Cranky Old Men

How to wring comedy from the absurd.

Posted Sep 15, 2019

Douglas: “God takes the good ones way too soon.”

Arkin: “Yeah, and he leaves the bad ones here just to piss us off.”

I have been a fan of Alan Arkin’s for a while, and I particularly like his older, that is, more recent persona and work. If asked what the least funny characters might be, I bet you would put cranky old men high up on the list. Larry David can only pull it off only by also manifesting his shmuckish side; Arkin stays in cranky character, nothing clownish added, and I am in stitches. He provides proof of existence. Cranky old men can be funny. But it’s a fine and fragile art.

The exchange above occurs in episode 8 of “The Kominsky Method.” It all starts when Eileen, Norman Newlander’s (Arkin) wife of 46 years, dies. As he grieves, his friend and former client—Arkin is a Hollywood agent—Kominsky (Douglas) tries to console him with a cliché.

Arkin, to be sure, has several options to respond. He can ignore the cliché, he can play along with a cliché of his own, or he can find a cutting remark that slices through the pretension and exposes the absurdity. Thankfully, Chuck Lorre, who created the show, wrote the last option into the script, and Arkin nails the delivery. We are not supposed to laugh at a funeral, and Douglas doesn’t laugh, but we, on the living room couch, may, as we are the intended audience of the humor.

Not feeling whole anymore after Eileen’s passing, Newlander, Arkin’s character, contemplates suicide. Kominsky (Douglas) asks him how he would do it and makes a slicing motion across his neck. Oh no, Arkin corrects and makes a motion along the wrist. Again, this is absurd, as if the location of the severed artery were significant.

Then, in a critical scene, Douglas impresses on Arkin that not being alone and having people who care is a necessary and sufficient reason to live. Later, they return to the theme, when Arkin has recovered his skepticism.

Douglas: “All right, well, what about helping other people? Isn't that a good reason to keep going?”

Arkin: “Maybe. It's just so hard to like other people.”

Arkin’s (or Lorre’s) antenna for the absurd does not fail. With eight words, he destroys a well-intentioned offer, and we sense that he has a point.

Seconds before this denouement, Arkin’s spirit soar, if only for a brief moment.

Arkin: “I've decided if I'm gonna continue with this whole living business, I have to get some answers.”

Douglas: “What do you mean, answers? Answers to what?

Arkin: ”The big questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Hoo, boy. There has to be a deeper meaning. Money doesn't matter anymore. Sex doesn't matter.

Douglas: “I think I gotta disagree with you on that last one.”

Arkin: “Oh, please. At this point, you're probably shooting sawdust.”

Douglas: “I'm taking Flomax. There's no shooting. So, where are you thinking of finding these answers? Are you going to get religion?

Arkin: "I've considered it. I like traditions, ancient languages, ritual."

Douglas: "But?"

Arkin: "The whole God thing puts me off."

And again, a brief remark—seven words this time—demolishes what looked like a promising path. By finding the absurd, Arkin rips the foundation out from what could be a pragmatic solution.

Why is it funny? The structure of these exchanges has the basic elements of humor. There is a sudden shift, a reframing of perspective and perception, that triggers an emotional release (Davis, 1993). We recognize that there is no rational response to the punch line, nor is any expected. And so we surrender.

Since we opened with two lines from the script, I leave the last word to Bergson: The only cure for vanity is laughter. And the only fault that's laughable is vanity.

Humor is humbling, and while being humbled, why should we not have a good time?

References

Davis, M. (1993). What’s so funny? The comic conception of culture and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.