Betty White gets a charge out of catching people off guard. So it should come as no surprise that she’d envision an offbeat opener for her highly anticipated hosting gig this weekend on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I would love it if they’d introduce me — ‘Here’s Betty White’ — and ... (then) nothing. No applause. No nothing,” she says. “The audience just stares back at me. That would be fun.”
Fun maybe, but not a bit realistic. The celebrated showbiz veteran is much more likely to be greeted with a thunderous ovation that threatens to blow the lid off Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H. Such is the almighty power and glory of the Betty White lovefest these days.
At the tender age of 88, White finds herself in the midst of a pop-cultural renaissance that is stunningly out of step with our youth-obsessed times. It’s a resurgence fueled by hilarious film and TV roles, prestigious awards and a much talked-about Super Bowl commercial that ignited an impassioned Internet crusade to land her on “SNL.”
Through it all, one thing has become clear: It is nearly impossible not to adore this saucy scene-stealer. As talk-show host Craig Ferguson recently told Entertainment Weekly, “To say, ‘I don’t like Betty White,’ is kind of like declaring that you’re a member of al-Qaida.” Yes, you’re either with her, or with the terrorists.
The ever-modest White seems genuinely flabbergasted by the outpouring of adulation.
“It blows my mind,” she said in a conference call last week. ” ... I can’t get over, at my age, what all’s going on. All I can do is roll with the punches, enjoy it thoroughly, and be grateful for it.”
And we’re grateful for her. No matter what age you are, you’ve probably experienced a Betty White moment. Or, more likely, a cavalcade of Betty White moments. She’s been around that long.
Soon after breaking into television at the dawn of the medium, White starred in the sitcom, “Life with Elizabeth,” for which she won the first of six Emmy Awards in 1952. In ensuing years, she made her mark on several variety and game shows. Then came her two iconic roles: the man-hungry homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on the 1970s sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the sweetly naive Rose Nylund of “The Golden Girls.”
But even after “Girls” (1985-1992) left the air — cable reruns continue to attract a new generation of fans — White never really went away. In recent years, she has guest starred in a slew of comedies and dramas, often playing the seemingly sweet elder who spews unexpectedly naughty or catty dialogue. She also did a stint on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
The current round of Bettymania began last summer with her turn as a feisty grandma who felt up Sandra Bullock’s breasts in “The Proposal” (“It’s like an Easter egg hunt!”). Then there was her bawdy speech at the SAG Awards, where she accepted a lifetime achievement honor and told the star-studded crowd in deadpan fashion, “I actually know many of you, have worked with quite a few. Maybe had a couple.”
But what really turned the buzz into a roar was the irreverent Snickers ad in which White was clobbered in a pickup football game. It was seen by a record number of Super Bowl viewers, including David Matthews, a 29-year-old San Antonio resident who instigated the “SNL” Facebook campaign that has drawn 500,000-plus fans. Thanks to that push, she’ll be on hand Saturday for what is expected to be the highest-rated edition of “SNL” in years.
Will Forte, a veteran “SNL” cast member, can hardly wait.
“Everybody’s excited that she’s going to come play with us,” he said. “Of course, I get excited meeting our hosts on a weekly basis, but this is on another level. She’s a genuine legend.”
At an age when the stereotypical image of a woman might have her knitting in a rocking chair, White has never been busier — or funnier. And she’s managed to pull it off without becoming the butt of the joke.
“She’s in a category all her own,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. “In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of old TV stars come back, but usually with a sense of self-mockery or in a cheesy reality show. Think: Danny Bonaduce doing ‘Celebrity Boxing.’ Their only real value is that they used to be somebody on a show.
“Betty also has been repackaged in a nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek form,” he added. “But she’s standing on a foundation of real talent, so she comes with a certain amount of street cred.”
But what is it about her that makes us love her so? Maybe it’s that we hope we’re as relevant as she is when we’re that age. Or as spry and hip. After all, she looks and sounds like our grandmother, but some of the words that stream from her lips sound more like a frat-house boy. Said Thompson, “She’s like how you’d envision grandmothers being in heaven.”
White said she has always had an abundance of energy (“If I get four or five good hours of sleep a night, that’s all I need.”). And since her youth, she has maintained a bawdy sense of humor.
“I have no idea what I’m going to say,” she explained. “My mental editor goes to sleep sometimes and I have to watch it like a hawk. ... And I sometimes see double entendre where it really doesn’t exist.”
Melissa Camacho, a professor of television and media studies at San Francisco State University, insists that White’s mischievous willingness to go against the grain allows her to maintain her mojo.
“You look at Betty White, and you don’t see an age. She carries herself with a youthful spark,” she said. “And she’s not afraid to get in there and play. So often you hear older women, especially in Hollywood, criticize how things have changed. But instead of moping and criticizing, she rolls right along with the times.”
And apparently, she has no plans to stop any time soon. Next week, White is set to begin work on a new sitcom for TV Land called “Hot in Cleveland,” which debuts in June. She’ll also appear in the season finale of ABC’s “The Middle” (June 19) and in the feature film “You Again” in September.
But first comes the momentous “SNL” gig. As of last week, White had no idea what the sketch show’s writers would be asking of her.
“All I know is I have veto power if it’s something I really don’t want to do,” she said. “And they promised me I wouldn’t have to do any nudity.”
THE BETTY FILE
Five things you should know about Betty White:
1. She’s willing to do almost anything to get a laugh, but she won’t do drug humor. “I don’t like dope jokes,” she says. “I don’t think dope is a joke.”
2. She turned down “SNL” three times earlier in her career and is “scared to death” of the show. “I’ve never been able to work from cue cards. I memorize everything or ad lib it,” she says. ” ... I hope I don’t have to wear my glasses.”
3. In the 1950s and ‘60s, she was known as the “First Lady of Game Shows,” thanks to frequent appearances on “Password,” “What’s My Line,” “To Tell the Truth” and others. She even married a game-show host — “Password’s” Allen Ludden, who died in 1981.
4. She almost didn’t play Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls.” After originally being offered the part of Blanche Devereaux, she switched roles with Rue McClanahan at the show’s first table read.
5. She is frequently asked if there is anything left in show biz that she still wants to do. Her standard answer: Robert Redford.