Like almost everybody, I love Betty White. At least 99 percent of the comments I’ve seen about her Saturday Night Live appearance were glowing: she was outrageously funny and her comic timing has never been more exquisite. She was as enthusiastically raunchy as any of the characters on the program; she belonged, and more than that, dominated the show. SNL had its highest ratings in a year and a half. As one commentator exclaimed, “she proved she’s only getting better with age.”
As I said, everyone loves Betty White.
I laughed along with everybody else, but after the show I had the oddest feeling that I had just witnessed something more significant than the successful TV appearance of a very funny 88-year-old woman. Betty White had signaled a profound change in the culture. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe it ever since.
There have been elderly actors and actresses on TV and in the movies before this, people like Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis, and Betty White herself-elderly actors and actresses playing the roles of old people and, not being themselves, making an impression as artists but one that didn’t have all that much to do with their ages.
There have also been other comedians, for example, George Burns who had twelve years on Betty and could do sexual innuendo every bit as well. But he always seemed like an anomaly to me, a beloved survivor, a funny guy, but not someone who meant that other old people would be seen any differently from now on.
Betty White, in her SNL skits, was her own comedic self. Best of all, she was comfortable in her own skin as an old woman. There she was, with all these young people, one of many comedians on the screen, one of them but old, not being treated with condescension, but laboring in the same vineyard. Old age became more interesting when Betty White brashly bragged on it and made jokes about it. The jokes were no longer just part of the defensive posture so many of us use. They were funny because human life is funny, old age is funny.
I don’t know. I know that she was very, very funny and I know something significant happened when we all, young and old, laughed with her. I think that, without meaning to, she may have changed something for all of us on Saturday night. Just as Lena Horne, another wonderful old woman who died the next day, may have helped change life for African-Americans when they saw her in contexts once reserved for whites, Betty White may have put old people in a context commonly reserved for younger people, and changed all of us forever.
But if all of this is too nebulous, forgive me. Then go look at some of the SNL skits from that night and laugh long and loudly.