Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tufts University Filmmaker Jennifer Burton Throws Levity in the Ugly Face of Ageism

In July I will turn 65, and will join the fraternity of the Golden Years.  I also have a 94 year old mother.  I remember when she was in the back of a cab with me and the driver asked,"How old is she?" My mother--no wallflower--said in response, " I can answer for myself, young man!" So for a while now I have been thinking about ageism and getting older in this country. Then I got a press release about a new online series, Old Guy. This seemed right up my alley, and I contacted the director/creator Jennifer Burton. I had the pleasure to interview Burton  for  my column Off the Shelf in The Somerville Times.

From the Press Release:

Five Sisters Productions is back with a new six-episode comedic series, Old Guy, starring the Five Sisters' father, Roger Burton (Fargo, Shameless, Baskets), their mother Gabrielle Burton, and Peri Gilpin (Frasier's Roz). Beginning April 23, 2020, one episode will premiere each Thursday through May 31 on Vimeo and Youtube as well as Facebook and Instagram TV.

Old Guy is a comedic series about ageism in media. Harry, played by Roger Burton, is going back to acting later in life, after raising his family and retiring from his traditional job. The show looks at his relationships with his wife, played by his real-life spouse Gabrielle Burton, who is a writer and tries to advise him on the value of the jobs he takes, and with his agent, Peri Gilpin, who is more interested in her commission than in what types of roles he plays. In each episode, Harry is challenged by playing an undeveloped character type that humorously highlights different stereotypes about old age. Old Guy will make you laugh, and make you think.

Jennifer Burton 
(Photo by Maria Burton)

Doug Holder: Since I will be 65 this July--this project is of particular interest to me. Many of my peers, especially women, tell me they feel like ghosts because they feel the world barely acknowledges them. Does the series deal with this invisible man or woman syndrome?

Jennifer Burton: What an excellent observation and question.  Invisibility of older people in our society is a huge issue, and it is reinforced by most television shows.  In Episode 4, Harry, played by my dad, Roger Burton (Shameless, Baskets) talks about how “You don’t see many old people on TV.”  Even though people over 60 are nearly 20% of the population, less than 10% of characters on tv are over 60, and many of those parts are underdeveloped or stereotyped characters.  With so little representation, each stereotyped role has even more of an impact.  On the positive side, research is showing that raising awareness about ageism reduces the negative effects for viewers, so we’re very happy that Old Guy is starting inter-generational conversations about the need for greater visibility and complexity of older characters on TV.  Another thing that researchers such as Stacy Smith, (USC, Annenberg’s School Inclusion Initiative) is finding is that having more older writers and executives involved in the creation of shows significantly decreases incidences of ageism.  What we are working to do with OLD GUY is show Harry and his wife Bridget as vibrant in their personal lives as vibrant, active people with ambitions and goals, as well as show their daily interests, so they ARE visible to viewers, which can have both a conscious and subconscious impact.  Contrasting this richness to Harry's limited acting roles shows how onscreen stereotypes select only part of the experience of being older, and points to the need for more diversity in representation onscreen.

DH: I love how you break up the series with such titles as: Senile, Dead, Incontinent--all the familiar stereotypes of being older.  Do you try to deflate these through humor and polemic…?

JB: The first step to combating a stereotype is to name it.  When my dad starting acting professionally late in life (after retiring as a psychology professor at the University of Buffalo), he and my mom were struck by how the majority of the parts he was offered fell into these narrow stereotypes of life experience after 60: dirty old man, impotent man, senile man—you wouldn’t believe how many bit parts he was asked to audition for that were basically just a “joke” about adult diapers. While incontinence issues are a real part of life for some older people, when that is all you see, or when it’s presented as a quick joke, it gives a false and reductive sense of what aging is and promises, as well as the value of older people to our cultural and social fabric.  Even as my dad chose not to play offensive roles, we all realized that to really make a difference, we had to bring this issue to a larger audience.  In addition to naming the problem, OLD GUY works to combat ageism through character development, with Harry as the stand in for the "every person."  Harry starts out not really understanding the problem with narrow or stereotyped roles (like some viewers), and he recognizes how some of these things can be funny at times, but his wife Bridget (and his own experiences as he keeps getting the same thin roles) push him to understand how critical it is to recognize and resist ageism in all its forms.

DH: You and your five sisters founded the Five Sisters Productions 
Company. What was the germ of the idea for this and why did you folks make it a family production?  What were the dynamics working closely with your sisters?

JB: Our working together on movies first started when my older sister Maria was directing the romantic comedy Just Friends (AMC) in LA, and we all came together as sisters to help.  It went well, and we continued working together on Temps (shot in the Boston area), and then Manna From Heaven (MGM), and now we’ve made 5 features,as well as shorts, PSAs, and commercials.  When you put together a cast and crew for a film, you create a family of sorts.  We started out with our family as a core, and built out from there, and we work with many of the same crew on project after project.  Five Sisters Productions works as an umbrella company, with each of us sisters having our own careers, and our coming together to make film projects together that are spearheaded by different sisters. Currently I am creating a series of short films on the undertold stories of women in American history, Half the History, produced with Five Sisters in conjunction with my students at Tufts, and co-directed with my sister Ursula Burton. Just before production shut down this spring, we shot a film about groundbreaking tap dancer Ayodele Casel and the history of black women tap dancers—all shot on Tufts Campus in Somerville/Medford!

DH: You teach at Tufts, and since we are a Somerville newspaper, I would like to ask you,( as an artist ) how has it been to work and or live in our burg?  Have you
 filmed in Somerville?

JB: Old Guy is set in LA, but half the scenes were filmed on the Somerville/Medford Tufts campus, and in the surrounding area!  The area offers a richness of varied looks for locations—from independently owned restaurants like Dave’s Fresh Pasta and The Rockwell and to churches (in OLD GUY's episode #3) to single family homes to music venues like The Burren.  Plus, people are open and excited about being part of a movie project—the Somerville area is a great place to film.  Plus we can’t forget about the Somerville Theatre—what a treasure for independent and high-quality films, including the films from Independent Film Festival Boston!

Episode 1 "The Origin Story" -


  1. Thank you for the kind words, Doug. Great to talk with you about OLD GUY and the importance of combatting ageism, especially at this time!

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Doug. Great to talk with you about OLD GUY and the importance of combatting ageism, especially at this time!