By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
This clip is why I’m writing this post:
I remember years ago having to watch this clip in a comedy class as an example of observing your audience for escalation. It’s magical. At about :56, :57, you can see the change in White’s and McClanahan’s faces. White absolutely knows she’s got her. She owns it from then on. https://t.co/15HuKcNfIX
— August J. Pollak (Taylor’s Version) (@AugustJPollak) December 31, 2021
You don’t have to laugh out loud, but I did. Several times!
What I like about Pollak’s commentary on that clip is that it focuses on White’s brilliant comedic technique, not her charming personality — or rather, her persona. Whenever a “beloved” Hollywood figure dies, there’s always a lot of sentimental tosh. I’m going to try to avoid that — on my way to more clips, I promise — in favor of compiling some true facts about White’s amazing — dare I say, death-deyfing? — career, a career whose arc could be used to write the history of television.
“America’s favorite working comedian,” Guiness World Record-holder and 21-time Emmy nominee White died at 99, 17 days short of her hundredth birthday. Among her charities were wildfire prevention and animal welfare advocacy. Here’s a listing of her extraordinary career as a performer; here is a listing of her roles.
Back when I was in high school, White was on the panel of the Match Game with Gene Rayburn, a supremely silly game show. Which was rather a long time ago, before Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, The Wire, E.R. The Simpsons….). A long time ago, but before White’s peak on television comedy with The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 70s, and Golden Girls from 1985-92. White’s career was so long its arc could be used to structure the history of television. From the Los Angeles Times:
Although White appeared in several movies, television was her medium, and her association with it ran back past its commercial beginnings — her first appearance was in 1939, on an experimental Los Angeles channel, as a recent high school graduate, dancing with a classmate to “The Merry Widow Waltz.” When TV found its legs a decade later, White, who had some small success in radio in the meantime, was there, co-hosting (and later hosting solo) an ad-libbed five-and-a-half-hour, six-day-a-week program called “Hollywood on Television.” A sketch from a nighttime version of the show became White’s first situation comedy, “Life With Elizabeth,” which (in another first) she co-produced; her character is not a ditz or a clown, but an intelligent woman in a knockabout but equal partnership with her husband, and her performance remains remarkably fresh and natural.
This early work gave her a thorough understanding of what it means to live on camera, and the intimacy it creates.
To begin with, White was smart. The Television critic Robert Lloyd mentions that she wrote a novel at the age of eleven (and showed the manuscript to Johnny Carson, of which more below). This, after having, at the age of eight, “a Frank L. Baum[sic]-inspired screenplay called “Trouble in Paradoz,” featuring Mae West running loose over the rainbow.”
White also started on the business side, not the creative:
White started in television as an assistant, but she worked her way up to become one of the first female producers in the business in 1952 with her sitcom “Life With Elizabeth,” developed with George Tibbles.
White had good business sense:
White was one of the first and still relatively few women to have creative control in front of and behind the camera, with her 1950s sitcom, Life With Elizabeth. While not an obvious trailblazer like Joan Rivers, White was a quiet revolutionary in her way – a gloved knife rather than a Rivers-like axe smashing down walls, whose onscreen jibes came with a sweet smile instead of a sneer.
White was an early celebrity (as I said above, “persona”):
But she was also an early adopter of the concept of celebrity: she understood before many others the value of making her personality her brand, and how close it was to reality became moot. With talent like hers, reality was by the by.
White was also a scene stealer and muscler-in:
But the great scope of her work, the number of uses to which her talent was put year in and year out, are tribute to her agreed-upon cultural necessity, to the general recognition of her particular sneaky genius. On both “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Hot in Cleveland,” her character was originally meant to appear only once. But the power of White demanded her return.
On comedic timing:
White’s co-star on The Proposal, Sandra Bullock [see “You get her a cup of coffee” below], also spoke highly of the comedian. “Timing isn’t easy in comedy because you have to navigate other people’s timing. Betty pivots like I have never seen, making it look seamless. The rest of us just remain silent and pray we’re not cut out of the scene,” she said. Bullock hopes that White will celebrate her birthday “the same way she has celebrated every day of her life — with humor, kindness, and a vodka on ice, toasting to the fact that she’s a badass who has left us all in the dust,” she added.
Finally, here is White talking about her union:
Betty White talking about much she valued her union https://t.co/efrxykNqjO
— Mike Elk (@MikeElk) December 31, 2021
Good for her! And that brings me to more clips!
I was waiting for her birthday 😭 but one of my favorite Rose moments. Betty White was truly a treasure 🤧😭😭 pic.twitter.com/CpuEThtMZS
— BIG ♏︎ (@JAYthaOUTLAW) December 31, 2021
Betty White’s timing – on even the simplest joke – was always elite pic.twitter.com/mmf0H78avr
— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) December 31, 2021
“You get her a cup of coffee”:
This clip of Betty White with Ryan Reynolds lives rent free in my head. pic.twitter.com/82SpPWH3Nq
— Ahmed Ali (@MrAhmednurAli) December 31, 2021
“This is Mommy’s Cobbler”:
One of my favorite My Wife & Kids episodes stars Betty White
— Money Makin’ Mitch (@GregStayUp_) December 31, 2021
That backward glance!
Betty White on her favorite hobbies while on David Letterman. pic.twitter.com/Y6S9zfGcAy
— Nick Jacobs (@Jacobs71) December 31, 2021
“I decided cash is better.” Here’s the background. “Rose” is played by White:
Early in The Golden Girls’ Season 3, Blanche mistakenly gives away Rose’s beloved teddy bear, Fernando, to Daisy, a member of a Girl Scout–style troop. Daisy (played by Jenny Lewis) holds him for ransom. Rose deals with this situation as only Rose can.
Now the clip:
thank you betty white for being so kind to this kid behind the scenes and for teaching me
the most important life lesson
“ sometimes life just isn’t fair kiddo “
— jenny lewis (@jennylewis) December 31, 2021
“Don’t start with me”:
Joan Rivers interviewing Betty White (1983) pic.twitter.com/IZfDx8mQCK
— irene (@writtenbyirene) December 31, 2021
Curiously, Joan Rivers then sounds a lot like Nancy Pelosi now.
“Cute little buttons”:
Every time I hear "Is This Love" by Bob Marley & The Wailers I think of Betty White in the movie Lake Placid (1999).#BettyWhite pic.twitter.com/zc0DQHcpWD
— John Birchman ❄️⛄ 😷💉💉P💉M ⬅️6️⃣➡️ (@johnbirchman) January 1, 2022
Dunno about the soundtrack, but…
I debated including this, but then I decided that after 2021 it’s on point:
I interviewed @BettyMWhite when I was at @CBSNews and asked her if she was afraid of dying. Her answer seems particularly poignant today. RIP dear Betty. It was an honor and joy to know you. Give Alan and the MTM gang our love. 💔 pic.twitter.com/I1siSR8LoY
— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) December 31, 2021
Rest in Comedic Timing, Betty White.
 On White’s childhood:
Betty was her given name. It’s not short for anything. Betty Marion White Ludden was born Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the only child of Christine Tess and Howard Logan White. When Betty was 2, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Howard White eked out a living building and selling and sometimes bartering radios. More than once, he bartered a radio for a dog. The Whites loved dogs so much, Betty recalled, that even when hard times forced the family to miss a meal, the dogs always ate. Radios and animals were tandem themes throughout Betty’s childhood, and her love of animals (both real and stuffed) lasted all her life.
 White was sharp as a tack ’til the end. From her biography, How She Did it:
My obsessive addiction to crossword puzzles I chalk off as mental gymnastics. I love games and puzzles. On the set of The Lost Valentine, a Hallmark movie, Jennifer Love Hewitt and her boyfriend, Alex Beh, and I played Scrabble during every lunch break. And I always have a book of crosswords or acrostics in my purse wherever I go.
Whenever I’ve had a puppy, I’ve put newspaper down for him, but if I put down a piece of the paper and there’s a crossword in there, I’ll snatch it right up and say, ‘No, you can’t go on that!’
I can’t stand it:
Betty White broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country, and pushed us all to laugh. Barack and I join so many around the world who will miss the joy she brought to the world. I know our Bo is looking forward to seeing her up in heaven. pic.twitter.com/tVL7NUw2TT
— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) January 1, 2022
They’ve just got to work the dog in….
Oak Park Illinois represent!! :)
Funny is funny, and that has not wavered. And she did so without being a profanity laden* performer, which honestly is more difficult to accomplish. I caught a few interviews this morning on CBS (I think) and one person proposed that, in memorializing White, there were no real bad stories or bad anecdotes to shove aside. White just seemed incredibly genuine. Apparently I should switch from beer to vodka, like yesterday!
The Reynolds/White/Bullock clip above is hilarious.
I’ll just add that the herring unions and consequent herring circus protection laws were strong and rigorously enforced, and therefore the remaining herrings could refuse the canon performances.
That was one daring herring
Thanks for this Lambert! While recovering from a leg injury earlier this year, I made my way through all of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I don’t know if this is a Betty White clip, a Ted Knight clip, or a whole cast clip, but I think it’s one of my favorite Betty/Sue Ann moments. Hopefully the clip starts around the 18:30 mark here.
It’s worth the time! Premise is that a kid comes to town to visit Mary from her hometown, and the kid angles her way into Sue Ann’s “Happy Homemaker” show. Big mistake, kid.
Thanks for this. The first clip made me laugh out loud. She never breaks her earnest straight face as Rose. Hilarious!
I can’t forget her role as Sue Ann Nivens – the Happy Homemaker – in the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Thank you, Lambert. This is the best tribute I’ve seen!
Her takedown of Facebook in her Saturday Night Live opening monologue from 2010 never fails to crack me up.
We truly lost a national treasure.
That was GOOD!
Her appearances on games shows, particularly The Match Game, were simply sublime. There is an hour of nothing but her best game show moments. Talk about comedy gold . . .
Thank You Betty White!
Any clip that causes me to laugh out loud totally non-ironically multiple times in 1:41 is a good start to 2022 (I just played it again. The poor herring!)
It’s worth watching the entire scene represented in the first clip. You can see how they’re all able to reel it back in after breaking character, and just nailing it.
Anyone who knew my own mother would have recognized her similarities to Betty White. My mother was also a force of nature who had gotten it from her mother. It was agreed that the best reason that she had divorced my father had been his lack of any sense of humor. Taking tragedy at a different speed and it becomes comedy. It was hard for me to understand how any director, and especially a young one could have been mean to my mother. Then again it is likely that their complaints were true. I was rankled that she was so willing to work for free in the films she was cast in since I had depended on some kind of money from wherever I was and whatever it was I was doing on sets.
I watched all the clips and read all there was to read. “Variety” did the sort of job worthy of their mission. Thanks to Lambert for running this.