Laughter has long been proven to be good for the mind and body, but it seems like a young person's game, judging by the TV, doesn't it?
Wrong. It seems more and more older people are giving it a go, both as consumers and as performers.
Nick Smurthwaite enters the funny old world of comedy for older people…
Recently I joined in an afternoon of comedy and improvisation at the Merlewood Care Home, Virginia Water, courtesy of a company called Silver Comedy.
Under the direction of Silver Comedy founder George Baddeley, residents were gently cajoled into taking part in improv exercises like Blind Date and Murder Mystery in the company of senior stand-ups Shelley Bridgman, 65, and Marc Lucero, 60.
Both Shelley and Marc are past winners of Leicester Comedy Festival’s Silver Stand-Up of the Year Award, which aims to redress the age balance in the generally-youthful world of modern comedy.
Breaking down stereotypes
'It’s about challenging stereotypes of old age,' says George Baddeley. 'There are 2 or 3 types of old person you’re allowed to be. There’s the vulnerable type who’s a bit gaga, or the moaning old git who thinks everything was better in the old days.
'But the reality is these are just people who have been around a bit longer, and you can’t put them in any boxes.
'In fact, the older you get, the more life experience you have and the more likely you are to express yourself in a carefree way.'
Connecting with everyone
When he presents entertainment at a day centre or care home, such as Merlewood, George goes to great pains to connect individually with each person in attendance, partly to win their confidence, and partly to establish who wants to participate in the improv sketches, and who would rather be just a spectator.
As one lady in a wheelchair said to him in my hearing, 'No, I don’t want to make a fool of myself thank you, but I don’t mind watching you lot make fools of yourselves.'
George says, 'There are always going to be people who don’t want to play along, and that’s absolutely fine. You have to be sensitive to the individual especially when you’re dealing with dementia, as we were at Merlewood.'
Blind Date in later life
George tailors the entertainments according to his audience. Among his more elaborate shows are The Queen’s Visit, where everyone has to pretend the Queen is paying a visit, and The Age of Romance, a glorified version of Blind Date, which culminates in two of the participants staging a mocked-up wedding, with the others as guests.
Props and costume accessories, as well as the comedians or 'comedy trainers,' are all provided by Silver Comedy.
Anne Sherman, arts officer for Cheshire East Council, commissioned Silver Comedy to present The Age of Romance for a sheltered housing unit over a 6-week period.
'As a result of taking part in this project, the residents gained a lot of confidence and became more outgoing,' she says. 'They really put themselves in the centre of it and looked forward to each session.
'It also raised the aspiration for future activities within the unit because they found it so stimulating. They started up a singing group afterwards.'
A source of material
The pains and humiliations of ageing often have a funny side, and both Marc Lucero and Shelley Bridgman are happy to exploit this in their material. Shelley’s day job as a psychotherapist suggests that she has a keen insight into how the mind works.
Unlikely as it sounds, she says comedy and psychotherapy have quite a lot in common. 'As a therapist you go through the process, do the best you can. Some will get it, some won’t. It’s the same with stand-up. We’re not changing lives, we’re not doctors. We’re just offering them a bit of fun.'
Marc, a former market stallholder and building site worker, says he feels more comfortable than ever as a performer at 60. 'My set is nearly all about getting old, and people just love it. I talk about prostate check-ups, the emails you get about stairlifts and incontinence pads.
'It’s very rare it doesn’t go down a storm. The joke is that I spend more time in nightclubs now than I ever did when I was in my twenties.'
They both agree that audiences are unpredictable. 'You never know what’s in store,' says Shelley. 'Sometimes you could just stand there and read the phone book and get laughs, other times it’s really hard work. You learn something each time you go out on stage.'
Life experience helps
Marc says the competition on the comedy circuit is getting tougher, with more and more people of all ages wanting to have a go at stand-up. Is there any benefit to being an older stand-up?
'Well you have more experience of life, more to draw on, and I feel more comfortable on stage at 60 than I ever have done. I see it as ‘me’ time when I’m up on the stage and I think that gives me an air of confidence.'
In terms of providing comedy to day centres and care homes, George Baddeley is on a mission to bring some fun and stimulus into the lives of those who may not have a lot to laugh about, and that includes the carers and care workers as well as the care home inmates or people being cared for at home.
Silver Comedy promises a whole range of interactive workshops, improvisations, comedy coaching and related services. For more information and video evidence of what they offer, visit the Silver Comedy website.