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'Mature' comedies soar in streaming, but fail to find footing on broadcast

By
Matthew Worley
Jamie Farr (L) seen here with former M*A*S*H co-star Loretta Swit, spoke with UPI about finding roles as a senior. Photo by Chris Chew/UPI
Jamie Farr (L) seen here with former "M*A*S*H" co-star Loretta Swit, spoke with UPI about finding roles as a senior. Photo by Chris Chew/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- With three Emmy nominations, including nods for series stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, the Netflix comedy The Kominsky Method is but the latest proof that senior stars are finding new life in streaming.

Yet broadcast networks like NBC and Fox have struggled with older stars.

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"Part of it is that services like Amazon and Netflix aren't dependent on advertising support," said Michael Brockman, a former vice president at CBS, NBC and ABC. "The networks are forced to pursue young audiences, because that's what the advertisers want. Platforms that offer their services on a pay basis don't have the same concern. Cash is cash, and whoever pays it pays it."

'The Cool Kids'

One recent broadcast casualty, Fox's The Cool Kids, debuted to respectable ratings in 2018, but struggled to hold its audience. The 70-something comedy, depicting life in an Arizona retirement community, was axed after only one season.

"It was the most-watched Friday broadcast comedy debut in over five years," said AARP Entertainment Editor Tim Appelo. "But despite the incredible talents of the cast, it just wasn't as good as [Netflix] shows like The Kominsky Method or Grace and Frankie."

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"Initially, the concept of The Cool Kids was a lot different," said Jamie Farr, who starred as Dudley in the series. "I was originally called in to play the role of Sid -- the part that eventually went to Leslie Jordan. Sid had first been written as a hypochondriac. I was called back three or four times on that, then the network got involved and requested changes. They had seen Leslie's work on Will & Grace, so they decided to rewrite Sid as a gay character to make it more contemporary."

Best remembered as the cross-dressing Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger in the landmark CBS sitcom M*A*S*H, Farr said he likes tackling serious issues in comedy. "I just wish The Cool Kids would have touched on more meaningful problems. In M*A*S*H, we always had the A-plot and the B-plot. Either the A-plot was funny, and the B-plot was serious, or vice versa. But there was always something that made it real. And that's one of the things I was hoping The Cool Kids would do -- address some of the real problems of aging, then balance it with humor."

Real issues, real stories

Nine-time Emmy winner Carl Reiner believes exploring "life stories," at any age, is the key to effective comedy.

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"I think the success of shows like The Kominsky Method or Grace and Frankie is that they touch on real issues," Reiner told UPI. "The things I've always written about are experiences, and relationships, and the mores of our time. These are things everyone living today has gone through, but they may not have stopped to notice. So, those of us who write comedy are just reminding them."

At age 97, Reiner says he's excited about the new opportunities for senior characters.

"I don't know what's changed, but older actors seem to be welcome now on television. Kominsky, for example, is such a delightful show. And Alan Arkin is a force of nature. He always has been."

No doubt, The Kominsky Method owes its existence in part to the success of fellow 70-plus comedy Grace and Frankie, which debuted on Netflix three years before Kominsky.

'They're about living'

At 89, Ed Asner is among the oldest actors to appear on Grace and Frankie.

"You've got a dynamite show there with two magnificent women, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who are quite secure in who and what they are. The response I got from my contribution to that series was amazing," Asner said.

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"I think these kinds of shows please the audience because viewers have gotten older, and they have all-too-few shows that are representative of the gray-haired group. So they're waiting to see older actors, and to identify with them, and I'm glad to be a part of that movement," he said.

"For the most part," Reiner said, "I think these new shows have a very positive impact. They aren't really about aging, they're about living."

"It's starting to dawn on executives that grownup viewers are America's champion TV watchers," Appelo said. "Also, the grownup audience is so powerful that it enables stars to age with relative impunity. Fans are aging alongside their favorite stars, so Tom Cruise, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Kevin Costner and the rest aren't fading out at all."

One name surprisingly absent from the new trend is Norman Lear, who, at age 96, has failed to find traction with his own take on 70-plus humor. Lear's current passion project, Guess Who Died, centers on the lives of residents in a Palm Springs retirement community. NBC ordered a pilot but ultimately passed on the show.

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"It's hard to say why Guess Who Died hasn't sold," said Farr, who was up for a role in the series. "One of the things that worried me about both these shows was the insurance requirement. When you audition for a series at our age, it's not whether or not you're good, it's whether you can pass the physical."

"People are so obviously living longer, more active lives that the old fear-based clich├ęs about aging are gradually losing their grip," said Appelo. "Shows like Kominsky and Grace and Frankie resonate with grownups because they address our concerns through superb acting, good writing, and characters with depth. The fear of grownup audiences is irrational at this point."

Said Farr, "Americans are living longer, and there are problems that go with that. But you can still make comedy out of it."

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