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.

RIP Cloris Leachman – a glorious funny woman

 

CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cloris Leachman died this past week at the age of 94. She was a sitcom veteran and Oscar-winning actress/comedienne who defined television comedy for the last 50 years. A hilarious and daffy actress, she found television immortality as the vain and self-involved Phyllis Lindstrom on the classic sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Though she found her greatest success as a television performer, she also was an award-winning movie star, winning an Academy Award for her sensitive portrayal in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. She was also a muse of Mel Brooks, stealing the show in films like Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and History of the World, Part I. A celebrated pro who was well-respected by her peers, along with her Oscar, she won 8 Emmys out of 22 nominations.

Leachman’s comedy lived in an off-kilter, daffy persona. Her gallery of characters include women who don’t feel it necessary to be lovable and appealing. In her greatest roles, she imbued her roles – even the nicer ones – with an acrid tartness that just managed to curdle beneath a forced smile. She was the consummate second banana, a pro at supporting main players, easily stealing scenes and elevating her scenes with inimitable comedic timing.

In honor of Cloris Leachman, below are some of her greatest TV roles.

Phyllis Lindstrom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Phyllis

As Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary Richards’ other best friend, Leachman was a comic firepower. She was thoroughly unpleasant, jealous, and self-centered and believed the world revolved around her. What makes Leachman’s performance so great is that despite Phyllis’ oft-hateful behavior, she had depths and genuinely loved Mary. Appearing on Rhoda, she was a high point on “Rhoda’s Wedding” a foil to punctuate the sentimental funnies with her spoiled routine. For two seasons, Leachman headlined her own sitcom, anchoring the show with a hilarious performance, earning an Emmy nomination, taking the pampered, newly-widowed Phyllis from Minneapolis to San Francisco.

Beverly Ann Stickle, Facts of Life

When Facts of Life star Charlotte Rae decided to leave the show, she left a voice that Leachman ably filled her shoes, replacing her as the den mother to the four young girls. The long-running show was at its 8th season when Leachman joined as the goofy and silly Beverly Ann Stickle. At that point of the show, the girls were young adults, so they no longer needed a mother figure like Rae’s Mrs Garrett, so instead, Beverly Ann was the joyful, silly presence who offered advice and told rambling stories. She brought an indelible hilarity to a show that was about to embark on its last lap.

Dot Richmond, The Ellen Show

When Ellen DeGeneres returned to prime time television with her second sitcom, she gathered together a comedy super group which included pros like Martin Mull, Jim Gaffigan, Kerri Kenney, and Leachman who played Ellen’s onscreen mother. The show was an underappreciated sitcom that flirted with genial absurdity, a perfect fit for Leachman whose character was a Loony Tune character come to life. Endearingly kooky, Leachman’s Dot Richmond was a swirling tornado of eccentricity and weirdness and the actress played her to the hilt.

Maw Maw Thompson, Raising Hope

In her last regular role, Leachman found yet another comedic gargoyle, this time the dotty Maw Maw Thompson on the Fox sitcom Raising Hope. While playing someone with dementia meant that Leachman was able to eschew subtly (never part of her wheelhouse), the character was yet another cartoonish personality which the actress filled with shadings of warmth and depth, alongside the delicious crazy.

Along these great roles, Leachman was a favorite as a guest star, showing up on a wide range of sitcoms, including The NannyHot in Cleveland (reuniting with Mary Tyler Moore gang), Malcolm in the Middle, and Two and a Half Men, among many, many others. She was always a reliable scene-stealer who could lift any scene with a miraculous sense of comedic timing and a wonderful appreciation for the ridiculous.

Cloris Leachman is such an integral, key part of television history that it’s difficult to imagine TV comedy without her. And why would you? She is a joy to watch and we’ve been blessed by her talent and the good fortune of having her around for so long.

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started