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The Jack Benny Syndrome

Jack Benny and George Burns ––– two different takes on aging. I prefer Burns’s approach.


It’s funny how each of us can evoke a stereotype and not even know it until it’s called to our attention. And it’s even more remarkable that we can easily shatter that image just by being ourselves.

That’s what happened to me in the early 1990s when, at age 38, I moved to Charlotte, N.C., from my birthplace of New York City. To make ends meet in my new location until I found more permanent employment, I took a job as a clerk in a retail store. There I met two other clerks: lovely, soft-spoken Southern ladies who had worked at that store for years. I was the first New Yorker they had ever met. They were intrigued by my outgoing, fast-talking ways and asked me all kinds of questions about life in the Big Apple. “Was Central Park really a dangerous place?” (“No,” I replied.) “How are you able to think with all that noise?” (“You really don’t notice it if you’re born and raised there.”) And so on. Finally, one of the women overcame her sense of propriety and blurted out, “But you’re so nice and friendly for a New Yorker!” That’s when it occurred to me that I was simultaneously representing and shattering a stereotype of the angry, rude Northerner from a dirty, violent city. And I was happy to oblige them.

Of course, when I first got that job, I could have decided to hide or at least downplay my New York mannerisms (although I doubt that I could have done it successfully for very long). I could have consciously attempted to blend in as much as I could. But that would have been not only futile but dishonest.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about age stereotypes and their relationship to our willingness –– or reluctance –– to be ourselves. This issue was brought into stronger focus for me when I read Warren Adler’s recent provocative ChangingAging blog post, "Lying About My Age." In it, he describes the immediate change in response by many people he encounters, merely at the mention of his age: “In a flash I have changed my status from respectful and collegial and transformed it suddenly to ‘over the hill,’ someone to be tolerated, politely and diplomatically endured but no longer consequential.”

In many ways, admitting one’s age can be the equivalent of pulling the trigger on a starting gun. You can’t take back the sound once the race has begun. Depending on the circumstances, say, during a job interview, it can mean the immediate end of an opportunity. And even though age discrimination is illegal, one’s appearance (gray or obviously dyed hair, especially in a woman), year of college graduation (pre-1985), or other clues can give you away. As if any of this should matter.

But it does.

When did we, as a society, begin to assume that age was a liability? I’m not sure, but I can certainly trace it at least as far back as the career of comedian Jack Benny. Those of us who remember him from his radio and TV shows know that Benny was famous for three “shticks”: being a cheapskate (in real life, he was a philanthropist), playing the violin badly (actually, he was quite good), and claiming to be –– perpetually –– 39 years old. Benny milked that lying-about-one’s-age joke until his death at age 80 in 1974. He knew it was a ridiculous premise. We all knew it was ridiculous. But we laughed, anyway. Why?

I suspect that the laughter was derived from a sense of pity for someone who was getting older and desperately trying to deny that reality. Perhaps we felt for him because we implicitly agreed with the assumption that getting old was something to dread. Unconsciously, we were buying into the negative stereotypes of old age.

Ironically, it was Benny’s contemporary and best friend who provided the best antidote to that skewed perception. Comedian George Burns took a very different approach. For him, age was never a shtick. In fact, up until the day he died in 1996 at age 100, he flaunted it. Always with his trademark lit cigar, he practically dared his audiences to challenge his quick, sarcastic wit and impeccable timing, taking a puff before delivering each punchline. Like Benny, Burns was clear and sharp till the very end, mentoring and promoting up-and-coming much younger comedians who, in turn, admired and even tried to imitate them.

Two different takes on aging. I prefer Burns’s approach.

It seems to me that the only way to begin shattering ageist stereotypes is if we older adults take the responsibility to act first, to pick up that starting gun and fire. To do this successfully, we should make our noises strategic ones. We can say no to Botox and hair-dying. We can declare our age, rather than hide or meekly admit it. We can –– and must –– be ourselves, proudly.

At least, that’s the approach I (at age 63) have chosen.

Oh, and as for those two genteel Southern ladies, they taught me a lesson in stereotyping, too. It wasn’t long before I noticed that one of them would ruthlessly swoop in before any other salesperson to catch shoppers as they entered the store so that she could be the one to make the next sale, and earn a hefty commission. And the other turned out to be quite a card sharp, cleaning out the stockroom guys on paydays at their after-hours poker game in the back room.

In Warren Adler’s words: “It is hard to reeducate people to the notion that humans are not like socks, where one size fits all.”

In memory of Benny and Burns, I say: Ready…Get set…Let the education begin.


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