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.

“Scott’s Tots” – the moment when ‘The Office’ went too far…

The British version of The Office as interpreted by its creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant was a glorious tribute to merciless cringe comedy. Gervais’ David Brent was a walking cesspool of discomfort, his attempts at ingratiating himself to others failing miserably. The American iteration of the show was far more gentle and mainstream, given that it was meant for American audiences. That doesn’t mean that the US version of The Office was a squeaky clean sibling of Full House. It still traded in cringe comedy, as well, though the cringe was leavened with doses of sweetness. Still, the show sporadically hits below the belt, and often the raw emotions that the comedy exposes makes for some fascinating television.

Case in point: “Dinner Party,” the Edward Albee-esque play that had Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and his girlfriend Jan (Melora Hardin) terrorize his work friends, Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer) and Andy and Angela (Ed Helms and Angela Kinsey), as well as, Dwight (Rainn Wilson), during an ill-fated dinner party. What begins as merely uncomfortable turns into a disaster as both Jan and Michael spill out the bile that has made their relationship toxic and unhealthy. Written by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky and directed by Paul Feig, the episode was one of the best of the show’s 9-season run. It was a dark excavation of Michael’s endless need to: a) be in a relationship and b) be loved. Due to these twinned needs, he settles into an emotionally abusive relationship with the increasingly disturbed Jan. The episode is a masterpiece in dark comedy because we simultaneously empathize with Michael (as well as his friends) but at the same time, get a horror-movie thrill from witnessing the depths of humiliation that he endures with Jan (like, for example, sleeping on a bench at the foot of the bed)

Similarly, Eisenberg and Stupnitsky, team up to write another dark episode of comedy, “Scott’s Tots,” in which Michael must confront an empty promise he made years ago. Unlike “Dinner Party,” this episode has some innocent collateral damage: a classroom of inner-city kids. And though the episode is well-written and solidly directed by B.J. Novak (who plays the sleazy Ryan), it goes too far, abandoning all sense of reality and the show’s tone, creating, frankly, an ugly half hour of television.

The episode’s plot goes into some messed up moments: Ten years before the present, Michael had promised a group of underprivileged kids that if they graduated high school, he would pay for their college. Unfortunately, in the ten years after he made the vow, Michael did not achieve the financial fortune he thought he would, and was in no position to make good on his promise. The problem was that he never stepped up like an adult to let the kids or the school know that he couldn’t fulfill his pledge. Instead, he kept mum, until it was too late.

On the day he visits the school, he take Erin (Ellie Kemper), the sunniest member of the Dunder Mifflin, with him to celebrate the kids’ accomplishments. It’s an excruciating experience to watch these joyful kids launch into musical numbers and dance breaks, grateful to their benefactor. Carell does a masterful job of conveying both the pride Michael feels for these awesome kids as well as the guilt and mortification of his behavior. At one point, his address to the kids dovetailed, reaching a basement-level low when he pointlessly offers the kids laptop batteries (not even laptops, just the batteries)

Humiliated and devastated, Michael tries to flee, only to be confronted by one of the students (Kwame Boateng), who calls him out for his behavior and holds him accountable for his terrible error in judgment. Though he couldn’t pay for Derrick’s college, Michael does promise to pay for his books. On the drive back to the office, Erin, in hopes of dragging Michael out of his doldrums, points out that because of his promise, the kids were inspired to graduate, resulting in the higher number of graduating students than in the other classes. Somewhat cheered by this, he slowly warms up to Erin and takes an interest in her.

As evident in the summary, “Scott’s Tots” is a mean episode, but unlike the other mean episodes in The Office, this episode’s victims aren’t the employees of Dunder Mifflin, but a group of disadvantaged youths – most of them students of color. It’s rare when the show punched down on individuals outside the office – there were some exceptions, most notably Pam’s mom (Linda Purl) who briefly dated Michael before he ruthlessly dumped her on his birthday – but usually, when there was a moment of degradation or humiliation, it was a member of the staff – and often it was somewhat deserved. But thwarting the futures of a classroom full of kids feels wrong.

Some of what Stupnitsky and Eisenberg put into the script makes for some compelling context and there are recognizable character beats that lead to the actions that take place. Michael’s motives are defined and predicated by his desire to be loved. It reminds me of my time as an actor/comedian and my acting coaches always told me when deciding motives for my characters, always boil down the motives to the disire to be loved.

Another part of Michael’s behavior could be chalked up to his grand – but failed – dreams of being a success. A decade ago, Michael was embarking on a career and believed that his financial success would be an inevitability. Ten years later, he is a manager of a low-level paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His dreams of being a motivational speaker, screenwriter, improv actor, business tycoon did not result in him striking it rich. To admit to the students that he couldn’t pay for their school, it means that he has to admit to himself that he’s a bit of a flop.

But so much of “Scott’s Tots” is quite depressing. There are so many unspoken points that make Michael’s behavior so much more damaging. For example, though Michael’s guilt is somewhat ameliorated by the graduating rate of the class, it also means that these kids have no where to go once September rolls by. Because these kids believed they had their tuition locked, most of them probably didn’t have contingency plans or backup ideas – meaning, the question loomed: what were these kids going to do? It was too late for the kids to apply for scholarships or get life-crushing loans…Basically, these kids were shoved into unplanned gap years.

What “Scott’s Tots” does is create a scenario in which Michael’s kacked approach to life approaches villainous territory. His selfishness and immaturity had wreaked havoc on a bunch of young lives and unfortunately, there is little consequence for Michael’s actions. In fact, the writers try to redeem Michael somewhat by having Erin try to cheer him up. The fact that some good had come out of Michael’s unrealistic promises merely highlights how f’cked these kids have it: they worked hard, did their best, held up their end of the bargain, and we never hear again from them.

One of the criticisms leveled against the show after it went off the air was that it would not work in today’s culture and environment in a #MeToo landscape because it’s harder to swallow the idea of a mediocre white dude failing upwards. Michael’s behavior is often terrible, but rarely does he suffer the consequences. As the protagonist, he is still the focus of our attention, and therefore, it’s necessary that we rally behind him to a certain extend, even if what he does is awful. But “Scott’s Tots” fails because there is no consequence for his actions – Michael gets dressed down by one of his victims, but still we see him redeem himself, when he levels with the kid, is honest, and offers an olive branch in the form of buying college text books. And when Erin tries to make him feel better, we’re also meant to feel better, and think that Michael’s behavior, while regrettable, still had a positive outcome because his promise inspired the kids to succeed academically.

The show never corrected this blip but it rarely got it as wrong as it did in “Scott’s Tots” (though it came awfully close in the final season when the writers decided to inject domestic discontent into the marriage of Pam and Jim) So much of the comedy around The Office was mean – it’s baked into the show’s thesis. But we’re okay, even if the jokes can go far (I for one, thought that Jim was an office bully to Dwight, Dwight’s approach to office politics was practically Machiavellian, and Oscar’s condescension of Michael was disrespectful) because it was all contained, in-house – in the office. When the writers dared to take the cruelty outside, they chose a poor target – a group of hopeful kids – and as a result, the episode, while aiming for the subversive quality of “Dinner Party” ended up an unpleasant and acrid viewing experience.

Season 1’s Leslie Knope is unrecognizable

The cast of Parks and Recreation recently reunited for a special episode in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a sweet, well-received episode that reminded viewers of just how lovely the denizens of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana really are. Parks and Recreation ran for seven seasons on NBC, and though few people actually watched the show, it amassed a devoted fan base. At the center of the show was Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the intrepid government worker whose main goal in life was to do good work. Leslie became synonymous with competence and intelligence. She overwhelmed her friends with her great passion for her work and though they respected and loved her, her love of her work could be a challenge.

What’s so interesting about the character is that in its first season, Parks and Recreation had a different view of Leslie Knope, particularly in the pilot. Because its original concept was supposed to be an Office spin-off and because Office vets Mike Schur and Greg Daniels wrote the pilot, there are striking similarities between Parks and The Office. Namely in that both were working place sitcoms that featured an incompetent and goofy manager with contemptuous coworkers.

And so the original concept for Leslie was that she was more like Michael Scott. She was a well-meaning but hopelessly inept middle-manager who invested much more importance to her title that it really held. The Leslie of the pilot is nearly unrecognizable as she’s the butt of the jokes that the writers craft and she’s somewhat unsympathetic.

The plot of the pilot sets the stage for the show’s first arc and it introduces the characters we would grow to love. Along with Leslie, we have Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), and Mark Brandanawicz (Paul Schneider). They work in the Pawnee parks department and do so with mixture of hostility and apathy – probably a poke at the stereotypically burned-out city worker. Like Leslie, the other characters also seem different – Tom is initially presented as a straight man, Parks version of Jim Halpert, whilst Ron’s libertarian hero seems strangely subdued. The only character that retains any of her traits beyond the first show is April, whose deadpan demeanor (inspired by Plaza’s own mordant comedic persona) is carried over to the rest of the show’s run (though as the show progressed, there are beautiful shades to April’s character) And Mark is interesting to look at because he’s a character that lasts only two seasons on the show before being written out and never mentioned again. Like Tom, Mark is presented as the only normal guy – the everyman who is defined by his lack of idiosyncrasies.

We’re also introduced to Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and Andy Dwyer (future superstar Chris Pratt) who are dating in the first season. Ann is a nurse who meets Leslie at a townhall meeting to discuss a disgusting it outside her home. The townhall scene is one of the hallmarks of the show, and thankfully, it’s a recurring sequence – goofy, crackpots and weirdos waste time by either complaining about stupid matters or by offering ridiculous suggestions. Some of the show’s most memorable moments occur during these scenes.

Spurred on by Ann’s confrontations, Leslie vows to fill up the pit and build a park. I wish I could say a friendship is born, but not yet. In fact, Ann seems wary of Leslie’s peppy demeanor. She calls her “sweet, but doofy” and it’s not love at first sight between the two. There are no metaphors to Ann’s great beauty yet. One of the hallmarks of the show is how much Ann and Leslie love each other, and it’s strange and slightly off-putting to see Ann being so distant to Leslie’s genial – if over the top – overtures.

The script is also quite mean to Leslie. One of Leslie’s traits – and this is probably spurred on by Poehler’s physical comedy prowess – is her tendency to get herself into outlandish, oft-slapstick binds, like for example, when she powered through her immobilizing flu to make it to an important meeting, only to stagger through the room, thinking it’s actually flipped. Or inspired by her love of Pawnee (and JJ’s waffles), she threw down with a nemesis from rival town Eagleton on a pile of garbage.

In the pilot, Leslie falls into the pit, tumbling. There are pictures taken and Tom and April gleefully share them, laughing at them, one of the pics even being an upskirt shot. After watching the subsequent seasons, this scene is almost shocking in the casual cruelty displayed by the two characters. Later on, Tom and April would become Leslie’s closest friends – April, especially would take on the role of Leslie’s best friend when Ann moved away.

The other thing that made Leslie so inspiring was her ability to problem solve. In the pilot, Leslie is pretty hapless. When she wants to head the project of transforming the pit into a park, she has to beg Ron, who refuses, but changes his mind when Mark intervenes. It’s revealed that he and Leslie had a one-night stand, something that meant more to Leslie than Mark, who initially couldn’t remember their tryst, until he thought for a moment. Leslie, meanwhile, imbued the exchange with far much more meaning, and therefore, she thought she could leverage their past to her gain. But Mark doesn’t remember – thereby, creating a lopsided dynamic in which he has the upper hand. And Mark – through a combination of pity and empathy – steps in and convinces Ron, cashing in an unspoken favor.

Though Leslie would be saved by other characters in the show – one of the show’s most touching moments is when the gang jump in to become her campaign team when she runs for city council – her situation is never one of her being pathetic or humiliated. When characters move to help Leslie it’s because they genuinely love and and because whatever goal she’s trying to reach is thought to be lofty and worthy.

In the final episode of Parks and Recreation, the plot zips through time, zig-zagging back and forth, showing us the futures of our characters. Leslie’s rise is spectacular, and by the end of her arc, she’s receiving an honorary doctorate from Indiana University and learns that the university has named its library in her honor (to her chagrin). In her acceptance speech, she encapsulates the thesis of the show, of doing good. She mentions her two terms as governor of Indiana, and alludes to an even greater challenge – maybe president?

To compare that Leslie with the silly Leslie who jams some leaves in her mouth that turn out to be toxic is quite jarring. Thankfully, Schur and company took the critics’ drubbing seriously and by the second season, the show retconned much of the first season and reset Leslie’s character as one to be admired, not pitied. As she grew she became even better – more political, more intelligent and intellectual. And that’s the Leslie we all fell in love with.

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