Adi Azran, a content producer at a studio that makes TikTok videos, had an epiphany last year when he showed his coworker Brandon Chase a video by @ourfilipinograndma, which showed a grandmother delivering a dating pickup line.
The video garnered more than 12 million views.
Azran, 27, and Chase, 25, knew they found the right niche to explore: older adults doing unconventional things. They began drafting scripts and ideas about a group of retirees living together. The full scripts, however, were quickly tossed aside after the first shoot, and the actors were told to just be themselves – only in their most wacky and zany ways.
Now only slightly scripted, the actors lip-sync trending songs, play practical jokes, discuss dating advice, tackle the latest viral trend, and dance to songs like Armani White’s viral hit “Billie Eilish.” Some of the sketches are inspired by real life, while others are commentary on the social media influencer culture, Azran said.
@RetirementHouse now has 4.2 million followers and counting. The cast of six older adults in their 70s and 80s – which range from actors who have been in the business for decades and those who have no acting background at all – see themselves as having fun and pushing the boundaries of what is expected of seniors.
“People who had no voice are now reaching four million followers. That’s pretty fantastic,” said Jerry Boyd, 76, who plays Curtis on Retirement House.
Still, Retirement House’s following pales in comparison to TikTok’s most-followed account: @khaby.lame, with more than 150 million followers. Khabane “Khaby” Lame is a Senegalese-born Italian social media personality known for videos in which he silently mocks overly complicated life hack videos.
Retirement House’s success has been driven by humor, shock value and an endless stream of short snippets of unexpected fun, experts said.
“More traditionally, the senior population is portrayed in places or states of weakness – about health concerns or driving sentimentality or emotionality. This is quite a juxtaposition of senior citizens lip syncing Cardi B songs,” said Jaren Watson, an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
“There’s a novelty to it. It’s not that this is the new path forward. ‘Retirement House’ struck gold in delighting and entertaining their viewers,” Watson said. “People have a level of mortality salience – an idea of what we will be like as seniors with all the negative connotations. These videos give aspirational hope.”
Retirement House is part of a group of so-called “grandfluencers,” seniors who use social media to talk about everything from fashion to gardening to raising kids to dating. Four friends on TikTok, known as @OldGays, have 8.4 million followers, while @GBandme has 5.7 million followers and @Grandma_droniak has 4.8 million followers.
“It’s a growing niche. Hopefully we’ll see more older creators. There are brands looking to target 50+ people,” said said Mae Karwowski, chief executive of Obviously, an influencer marketing agency.
TikTok, a social media platform typically followed by younger viewers, is an unconventional place to portray seniors. But Retirement House’s videos are far from traditional, so they work for a variety of generations, experts said.
“Collab houses are a big thing for Gen Z, so this really works for them,” Karwowski said. “Seeing older people will jump out of the TikTok feed and viewers will be like ‘Oh, this is different.’ They’re a hit.”
Videos may first be seen by a younger audience, but then that viewer might show their parent or grandparent the video, so there’s cross-generational viewing — and perhaps greater intergenerational understanding, Watson said.
“There’s this idea that people get old, take medication and have a walker. That’s not the case,” said Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker, 85, who plays Mabel. “Laughter is really needed. We have a war in Europe. We’re tearing up the Earth. Our values are so warped. We need to laugh. Laugh at ourselves, laugh with each other. We’re just trying to make people laugh.”
TikTok declined to release demographic information of its followers. Marketing agency Obviously said almost 60% of Retirement House’s audience is 18-to-24 years old, and nearly 25% is 25-to-34 years old.
On Instagram, where users tend to trend slightly older than TikTok, Azran said Retirement House’s main audience is 25- to 35-year olds, followed by 35- to 45-year olds and then 18- to 24-year-olds.
“We’ll see people’s comments coming from 60- to 81- year olds down to 16 years old. It’s digestible for anyone,” Azran said.
The creators are hoping to use TikTok as a broader platform, with a podcast in the works and a TV show as the ultimate aspiration, said Chase.
Azran added that they’d love to do a sketch comedy show that has different sets or locations, rather than pretending they’re in a coffee shop when they’re really on the rented Hollywood house set, for example.
Some experts question whether “Retirement House” can thrive outside of TikTok’s short videos.
“My sense of ‘Retirement House’ is that it works extremely well in the short form and it can live on TikTok for its duration. When thinking about transitioning to a broader show, it would probably lose a bit of its core younger demographic,” Watson said.
Retirement House has attracted national advertisers such as Snickers, Ancestry and KFC, which the creators said proves it’s a viable business.
“At the end of the day, this costs money. We need to be a business that is working so we can continue to create content for people,” Azran said.
Some have questioned whether the videos poke fun of the actors, but the participants deny that and contend they’re in on the jokes. The actors contend they see Retirement House as all fun and games.
“It’s not making fun of old people. It’s showing old people with spunk and gumption,” said Reatha Grey, 73, who plays Rose. “I didn’t know what an influencer was. Now I’m a ‘grandfluencer.’ It’s shown me that you’re not dead, you’re just older.”
Chuck Lacey, 70, who plays Eugene: “It doesn’t bother me that I’m not hip. I’m having a ball.”
“I like the fact it pushes back on stereotypes of older people and technology,” said Megan Gerhardt, professor of management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University of Ohio and author of “Gentelligence.”
“If we’re turning a generation into a trope or stereotype, we’re feeding into the problem. When we reduce people to stereotypes, we lose a lot,” Gerhardt said. “Is it done in a way that people are mocking each other? I don’t know. There’s a campiness or farce aspect to it. Maybe that’s the point – that it’s so over the top that they’re all in on the joke?”