For Senior Citizens Day: Respect for “The Golden Girls”

For Senior Citizen’s Day, a brief tribute to The Golden Girls (1985-1992), a show whose pleasures I didn’t discover until decades after the fact. I was a young man when it originally aired, busy launching my young adulthood, and perhaps not so apt to tune into the travails of a quartet of older women.

But funny is funny, and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love The Golden Girls, once they give it half a chance. If you relate to the specific subject matter, great, but it’s not necessary — a sign, I think of both superlative comedy and superlative art. It’s just a well-built comedy machine. It was created by Susan Harris, who’d written for All in the Family and Maude, done an adaptation of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, and co-created Soap among other things. The Golden Girls was co-produced with her husband Paul Junger Witt and a third partner Tony Harris.

I think The Golden Girls is great not just because of its innovative premise, and not just because of its brilliant casting of accomplished TV and stage veterans, but because as constructed, the four characters provide the foundation for a formidable comedy machine. Somehow the division of labor is such among the quartet, that if you write a joke — any joke — not only will it be appropriate for one of the four, but it will ONLY be appropriate for one of the four, and not the other three. One of them (Bea Arthur) utters sarcastic witticisms, and is essentially also the straight-woman, convulsing the audience with her reactions to the lines said by the other three, more eccentric characters. One (Rue McClanhan, who’d appeared with Arthur on Maude) archly delivers all the sex jokes. Betty White, previously of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, exercises very different comic muscles as this show’s resident dim bulb; to her fall all the dumb-dumb lines and moments of misunderstanding. And Estelle Getty, whom we wrote about here, is the lightning rod for the show’s central premise. As the oldest of a group of older women, she gets a lot of the Rabelaisian humor about the grosser effects of aging.

Upon reflection it had been a while since anyone had gone to this well of comic potential, and probably never this sensitively. Back in the days of classic comedy, you had comedy codgers like Jack Duffy and Frank Hayes, and later on, there were guys like Burt Mustin. Old men were represented more often then women; and usually rural, or otherwise unsophisticated takes where what predominated, Marjorie Main would be a good example of the comic older woman type. An even better and more recent example — Ruth Buzzi’s “Gladys” on Laugh-In! But the writing on The Golden Girls was New York smart — like the demographic it celebrates, it’s essentially a cultural transplantation from New York to Miami. Hence, it has that New York wisecracking sensibility. And recurring characters, like Herb Edelman as Dorothy (Bea Arthur’s) ex-husband Stan reinforces that atmosphere.  And it had moments of pathos.

A sad by-product of a show about older people is you get no later reunion specials! At this writing, only Betty White of the four co-stars remains alive — aged 96. If Estelle Getty were alive she’d only be 95!