What’s So Funny About Getting Old?

When you turn eighty, what new creative pursuit will you passionately throw yourself into? Knitting? Bocce? Taking naps? For Natalie K. Levant and George Saltz, the rather awe-inspiring answer was standup comedy. Their parallel adventures, onstage and off, are the subject of Elizabeth Zephyrine McDonough’s funny and moving new documentary, “Still Standing.”

Levant, who performs mainly in Philadelphia, boasts a no-holds-barred stage presence—she’s “all sequin boots and F-bombs,” as McDonough put it to me recently, in an e-mail—whereas Saltz, in New York, conjures a vibe that is gentler, more Borscht Belt. But neither pulls any punches when it comes to the realities of old age. “This was not a good day for me,” Saltz jokes, during a routine. “I found out I was unfriended. Not on Facebook—I read it in the obituaries.” In another scene, Levant, onstage, declares that she is postmenopausal—an announcement that draws a smattering of uncertain applause. Then she goes for the kill: “I have no body hair. My vagina looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree!” With that, she has the crowd.

For Saltz, picking up the microphone was the realization of a lifelong dream. He grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn—on the same block as Mel Brooks—and from a young age “just wanted to do shtick in the Catskills,” he says in the film. At eighteen, he was hired to do exactly that, but he got stage fright on his first night and was fired the following day. Six decades passed before his next gig. “For me, it came at the right time,” he says.

Levant, a veteran of community theatre, had never considered doing standup until an acquaintance urged her to, when she was eighty-one. “I found myself really a misfit being an older woman, widowed,” she tells McDonough in the film. “There was, like, a format that I was supposed to follow. But I didn’t fit.” She adds, “The first time I attempted standup, I thought, Yeah! You know, this is where I belong.”

A good standup set “brings you on board with a lot of quick laughs at the top, and then takes you along to something deeper and truer that sticks with you after the show,” McDonough, who directs segments for “The Daily Show” and also makes her own comic short films, told me. “I hoped to shape the film in the same way.” Halfway through, “Still Standing”—which premièred at last year’s Lower East Side Film Festival, with a Q. & A. hosted by Tig Notaro—pivots from its subjects’ standup routines to the pain that hides in plain sight in both of their lives. Both started in standup after the deaths of their spouses. “I need it,” Saltz says, of doing comedy. “This is my way of dealing with the grief.” Levant reports, with some bitterness, that some of her sons don’t approve of her life style. “I have a great deal of pain about the broken relationships with my sons,” she says. “Being onstage is the way that I handle it.” Partway through filming, Saltz experienced serious health problems, resulting in surgery and a long hospital stay. His return to the stage, with Levant in the audience (the two met on the comedy circuit and became friends), is a powerful moment in the film.

“I have always had an affinity for older people,” McDonough, who is not yet old, told me. “I really value the healthy dose of ‘Fuck it’ attitude that can come with old age.” Of the film’s two subjects, Levant wears her “Fuck it” attitude more on her sleeve—not that she usually wears sleeves. “As you get older, you’re told to start disappearing,” she tells the camera. “Cover your arms. Why should you cover your arms? Even if they look like bags of dead mice. It’s just—it’s more room for tattoos!”

“I don’t care if my kids think it’s foolish,” she continues. “I am still doing standup”—beat—“because I can still stand up.” Amen to that. ♦

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