Recently someone posted an image on Facebook of someone I didn’t recognize – probably a very old-time TV personality – with the notation, “If your joints hurt in the morning, the notation: “If you know who this is, your joints hurt in the morning.”
I didn’t recognize the image. He looked like he was wearing a bearskin rug on his head.
It’s supposed to be funny
But let’s think about this. Suppose you had a picture of a football star with the caption, “If you don’t know who this is you’re a gay man.”
Would that be funny?
Both of those statements rely on outdated stereotypes. Many people who recognize the guy with the rug-hair don’t have joints that ache in the morning. Many gay men are dedicated football fans.
So what’s wrong with using “joints ache in the morning” as a substitute for “were alive when this person was a TV star?”
Why identify a whole demographic with a physical quality that doesn’t apply to everyone? Or a quality that can apply to people outside the demographic?
You’re not laughing at yourself. You’re encouraging listeners to laugh at everyone who’s in the demographic whether they fit the pattern or not.
Frankly, it’s not funny. If your joints ache. it’s not because you’re old. It’s because you have arthritis or you haven’t exercised enough or you exercised too much or you have another medical condition.
Some people have those conditions when they’re young. I’m betting they don’t think it’s funny.
It’s why I abhor the term “Crow’s Feet” for a publication about aging. Why identify a whole demographic by a physical characteristic…especially one that’s not unique to a certain age?
There was a time when it was considered okay to make jokes about women, gay people, Black people, and more.
We used to hear lots of jokes about “women drivers.” Today, if a woman makes a lot of driving mistakes, she’s not likely to say, “I drive like a woman.”
She might say, “I drive around the block to avoid making left turns. I scared my passengers.”
But she won’t preface that statement with, “I’m a typical woman driver.” It’s about her driving – not anyone else’s.
Today women are driving trucks and flying jet planes. Some fly fighter jets that land on aircraft carriers.
They had to struggle past the stereotype. Bonnie Tiburzi was the first female pilot for American Airlines. She wrote about the time a passenger complained about the landing. When they saw Bonnie standing at the door after the flight, the passenger said, “I’ll bet the girl made that landing.” The captain said, “No I made that landing..and it was a damn good one too.”
Not so long ago women were considered “weak.” They couldn’t play full-court basketball: they played half-court ball with three on each side. Try telling that to Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, or Brittney Griner.
Today some people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s are doing things that totally defy the stereotype.
At 82, Willie Murphy intercepted a burglar who broke into her home. She’s a powerlifter who can deadlift 225 pounds. She threw a table at him and then went to work. When the cops came, they took selfies with her…and called an ambulance for the burglar wannabe.
In her 90s, Olga Kotelko was running track and field up to a few weeks before she died.
Watch the movie, Age of Champions.
They’re exceptional, but there are a lot more people like them than you’d believe from the stereotype.
So now a healthy over-65 person wants to get a job and be taken seriously. When a hiring manager sees their age, what happens?
The hiring manager remembers jokes about aching joints, fatigue, forgetfulness, and more. They easily justify age discrimination…just the way people used to justify sex discrimination.
They used to say, “Women can’t do this.” Now they say, “Older people can’t do this.”
Not all “older” people can…but then again, not all women can fly a jet or drive a big truck. Personally, I’ve never driven anything bigger than a Toyota sedan, but that’s not because I’m female.
Laughing at yourself means you laugh at yourself – you as an individual. You did something stupid. You look dumb. It doesn’t mean inviting others to accept ridicule.
One of my standup jokes is, “It’s true I don’t wear a lot of makeup. But that’s not because I am old. It’s because I have an MBA. I know the concept of Return on Investment.”
It’s about me. It’s not about anybody else.
Here’s the 2-question joke test: how you can tell if it’s funny or just stereotypical.
(1) Is the joke funny just because it’s about “old?”
Start with that awful song, “Gramma got run over by a reindeer. Try substituting, “Little Asian boy got run over a reindeer.” Or, “Gorgeous gay dude got run over by a reindeer.”
(2) Is the joke about you as a person – so you’re truly laughing at yourself? – or about yourself as self-appointed representative of a group?
I once heard someone say, “I got caught in the rain. I looked like a cat that got caught in a carwash.”
That might be funny…but it’s not funny to joke that you’re old so you went into a carwash the wrong way. There’s a YouTube video like that.
Maybe it’s easier to see this way.
Suppose you work for a department with a bunch of other people. About half of them are always late every day. You’re in the other half: you’re always on time.
One day at a company meeting, someone from your department says, “Yeah, we’re the slackers. Our department is known for being late to work every day.”
How would you feel? Wouldn’t you want to stand up and shout, “NO! You’re late a lot. I’m working my butt off to get here on time.”
You wouldn’t think it was funny to be assigned a negative quality you didn’t have.
An article in the New York Times explored self-deprecating humor.
Unfortunately, they didn’t give examples, but they seemed to be talking about putting yourself down – just you, not a whole group of people who didn’t ask to be included. The article does note,
“Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between self-deprecating and self-disparaging humor,” they said.
If it makes you feel worse afterward, it’s self-disparaging, says the article.
Self-deprecating humor can be associated with low self-esteem.
A published study reported:
High self-esteem was associated with higher use of affiliative, aggressive, and self-enhancing humor styles, but lower use of self-defeating humor. High interpersonal competence predicted greater use of affiliative humor, whereas low interpersonal competence predicted greater use of aggressive humor.
At first, this point seems puzzling. After all, don’t professional comedians laugh at themselves? In a comedy workshop I attended, we were indeed advised to be self-deprecating.
(1) What’s acceptable in a comedy club isn’t acceptable in ordinary life. It’s OK for comedians (in some spaces) to be politically incorrect, insulting, and just plain disgusting.
(2) Professional comedians usually laugh at themselves, their mistakes, and their outrageous situations. You’re laughing at the person, not the group.
(3) Comedians take liberties with the truth. Joan Rivers’s daughter Melissa once said she was shocked at the things her mom would say about her onstage.
(4) A lot of professional comedians do get depressed. Some suffer from low self-esteem. I once talked to a comic who opened for a lot of big names. “A lot of them are miserable,” he said. “They come in and say, ‘I wish I were anywhere else.'”
What’s really shocking (and not very funny) is…
I sometimes get nervous when I write something edgy. I’ve written things like, “If I ran the world, everyone over 75 would get a cyanide pill to be taken if they wanted, when they wanted, no questions asked.”
People write back, “I’d like a pill like that.”
I’ve written about how sex toys can make a doctor blush. Lots of supportive comments there, too.
But when I write about older people who disparage the entire demographic, boy do I get flak.
People don’t care about assisted dying. They fight to call themselves (and everybody else) geezers and old farts.
They say, “Can’t you laugh at yourself?” (Yeah…but that’s not me.)
They get mean. They say things like, “Get a life.” Or, “I wouldn’t want to be around you.” Or, “You don’t know what funny is.”
Never mind that I’ve had many standup nights where I killed it. I joke about stereotypes. Not about getting old.
My hunch is that people are using laughter as a coping mechanism.
When you can’t control something, you can laugh. That’s just fine, if you feel better. But it’s not fine if you make everybody else feel worse. When you spread a stereotype, it’s not just about you anymore.