Tuesday, May 11, 2010


I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live regularly since the Phil Hartman days of the early ‘90s, and not even my borderline unhealthy obsession with Tina Fey could change that. (It was an obsession born from 30 Rock, not SNL, though I did Google some of her Sarah Palin bits just because.) But nevertheless I marvel at this program's longevity. Admit it—none of you who watched SNL in its fifth year, as the last pieces of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players were crumbling and the show was about to make its first (disastrous) cast change, ever would have thought it would last this long. Despite its insistence on never going away (SNL has become, for some of us, the network television version of the character John Belushi immortalized during his tenure, The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave), it seems to have been in a constant state of vacillation between watchable and culturally irrelevant ever since the passing of its first five seasons.

But apparently even this venerable 35-year-old institution is still capable of pulling a rabbit out of its tattered top hat, and this past weekend it did so with the help of a spirited actress who has been around about 50 years longer than the program itself. On Saturday, May 8, octogenarian Betty White hosted the program, boosted by a campaign originating on Facebook to land her on the program. The campaign worked—over 515,000 people signed the petition site, compelling NBC and Lorne Michaels to take the bait, and White apparently spurred the SNL stable of writers and actors to come up with some of their best material in years, much of it built around her natural exuberance and the old-school tension between her twinkly demeanor and her tendency toward, shall we say, inappropriate language and unexpected behavior. Of course, this is a card she’s played brilliantly ever since the halcyon days of Sue Ann Nivens, right on up through The Golden Girls and recent supporting roles in movies like The Proposal. This year she even made a splash with football fans (albeit in a mud puddle) in a hilarious Snickers ad which saw her and Abe Vigoda both take some vicious hits (with the help of CGI, one certainly hopes) during a pickup scrimmage. (Those of us who remember her appearances on Password already knew she was a firecracker.)

Despite all the love she has received throughout her career, it’s nice to see White not only get her due from the current generation of comedians while she’s still active and funny, but also to get a showcase like SNL on which to strut her stuff. I wish I could have seen it myself, but in the age of Hulu and TiVo and YouTube and all the other sites that have turned summer reruns into the stuff of cathode ray legend something like the Betty White Phenomenon is never too far away. And so, assuming that like me you may have missed the big water cooler event of the weekend, here’s one or two moments from Betty White’s triumphant turn on Saturday Night Live (without having to sit through all those annoying commercials or Jay-Z!). Wouldn’t it be lovely if all this attention could get this fine and funny actress, at 85 years old, a real movie or two where she wouldn’t have to play Sandra Bullock’s feisty grandmother-in-law? (No Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot Too! jokes, please.) Betty White, the self-effacing, spirited, impishly self-aware comedienne who has mastered the tension between the housewife’s twinkle and the impudent hussy’s suggestion like few others, is the real deal. Enjoy!

Betty White and Kristen Wiig promote White's upcoming Saturday Night Live appearance

The Betty White SNL Monologue

Betty makes an NPR radio appearance with cooking show hosts Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer—double entendre alert!

Tina Fey’s census worker meets her match when Betty answers the door.



Martha said...

Do you think a resurgent interest in Match Game is too much to ask?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Well, without Gene, Charles, Brett and I dare say even Richard Dawson and Fannie Flagg, it could probably be only a pale imitation even if they did talk Betty into it. Thank heaven for the Game Show Network, eh, Martha?

Martha said...

Oh, god, I don't want them to do it again! (Though it's simultaneously fun and horrifying to imagine who who take Dawson's place as the resident clever ogler who answers "Boobs." to 65% of the questions.) I just want kids these days to appreciate it properly. Do kids get Game Show Network on their cable?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Well, my kids do, though they're more likely to be caught watching Bakugan or some odd cooking show on the Food Network than musty old Match Game reruns!

I do miss that program dearly, though, and can often be heard late at night singing that wah-wah guitar theme to myself, you know, the one played while the celebrities are formulating their potentially titillating answers.

Oh, yeah, Jo Anne Worley is another member of the Match Game Hall of Fame that I forgot to mention.

Anonymous said...

SNL has always been spotty, even in those hallowed first 5 seasons. Perspective has kinda weeded out the classic sketches, but that's happened for every incarnation of SNL. There are plenty of dud sketches that go on too long, even with Chase, Belushi, Radner, etc.

I think it might be as relevant as the generation that grows up with it.

Also, it survives on the virtue of having no competition. MadTV took some of its ratings share, but really, nothing competes, it's the only kid on the block for a late night Saturday night show.

Jake said...

Dennis, have you seen Betty on Craig Ferguson? He's already the most experimental and daring late night host on TV, but he's sweet and endearing enough that Betty White is a perfect fit whenever she pops in (she usually features in a sketch every few months). I'd already been on the Betty White wagon, but I've got a ton of friends who love her entirely because of her stuff on Craig.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Anonymous-- Of course you're right. The first five seasons of SNL have been burnished by the passage of time and nostalgia, but those programs too were loaded with duds that we've just chosen to forget. (And they originated the ghettoization of the week's worst skit between 12;45 and 1:00 a.m.)

Jake: I wasn't aware of her appearances, but my wife loves Craig Ferguson, and so I'm going to have to keep an eye out for when she next appears. Is she usually listed in the guest information for the show, or are her appearances usually surprises?

Jake said...

Dennis: I think she's only listed when she's an actual sit-down guest, though Craig has mentioned when she'll be stopping by for any amount of time ever since he started a Twitter account.

To be honest, I'm watching either way. Some intrepid young soul has been putting up Craig's entire show on YouTube for a little over a year now (I guess with Craig/CBS' consent, because they're never taken down), so it's fairly easy to search out White's appearances.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, this was a really fun episode - the most I've laughed at SNL in literally years. Not that I watch it all the time, but I catch at least a few skits most weeks and always think it's aggressively unfunny in recent years. Not so for the Betty White episode. The census sketch was especially funny, and I remember being puzzled that it was positioned so late in the broadcast, where they usually put the lamest material. The only stuff I didn't like was all the lame MacGruber tie-ins; that skit has never, ever been funny, and even Betty White couldn't save it.

My favorite bit: that Betty White actually delivered an honest-to-goodness monologue. Most hosts they have on now seem incapable of telling jokes, so instead the "monologue" consists of song-and-dance numbers and super-lame skits with the cast members crashing the stage.

And hey, Jay Z was a lot of fun, too, despite your implication that people should be happy to miss his performances. His rock-flavored montage of a bunch of random bits from his hits was a pretty cool approach.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"And hey, Jay Z was a lot of fun, too, despite your implication that people should be happy to miss his performances."

Ed, I'm sure you're right about Jay Z (or Jaze, as we used to call him in the projects!). I'm not much into hip-hop (though what I've heard of his stuff is, to my tin ear, better than most). It was probably just my old classic-rock version of Mr. Wilson ("DENNNNNNNNNIS!") coming out and raging against the beats a little. And to be True Confessions honest, I'm probably still more than just a little hurt from Beyonce dumping me for him too.

That "Census" sketch was in the last segment of the show? Wow, that is surprising. I always used to think I was just getting sleepy and that the deadwood they usually position there was probably better than I was able to compute, but no, it was usually very weak material. Not this one. And Tina Fey was in it too!

WelcometoLA said...

I wrote this on my Twitter account, but I'll share it here, too. While I'm happy for White's success, I think this one-trick pony has gotten out of hand:

What's so great about Betty White's shtick? It's just an old lady making raunchy jokes. Moms Mabley did that years ago. And raunchier, too.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Larry, I think what's kinda great about White and her surge of popularity is the contrast between White's surface sweetness and the mix of bile, hostility and cluelessness that is bubbling just below that surface. She used to have that glamorous suburban housewife look (check out the Password clip) that has translated into the grandmotherly version of same, so she looks relatively harmless, which makes the barbs funnier when they get exposed. And she so damned game for just about anything. Of course White was doing this stuff far before she became an old lady, and she's always been funnier than the typical foul-mouthed old lady as exemplified by Ruth Gordon in the Eastwood/Philo Beddoe comedies or the image of the old bag flipping the camera off that used to be a popular poster for kids of a certain age in the '70s.

I'm not sure the comparison to Moms Mabley is quite apples to apples. Which is certainly not meant to take anything away from Moms Mabley, who was a genuinely funny old lady character operating within a volatile social context, with her roots in vaudeville and the comedy chitlin circuit. I always loved her as a kid, though she made my parents very nervous!

Anonymous said...

What's particularly strange about early SNL is the hosts. I mean, Buck Henry? I think he hosted more than once, too. Dick Cavett, Desi Arnez, Milton Berle, Norman Lear, Ruth Gordon.

Okay, I just looked... Buck Henry hosted it 7 or 8 times.

I mean, that's slightly nutty. Nowadays, they seem to focus on up-and-coming young people. They never skewed as old as they did in the 70s.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"Nowadays, they seem to focus on up-and-coming young people. They never skewed as old as they did in the 70s."

A: There's a couple of different ways you could read that statement, depending on your demographic preferences.

WelcometoLA said...

Yeah, but it's still one joke: Old lady says naughty words. Ooh. Of course, that pretty much sums up the state of most comedy today, minus the old lady.

Robert H. said...

Re: Betty on Craig Ferguson... she pops in as a surprise, usually, for a few minutes to do a bit. So, you never really know when she'll be on.

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