February 28, 2020

Aging in Prime Time

Is television reflective of society? And if not, what can be done about it?

These were just two of the questions posited at a recent discussion entitled “Women in Their Prime Time: Aging In (and Out of) Hollywood,” hosted by the Writers Guild of America West.

Entertainment legends Norman Lear and Rita Moreno were the star power for the event. Lear is probably best known for producing a slew of iconic television shows, including “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son.” Moreno belongs to an elite group of only 12 performers who have won an Academy Award, a Grammy, a Tony and an Emmy.

Lear and Moreno were joined by Alexa Junge, executive producer of “Grace and Frankie”;, Dr. Zoanne Clack, executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy”; Dr. Bruce Chernof, president of the SCAN Foundation for older adults; and Chia Chia Sun, a clinician and genetic cancer researcher.

Lear acknowledged that there has always been a paucity of older adults on television. He said typical responses he received when pitching shows featuring older characters were, ‘It’s funny, but it’s not our demographic.’

Said Lear, “I like to think that if something’s funny, it’s everybody’s demographic.” He proved that with characters in “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons.”

“I’d love to see someone my age playing just a person, not a grandmother.” — Rita Moreno

The 95-year-old Lear currently is producing “Guess Who Died,” a sitcom pilot starring 81-year-old Hector Elizondo, Christopher Lloyd, 79, and Holland Taylor, 75.

Another issue for older actors is the complexity of the roles they undertake, or the lack thereof.

“We need to tell a broader set of stories that reflect today,” Moreno, 86, said. “And those roles should go beyond the stereotypes. I’d love to see someone my age playing just a person, not a grandmother.”

Junge added, “Even though age is a time of nuance and complication, the roles [being offered to older performers] become simpler.” Chernof agreed, noting, “People are living longer, have much more to offer, and that should be celebrated.”

During the discussion, panelists referred to a 2017 USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism study that revealed between 2016 and 2017, there were 1,609 speaking characters on network television, and less than 10 percent of those characters were over the age of 60, stereotypical, ageist language was prevalent in many of the shows, and only 5 percent of the 126 shows had writers who were over the age of 60.

Nonetheless, Junge said she believed the future for older performers is looking up. “Cable TV and streaming shows are all looking for stories of older women,” she said. “Seek out upper-level people and make yourself available. People can’t get by with what they did before. There’s an accountability now; it’s a time of change.”

Mark Miller is a humorist, stand-up comic and has written for various sitcoms. His first book is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”