In Memoriam Betty White

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This clip is why I’m writing this post:

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[1]. 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[2]. 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[1]. 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:

Good for her! And that brings me to more clips!

* * *

“Abnormal psychology”:


“You get her a cup of coffee”:

“This is Mommy’s Cobbler”:

That backward glance!


“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:

“Don’t start with me”:

Curiously, Joan Rivers then sounds a lot like Nancy Pelosi now.

“Cute little buttons”:

Dunno about the soundtrack, but…

I debated including this, but then I decided that after 2021 it’s on point:

* * *

Rest in Comedic Timing, Betty White.


[1] 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.

[2] 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:

They’ve just got to work the dog in….

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. griffen

    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.

  2. fresno dan

    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.

  3. Lou Anton

    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.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      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!)

  4. voteforno6

    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.

  5. Scott1

    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.

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