The overwhelmingly positive media reaction to Betty White’s guest star appearance recently on Saturday Night Live seemed to be about two very different dynamics: A) Classic live comedy performance and B) Classic live variety performance. Because, really, watching Betty White perform at her age on live television was a lot like watching someone juggle a bunch of flaming bowling pins, except here the juggling represents being really, really old. That Betty White is a good comic actress is undeniable. But so is every SNL cast member. Television viewers’ fascination with White’s performance had to do not only with her spot-on comic delivery, but also with their anxious protectiveness of her legend status. The watchability of the actual telecast hinged in equal parts on these two feelings, as if the viewer was always caught between saying to oneself, “Wow, that was funny!” and “Wow, good job for actually pulling it off!” Viewers were concerned for White’s safety in the same way they would be for their own grandmothers, except instead of braving a particularly steep stairwell, White was looking slyly through a television screen and talking about her dusty muffin.
SNL pulled off a similar juggling act the week previous with Gibourey Sidibe, an Oscar-nominated movie star with famously Rubenesque features. The big question that week was, “How would Sidibe’s size translate on live television?” Yes, she was effective in Precious, where her size had direct significance to the role she was playing and was, thus, somewhat disarmed. But could she be funny on a live stage, surrounded by a bunch of skinny people? Viewers watched SNL that week not only with the hope of being entertained, but also for the possibility of a cringe-worthy crash and burn, a downfall of which they would disapprove, of course, but to which they would nonetheless stayed tuned.
Television viewers root for performers like Gabourey Sidibe and Betty White, of course. How could they not? And that is the point. They can’t not root for them, even if “rooting” for a performer gets in the way of being entertained. The protectiveness felt by the average viewer informs their reaction to such performances as Sidibe’s and White’s in a way that is, perhaps, unfair to the virtues of the performances themselves. They watch and laugh with a kind of self-important nervousness, standing by with a fire extinguisher and a smug attitude of motherly I-told-you-so-ness. “It’s so sad that audiences these days can’t embrace different kinds of people,” they say to themselves. But half of their concern comes from the heightened consciousness performers like White and Sidibe must negotiate every day of their careers, an awareness of the balancing act between what is normal and what is fair. Watching anyone else, the average television viewer’s reaction would be either to laugh or not to laugh. But watching Betty White and Gabourey Sidibe, this viewer waits for the performances to fail, and when they don’t, the viewer inwardly reward him or herself for believing. Being entertained or not is but an indirect result of this.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that… Performers like White and Sidibe must be aware of how they come across, and very probably rely on public concern for their well-being as a kind of stock in trade. All part of the act, the show must go on, and so forth. They are aware of and probably use their pitiability as much as Angelina Jolie uses her beauty. Both are valuable resources. But audiences should never kid themselves that their enjoyment isn’t just as much about patronage as it is about entertainment.
If we think like studio executives, we know this to be true. If a studio executive books Jennifer Aniston for a television appearance because her pretty face is emblazoned on every tabloid rag in the country, why does he book Betty White, except that she might very soon be featured in the same magazines, though for a different reason?