For whatever reason, or lack of same, we are facing a flurry of new comedies built around older actors.
Thursday saw the return of “Murphy Brown,” which added 20 years to the age of its cast when last seen, with Candice Bergen, 72, out front. The British comedy “Hold the Sunset,” starring John Cleese and Alison Steadman, premiered earlier in the month. Later in the season we’ll get “The Kominsky Method,” with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin. And there’s a new “King Lear” coming to Amazon with Anthony Hopkins, which is not a comedy but does have a fool and a joke about being wise before getting old. This is at least a little remarkable in a medium (in a culture) that prizes youthfulness as the greatest good.
Friday brings Fox’s ironically titled “The Cool Kids,” which is set in a retirement home and stars Vicki Lawrence (69, playing younger), David Alan Grier (62, playing older), Martin Mull (75) and Leslie Jordan (63). I know that will not seem “old” to some of us, happy to view 80 as the new 40, but the 20-year-old who pulled your espresso this morning has a different view of it.
Co-created by Charlie Day, co-creator and costar of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” with “Philadelphia” writer Patrick Walsh as its showrunner, it does pick some low-hanging fruit, a phrase that show might follow with an ironic sex joke. In a broad sense, this is “Philadelphia” moved from a bar into a retirement home, centering on a gang of residents who behave unacceptably, prank one another, have adventures and drink a lot.
Its point, to the extent it has one, is that once you have reached a certain age, you can get away with things because you are past caring or consequence.
Hank (Grier), Charlie (Mull) and Sid (Jordan) are three friends living at a place called Shady Meadows. (It is an upscale place, but none of them seem to have any money.) They have just lost a fourth, a locally legendary hell-raiser and party animal, into whose now-empty seat Margaret (Lawrence) unceremoniously slides, contrary, wild, tough and unmovable. (There will be bonding, though.)
Beyond the built-in slapstick of aging, you can make old people funny just by having them do things associated with young people: Put them on a motor scooter or a pogo stick, stick them in a dance club or boxing ring, have them talk about sex, have them have sex, and presto: comedy. But these are traps. Any show about seniors will have to work twice as hard in order not to appear obvious and, really, to be any good at all.
“The Cool Kids” does not completely avoid these traps; indeed, it flings itself headlong toward some of them. The series is rooted in the old sitcom values of sudden impulses, mutual deception and hare-brained schemes. It does not mind a big, cheap laugh. But the cast is exceptionally good, and even when the show is dumb they are often funny, and when it is not dumb, they are funny too. I found “The Cool Kids” alternately annoying and entertaining; it’s not particularly ambitious, in form or content, but it hits the marks it assigns itself.
Grier, who has been given some snow-white sidewalls to make him look older (see his last series, “The Carmichael Show,” for comparison), is the designated grumbler, with a way of shifting suddenly from soft to loud, like a Nirvana track (“You know, Charlie, that’s the most lucid thing I’ve ever heard you say and are ONE HUNDRED PERCENT INCORRECT”). But he does well with more subtle changes, in a line like, “Prince came up in here one night and I myself gave him directions to the club he was trying to get to.”
The typical joke regarding Mull’s foggy Charlie — three episodes in and there are already typical jokes — is that any stray remark or occasion might call up memories of something he once did, as in, “I have three fake hips because of a bet that I lost to a doctor in Costa Rica” or that he once took “six tabs of acid with some New England hard cider — long story short; I can’t eat apples with my clothes on anymore.” He claims to have spent six years in jail. He might have $1 million buried in the desert.
Jordan does something similar, though all his memories have to do with sex. I’m not sure we’re supposed to think this is extra funny because the actor is only 4 feet 11, but he is just reliably good. He delivers a line like a shuttlecock just barely clearing a badminton net. His trying to “look more butch” as he is sent by Hank to hit on Margaret and so drive her away, is a trite idea, but he’s funny doing it, and everything else he’s asked to do.
Grier, Mull and Jordan have all worked steadily, even busily through the years. We are used to seeing them around; we know they’re good. But it is great to have Lawrence back. Her last scripted series was “Mama’s Family,” spun off from a “Carol Burnett Show” sketch, in which, oddly enough, she played a woman in her 60s, a character actually younger, but seemingly older than Lawrence is now. (She was 40 when the show ended in 1990.) She jumps back in here with an offhand confidence that’s bracing on its own; but she’s got comedy skills and chops and makes a character with few specifics to go on.
And, yes, that is Jamie “Corporal Klinger” Farr, briefly seen in the premiere.
‘The Cool Kids’
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday
Rated: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd