Betty White made me do it!

Betty White with Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey -- an all-star cast, a "Saturday Night Live" for the ages.

I had a date with an 88 1/2-year-old woman Saturday night. And I loved it.

Actually, it was a group date, it was a blind date (obviously — she couldn’t see me, thank God), it was totally unplanned, and the woman took me to a place I haven’t been in a long time (ooooooh, captain!).

It wasn’t part of my plans, but for the first time in the 31 years since I’ve been out of high school, I watched an entire episode of “Saturday Night Live.” And enjoyed the hell out of it. And I have Betty White to blame.

Well, the reasons why I haven’t seen a complete new episode of SNL since ’79 are myriad: I went off to college and didn’t stay home Saturday nights; I graduated from college and didn’t stay home Saturday nights; I grew up and didn’t stay home Saturday nights; the quality of the show went downhill to the point of irrelevance; the cast went from known commodities to an endless shuffle of faceless faces. Occasionally, I would accidentally catch snippets over the years: Charles Rocket’s “fuck,” Garth Brooks’ crush on Mango, Celebrity “Jeopardy!” (“That’s Therapists, not The rapists!), but never a full episode.

Granted, some of the shows in the “real” days of SNL — the first four seasons, with the original cast — could really suck, but the one thing that’s been missing for the most part since then is the event factor. Besides the novelty of the show at the time, plus some of its shock value (the Richard Pryor-Chevy Chase word association sketch), the original SNL could be, at times, an event. Like the night Paul Simon hosted and George Harrison was the musical guest, and the two sat in the studio and traded off each other’s songs. Like the time 80-year-old grandmother Miskel Spillman (until last night the show’s oldest host) won the “Anyone Can Host” contest, and headlined the 1977 Christmas show — the very same episode where musical guest Elvis Costello made a brash (and controversial at the time) American TV debut.

White’s appearance qualified as an SNL event, the first since Tina Fey went all Sarah Palin on us. I probably wouldn’t have watched it except that a friend hosted a potluck dinner last night (thanks again, Thais), and a bunch of us hanging around come 11ish, and I ended up, thankfully, staying for the whole thing.

It’s not that I didn’t like the lovely and talented Ms. White growing up. Like most people in the last 60 years, I grew up with her on my TV screen. It was either countless game shows, like hubby Allen Ludden’s “Password” and “The Match Game,” or the ditzy Sue Ann Nivens on “Mary Tyler Moore.” (I spent the ’80s working nights and missed her Rose on “Golden Girls.”) She was this attractive, smart, styling woman with a slightly cheeky sense of humor, and, like so many game show celebrities at the time, we didn’t question just exactly what she was famous for — we just knew that she was a part of TV Land and accepted it.

But somehow, in the past year, she jumped onto the cultural radar in a way she never did in her TV heyday. I’m guessing it’s a combination of “Golden Girls” nostalgia and her role last year alongside Sandra Bullock in “The Proposal,” which I didn’t see. And, oh yeah, longevity. But here she is — still walking among us, and better yet, a regular riot. Who knew?

And the best commercial to air this past Super Bowl (which I’m still enjoying for the time being until the Saints’ possible coach/Vicodin scandal blows sky high) was the Snickers spot with her and Abe Vigoda (who I suspect will get his resurgence once Conan O’Brien returns to TV this fall — ViGOdaaaaaaaa!).

And for some reason, some folks on Facebook mounted a campaign to get her to host SNL, and it took a life of its own, and voila! Here it was, and it was excellent television.

It was a show that said “special” right from the start, even before the monologue. I didn’t know going in that it was going to be an all-star night. Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon and Rachel Dratch all returned to Studio 8H (well, no big thang for Fey and Poehler) for the big night, and the girls all made their presence known in a slightly demented “Lawrence Welk Show” spoof. But there really was only one star.

White’s monologue was just one zinger after another. It was a mixture of sweetness, gratitude and the surprise that a woman nearing 90 was speaking about current touchstones, let alone speaking, and in complete sentences:

  • Her experience with live TV, going back to the 1952 sitcom “Life of Elizabeth”: Of course, back then we didn’t want to do it live; we just didn’t know how to tape things. So I don’t know what this show’s excuse is.”
  • On Facebook: “And now that I do know what it is, I have to say it sounds like a huge waste of time. I would never say that people on it are losers, but that’s only because I’m polite. People say, ‘But Betty, Facebook is a great way to connect with old friends!’ Well at my age, if I want to connect with old friends, I need a Ouija board.” And “In my day, seeing pictures of people’s vacations was considered a punishment.”
  • “Guess what? Jay-Z is here! And if I had a dime for every time I’ve said that, I’d have one dime.” (And while she and Jay-Z didn’t perform together, which would’ve been something to see, he did dedicate “Forever Young” to her. The biggest hip-hop star going knew who the real star was Saturday night, too.)

The “MacGruber” shorts started to wear thin (I can’t believe there’s a full-length movie coming out this month), but most of the skits were a regular riot.

The “Delicious Dish” sketch, featuring Gasteyer and Shannon as NPR co-hosts with White as a baker showing off her muffin, is a classic. Sure, the double entendres dragged a little toward the end — how long can you hear about dry, crusty muffins, or having a “major muffin phase” in college? — but it was well worth it to hear White say “My muffin hasn’t had a cherry since 1939.” This sketch wouldn’t have worked without the mild shock value of an upper octogenarian getting bawdy on us.

White as a crazy old apartment-dweller, with Fey as a census taker, was spot-on in its absolute nuttiness. It was a surprise that Fey could keep a straight face — which is something White really made the girls struggle with in the “Gingey” sketch.

There, Poehler played a turn-of-last-century, overall-wearing, fish-carrying tomboy, the polar opposite of her prim mother and sisters, who were preparing for the big dance. White was the granny needlepointing on the couch, and I think she turned “Because she’s a lesbian!” and “Just let her stay home and lez!” and “You’re barking up the wrong lesbian” are into catchphrases.

Same with “Wizard of Ass!” in her “Scared Straight” bit with Kenan Thompson, another instance where the cast had a hard time keeping a, ahem, straight face.

I didn’t have to worry about being stoic or in character Saturday night, and I wasn’t. It was a mutual payoff — White got to enjoy at least one last special night on live TV; I got to enjoy “Saturday Night Live” once more the way I used to as a kid. All that was missing was Mr. Bill …

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3 Responses to “Betty White made me do it!”

  1. Dale Stewart Says:

    That’s cool Fran. You gotta come over some time for a weekend bar-b-que.

  2. Joe Erwin Says:

    I think Betty White REALLY outkicked her coverage on SNL. She was great. The writing wasn’t.

    I think the writers were really lazy. They realized, “Hey an 88-year-old woman saying dirty or suggestive things will get laughs, so we don’t have to write anything clever.” After the muffin sketch, they should have moved on to another concept. They didn’t have to see how many times they could make her say “lesbian” in a sketch or “Wizard of Ass!”

    They were funny because Betty sold the hell out of them, but they knew for months that she would be hosting, and they could have given her more diverse material.

  3. Mike Nemeth Says:

    I fully agree. I liked how she said “I’m 90 and I like to sit down.”

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