Perhaps you’re like me — you’ve always known how revered Betty White is, but you’d never taken the time to explore her astonishing career. Perhaps you thought there would always be time. White, after all, has been a cultural institution since before many of us were born. How could she ever leave us?
Her death on Friday at age 99 left many reeling and many others searching. I found myself in the latter category, trawling the Internet for clips that would help me understand this lost legend. Too little, too late. Yet White, as was her wont, delivered a fountain of wonderful moments, funny clips and joyful glimpses of a career that’s almost impossible to comprehend.
Here’s what I found.
Betty White roasts Sandra Bullock
White’s comedic timing was as precise as an atomic clock. After her death, mourning fans began sharing clips from the speech she gave upon receiving the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, presented by Sandra Bullock. White achieves an astonishing balance of sentimentality and comedy. The funny bits are so unexpected, they give you whiplash. “I look out at this audience, and I see so many famous faces. But what really boggles my mind is I actually know many of you. And I worked with quite a few,” she says at one point, pausing and nearly tearing up, before delivering her punchline: “Maybe had a couple. And you know who you are.”
But the finest moment from the speech comes early, when Bullock is still standing next her. White calls her a “lovely lady” and takes her hand. “She is such a wonderful one, with all of the wonderful things that have happened to her,” White says. “Isn’t it heartening to see how far a girl as plain as she is can go?”
Betty White describes ‘The Great Herring War’
Full, if embarrassing, disclosure: I’ve never seen a full episode of “The Golden Girls.” (Note to editor: Please don’t fire me.) We all have blind spots. But, at some point in my life of YouTube-scrolling, I came upon a clip from the show in which White tells the tale of “The Great Herring War.” It’s completely out of context, and I couldn’t begin to guess what prompted the speech — but it’s so wonderfully unhinged, such goofy absurdity sold with such a straight face, that it’s brought me joy ever since.
White’s Rose Nylund sits at a table with Rue McClanahan’s Blanche Devereaux and Beatrice Arthur’s Dorothy Zbornak and begins: “This is exactly what happened during the Great Herring War.” You know, the one between the Lindstroms and the Johanssons, who “controlled the most fertile herring waters off the coast of Norway, so naturally, it would seem in their best interest to band together.”
What follows is a classic tale of division. The Johanssons wanted to pickle the herrings. The Lindstroms wished to train them for the circus. (Not the real kind. A “herring circus,” Rose explains. “Sort of like SeaWorld, only smaller. Much, much smaller. But bigger than a flea circus.”)
The part that’ll leave you in tears comes when Dorothy mockingly asks, “Did they ever shoot a herring out a cannon?”
Rose stretches out a pause, before answering.
“Only once,” she says. “But they shot him into a tree. After that, no other herring would do it.”
Betty White cries on Mary Tyler Moore’s shoulder
While “The Golden Girls” escaped my attention, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” did not. (Thanks, Mama!) White played Sue Ann Nivens, a local TV personality with a penchant for causing trouble and become something of an early version of a frenemy to the titular character.
Choose any episode White appears in, and you’ll find a moment to savor. The one I’ve never forgotten is “Sue Ann Falls in Love,” which finds Nivens falling for a unfaithful jerk named Doug, who makes a pass at Moore. She tells Nivens, which leads to tears.
“I need comforting, and you don’t know what to do,” Nivens tells Moore, before asking her to “take my head and pet it.”
Eventually White’s Nivens places her head on Moore’s shoulder, begins crying and says, “I think we’re doing wonderfully for two people who don’t like each other.”
“By the way dear,” she says as she pulls her head back. Then she becomes the first person to ever be funny while crying and offering laundry advice: “For those mascara stains on your dress, try a dab of petroleum jelly before placing them in warm suds with a little bit of baking soda.”
Betty White tosses a toaster
In 1983, White became the first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show, in this case “Just Men!” Now, while White deserves as many Emmys as they give out, it’s not difficult to argue this was far from her best game-show work. At the time, The Washington Post’s Tom Shales dubbed it “the litmus test for people who think the TV show that can make them physically ill hasn’t been invented.” Instead, let us turn our attention to her career as game-show contestant.
White’s quick wit and impeccable timing made her a natural delight on games shows of any stripe. Watch her pause in the middle of a lightning round of “The $25,000 Pyramid” to explain that, no, she doesn’t put pot in her brownies. The clip I couldn’t get enough of, though, comes at the end of an episode of “Super Password.”
The game involves a clue-dispensing toaster (don’t ask), which White gleefully hurls at the ground after her partner loses them a round, then scolds herself by literally slapping herself on the wrist, wearing a wry grin the entire time. “Everybody in the world who’s come on this show has wanted to do that,” says host Bert Convy, which tells you everything you need to know.
Betty White shows her secret dark side
One obvious reason White endured — and will continue enduring posthumously — is how game she was for any joke. She had no ego, if a joke was funny enough. Proof can be found in one of her most popular recent sketches, which she made with her friends and colleagues Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock while filming 2009’s “The Proposal” as a fake behind-the-scenes documentary.
Much of the sketch can’t be transcribed in a family newspaper, but the idea is simple enough: White’s kind persona is just a front. She’s actually a malevolent wretch, the secret dictator of a film set, mostly bent out on making Reynolds’s life hell on set — but no one will believe him.
“Bryan,” she tells Reynolds. “Get me a cup of coffee.”
“No, my name’s Ryan. We’ve been working together for weeks. Months, actually.”
“You’ve been a terrible assistant that whole time,” she tells him, later adding, “When Betty White says she wants a cup of coffee, you get her a f---ing cup of coffee!”
This prompts Reynolds to call her a “seething demon” and offer some harsher words. White, resuming her “nice” act, runs to Bullock and accepts a hug, while secretly flipping Reynolds the bird.
It’s a master class in flipping a public persona for a laugh.
Betty White can’t find a fig leaf small enough for Johnny Carson
In 2011, Katie Couric asked White, “Why do you think wrinkles and randiness have been such a great combination for you?”
White smartly ignored the “wrinkles” part of the question, and answered, “I think the randiness is always done with a sense of humor. I mean, a joke, sure, it can be a naughty joke, but it has to be pretty funny. Double entendre, I love. The people who get it, enjoy it. The people who don’t get it, no harm.”
This philosophy came through on her many appearances on “The Tonight Show,” when her friend Johnny Carson was still the host. The two had a penchant for shedding their clothes, assuming the roles of famous characters of yore and trading barely shrouded dirty jokes. While the iconic sketch finding her and Carson taking on “Tarzan the Apes” is a classic, the one that kept me chuckling all New Year’s finds them as Adam and Eve. She’s leaving him, and she wants half of everything. Oh, and custody of the snake.
In the midst of their final fight, she points out, “I performed wifely chores. I cooked. I cleaned. I took in the inseam on your fig leaf.”
“Why didn’t you just get me a smaller fig leaf?” he asks.
“They don’t grow that small,” she replies.
Betty White finally hosts SNL
Hosting “Saturday Night Live” is a milestone for any actor. Everybody wants a chance to step onto the stage in Studio 8H. Everyone, that is, except for Betty White.
“Early in my career, I turned it down because I’m so California-oriented, and it’s such a New York-identified show, I thought, 'Oh, I’ll stick out like, you know, an outhouse in a rainstorm,’ ” she told CBS News.
But she didn’t say “no” often. And so, when a Facebook petition for the then 88-year-old White to host SNL reached half a million supporters and convinced producer Lorne Michaels to extend the offer, she accepted. The episode is full of great sketches — her taking the census and deciding she wants to try “Pacific Islander” (“Don’t skimp on the rum”) is a particular delight — but her monologue stands out, if for no other reason than spending time listening to White talk is time well spent.
“I’m 88 and a half years old. It’s great to be here, for a number of reasons,” she says to kick off a prescient monologue that primarily poked fun at Facebook.
“When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I didn’t know what Facebook was. And now that I do know what it is, I have to say: It sounds like a huge waste of time. I would never say that people on it are losers, but that’s only because I’m polite,” she says. “We didn’t have Facebook when I was growing up. We had phone book, but you wouldn’t waste an afternoon on it. Facebook just sounds like a drag. In my day, seeing pictures of people’s vacations was considered a punishment.”