Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Vanishing Point (Your Memes Reviewed): Betty White

BETTY WHITE REALLY ISScience 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.

INTERGENERATIONAL LOVEThe 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.

NO THANK YOU FOR BEING A FRIENDThe 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):
Flexibility: -7.1

Insight: 4.2

Aesthetic: 9.8

Redundancy Potential: -5.0

Confusing To Outsiders: 8.3

Final Meme Score: 10.1

Previously: #DeleteYourTwitterIf

Miles Klee is thinking about being your Facebook friend.

15 Comments / Post A Comment

Ananke (#3,223)

I love that Betty White is famous enough to have a parody backlash, aka "Betty White Hates Your Grandmother."

Aatom (#74)

"Admit it: Betty White gets to be the most beloved elderly woman on your screen because she's been playing the part for years."

Yes, admit this tautological statement! Admit it! (New Niceness!)

keisertroll (#1,117)

I can't wait until fifty years from now when Kelly Ripa is America's Dirty Whore Mee-Maw.

The dirty grandma thing may be what appeals today, but to me, Betty White remains the single greatest Password player in the history of the game. There is nothing sexier than a canny telepath. No wonder Allen Ludden, a gentleman and a scholar, kept asking her to marry him until she said yes.

keisertroll (#1,117)

Plus, Allen Ludden and Betty White were friends with JOHN STEINBECK and his wife, and they even have a signed copy of his Nobel speech WHICH HE ASKED THEM FOR THEIR HELP WITH A WORD. That's fucking awesome.

josh_speed (#97)

The woman is a living TV legend since the 40s, and she going to be great on SNL.

laurel (#4,035)

Why can't *everyone* mix a genuine kindness with killer comedic timing?!

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

She's 88, not dead. Geez. Why not buy her a wheelchair and force her to stop entertaining. You know, the choice she made? Ah, the old "No, no, no I don't want to make that 20th curtain call…" got you thinking she's half dead. Bleh. You aren't alive unless you live.

ency7890 (#4,422)

Nick at Nite and negligent parenting many millenials like myself fall in love with Sue Ann Nivens circa 1993. Everyday I aspire to be that catty/slutty (and close the wall oven with her leg, that shit was LEGIT)

Vulpes (#946)

Yeah, Miles is definitely underestimating the power of Mary Tyler Moore and Golden Girls reruns on the youngins. Not to mention all the Password and Pyramid reruns on GSM! Heck, I even remember when Nick at Nite showed "The Betty White Show" in the wee hours of the morning!

Hello? Match Game? Come on people!

Also, "she gets to be the most beloved elderly woman on your screen" because she has a rounder ("kinder") face than Cloris Leachman.

Also for some great pre-MTM Betty White history this rocks:

No one's noticed through her bloody-lipped smile (in the last pic) that she's just bitten that poor puppy's ear off?!

Betty White ran over my skateboard and didn't even slow down.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I don't know what olds you hang out with, but most of the ones I know are pretty damn sharp, funny, and gleefully crass. (Clergy less crass and Alzheimer's patients not so sharp, obvs.)

Crantastical (#4,127)

I feel bad that Rue Mclanahan has been left in her dust.

Post a Comment