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Shales on TV Live: 'Need to Know;' SNL: Betty White; more

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, May 11, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's column: Tom Shales on PBS's 'Need to Know' (Post, May 11)

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Tom Shales: Hello hello. Do you suppose the phrase "that's mighty White of you" will come back, this time minus the offensive racial taint? Yes of course I am talking about Betty White, who is a big national hero for her triumph on "Saturday Night Live" AND for being 88 ("and a half") years old and thriving, being absolutely at a peak. Betty, America loves you......

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D.C.: WTG Betty White! She was the funniest host on SNL for a long time. I don't know how she does it, but even I couldn't stay up to watch the whole show, and had to DVR the rest of it.

Tom Shales: Now come on -- Betty could stay up to DO it, you couldn't stay up to watch it? LOL as "The Kids" say. Frankly i always get pretty drowsy in that last half-hour stretch and often watch that part the next morning. Usually the crummiest stuff is saved for the last half-hour but you never know, sometimes they put a sketch there that Lorne and his minions felt was too far out-there and it can turn out to be truly original and clever. Oh well, let's not argue about the quality of material in Saturday Night Live - PLEASE!!! Let's argue about -- oh I don't know - how lousy my salary is, something important like that....

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Oompa Loom, Pa.: Watched a late night rerun of Golden Girls last Thursday. Rose had to have heart surgery. As she's succumbing to the anesthesia, she has something important to tell her daughter: Video: Live From NY ... It's Rose Nyland (Must Hear TV). I was so tickled when I saw that! Surprised and a little disappointed it wasn't acknowledged on Saturday's SNL. I guess the head-banger theme song variation took precedence. (That was one of my least fave segments of the show.)

Tom Shales: Now come on, there's no Oompa Loompa, (or even Oompa Loom) Pa., is there? Is that where the Oompa Loompas live? The Chocolate Factory?? (well there's Hershey of course, heh heh) ... anyway, The Golden Girls is a hit AGAIN which is quite phenomenal, for a show to come back to strong after 15 years in mothballs, or dry dock or whatever. Betty had two smash hits, Mary Tyler Moore and Golden Girls, but earlier she was in Life with Elizabeth and Date with an Angel and maybe more. Those were so-so sitcoms, respectable if not landmarks, but it just shows what longevity and versatility she had (Sue Ann Niven of MTM was nothing like the Rose Betty played on Golden Girls).......

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Toronto, Canada: They had literally every female cast member of the late '90s early '00s on Saturday night except Cheri Oteri. What was that about?

Tom Shales: Sorry, I don't know. There are plenty of sort of benign possibilities -- she had a previous engagement, you know, or maybe nobody asked her. Maybe she wasn't well-liked in her own era and people thought "Oh why invite HER and get into all THAT again?" After all they certainly didn't want Nora Dunn back to stomp around and be a grouch. (I may be over-simplifying just a teeny tiny bit, ya think?). I think they just picked a few of the best and let it go at that. They couldn't have EVERY woman who'd ever been funny on SNL, after all.....

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St. Paul, Minn. : Hi Tom -- I know that most of your chat will be devoted to a Betty White love-in, which is fine with me, but I was very disappointed that there wasn't some sort of reference, take off, what have you, to her most indelible role, Sue Ann Nivens. Yes, I love the Golden Girls as much as the next person (I spent many dateless Saturday nights with them), but as wonderful as she was on SNL, that was a missed opportunity. What do you think?

Tom Shales: Oh well, St. Paul (is that Mary Richards' old stomping ground? And hat-tossing ground?) -- I mean, Golden Girls really did belong to Betty White (though she was part of a truly golden ensemble) more than the MTM show did -- because that show had a single diva at its core and Betty was just a supporting player, not necessarily in every episode (was she?? I don't think so). But yeah, when they sang the Golden Girls theme, they could easily have segued into the MTM theme "Who can turn the world on with her smile?" By the way, who CAN turn the world on with a smile???? Neat trick. Maybe Santa Claus. That's about it, isn't it? A religious icon perhaps - Jesus, Buddha, Hmmm, I think I'd better steer clear of THIS topic..........

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Golden Girls Trivia: Betty White was originally cast to play Blanche, but she thought the character was too similar to her character on MTM. Ditto Rue McLanahan: She was supposed to play Rose, but felt that the character was too similar to the one she played on Maude. So they switched. And the show was much better as a result.

Tom Shales: Ah, great details! I have seen Rue naked. No, not at my house. She posed a la Marilyn Monroe for a nudie pin-up before she decided to work in television. Naughty-naughty! I don't think the nude photo ever really hurt her career. I thought she was the weakest Golden Girl - I mean, the character was so over-drawn, all that sex talk (why I found it embarrassing!!! - hey, I sound like I'm older than Betty White)(actually Betty negotiated those SNL steps better than I could. She's lucky arthritis stayed away from her door)(and her knees)......

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Missoula, Mont.: Hi Tom,

Hope all is well.

My daughter got her degree from UCLA last spring and now just got a job at CW network, and I have to admit I've never heard of it. Could you tell me more about it?

Tom Shales: Uhhhhhhh -- the Country-Western network, ain't it? (I'm sure they say AIN't there a lot). All I know is, they show country-flavored movies like "Smokey and the Bandit" (a picture I happen to love for what it's worth - not much I guess) and lots and lots of country music videos. If I have watched it for more than ten minutes at a time in my life, I'd be surprised, but after all, cable is a specialist's medium and people who love country music probably love CW. If your daughter HATES that stuff, I think she should keep looking, job-wise.... (tho these are no times to be picky. Why do you think i keep THIS job?!)

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Washington, D.C.: Is it me or the overuse of MacGruber got really old? I guess I prefer their more topical humor as opposed to falling back to abstract slapstick.

Tom Shales: They plugged the living daylights out of it on the Betty White SNL BECAUSE ---

-there's only one more episode of SNL (this Saturday's) left in the season, hence one more chance to plug the movie, which is a Lorne Michaels - SNL production (and by the way, advance word is surprisingly good -- so we mustn't assume it's another Ladies Man or ConeHeads)...... The movie is rated "R" so I guess the script gets into Macgruber's colorful and curious sexual history......

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Alexandria, Va.: Like the rest of America, I loved the Betty White SNL despite the often lame and sophomoric humor. I just wished that the show's announcer had introduced Betty White as "that kid," since Don Pardo is 92 years old!

Tom Shales: Yes, Don Pardo is a living history of broadcasting all wrapped up in one individual. You know in that SNL book that my friend Jim Miller and I wrote - and I'm not plugging it, honest, 'cause it's out of print -- Darrell Hammond said that when Don Pardo isn't feeling well, Darrell steps in and does Don's voice and the home audience never knows. Ya think that's true? I mean, it IS plausible, Hammond is VERY good -- I was surprised nobody ever picked up on that Fascinating Fact.......BTW Don Pardo recorded his own long oral history for the Museum of Television (I believe) last year and so people who go to the museum can watch chapters of it on the monitors there. Also didn't Dick Ebersol "Fire" Don Pardo when he took over the show in 1980 or 81, but then Lorne brought Don back??

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Missoula, Mont.: Thanks so much Tom, but I think I should have been clearer. She told me it was a network that airs all these series geared toward teenyboppers that I've never heard of before. I don't remember if she mentioned country western music videos.

Tom Shales: AW-oh. I screwed up ... see next comment - and thanks to the person who made it (it's all coming back to me now .. but ... slowly)......

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The CW: From its Web site, "The CW Network was formed as a joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and CBS Corporation. The CW is America's fifth broadcast network and the only network targeting women 18-34.

The network's primetime schedule includes such popular series as America's Next Top Model, Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Smallville, Melrose Place and The Vampire Diaries."

I guess this is undeniable proof that Tom Shales is not an 18-34-year-old female!

Tom Shales: More on the REAL CW. So by he way, what IS the country-western network called? There IS one, isn't there?????

Emily!!! Emily in TV Team Central HQ!!!! Help!!!!!!!!!!! And yes you found me out, no 18-34 female, I. Not even an 18-to-49'er..... I think I'm more in the Betty White demographic......

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Coneheads: Tom, I usually worship at your feet and am tempted to toss Weingartenesque virtual panties in your general direction, but we'll have a parting of the ways if you don't love Coneheads.

Tom Shales: But I do love Coneheads. I was THERE the night they were introduced on the old (pre 75?) show. I remember vividly Lorne saying to me, "This is my new favorite thing." And I loved it. But wasn't the CONEHEAD movie kind of a bust??? I only saw about 30 minutes of it, and that seemed enough. If you think I should go back and watch the whole thing -- well, for 5 bucks, I'll do it......

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Baltimore, Md.: To me, the most stunning thing about White's appearance on SNL is how physically fit she is. Watching her come out for the monologue, she moves like someone 20 or 30 years younger. I have never heard her talk about any particular health or fitness regimen, but at 88 she's a physical marvel.

Tom Shales: There was the tiniest bit of unsteadiness, but my God, in general she was indeed the very picture of health. I should think people (magazines, interview shows) would be madly pursuing her for the secrets of her longevity. Like what does she eat, how long does she sleep (and with whom) and does she indulge in Activia? Bolivia? Wikipedia? You know that lousy Activia jingle is the same as the -- now let me see -- the Lipitor Jingle? Oh wait, they don't have a jingle. just a slogan: Trust your heart to Lipitor. Not MY heart, baby!!! I don't trust it to no pharmaceutical company........ but that's another story....

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East Lansing, Mich.: Are you thinking of CMT (Country Music Television)?

I didn't realize that CW was an actually network and that it's solely targeting young women. Seems like bad business to me.

Tom Shales: Yes, thank you, Country Music Television. BOY IS MY FACE RED. It's a lucky thing we aren't in color, ha ha ha. I don't think I can even make red letters on this primitive set-up. Or boldface. Or any of my favorite type faces, like Cooper Black. And of course, Irene Bodoni. I mean just plain Bodoni. Now about 4 of you know what I am talking about. So I will shut up and move on to -- the next chattance.......

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Northwest: Saw you on CBS Sunday Morning's Mothers Day special. I'm not too sure about the longer hairdo. It seems like your trying to get back into that 18-49 demographic. I'm just sayin'

Tom Shales: Yes well -- ahem -- that was a noble experiment ...like the Edsel ... I actually thought it looked GOOD when I looked into a mirror -- but Television gives you a MUCH MUCH MUCH more accurate image, in case you're wondering what you look like these days. A mirror is backwards of course. Television is closer to the truth - the ugly truth, in my case..... by the way, I taped something for Diane Sawyer's ABC World Newscast - so if you saw me on CBS, something is amiss. Or amok. Or both. Oh, I'm getting a hair cut one of these days. Honest.

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"Cooper Black. And of course, Irene Bodoni. I mean just plain Bodoni.": Tom, you're a font of information. Get it? Font?

And that joke was still funnier than anything SNL has done in the last 20 years.

Tom Shales: Bless you. Don't agree with you on SNL - they perhaps should do more type-face humor??? -- but anyway, we did have our little chortle, didn't we? And let the rest of the world go by...........

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Bloomington, Ind.: You what kind of funny about MacGruber (and it's not the skits since they are pretty one-note).

Since SNL is a pretty under 25 crowd, I'll bet you $5 right now that much of the folks in that audience and the poor fools who go to the theaters to see the feature film have never actually seen a full episode of MacGyver.

Tom Shales: That may be true. And it may be that enjoying the movie does not in any way require familiarity with the old ABC show. After all, why parody a show that wasn't THAT big a hit anyway, and was on ages ago? I think it's kind of inspired in that way, that they reached so far back for something to mock. I doubt very much that the movie is just a parody of MacGyver. Only on that very basic elemental level of being about a guy who tries to keep things from blowing up (and fails)...... I know that no matter how good a parody it was, I could NOT be entertained for a hundred minutes or however long it is by something spoofing MacGyver. There's just not enough there to spoof!

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"Country Network": ...is CMT: country music television.

To the original poster's question about the CW-- sounds like a fabulous place for a recent college grad-- good luck to her!

Tom Shales: Oh we're just one big happy family around here!

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Woodstown, NJ..: Any chance they could make Betty a regular cast member? Add a bit of age diversity.

Tom Shales: Uhhh .............. no.

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Missoula, Mont.: Thank you again Tom. So nice of you.

So long as it gives my daughter paycheck, I'm mostly fine with it. Hopefully somebody like primetime soap operas with vampires since it isn't my cup of tea although I did read Bram Stoker's "Dracula" when I was little.

Tom Shales: Listen, you never know -- best-laid plans and all that -- I thought I was doing a young lady who used to live next door to me a wonderful favor when I put in a word for her with the people who hire interns for the David Letterman show. Well you know how that turned out. Actually it turned out fine for the girl next door. Maybe she wasn't Dave's type, or vice versa. The thought of that geeky string-bean lunging at pretty girls makes my blood run cold. Or wait - my blood's not running cold!!! Where did I ever get that impression? Anyway, he's gotten awfully creepy in Ye Olde Mind's Eye, dontcha think? And sorry, I don't know HOW we got on the subject of Letterman...... speaking of vampires.

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Ms. White and Facebook:: Now, if Congress were to set up a Facebook page where citizens could express . . .

Nah! Never happen. Server would crash.

Tom Shales: Thanks for the jolt of reality.

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The CW: Wasn't the CW network a combination of WB and UPN? Didn't one have a frog as a mascot?

Tom Shales: Yes, this was settled about eight comments ago. The frog by the way is named Michigan J. Frog (not positive about middle initial - may be thinking of Kermit) who starred in a wonderful wry classic cartoon by Chuck Jones called "One Froggy Evening." If you've never seen it, seek it out on DVD. It's a moral parable - or something. None of the usual WB characters like Bugs or Daffy are in it. Just 6 minutes of sheer brilliance (and great frog-singing)......

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Need to Know: Do you think part of the problem with the show is that Jon Meacham is kind of a pompous guy?

washingtonpost.com: Tom Shales on PBS's 'Need to Know' (Post, May 11)

Tom Shales: Pompous? yes. And dreary.

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Re:MacGruber Overuse: I read a few reviews with comments similar to the above, that the MacGruber sketches are annoying and repetitive... Well, maybe they just aren't familiar with the MacGruber format. From what I remember, at least in this season, it's always been done as four separate taped sketches preceding the four commercial breaks before the first musical performance. There's a common theme serialized across them too with events building on the previous... even though everything explodes. This week, it was him learning to deal with his grandmother. In the Charles Barkley episode, he was dealing with his latent racism.

So, if someone's going to criticize the MacGruber sketches, do so on the format. Don't say it was trying to be plug-ish this week for the movie, because, besides the commercials which don't count, it wasn't. It followed the same rules it always did, and I thought it was hilarious... then again, I am the target audience.

Now, the episode with Ryan Phillippe was pure plug, I'll grant you that.

Tom Shales: Thanks. And thanks for paying attention. What you say does ring a bell. of course it rather requires that a person stay up through the whole show and see ALL the MacGruber sketches for it to work ... but as you explain it, it's actually quite ambitious. By the way, do you think MacGrube DID have male-breast-reduction-surgery? That seemed to be a running gag last week. One week, MacGyver himself was there; was he playing MacGruber's dad? Something like that. The actor, whose name NATURALLY escapes me (Richard Dean Anderson? Could that be it? No wonder it escaped me; it's three names; no one should be permitted more than two) appeared in the sketches. Damn good sport, I'd say. And thrilled to be remembered..........

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Takoma Park, Md.: Okay -- here's the minor network flowchart. The CW used to be the WB, which merged with UPN. CMT plays country music videos and related things, but there also used to the be The Nashville Network, which showed country music and lots of country-related things including a Florence Henderson cooking show that I adored. It then became The National Network and is now Spike.

Tom Shales: You really DO need a chart. Or ten. It's all coming back to me now .. BUT I DON'T WANT IT BACK! I want to save that space in my brain FOR SOMETHING WORTH KEEPING!!

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Berkeley, Calif.: So you still haven't forgiven David Letterman yet?

Tom Shales: no

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Herndon, Va.: Is there some cosmic karma that "Need to Know" debuts the same week it's announced that the Washington Post is trying to sell off Newsweek?

Tom Shales: Hmmmm .... you may be on to something. I can remember when Newsweek was the most successful component of the company. But what goes around, comes around, then goes around again, then comes around again, then I get dizzy and lie down.....

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Rue McClanahan isn't the only whose posing wasn't lethal to her career: Glenda Jackson has gotten repeatedly elected to the British Parliament despite (or because of?) this: Photo: Glenda Jackson

She was just reelected as a Labour MP last week.

Tom Shales: No offense now, and no harm intended to anyone, and no sexism either -- no sir no sir, and no madame -- but I'm not sure i am really dying to see Glenda Jackson bare naked......

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CW TV:: Although the country music channel CMT does indeed exist, the one that you are really thinking of was TNN (The Nashville Network), which ran CW talk shows, down-home cooking shows, Dukes of Hazzard re-runs, etc. It morphed into a different TNN (The National Network) in an unsuccessful attempt to broaden its appeal, and now it's the "Spike" channel (television for guys). I wouldn't be surprised if they still have something like "The Dukes of Hazzard" on it, though.

Tom Shales: AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

NOW YOU'VE GONE IT!!!!!!!!

I'm going MADDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!

One more word about the country music cowboy mud-wrestling channel and I will surely go INSANE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Seattle, Wash.: Tom --

Re: your review of the new PBS show. Short of hiring Betty White as a correspondent, what does Need to Know need to fix?

Tom Shales: A whole new mindset. It's just HORRIBLE. First the ridiculous idea that you're very au courant if you somehow incorporate the internet in your show -- oh please -- and then that "incorporation of the internet" turns out to be not much more than EVERY SINGLE OTHER SHOW ON TELEVISION DOES, which means set up a stupid web site that hardly ever changes and paste some leftover junk on it. My my, what a boon to mankind, as I seem to remember saying......oh and by "mankind" I certainly do not mean to exclude Womankind.

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I heart Betty White: She has that great "in on the joke" look in her eyes. My hope is the whippersnappers are taking notes from the 88 1/2-year-old -- she's teaching a master class on how to have a career into your golden years.

Tom Shales:

Yes, I'm glad you brought that up. There is more to being old than Larry King jokes and those darn stupid commercials for electric go-carts (and by the way, how is it those geezers get the things for FREE? does that mean your and my taxes are buying Grandpa his RunAround, or his GoAround, or his WhoopeeCushion or whatever the things are called???). No but you made a great serious point. And as boomers survive into their 70s and 80s, and if that British woman makes more records (there's a successor to Boyle, by the way, yet another elderly British woman who sings), America's callous attitude toward "seniors" may change for the better.

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Metro D.C.: Okay, so how did they do that commercial for Snickers with Betty White and Abe Vigoda?

Tom Shales: I will explain that - but not for free! Seriously, it must be available on a web site somewhere. Does whatever company makes SNICKERS have a web site??? They did other funny spots, right?, with, oh let me think - EMILY!!!! EMILY WHERE ARE YOU?!?! Maybe they did a spot with Emily!!! No they did one with a "diva" who only turns into a diva when she doesn't get her Snickers ... etc., etc.

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Alexandria, Va.: What really struck me about seeing all the female comedians from the last 10 years or so on SNL is that it really highlighted just how much lower-caliber and unfunny the current cast of female comedians is, except for maybe Kristen Wiig at times. The only thing remotely memorable about the other recent female cast is that Nasim Pedrad does that one infomercial skit with a voice that is positively irritating.

Tom Shales: Hmmm, you don't say? But I do think Kristin Wiig is an ENTIRE STOCK COMPANY of funny characters all by herself. Oh and here's Little Miss Tardy Emily -- to inform me that CMT is Country Music Television and GAC is -- what??? Isn't that how you finance a car thru General Motors? If you happen to be that desperate?????

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Amarillo, Tex.: There is a country and western mud wrestling channel? Yee hah! Where do I sign up?

Tom Shales: Now now -- getting a wee bit kinky down in the Lone Star State, aren't we??

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washingtonpost.com: Video: Betty White Snickers Super Bowl 44 Commercial Abe Vigoda (YouTube)

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SNL parody of you? : As such a long time supporter of SNL, why have they not done a parody of you? Even if it was a subliminal character that most people don't get. A supporting character.

That would be some respect!

Tom Shales: They hate me. Actually the Letterman show put "me" in a sketch once. Some big fat bald guy who kept saying he wanted some Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks was identified as me in a mock-biography of Letterman. The thing about the egomaniac degenerates who work in television is, you can praise them to the rafters, to the skies, to the moon, but if you say ONE TINY THING they don't like, they hate you forever. These people are sick puppies. Their talent is why we tolerate them of course.

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Driving Tom Crazy: How about Betty White as the host for a Monster Truck Rally weekly series?

Tom Shales: Now look, first off, "Driving Tom Crazy" is a pretty easy task to assign yourself. It's like "Getting Tom Fat." And I think we should NOT overwork Betty. Monster Truck Rallies? I think Kathie Lee Gifford can handle those. Save Betty for the classy stuff ... like refereeing mud wrestling in Amarillo......

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Betty White is setting an example for seniors: Betty is 88.5 years old. My mother is 89.5 years old, in a wheelchair, and has been in a nursing home per doctor's orders for 7 years.

I am in awe of Betty White.

Tom Shales: Me too -- Betty's knees in way better shape than mine, but I think I whined that whine already.....

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Electric go-carts: It's not just old people on those. I spotted two drunk college-age kids come out of Rhino in Georgetown and unlock one and ride up the hill and away from M street.

Tom Shales: The young fiends !!!!!!!!!!!!

But are there roving gangs of old-timers in the WheelAways or whatever they're called? Reminds me of a Monty Python sketch about marauding grannies attacking people on the streets of London

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Washington, D.C.: The best appearance I ever saw Betty White do in her later years was on The Daily Show, when Jon Stewart, clearly in awe, gave her free rein to talk about how she was once neighbors with Fred Astaire and how she was stunned every time she had a message from him on the answering machine. She said she would listen to it thinking, "I know Fred Astaire. I actually know Fred Astaire."

Tom Shales: I actually know the guy who lives in Fred Astaire's house. No joke. He is Steve Bornstein, formerly head of ESPN (I wonder how i knew that) and now running NFL Television. He bought a house in Beverly Hills that Fred Astaire once lived in. Scuff marks ALL OVER the kitchen floor!!!!

Steve's brother Andy, who died last year, was one of my most treasured friends, ever since college at American U many many MANY years ago. Andy, wherever you are, I wish you'd come back for a few more laughs. We'll watch a WC Fields movie again. Good bye, and thank you

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Richard Dean Anderson: "Thrilled to be remembered"? Hasn't he been on TV every week for the last several years, starring in that "Stargate Atlantis" show?

Tom Shales: oops - one more -- Department of Corrections (not the DCJail, another kind)

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