The Age of Betty White: From 'Mary Tyler Moore' to 'SNL,' a timeless tickler

The legendary comedic actress prepares to make her hosting debut on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" on May 8. Here's a look back at some of her work in more recent years.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

Apple pie, apple Betty. The sweetness, the spacey granny thing. The twinkle, the dimples, the cotton-ball coif. Betty White, at 88, has been on television since there has been television, always available, always on her game, and yet only now is she is experiencing a zeitgeist moment few performers ever get to have.

It's the simplest sort of boob-tube algebra: Let Sue Ann Nivens -- White's role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the 1970s -- equal x. Let Rose Nylund -- her quarter of "The Golden Girls" in the 1980s -- equal y. Take the square root of all the love America has left to give. (Take all those game shows she was on. Take those nights spent watching "Golden Girls" reruns on the Hallmark Channel, with the tray of microwave brownies and the fuzzy blankie -- don't pretend you don't know.)

For this equation alone, Betty White will be famous forever.

But she wouldn't be an Internet-age sensation if Betty didn't also know how to be naughty, outre. America loves a slightly dirty-minded meemaw with an unerring sense of comic timing. If not for this elusive factor, we wouldn't be living through a long and building Betty White moment, which fittingly crests on this Mother's Day weekend with her hosting "Saturday Night Live" -- an event that a half-million people more or less demanded through a Facebook campaign earlier this year.

Our society has this thing about old ladies and sauce. A little, but not a lot; a wink, and not more. It's this idea we like to mull over, that there might be whips kept somewhere in the spare closets of retirement condos.

So it's Betty White, going blue at awards-show speeches and roasts, using language we at once don't want her to use and yet crave to hear her utter. Betty White appearing to take tackles in a game of touch football in a commercial for Snickers. Betty White snarling through a viral video clip that pretends to show her as a mean diva on the set of Sandra Bullock romantic comedy film. The hope that she'll say something on "SNL" (or anywhere) that has to be bleeped out on the time delay by the nation's word police; that she can and will drop an f-bomb when and if the script calls for it.

That bawdy octogenarian talk really lights the kids on fire. This is why they elevate her. As much as you love (or loved) your own grandmother, there's a part of you that wishes she'd been a little more Betty. Don't think for a minute that grandmas everywhere haven't always known this trick. They know that if they say something a certain way, shocking yet faux-naif, the entire Thanksgiving table will erupt in howls -- oh, Nana! -- and immediately text a tweet of what she just said. Betty White is doing that for the whole country. She is the stand-in for the ideal, hilarious matriarch.

Because, in real life, our own mothers and grandmas (and fathers and grandpas) tend to have all these problems -- bill collectors and diverticulitis and demands to see the president's birth certificate. How much easier to pretend Betty is your grandma instead, to pretend that all of life is merely a process of working from one snappy retort to the next, filmed before a studio audience that's been primed to laugh.

There's a certain moment when an elderly celebrity privately recognizes (and seizes) the ironic potential in her stardom and it therefore gives her a renewed courage and vim. It also supplies new gigs. Ask Bob Barker (age 86) about that, how everything changed after the golf-course whaling he gave Adam Sandler in "Happy Gilmore" and college students started worshiping him. Ask Joan Rivers (76), William Shatner (79). Ask other celebrities who are beloved because they got old and feisty and managed to make it endearing. Ask Helen Thomas (89). They'll all pretend not to know, which might be part of the act.

* * *

"They just dig old ladies."

-- Betty White, explaining the love of her fans

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