I don’t know quite what to make of the recent outbreak of Betty White-mania, culminating in that huge campaign to get her on Saturday Night Live. I can’t find the link, but I read someone who argued that the campaign was one of those weird, pointless internet things that people get involved in just “because we can.” Update: Thanks to a commentator for reminding me that it was this article.
It’s not that White herself needs to host SNL; it’s not that most of the people petitioning NBC are particular fans of White; it’s just that she’s old, she’s fun, she’s in, everybody likes her, and people like getting involved in online campaigns. It’s a nice, harmless thing to do, but I feel like there’s something almost deliberately ironic about it, as if the campaign is daring us to be wet blankets and lecture them for not using their energies in a more useful way. And it also has its roots in comedy routines where old performers are brought out in front of a young audience that hasn’t really heard of them. Conan O’Brien’s bits with Abe Vigoda (the male Betty White, one might say, though his career isn’t quite as impressive) show us where the Betty White cult is coming from, because part of the joke was that while Conan knew Barney Miller, he also knew perfectly well that many of his viewers didn’t. The Betty White thing is similar; part of the joke is the fact that most of her new fans don’t quite know who she is.
All of which means that I don’t think this Betty White campaign has a great deal to do with Betty White herself, though maybe it’s given extra weight because there are several generations of people who know and love her work.
My own favourite Betty White moment, which unfortunately is not on YouTube except in Spanish, is her brief appearance in Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent as a feisty female Senator who takes down the crazy evil Senator (George Grizzard) with a few well-chosen quips. She has like three lines and she’s one of the best things in the whole film.
And while we’re on the subject of Betty White, here’s the show she did right after The Mary Tyler Moore Show was canceled. Many of the characters on that show were spun off into their own series, but I guess the network thought that Sue Ann Nivens would be just too much for a spinoff (particularly after Phyllis was canceled; Phyllis was a lot less abrasive than Sue Ann). So the compromise solution was for MTM and CBS to do The Betty White Show, with White playing a character who was kinda like Sue Ann but not as awful. And with Georgia Engel playing virtually the same person as Georgette, under a different name. The premise of the show, created by MTM stalwarts Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels and developed by their star writer David Lloyd, was that White was the star of a cop show called Undercover Woman, with her ex-husband (John Hillerman) as director. The show has brought in a younger, bustier woman (Caren Kaye) for ratings, which I guess was to allow the writers to parody the “jiggle” craze while simultaneously obeying the rule that every show had to have a busty blonde.
This is the only episode I could find online, written by Lloyd; I can see why the show flopped, because even with White not actually playing Sue Ann, the show is kind of mean. Actually, I feel like it would have been easier to take if she had played Sue Ann, because we had learned to love that character in spite of her horribleness. We had no such reason to like this person, apart from the fact that everyone likes Betty White.
This was also MTM’s first sitcom shot on videotape, and it really does not suit the style of the show; the sets look harsh and ugly on tape. (The company would manage a less frightening look on videotape by the time they made WKRP in Cincinnati and the first season of Newhart, but it was still a company whose shows were more suited to film.)