The Golden Girls chronicles: “Guess Who’s Coming to the Wedding?”

When I decided to do this feature for my blog, it was before Betty White’s passing. Part of the inspiration came from the magazines and blogs trumpeting White’s impending 100th birthday. I love The Golden Girls and was hoping for some kind of tie-in to her birthday. But her passing proved just how beloved she was – her popularity looked to be universal. Hardly anyone had a bad thing to say about her. With her death, people pointed out that the main case of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls are all gone. It’s a sad thing, but White’s life and career has been so full and accomplished that it’s hard to be sad for too long. So, because White has been in the news and I just started The Golden Girls chronicles, it feels as A Seat in the Aisle is pretty Betty White-heavy. But given how hilarious she was, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

My last entry of The Golden Girls chronicles was a recap of the pilot. As I mentioned in that post, that pilot in particular, did a wonderful job of introducing the premise of the show. We knew the girls after only about 10 minutes. The only thing that didn’t work was the queer cook, Coco (James Levin), a character that was quickly jettisoned with no explanation.

The writer credited on this episode is the fabulous Winifred Hervey, an Emmy-winning TV vet who would go on to write, produce, and run shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In the House, The Steve Harvey Show, Half & Half. She also worked on the Soap spin-off Benson. Hervey is an important figure in The Golden Girls history, writing and heading some of the best episodes in the show’s run.

l to r: Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan (Buena Vista Television)

Like the pilot, “Guess Who’s Coming to the Wedding?” is an excellent episode that establishes some important recurring themes on the show and introduces a key recurring character, Stan Zbornak (Herb Edelman), Dorothy’s cheating ex-husband. We also get the contentious relationship between Stan and Dorothy – a great repeating joke in the series, particularly because it gives Bea Arthur to throw some really mean jabs (few actresses could toss off a cruel, withering insult like Bea Arthur).

The episode opens with Dorothy getting the house ready for her daughter, Kate’s arrival. As mentioned, Hervey quickly includes aspects of the show very early – and visiting relatives is huge for The Golden Girls. Except Kate’s visit isn’t merely to say hello, but she’s also introducing her mother and grandmother to her fiance, Dennis. The plot moves forward with Dorothy’s decree that Kate and Dennis will be married at the house (two episodes in, and we’re already seeing two weddings at the house)

When we’re introduced to Stan, it’s done in a way that’s immediately classic: Dorothy answers his ringing the doorbell and slams the door in his face before he can finish his sentence. He rings the bell again and when Dorothy answers it, he asks if she recognized him, to which Dorothy replied pleasantly, “Of course I recognized you. That’s why I slammed the door in your face.” She then zeroes in on his toupée, calling it a joke (Again, Stan’s vain attempt at hiding his baldness would be a endless source of humor for the rest of the show’s run).

Another element of the show that Hervey introduces in her script is Sophia’s hostility towards Stan. Their relationship is defined by her resentment of his leaving her daughter. On her good days, Sophia’s pretty mean biting, but her instincts get even worse when she’s angry; Estelle Getty does such a good job playing Sophia – her comedic timing and delivery is marvelous. When Stan suggests that they reminisce about old times, she shoots back, “No we can’t. I had a stroke. Luckily my memories of you were wiped out.”

l to r: Dennis Drake, Herb Edelman, Bea Arthur, Lisa Jane Persky (Buena Vista Telvision)

Though the marriage is ostensibly the main plot, Hervey does something very smart with the script because the simmering subtext of the episode is Dorothy’s anger at not having closure after her marriage failed. It’s especially poignant because she’s hosting her daughter’s wedding, and the promise of a happy future can’t help but bring up bittersweet feelings. That’s what’s so great about The Golden Girls: there are layers to the characters’ feelings and emotions. Though Dorothy is thrilled that her daughter is getting married (to a doctor, no less!), the wedding has brought up feelings of hurt and anger.

In the midst of all these feelings, Hervey gifts Bea Arthur with a monologue. I was always on the fence about my reaction to the monologue. Facing Stan on the lanai, Dorothy brings up all these feelings of hurt and betrayal by summoning up memories of their troubled marriage, from their impoverished beginnings to when they struggled raising a family. Despite the pastel-colored environs, the monologue dips into kitchen sing drama territory, as Dorothy dramatically intones about the “lean years” when the two faced financial hardships. Arthur delivers this speech with flair and real emotion but I’ve always felt it too showboaty, stagey, and it feels out of place (almost like it’s trying to ape Arthur Miller).

l to r: Bea Arthur, Herb Edelman (Buena Vista Television)

Thankfully, Hervey ends the episode on a funny note, though: when an emotionally overwhelmed Dorothy admits that Stan will always be part of her life, Rose kindly agrees, pointing out their long, shared history. That’s not what Dorothy meant, as she lifts her hand to show off the toupee she yanked off his head.

Though all of the Golden Girls had their moments on this episode, this was a very Bea Arthur-focused episode. Usually, the show’s structure would pair the girls off: usually Dorothy with Sophia and Blanche with Rose, or if the show focused on a character, the other three would be the straight men. That’s what’s so great about a comedy ensemble, each person gets her turn to be the funny one. It’s quite remarkable that even though it’s only the second episode, “Guess Who’s Coming to the Wedding?” feels like a later season episode, given who quickly we learn to love the characters and get acclimated to the specific comic rhythms. In particular, Herb Edelman does a great job playing Stan (he would earn two Emmy nominations for his role), playing up craven, selfish impulses of the character.

In Tribute to TV’s Greatest Funny Lady: A Celebration of Betty White

Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live (NBC)

Betty White was in television for so long, that she would often joke that she started out in silent television. Betty White was a leading lady of television, essentially becoming the epitome of the network sitcom. A wonderful and hilarious comedienne, White was a pioneer in the genre, creating iconic characters that were welcomed in homes of millions of viewers and innovating television production. There never seemed to have been a moment on television comedy that did not include Betty White. From her start in starring vehicle, 1953’s Life with Elizabeth (which White produced) to her last major regular role in TV Land’s comedy, 2010’s Hot in Clevland, White was a major figure on television, bringing joy and laughter to her devoted fans. Of course, the roles that made her iconic were her Emmy-winning turns as Sue Ann Niven in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls. It’s Sue Ann and Rose that would make White a permanent presence in the canon of brilliant comedy acting.

Though born in the Midwest, White was a California girl. She had Los Angeles baked into her bones. That is why she is also television personified. She was there for the medium’s early days when it was still finding its footing and she was there when television posed a major threat to Hollywood and cinema. As television became ubiquitous, White became ubiquitous. She was an important thread in the fabric of American pop culture. She has not only been a giant in television comedy, but her sharp wit and fast mind made her a favorite on talk shows and game shows. Her sense of comedy made her a professional chat show guest, sending audiences and TV hosts into stitches with her barbed droll shtick.

To understand Betty White’s comedy is to first look at her. She was very pretty -wholesomely pretty. She had those sparkling blue eyes. Those adorable dimples. That halo of blond hair. That wide, friendly smile. When she entered a scene she exuded friendliness and warmth. But it’s that stiletto-sharp wit that undercuts that overwhelming adorableness; she’s sweet, but there’s a simmering edge underneath that angelic outer exterior. In talk shows, she was delightfully devilish in the way that she would play with double entendres and her continued subverting of her persona.

Betty White in her comeback role, Hot in Cleveland (CBS Television)

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she played the acid-tongued Sue Ann Nivens, a foil for the sunny and happy Mary Richards. The writers struck gold when creating this villainous role in which White excelled. Stealing scenes, she reveled in being a nasty fly in Mary’s ointment. Sue Ann was a man eater, too, setting her sights on the male members of the fictional WJM station. In White’s hands, Sue Ann was a complex, yet riotous monster of comedy. She was able to drop one-liners and mean put-downs with a surgeon’s precision. That open, friendly, smiling visage was a perfect mask for her jealousies, pettiness, and contempt. It’s the contradiction that made Sue Ann work: though she looked like the angel from the top of the Christmas tree, she would cut people down with a delighted sadism that made her cruelty hilarious.

Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (20th Television)

And as awful and terrifying as Sue Ann was, Rose Nylund was her polar opposite. The perennially naive and goofy Rose was often the brightest and funniest part of The Golden Girls (a gigantic accomplishment, given the level of talent in that genius cast) When playing Rose, White leaned hard into her comedic persona and made the character simultaneously a darling cartoon and believably human. Her monologues of St Olaf are stuff of legend and should be studied by aspiring comedic actors. When Rose launched into one of her St Olaf stories, regaling her best friends of the improbably absurd tales of her home, White was able to convince audiences that there was really such a place. And key to the success behind Rose is the warmth and kindness White was able to convey in her work.

Betty White as Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls (Buena Vista Television)

In the last 20 years or so, White seemed to have been busier than ever, putting in recurring roles, stealing scenes in shows like Boston Legal or The Bold and the Beautiful, and triumphing at sketch comedy in her Emmy-winning hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. She earned new audiences, her legend growing with the aid of social media which crowned her America’s Favorite Grandma. Well into her 70s and 80s, she still appeared bright and sharp, her timing undimmed, as she traded barbs and quick jabs with the likes of Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, or Jimmy Fallon. Audience delighted in the hilarious surprise of having a sweet, angelic, grandmotherly woman like Betty White throw off funny jokes that were naughty enough to entertain her fans but just tasteful enough to still maintain her dignity.

In an interview, Betty White professed her love of situation comedy acting, saying,

I love to work and I love to do series, situation comedy series…You go to work at 10 o’clock in the morning, you do what you love to do best, you rehearse all week, and then you play to an audience the end of the week.

Betty White wasn’t a stage actress or a movie star. Her specific talents were a perfect fit for television. Through her great work, she became an icon, the personification of television comedy.

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