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Critic's Notebook: Betty White goes not gently into that 'Saturday Night Live' [Updated]

May 9, 2010 |  9:33 am

It's Betty White's world now. The upward creep of her late-period celebrity reached its zenith this year with a Super Bowl Snickers commercial (also featuring fellow octogenarian and subject of youthful fascination Abe Vigoda) and her hosting last night of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (musical guest: Jay-Z), which continues to be a locus of new-generation humor in spite of its often draggy pace and tendency to make even good ideas outlast their welcome. That the appearance was inspired by a Facebook-based campaign is just further proof that White is, to mix social-network terms, a trending topic. ("Needless to say, we didn't have Facebook when I was growing up," she said in her opening monologue. "We had phone books, but you wouldn't waste an afternoon on them.")

Still, she is not the first little old lady to host "SNL," though, at 88, she is the oldest -- breaking the record set in 1977 by 80-year-old "Anyone Can Host" contest-winner Miskel Spillman, who herself barely edged out "Harold and Maude" star Ruth Gordon for the title. Spillman's appearance included a bit in which she smoked marijuana with John Belushi; Gordon, born in 1896 and the age's sparky senior of choice, appeared in a routine called "Little Old Ladies of the Night," in which she was mistaken for a prostitute. (The elderly have been thought cute before.)

Indeed, the most common way to have fun with old people on TV or in film is to have them act as if they were young people. Making them talk about sex or swear, or take drugs, or use language they're the wrong age to use is an easy laugh that contemporary comedy writers do not seem able to resist or improve upon, or think up alternatives to. (In an earlier generation, it was hilarious enough just to put them on a motorcycle or a surfboard.) This was the main thrust of White's "SNL" stand, through her appearances as the grandmother of Will Forte's MacGruber, the grandmother of Keenan Thompson's "scared-straight" counselor, and the geriatric detective on "CSI: Sarasota" ("On CBS, the old people network"). It was the sole point of her nine utterances of the word "lesbian" (or "lez," as a verb) in a sort of "Meet Me in St. Louis" sketch, and of the salacious variations on the word "muffin" in a routine about a public-radio food show, hosted by a briefly returning Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer, as in "My muffin hasn't had a cherry since 1939." (Though, to be fair, that routine had the same purpose when Alec Baldwin was the guest and the salient word was "balls.")

Granted, there is something wonderfully encouraging about seeing anyone still in the game -- any game -- on the verge of 90, and whatever else she is to the culture (human pet, link to the past), White is above all an energetic and accomplished working actress. (She has a new sitcom, "Hot in Cleveland," coming on TVLand in June.) Although some of the current Betty White Moment is a matter of her merely having lasted -- like a redwood tree or Gothic cathedral -- it is more particularly that she has lasted long enough for people to remember, or to learn, that she is is funny, and funny in a special Betty White way. Even before she was old and raunchy -- at least as far back as her stint on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- she was playing a comedy of contrasts, of salty and sweet: a serpent with a face made to sell cake mix.

If the material Saturday night was not always stellar and was, at times, totally earthbound, it was funny often enough, and sometimes when it wasn't funny, the show was incidentally touching. To balance (for "Mother's Day") a cast that skews decisively male, the producers brought back a flock of female stars from seasons not-long past, not only Shannon and Gasteyer, but also Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey, whose pas-de-deux with the host in a sketch about census-taking had a flavor that was both absurd and down-to-earth. They seemed especially pleased to be there to support White and to work with her. White, in turn, given flowers at the end, thanked a cast that had been "so dear to a very scared but happy host." 

In the end, like Keith Richards or Bob Dylan in their little corner of their arts -- they're younger than Betty, though not in rock years -- older performers like White give us hope that not only is it possible to last, but also to last even into old age and just seem cooler than ever. They hold out the promise that you might grow up to be the granny or gramps the yet-unborn whippersnappers of the future will regard as something better than invisible, not to mention disposable.

There has been a lot of tweeting about White's "SNL" adventure. "Betty White is killing it on SNL," one read. "I want to be adorable when I'm old like Betty White," went another. And there was @justinbieber's massively retweeted "BETTY WHITE RULES." Justin Bieber is 16.

-- Robert Lloyd (Tweeting @LATimesTVLloyd)

[For the record: An earlier version of this post said Ruth Gordon was born in 1986 instead of 1896.}

Related:

Hipster culture is having a senior moment

Betty White's SNL dress rehearsal: 'Yeah, oh, God, again'

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