Last week, while everyone was preparing for Super Bowl Sunday, National Curmudgeon Day was observed on Jan. 29. While the origin of this holiday is unknown, the date was chosen because it is the birthday of comedian and curmudgeon W.C. Fields. Humorist Mark Peters says, “Fields elevated curmudgeonliness to an art.” Fields is, after all, the one who advised, “Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.”
In addition to Fields, America has produced a number of world-class curmudgeons such as Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Benchley, Fred Allen, and more recently Andy Rooney and Larry David.
When I was younger I admired curmudgeons and even aspired to become one myself. When my wife Diane and I first met, I told her that I hoped to become a crabby old man who would go from meeting to meeting, spouting platitudes. These days this isn’t nearly as amusing.
Vermont entrepreneur and blogger Josh Patrick calls curmudgeonry a “noble ambition.” He goes on to define a curmudgeon as an “elderly man in the neighborhood with enough strength and spirit left to terrify children caught trespassing…” Patrick believes that most curmudgeons don’t particularly try to offend people, but they see no point in pleasing them, either.
Some common characteristics of curmudgeons include being old-fashioned in both attire and attitudes. Many curmudgeons habitually talk about “the good old days” and are constantly complaining about young people, or as we call them whippersnappers. Curmudgeons tend to be naysayers and contrarians, always focusing on the negative and forever disputing your opinions.
Psychologist Christopher Ditzfeld from the University of Arkansas led a study that found that people with a curmudgeon personality routinely give greater weight to the negative aspects of things when evaluating them.
Ditzfeld and his colleagues found that curmudgeons were perfectly capable of identifying the positive aspects of situations, but just did not seem to like them.
Historically, curmudgeons have been thought of as being miserly, like Ebenezer Scrooge. They are often described as grouchy and cantankerous. Curmudgeons, however, are also determined and are known for being stubborn and ornery.
Despite these unpleasant characteristics, according to Dallas blogger Angela Garrity, “Curmudgeons are some of the most loved personalities on Earth, even though they may not realize it.
They are natural leaders, who harbor old souls and don’t side with popular opinions nor make easy choices.” Curmudgeons often serve as society’s gadflies. They challenge hypocrisy and pretense and can point out unpleasantries in an engaging and humorous manner. Jon Winokur, the author of “The Portable Curmudgeon,” has said that curmudgeons are known for their ability to ‘’combine malice with wit.’’
Garrity says curmudgeons are, “great characters in books, movies, and in real life, too. Simply look at Oscar the Grouch, Red Forman, Mr. Burns, Statler and Waldorf, Lucy Van Pelt and Ron Swanson…” In television, films and literature, curmudgeons are occasionally redeemed by an appealing young child. This theme is seen in works such as Silas Marner, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Heidi, Gran Torino and even A Christmas Carol.
In the real world, curmudgeons are sometimes seen as funny and charming, but to others they may be perceived as simply rude and annoying. Generally, women find them offensive and disagreeable. Lady Nancy Astor’s exchanges with the famous curmudgeon Winston Churchill are well known. Supposedly she once said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it!” Lady Astor, however, was a worthy foe. She also responded to an inquiry from Churchill about what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball by saying, “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?” Occasionally women may find curmudgeons appealing. Josh Patrick said that these women, “look at a curmudgeon as a man looks at a dilapidated house: a perfect candidate for a construction project.”
The late Andy Rooney was once called the nation’s curmudgeon-in-chief. That title seems to have been passed on to Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, who currently stars in the cringe-worthy sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Many curmudgeons’ antisocial streak manifests itself simply as a desire to be left alone. The opening episode of the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm finds Larry looking for a social repellent to keep people away.
Rooney, himself, said that he never cared for the term curmudgeon and didn’t know why it was applied to him. He complained that people often weren’t honest about what they said and that they were too concerned about exhibiting good manners and wanting to be liked and accepted.
Bill Maher, the host of Real Time on HBO has also denied being a curmudgeon, although he has claimed that he has long felt like an outsider. Maher once said, ‘’When Ronald Reagan used to say ‘It’s morning in America,’ I always thought to myself, ‘But I’m not a morning person.”
Psychologist Barbara Held from Bowdoin University has described what she calls ‘’the tyranny of the positive attitude in America.’’ She maintains that it’s unhealthy to shame people for expressing such negative feelings.
Psychologist Julie Norem from Wellesley College found that up to 30% of Americans have the prerequisite psychological traits for curmudgeonly behavior. Her studies demonstrate that these folks do better on a variety of tasks when they are allowed to openly express their complaints and anxieties. She believes curmudgeons help society avoid complacency and combat the tendency to deny or normalized negative aspects of our culture.
So we have to think twice about stifling our Larry Davids and Andy Rooneys. They may be an important part of the mix of our society.