It’s been more than a year since Betty White caused a fuss on the entertainment scene, and she has been riding her popularity on into 2011. Betty White’s recent big comeback started around the time that she starred in The Proposal with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock in 2009. Lately, White has been trending on Twitter again and her fans are still professing their love for the 89 year-old actress. She has come up again because she will be hosting and executive producing a new reality TV show on NBC in which old people play pranks on young people (think Punk’d, but with senior citizens doing the punking). The working title as of now is Betty White’s Off Their Rockers.
Since The Proposal, Betty White has made a big wave with twenty-somethings. White accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild on January 23, 2010, to huge applause and laughter, with a speech that was sharp and witty as ever, as well as gracious and endearing. From there, she starred in a Snickers commercial that would become the most talked about 2010 Superbowl commercial. The biggest surprise, and a big reason her popularity spread like wildfire, was a Facebook campaign to get Betty White to host Saturday Night Live. Started by fan David Matthews of San Antonio, Texas, Michael Murray reported for abcnews.com that Matthews “created the group on Facebook — ‘Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!’ — in December , before the Snickers commercial aired, but it has spiked in popularity since.” According to Murray, the day before the Superbowl, the group had 85,000 members, and by February 17, 2010, it had jumped to over 375,000 members. Eventually Lorn Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, gave in to the 500,000+ Facebook fans pleading to see her on the show.
Betty White hosted SNL on May 8, 2010, giving the show a huge spike in ratings, the highest they had been in 18 months, according to Gil Kaufman for mtv.com/news. In her opening monologue, Betty White got rip-roaring laughs, joking that, “I really have to thank Facebook. When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host Saturday Night Live, I didn’t know what Facebook was. And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
White continued on to star in the sitcom Hot in Cleveland with Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick. The show just finished a successful second season this spring and was picked up for a third. On Hot in Cleveland, White plays an outspoken, bold, sexual Elka, who White describes as a “smart ass.” Elka started out as sort of a villain character, but gradually became an endearing part of the foursome that makes up the cast’s leads. Betty White was on fire in 2010, and has managed to keep the flame burning into this year. How is that? What’s that old lady got?
Seniors love Betty White because she is funny and, well, old. Baby boomers watched White during her younger career years and think she is hilarious. The Betty White-fan demographic that people get the biggest kick out of, though, are young people in their twenties. How did she manage to grab hold of the hearts of twenty-somethings, whose media attention spans are fickle at best?
Many twenty-somethings have seen Golden Girls (1985-1992), the show that brought White a resurgence of popularity as a senior citizen, either when they were very young with their parents, or in syndication. And while White won an Emmy for her comedic role on the show, and was nominated several times, Golden Girls is not what struck a chord with the young audiences that love her today. Twenty-something Rachel Davis, Clarksville, Tennessee, says, “Well even though I know she is famous for the Golden Girls series… I was never a fan. It was not until she started doing more comedic roles that I started to love her. My favorite was the Snickers commercial she did last year! Hilarious… I think her sense of humor has made her more popular with our generation! We aren’t great at appreciating her true acting skills or her timeless Hollywood roles… but man is she funny!”
Roles that twenty-somethings consider comedic tend to be very different than those of older generations. Cursing and blatant sexual scenarios and jokes, as opposed to innuendo, are much more commonplace in entertainment today than in the past. For young audiences to laugh at a comedic entertainer, they have to “get it,” which is what Betty White seems to do. Luke Bartholomew, Sarasota, Florida twenty-something, notes, “I think what makes her so interesting to the public is that she filled a comedic niche that had yet been untapped… being an old person who makes fun of themselves. She knows all the clichés about being old and does them in her comedy, i.e. bad memory, bad hearing. In the same vein that a baby cursing is funny, an old lady acting like a young person is inherently funny. Old people being hyper sexualized, cursing, rapping, smoking pot, using slang etc, it’s just funny.” Jon Chu, director of the urban dance drama Step Up 3D, told TheWrap.com, “… her timing is spot on! And she seems to look at young people right in the eye and say, ‘I’m right there with you.”
White’s appearance on SNL and her role on Hot in Cleveland included the comedic elements that Bartholomew mentions: Betty White hyper sexualized, cursing, and using slang. In the Season 2 finale episode of Hot in Cleveland, 89-year old Betty White seduces a juror with a butterscotch candy to try to get out of jail time. “I have had the feeling that someone was mentally undressing me, but for me that’s not unusual,” her character remarks about the juror. White’s popularity with the youth in the last year has also inspired a number of funny t-shirts with slogans like, “In Betty We Trust,” “Betty is my Homegirl,” “White Hot,” and “I Party with The White” all donning pictures of her face.
Many twenty-somethings appreciate the fact that White is 89 and is “still kickin’ it,” as noted by twenty-something Jaime Schweizer of Sarasota, Florida. Lara Mielcarek (New York, New York) likes that “she bridges an unbridgeable gap between generations of women, she is just so damn old and still seems bright and with it. I can only hope to be like her when I am in my 70’s, let alone, my 90’s! So, of course, she’s a role model.” Rachel Davis continued to say, “I do see her as inspirational. Our generation has a problem with thinking we are ‘getting older’ or dreading our 30s…. If we have a friend that is 25 we like to tell them, ‘Oh wait until you are 26… it gets worse!’ I love getting older and I look forward to the challenges ahead, as Betty White has shown us through her decisions throughout life! Age is not something that holds us back unless you make it an obstacle of your own.” Dianna Lawrence, San Francisco twenty-something, who considers Golden Girls to be the original cast of Sex and the City, thinks Betty White is “a strong willed, adorable old lady who isn’t afraid of risqué humor, and isn’t giving up on her dream of being a fierce female comedian…. I want to be an awesome grandma when I get to her age and be able to keep up with people 1/3 my age with wit, grace and intelligence.”
Nancy Tracy, a contributor to Yahoo’s AssociatedContent.com thinks “audiences are hungering for a little more beef and seasoning in their talent…. It wasn’t too long ago that if you were a woman over 30 and could not squeeze into size 0 jeans, you were handed a one-way ticket out of Hollywood by movie and TV casting directors hungry for young, slender ‘talent’…. About the same time Americans grew tired of young talents like Lohan going in and out of rehab like the right hand in the hokey pokey, veteran actress (read: old) Betty White magically reappeared on the scene as reliable and rearing to go as the Energizer Bunny.” She agrees with Davis in thinking White “helped de-stigmatize growing old.”
Betty White’s comedic talent, business sense, and great attitude have kept her career alive into her 80’s. As Bartholomew notes, “She could have easily faded away, but she found out how to age with interest and viability…. She makes fun of herself. That put her back in the spotlight, and that is what keeps her funny.”
Valerie Boucvalt is an actor and freelance writer in Sarasota, Florida. You can view her portfolio at http://www.valerieboucvalt.com