By Paula Hendrickson
Whether you’re 9 or 90, at some point in your life Betty White has made you laugh. That’s not hyperbole. It’s a fact.
Maybe it was her recent Super Bowl ad for Snickers. Maybe it was her note perfect portrayal of “the happy homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or as the often befuddled Rose Nylund of The Golden Girls. Or, perhaps it was during one of the literally hundreds of game show stints or countless talk show appearances she’s made over the decades.
Face it: if Betty White hasn’t made you laugh, then you have absolutely no sense of humor.
Although White has appeared in feature films—most recently in the Sandra Bullock comedy, The Proposal —television has long been White’s medium of choice. She started in TV back when it was still an experimental venue, sort of like Internet programming is today. What White and her contemporaries did back in the day helped shape TV forever.
New technology has brought White full circle. Last year, she parodied herself in a bit on FunnyorDie.com, and the clip went viral. More recently, more than half a million fans joined a Facebook campaign to have her host Saturday Night Live. The effort worked. This weekend, White will host SNL alongside some of the funniest women to come out of SNL—Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon and Rachel Dratch. But, make no mistake, it is the spry 88-year-old White who is this week’s real headliner.
If any octogenarian is capable of doing live TV, it’s Betty White. After all, she was among the first performers to ever do live broadcasts. At least in 2010 she doesn’t have to do live ads, too, unless, of course, SNL throws a faux promo or two into the show.
Few actors have worked in television as consistently as White. And few can match her scope of roles. While saucy Sue Ann Nivens and naïve Rose Nylund brought her the most fame, White has also done numerous voice roles (King of the Hill, The Wild Thornberrys), soap operas (The Bold and the Beautiful, Santa Barbara, Another World), and made single-shot guest appearances on probably half of the most popular TV shows of the past 30 or 40 years. She’s also played recurring roles on several shows. One character, the kind-but-crazy Catherine Piper, originated in The Practice and returned for even more episodes of its spin-off, Boston Legal.
To me, White is at her best when playing against type. Sue Ann Nivens is the classic example, but a couple of years ago she played the Crazy Witch Lady on My Name is Earl, smiling sweetly while knocking people over the head and chaining them up in her basement.
Betty White is more than a living legend. She’s the hippest 88-year-old in the business. Don’t miss history being made when she hosts SNL.
Programming note: SNL airs Saturday night, May 15, at 10:30 p.m. on NBC.
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Send in your suggestions to email@example.com.
From the May 5-11, 2010 issue