Why Betty White is so awesome

By Craig Wittler
|  Friday, Apr 30, 2010  |  Updated 8:30 PM CDT
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Why Betty White Is So Awesome

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Betty White has done it again. On the April 24 edition of “Saturday Night Live,” a 15-second promo teasing her May 8 appearance as host stole the 90-minute show. When she warned in the spot about believing Internet rumors, then gave us a glimpse of “the young hottie” subject of those rumors, it was surprising, it was hilarious, it was totally Betty White.

And it was less than three months ago that she stole the Super Bowl (or at least the competition among the commercials), by getting tackled in the mud of a backyard football game. Quite undignified for an 88-year-old performer with a career in its seventh decade, but also surprising, hilarious and the inspiration for the online campaign that got her the “SNL” gig.

If those performances seem to have little in common, you're right. In a show business environment where older actors are expected to play one of a few stereotypes, White is unique by being unique.

Who is this Betty White?
If you ask six different people what they like about her, you'll probably get seven different answers: She's sweet, sassy, savvy, sincere, silly, naughty and nice. But most of all she's funny and often better than the material she's given. And at 88, she's sharper than many stars half her age.

There's no doubt she'll keep up with, and — if needed — out-ad-lib the “SNL” players when she hosts. She started doing live TV in 1949, on a marathon 5 1/2-hour daily local show in Hollywood, so 90 minutes in New York should be a breeze. And her experience in late-night TV goes from being a favorite guest of “Tonight Show” host Jack Paar to the opening minute of Jay Leno's return to the program, where she was the first person to make fun of NBC. Why? Because she's Betty White, and she can do that.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Her signature roles run one of the widest gamuts in Hollywood: from the acerbic, man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on "Mary Tyler Moore" to the goofy, naive Rose Nylund on "Golden Girls" to the crazy old lady who fed cows to a monster crocodile in the film "Lake Placid" to numerous TV guest appearances as the grandmother from hell. Yet she's still the cool grandma everyone under 40 wishes they had.

In the '70s, the Sue Ann character rescued White from a career-limiting reputation as “too nice, too bland,” but she'd always had a subtle subversiveness. A knowing wink was almost her trademark. She was also considered queen of the game shows at a time when game shows required sharp wits and real brains, mastering the art of distilling ideas into one-word clues on "Password."

More than that, she's a skilled actress, and a versatile one. The beloved icon played a version of herself who was unscrupulous in maintaining her beloved-icon status on "Ugly Betty." And it's a "True Hollywood Story" how the "Golden Girls" producers — who originally hired her to play a Sue Ann-like Blanche — had her swap roles to do the 180-degrees different Rose, but White could have taken Bea Arthur's role and made it work.

Randomly awesome
It isn't in spite of her varied repertoire, it's because of her mastery of it all, that White has an image of awesomeness. Soon after her muddy Super Bowl moment, a survey to design a cover for a magazine in Oregon picked Betty White ... in a metal bikini ... waving a flaming chainsaw ... riding a centaur with John Ritter's head. It all made perfect sense ... except for the Ritter part.

And it was her scene-stealing skill that turned a guest shot in the pilot of TVLand's new sitcom "Hot in Cleveland" into a full co-starring role. She took a rather random string of jokes (the writers apparently weren't quite sure what to do with her character) and hit them all out of the park.

Similarly, her frequent bits on “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” are a mixed bag of senior-confusion gags, defiant "I'M BETTY WHITE" moments and topical jokes on the subject of the day, from the iPad to the Girl Scouts to Sarah Palin. (With her "that crazy b----" line quoted all over the Web, a hilarious confrontation with Tina Fey's Palin on “SNL” is inevitable.)

There's a natural appeal to the young and trying-to-be-young of an octogenarian speaking her mind and being outrageous, and White has done plenty of that. While some veteran performers overplay the "I'm old now so I can do anything" card, White is skillful at being outrageous but not offensive.

She had turned down offers to host “Saturday Night Live” before, so the Internet petition did more to change her mind than the pleas of the producers. White accepted this time after getting veto power over her material, which will likely make this more funny than usual. After all, she's already stole this show once.

When classic comedian Jack Benny was asked why he worked with so many performers who could steal his show, he pointed out that whatever happened, next week it would still be his show. After 60 years on television, Betty White is comfortable with the opposite approach: Keep your show, just let her steal it occasionally.

That's awesome at any age.

Craig Wittler is a media writer in central California.

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