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

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010; C01

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

* * *

There's an urge to leave this abiding affection for Betty unanalyzed; to yet again borrow a phrase from the slackened intellectual state of the disunion and proclaim: It is what it is.

Because if anything is what it is, then Betty White is what she is. She passed by me in a crowded hallway backstage at the CBS studios in Los Angeles a few months ago, just before the Betty White tsunami of 2010 washed ashore. I did what any sentient American would do -- I gasped. (Betty White!) She was wearing a Santa Claus suit, getting ready to tape a short bit for "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," where she is a frequent guest. Just a glimpse of her can make a person more happy, in an almost indescribably surreal way. It made everyone in the hallway giddy, too.

This love affair dovetails nicely with nearly a century of media evolution, starting perhaps as long ago as 1939, when young Betty appeared in a demonstration of television at the World's Fair. Now it has gathered itself into a mighty force. Across every media platform, all Betty has broken loose, coming to feverish climax with "SNL." Despite Betty's humble protestations that people must be sick of her by now, Saturday's "SNL" gig underlines something we all know, something important. It will signify . . .

Well, what does it signify? That the power of the Internet and the supposed wisdom of crowds cannot be denied? What happened was simple, really, portentous if (and only if) you want it to be: In December 2009, a 29-year-old man in San Antonio started a Facebook fan page titled "Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!"

He later admitted to Diane Sawyer that he hardly ever watches "Saturday Night Live" anymore. But he and his minions consider the hosting gig as more of a customary American honor. That's like someone who never mails letters asking that there be a Betty White postage stamp. And so this simple idea got traction from 32-year-old celeb gossipeur (Perez Hilton) and then it turned into nothing short of a mob's mandate.

Ultimately, when "SNL" announced that Betty would host, Betty, ever the pro, accepted the honor with her customary humility. To Betty, it doesn't matter where the love comes from or how it is made; she accepts it unconditionally. There is no greater glow than the glow of a celebrity basking in an adulation that no one can bottle or replicate. Even though "SNL's" executive producer Lorne Michaels quickly pointed out that he'd asked Betty to host many years ago (and she confirms that she declined), the success of the Facebook campaign became another occasion for Internet triumphalism: Our social networking can change the course of human events! The old-power, old-media ways no longer apply in our new culture!

And we shall demonstrate our power how?

By essentially browbeating a generally impervious 65-year-old producer (Michaels) to invite an 88-year-old woman (Betty) to host a 35-year-old television show on an 83-year-old broadcast network.

In his recent book "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto," author and early Internet engineer Jaron Lanier laments that for all the talk about the future, the Web is too frequently put to the uses of nostalgia. It has a become a tool we use to call up clips of TV shows we thought we'd never see again, commercial jingles we thought lost to time; to look up ex-lovers we'd vowed to wash right out of our hair; to remake or mash up songs we loved 20, 30, 70 years ago. It is a device by which we vote to have our surrogate TV grandma honored by putting her through the grueling pace of an improvised, live comedy sketch show.

And she is thrilled to do it. Which gives America still more satisfaction: We made it happen. (Never mind our other favorite pastime here, which is to kvetch that "Saturday Night Live" is never as good as it used to be, or could be, or ought to be, etc.)

Victory, then. Ever the pro, Betty has been in the hallways of 30 Rock this week, being put through (gingerly, one hopes) the four-day rush of manic creativity that results in an episode of "Saturday Night Live." To our relief, several "SNL" alumnae, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, have reportedly been summoned to assist Betty, as a sort of tribute to her stature, but also as a way to get around the fact that hosting "SNL" is . . . well, one can only imagine how a 21st-century, fully ironic, incredibly idolized Betty White would facetiously describe it: in words you're not supposed to say on TV.

Saturday Night Live

(90 minutes; hosted by Betty White, with musical guest Jay-Z) airs at 11:30 p.m. Saturday on NBC.

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