Senior Comedy Afternoons aim to tickle creaky funny bones

Marty Ross trudged toward the front of the restaurant, one deliberate pace at a time. A maze of tightly packed tables and chairs stood between him and the stage, demanding careful navigation from the 72-year-old. So when he finally arrived at the microphone after several seconds of silence, the comedian nicknamed "the wrinkled rebel" sounded relieved. And slightly out of breath.

He opened with a joke:

"It's a long walk from over there," Ross said, about 20 feet from his starting point.

More than 100 seniors in the audience exploded in laughter, nodding in agreement. Some clutched walkers at their sides, others sat in wheelchairs. A few had bumped their heads on the way in the door. They all understood Ross' joke.

For a few hours at Senior Comedy Afternoon inside Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach, aging was funny.

"Just being old is a laugh," said audience member and local resident Eileen Aaron-Sacherman, 84.

And laugh the elders did.

They laughed at comedian Mel Kohl, 55, who complained about voice-automated phone systems.

"The worst is 4-1-1," he said. "They say, 'Please say city and state.' I say, 'Downey, California,' and she says, 'Denver, Colorado'!"

They chuckled at his colleague Anita Cheek Milner, 76, who bemoaned the indignities of shopping.

"I can go into an antique store and remember everything," she said.

And they cracked up at Ross, who covered topics including memory loss, spoiled grandchildren and treacherous roadways.

"Anyone drive behind an old person recently?" he asked. "Lots of fun, isn't it? I just want to say I'm sorry, I don't know how this happened. I look down at my dashboard and I'm going 6. And I think, 'I should slow down!'"

It's comedy for seniors, by seniors, and while the sun is still up. No profanity, no raunchy talk, just old-school, G-rated humor for people who say their brand of entertainment is in short supply these days.

"If it's funny, it doesn't have to be dirty," said Charlie Motsko, 85. "Profanity doesn't improve real humor."

Ronel Leonard, 71, adds another dimension to the disconnect some seniors feel.

"Most comedians are talking about current events and young people," Leonard said. "Most of it doesn't have anything to do with me."

Why the shift in values?

"Comedy hasn't changed a bit," Leonard conceded. "But we have."

So the jokesters did their best to keep it clean and provide a few hours in which seniors could revel in old age rather than worry about its consequences.

The show rotates venues; the March program was hosted by Don the Beachcomber, a Hawaiian-themed restaurant that resembles a giant version ofDisneyland'sEnchanted Tiki Room. Previous shows have been held at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and the Improv at the Irvine Spectrum.

For $38.50 a person, the seniors sipped iced tea and enjoyed a simple meal of time-tested dishes like chopped salad, clam chowder, grilled salmon and two scoops of ice cream before the show began.

Giving seniors such an afternoon out was the goal for producer Bonnie Barchichat, 59. The Fountain Valley woman got the idea after taking her now 92-year-old mother to an improv show in Irvine.

"She just hated it," Barchichat recalled. "The comedian was filthy and the humor just wasn't getting to her. I was embarrassed for my mother.... And it stuck with me."

So after a stint working as a producer to help her niece, Barchichat decided to put on a show herself. Her first Senior Comedy Afternoon hit the stage in December 2010 in part as a service to older people like her mother. Her recentMother's Dayshow was the sixth of 12 her mother has attended.

But catering to this age group isn't easy. Barchichat said some businesses "don't believe in the senior marketplace" and won't open up venues for senior-targeted events. Then there's the problem of finding age-appropriate talent.

"Seniors are not going to laugh at anything that isn't really funny," Barchichat said. "They're not drunk. It's going to have to be something you will be able to relate to. You really need to be able to reach into your gut and make them laugh."

Data from the2010 U.S. censusestimates there are more than 1 million people 65 or older in Los Angeles County and 350,000 more in Orange County. That number is likely to double by 2030, experts say.

"We're not big enough to serve them all," said James Don of the Los Angeles Department of Aging.

Don and others, including Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center, call the coming years a "challenge." Small said it is "critically important" that seniors get out of the house, adding that "aging is not for sissies."

"We have a culture that is focused toward youth, and that is changing to some extent," Small said. "There are 80 million baby boomers that are starting to turn age 65. So there's more programs, more interest."

Playing off that interest, even Barchichat's raffle prizes and programming were selected with seniors in mind. One won a "never-fail hearing enhancer" (a megaphone); and before the comedians even hit the stage, Barchichat honored each person celebrating a birthday in recent weeks with a paper crown and a flower.

When all the names had been called, the 139 seniors sang "Happy Birthday" in unison — at least for the moment, eager to celebrate the passing of another year.

Then they got back to the jokes.

"If we can laugh," Pat Rooney Nagel, 80, observed, "then we can keep going."

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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