Science has yet to determine the long-term effects memeification can have on a person. Rick Astley’s tenure as automated punchline has spanned three years, max, and the man’s been more than a good sport about it. Yet who knows what manner of existential abyss has begun to open inside him? Conan O’Brien, as far as we can tell, has been reduced to the color orange. Neil Armstrong refuses to talk about the moon landing and wanted to sue a barber for selling his hair. And 88-year-old Betty White, by popular demand, will be hosting Saturday Night Live on May 8, 2010.
Slightly desperate-sounding Facebook group “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!” is a testament to the diversity of the comedienne’s standing army. A handful of its half-million members are eager to see a Golden Girls sketch, while others just love how “nice” she is. One fan notes: “Betty White is an ardent animal lover and campaigner for humane rights. SNL could easily have some fun that in a skit [sic].” It is unclear exactly how many thousands are familiar with Ms. White solely through her cameos on pretty much every TV show produced in the last five decades.
The secret heart of the movement-what unites millennials who have never seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show with those who remember Ms. White as … I don’t know, a dotty crocodile sympathizer in disposable horror flick Lake Placid?-is a communal fantasy. It’s made evident in every goofy talk show appearance, in the “I missed you!” upon being introduced by Craig Ferguson and in her stock answer for the stock question “What haven’t you done in your career?” (Robert Redford). What everyone wants, these moments suggest, is for Betty White to be the country’s democratically-elected adorable/dirty/cool grandma. Seriously, let people text their votes to something called “America’s Next Top Grandma” and it would look like excessive election fraud.
Mary Tyler Moore was the first to turn Ms. White’s saccharine image on its head, casting her as two-faced Martha Stewart prototype Sue-Ann Nivens after deciding the part called for someone “sickeningly sweet.” This double-edged persona has kept her coming back to sitcoms, where more often than not she appears as herself. In a typical appearance on The Simpsons in 2000, she implores PBS’ audience for donations and then ruthlessly hunts down Homer for calling in a fraudulent contribution. She returned in 2007 to pull off the opposite gag: despite Homer’s considerable and deliberate obnoxiousness toward her, she remains pathologically polite. For the past ten years, it’s felt similarly miraculous that Ms. White has stuck around for another career phase, and each of her guest spots is more giddily anticipated than the last. When it was announced that she and Jeff Dunham would be featured on 30 Rock, you almost had to pity Dunham for the slew of devastating comparisons that followed.
The Saturday Night Live gig, though, has given Ms. White a rare opportunity to fall short of expectations. TMZ says she’s got a case of the butterflies, and judging by her demeanor it seems plausible she’s only going ahead with it as a duty to her adoring public. Hosting the show is, if fun, still a technical hassle and not something we expect most octogenarian entertainers to do. Is this the true price of persona memeification-that you are not allowed to retire until your viral momentum is spent? You wonder how many encores we could (or should) demand.
Ms. White, it must be said, is a total pro and always gets the laugh. She’s still having a blast in front of the camera, which is yet another reason to love her. But the impulse to reward her for obvious greatness-“a way to honor her,” is how the SNL Facebook group description describes its idea-confirms the movement’s sad foundation: our general dissatisfaction with old folks. Why can’t they be sharper, funnier and more gleefully crass? Why can’t they mix a genuine kindness with killer comedic timing? Why, in other words, can’t they be like the old folks on TV? Admit it: Betty White gets to be the most beloved elderly woman on your screen because she’s been playing the part for years.
RATINGS (characteristics rated on a negative to positive scale of -10 to 10):
Redundancy Potential: -5.0
Confusing To Outsiders: 8.3
Final Meme Score: 10.1
Miles Klee is thinking about being your Facebook friend.