s just how old people are. Herb Welch also draws from that deep well of comedy known as dementia, because when is mental decline not funny?

In another viral “SNL” skit, “Amazon Echo Silver,” older people are portrayed as too dumb for new technology — and so unworthy of attention that even a machine gets bored listening to them. That sketch was hailed as “hilarious” by TechCrunch and “brilliant” by CNET. In this and other sketches, “SNL” often puts performers in “grayface” hair and makeup for easy laughs — because when it comes to age, misrepresentation is always funny.

With jokes aimed against older people, Mulaney appears to be on safe ground. The acceptance of ageism as humor is widespread. Compare the reaction to his ageist jokes to the blowback faced by British comic Jimmy Carr for the jokes in his Netflix special “His Dark Material” about the Holocaust and the Gypsy, Roma and Traveler community? Or to the outrage sparked by Dave Chappelle’s routine about the trans community in “The Closer”? It’s as if many people don’t think older lives are worth a damn.

“But it’s only comedy,” some might say. Yep, I agree with that.

“It causes no harm.” No, I disagree. Representation matters.

Negative portrayals on screen have a great impact. It’s what we at Age Inclusion in Media refer to as the Cycle of Ageism. We write. We show. We believe. We do. After we see something on TV or in a movie, it becomes part of our culture, and becomes an accepted behavior. We know it’s OK to mock older people because we’ve seen people on NBC and Netflix do it, and people laughed, and all was good. So, what’s now to stop any of us from following these leads and to mock older people in real life and to laugh at them for wanting to express opinions, or to live and to die with dignity?

It’s a surprisingly small step from making and endorsing these gags to excluding older people from the workplace, the democratic process, or our lives in general, just because their voices are considered not worth hearing. 

If we think this is unacceptable, then the solution is simple: empowered representation. The root cause of poor portrayal on screen is the lack of empowered, representative voices in the creative workspace. Without people who will be heard — in front of and behind the camera — stale, stereotypical and prejudiced portrayals will form and amplify. The cycle of ageism will continue.

So, to John Mulaney, Lorne Michaels and everyone associated with “SNL”: Yes, we get these are jokes. Yes, we get your intentions are not serious. But the consequences are. Ageism is a systematic prejudice exerted on a diverse group of people based on the sole shared characteristic of age. Ageism is the empowered abusing the disempowered. It’s bullying.

But because Mulaney and “SNL” have profited from this behavior doesn’t mean they should be canceled. Far from it. The only thing we need to cancel is ageism. As empowered individuals, we can all stop this and influence how older people are treated. Next time, if any of us consider ourselves woke, we cannot take a nap when it comes to ageism.

David Gittins is the executive director of Age Inclusion in Media, an independent nonprofit dedicated to changing the narrative of age in entertainment and media. He is an MFA graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts and has written for TV and sold projects in the U.S. and Europe.

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