It’s an old show business cliche. But Betty White doesn’t mind citing it because, as she is quick to point out, “I’m an old broad.”
The key to great TV comedy, the 88-year-old entertainment legend says, is great writing.
“Let’s face it,” she says. “We can’t do it unless it’s on the page.”
White, who co-starred in such classic sitcoms as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls,” is still a master with a well-written joke. Fresh off her gig as guest host on “Saturday Night Live,” she now steals scene after scene from co-stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick in “Hot in Cleveland,” an old-school, multicamera, laughter-from-a-studio-audience sitcom that premieres at 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday on TV Land.
Bertinelli, Leeves and Malick, three sitcom veterans, play best friends who ditch their frustrating L.A. lives and relocate to Cleveland. White plays the feisty, track-suit-wearing housekeeper at the place they’re staying. She has a knack for stepping into the room any time an old-lady zinger is required.
We talked with White about the new show and about comedy in general.
Q. How has doing TV comedy changed significantly through the years?
A. “I think what’s changed the most is the audience, not the comedy. The problem is the audience has heard every joke. They know every story line. They know where something’s going before we even take off. That’s hard to write for and that’s hard to perform for, because that’s a tough audience to surprise. You just have to take your best shot. I find I do better if I just sort of shoot from the hip and hope for the best.”
Q. A grass-roots Internet campaign was behind your getting the host gig on “Saturday Night Live.” Is it surprising to you that you seem to have so many young fans?
A. “The amazing thing is, with ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ some of the kids grew up with me. But their parents also grew up with me. And in many cases, their grandparents. When I do a book signing or anything like that, the kids come up, and they weren’t born when ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ came on. And even when ‘Golden Girls’ was on the air, they hadn’t been born yet. But that’s what comes of good writing. That’s what keeps bringing them back and makes them work for any generation. Because it’s funny.”
Q. How does “Hot in Cleveland” compare to your past sitcom experiences?
A. “This is a delight. Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli are the three stars, and their chemistry together is wonderful. The pilot got picked up so fast that it blew all our minds. The three girls have come to Cleveland, and they’re renting a house. I have been a housekeeper at that house for 50 years and they inherit me along with the house. And, of course, I’m a pain in the neck. Elka is not a nice person. Her opening line when she sees the real estate man talking to the three girls is, ‘Why are you renting to prostitutes?’ That kind of sets up my character. She’s not easy to live with.”
Q. You seem to have always been quite comfortable with a bawdy joke. Does that reflect your real-life sense of humor?
A. “I’ve always had a bawdy sense of humor. My father was a traveling salesman, and he would bring jokes home. He’d tell them, and they’d never explain them to me. My mom and dad had a wonderful sense of humor. We would even get through some of the grim times by at least keeping a little sense of humor. It sure beats the alternative.”
Q. Are there any directions you would give to young actresses who want to copy the successful career that you’ve had?
A. “Bette Davis did an answer to that question that just cracked me up. She said, ‘Take Fountain.’ That doesn’t mean anything to anybody outside of Los Angeles. But Fountain is the direct street that has the least traffic on it. So, young actresses, ‘Take Fountain!’.”