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.

Living Vicariously Through Characters Living Vicariously: Only Murders in the Building

Still from Only Murders in the Building, l to r: Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, Martin Short (20th Television)

Like many viewers and listeners, I’ve become obsessed with true-crime stories. Though true-crime podcasts are very popular, I’ve been focused on longform true-crime journalism or true-crime documentaries. I find these stories compelling, particularly if the hero of the piece is an intrepid amateur sleuth who outsmarts the authorities, solving the mystery herself after piecing together the clues. I admit, true-crime as a genre is often gruesome and exploitative; despite its verisimilitude, it can render real tragedies as entertainment, but seeing a crime deconstructed with its different components spread out like pieces of a puzzle on a tabletop makes for compelling viewing because I can bring something dangerous and frightening to my safe world without putting myself in actual danger. It’s the distance afforded by the television that makes true-crime feel safe.

In her excellent book, Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, author Rachel Monroe looks at the popularity of true-crime narratives among female audiences. In the book – which I finished in merely three settings due to its engrossing prose – Monroe looks at four essential roles in true-crime: the detective, the victim, the defender, and the killer. In each case, the author develops the archetype by using real-world examples of women who have engaged with crime. I was particularly interested in the part of the book in which Monroe writes about Alisa Statman, a woman who found herself drawn into the tragic story of the Tate-LaBianca murders by unknowingly renting a room on the doomed property, which was the setting for the notorious killings, that included actress Sharon Tate. I found Statman’s increasing participation in that sad world, which resulted in her eventual befriending of Tate’s surviving relatives to be fascinating because it highlighted just how magnetic a tragedy can be, particularly if it’s a high-profile tragedy that attracts attention.

Of course, the troublesome aspect of true-crime as a genre is that it takes a human tragedy and through expert packaging, editing, and narration, creates a fascinating story that ends up becoming escapist television. Quickly, true-crime makes victims into characters – and the more stylish, slick, and stylized the work, be it film, television, or podcast, the easier it is to disassociate the victim from her reality. I say ‘her’ reality because the genre – like much of crime/thriller entertainment – has a particular vested interest in representing female victimhood. True-crime has replaced prime time cop shows as a source of representation of women who are victims of domestic violence, rape, or murder. Though there are notable examples of true-crime that feature a male victim, the most compelling examples are ones that focus on a female victim, usually young, pretty, and white. The inherent danger in consuming true-crime entertainment is allowing oneself to become desensitized to this common theme and to consume the genre without critically thinking about a) what sort of narrative it helps create and b) what is effect does the constant representation of female victimhood have on its viewers?

True-crime entertainment can be problematic when audiences enjoy the genre without thoughtful analysis of what they’re watching. The audience feels at once a safety because what they’re witnessing is a television show or film; but there’s also a strange kinship because, despite the television trappings, audiences do understand that what they’re watching is real. It’s an uneasy, oft-fraught balance that is pulled, stretched, and played for gallows humor on Hulu’s comedy-mystery, Only Murders in the Building, which is created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman. Martin stars with Martin Short and Selena Gomez as three neighbors who live in the Dakota-style apartment building in New York City, the Arconia. They are drawn into a murder mystery when the three decide to investigate a death in the building which they believe was a murder, despite the police judging it suicide. What links the three amateur sleuths is their shared obsession with a true-crime podcast.

What attracted me to the show – besides the casting of Short and Martin – is that it closely resembles the plot, the atmosphere, and the tone of Woody Allen’s 1993 comedy-mystery, Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which a middle-aged couple investigates a death they believe is a murder. Like Only Murders in the Building, Allen’s film dealt with very ordinary people who found themselves ensnared in a murder plot, due in part, to their own interest in sleuthing that is inspired by a sense of ennui or dissatisfaction in their lives. In Martin’s and Hoffman’s tale, the three leads each live lives in which they are struggling against profound weariness and languor, and the injection of excitement that a murder brings shades any compunctions of danger or prurience. I sought out Only Murders in the Building because it captured the same wry, oft-daffy approach to crime, whilst simultaneously creating a beautiful valentine to New York City.

Because Only Murders in the Building is a television show and not a 90-minute film, there is time for the show to develop its characters as well as for the many layers of cinematic influences to shine through. Though the show is ostensibly a murder-mystery and comedy, it’s also a film that laces threads of subplots. Familial backstories are hinted throughout the episodes as are satiric takes on petty bureaucracy, as well as a healthy skepticism of celebrity culture and showbiz.

When first reading about the show, I was drawn by the casting of the male leads: Martin and Short are fantastic comedians who did fine work together in the fluff Father of the Bride, and individually are wonderful performers. Selena Gomez gave me pause because I link her to her Disney Channel past. It’s another way in which this show finds a link with Woody Allen. Allen, in his ill-fated Amazon show, A Crisis in Six Acts, cast former teen star, Miley Cyrus. Despite the show’s critical failure, Cyrus held her own against Allen and his costar, comedy genius Elaine May. Similarly, Gomez transcends any hokeyness of her Disney Channel past and does a very good job of playing with her more experienced comedy costars. The three stars’ acting styles are quite disparate: for the most part, Martin and Gomez are naturalistic but Short is predictably broad and extravagant in his work. But it works well. Gomez brings a bemused, almost Bacall-like slyness and insouciance to the more establishment comedy stylings of Martin and Short.

Though Only Murders in the Building is about a murder mystery, the subplots that define each character are just as compelling. When we’re introduced to Oliver (Short), Charles-Haden (Martin), and Mabel (Gomez), we’re given an ‘in’ to their individual lives, each of which is somewhat sad and dispiriting. Charles-Haden is seen as a has-been actor who is living with dwindling fame, Oliver is a struggling theater director who has to hit his adult kid up for a loan, and Mabel turns out to have had a personal relationship with the dead man who acts as a catalyst for our trio. Sadness is important because in a lot of narrative fiction about amateur sleuths, the reason why ordinary people are drawn into solving murders is to either fill voids in seemingly empty lives or to act as distractions to personal tragedies. That is the draw of true-crime, as well. As audiences engage with true-crime, they receive a jolt, but in a wholly safe way. As criminology professor Scott Bonn notes, “People also receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds. Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain.”

In Only Murders in the Building, our leads are obsessed with the podcast, All Is Not OK in Oklahoma hosted by Cinda Canning (Tina Fey). It’s a clear nod to Serial hosted by Sarah Koenig, a popular podcast that was seemingly the first true-crime podcast to capture mainstream interest (even warranting a spoof on Saturday Night Live) Once inserted into a real-life murder mystery, it’s predictable that their response to their Sherlock Holmesing by putting together a podcast of their own entitled, Only Murders in the Building. It’s a fascinating collapsing of walls of reality that allows for different aspects of reality and fiction to be folded within each other: Only Murders in the Building is part of a larger trend in popular entertainment of true-crime narratives as well as the popularity of podcasts. Within the diegesis of the show, the characters relate to each other because of a podcast that they love, which demonstrates the uniting power of pop culture, a power that has been diminished significantly since the ‘death’ of the monoculture. And again, within the reality of the show, the characters respond to their extraordinary predicament by wanting to create a podcast of their own. It’s very much a story that exists in 2021 and it couldn’t be a more 2021 story.

During the pandemic and its accompanying lockdown, I spent much of time my time consuming popular culture as an escape from the real world which was proving to be chaotic and unstable. Interestingly enough, like many viewers, true-crime documentaries, true-crime docuseries, and true-crime podcasts offered a break from the volatility that the real world was providing whilst governments were trying to reign in a deadly pandemic; in most true-crime stories, the killer is caught. The victim is vindicated. Justice wins. And order is restored. The premise of true-crime narratives is a gross disruption of order: murder, kidnapping, embezzlement, fraud. As audiences, we watch these terrible abuses of power in outrage every day on the news. But news stories rarely have endings. True-crime stories usually do. Watching stories that offer a resolution to the tragic act of indecency is one of the reasons why they offer some comfort and escapism, particularly in a time of great turmoil.

And that is why Only Murders in the Building makes for such compelling viewing. Because we don’t get the pat, nice ending in which justice and order is restored. Though the main mystery of the piece is solved, a new one pops up just after, ending the series with a teasing cliffhanger that begs for more story. It is in this respect, that we see the main difference between fiction and true-crime. True-crime entertainment is heavily produced, but it still hews to the story it’s depicting; with fiction, the writers are essentially god of their universe and can keep the story going.

So much of the comedic power the drives the show comes from the absurd and escalating situations the three lead characters find themselves in; leavened with the absurd is the mundane which offers another layer of mirth. There are many scenes that are gems but one that stands out is a memorial scene in the second episode, “Who Is Tim Kono?”.

The reason the scene is so stellar is because it not only provides viewers with hilarity, but it quickly establishes the hierarchal world of a New York City cooperative building (which mimics the hierarchal world outside a New York City cooperative building). The memorial commences with the assertive board member of the Arconia, Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell doing scene-stealing work), calling the meeting to order with a fiery, “Why the fuck is everyone standing?” She gestures at the rows of seats and asks, condescendingly, “You see these chairs? What do you think they might be for?” Clapping and herding the other tenants into submission, Bunny is established in a very brief time as an archetype at once mesmerizing and recognizable. As Bunny chairs the memorial with a flinty dispassion and indifference, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are ‘on the case’, planted in the back row of seats, hoping they’ll be able to gather some important clues. Instead of being a touching memorial to a deceased neighbor, though, the memorial simply limps into yet another coop meeting in which tenants hash out grievances, including the use of fireplaces because the deceased apparently didn’t like his neighbors availing themselves of the units’ fireplaces. As the neighbors grouse over their dead neighbor, audiences get to see a warped and funhouse image of what metropolitan city living is about. When Charles arrives at the memorial, the first thing he notes is that he doesn’t know anyone: an important detail about urban living. Very few people know their neighbors, particularly when living in a large apartment building. The paradoxical isolation that can occur despite a large number of people sharing a common space is being heavily satirized in the scene.

But something else is happening in this scene, as well, something important that becomes emblematic of the show as a whole. We see a self-absorption on the part of the tenants, some of whom take this opportunity not only to complain about petty issues like the use of fireplaces, but also to plug their business interests, including the therapist who takes advantage of the tragedy to disingenuously offer his support (making sure to note that he accepts Venmo payments) or the deli owner who makes sure that his company’s name is obvious on the buffet he provided. Despite it being a response to tragedy, the meeting is spiked with people dragging the deceased and eyeing his apartment (another funny poke at Manhattan culture). The scene – written by Kirker Butler – establishes another important theme: one of urban jadedness. Though it’s pitched at a comedic level, the cynicism exhibited among the other tenants is meant to play as a microcosm of the dangerously indifferent world which allows for murders to happen. Again, that the three lead characters found each other on the strength of their mutual interest in a podcast highlights an almost fateful importance to their friendship.

Often mysteries sacrifice character development to intricate plots. But in Only Murders in the Building, the lead characters’ relationship is the dominant force that makes the show so interesting. Gomez’s Mabel is quickly established as an enigma of sorts. A 21st Century take on the femme fatale, we are immediately informed that she has a connection with the deceased and that the two share a past. Both Charles and Oliver deftly fall into a double act, of sorts, in part guided by the performances of Short and Martin. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch the intergenerational play between Short and Martin and Gomez, given that at times, Gomez feels as if she were inserted into the narrative at last minute. But that slight jarring effect of her presence works because she isn’t supposed to of the Arconia world. Unlike Charles or Oliver, she’s not a full-time tenant, but supposedly a renovator. The Arconia connotes a Manhattan of Zabar’s, Elaine’s, and Bobby Short. Charles and Oliver seem at home in this narrow type of Manhattan, due to their age. As an outsider, Mabel offers a rip or a tear into this world, almost like she’s allowing for another dimension to spill into this mustier, more genteel one. (Flashbacks to Mabel’s past only reinforce this feeling of disparity). Though she matches her costars note-for-note, it’s important that Gomez’ acting style is different than that of Martin’s or Short’s; had a young comedienne been cast, the effect and balance would have been quite altered as she might not have stood out as much.

But as great as Gomez is, I had the most fun watching Short as the mercurial and somewhat sad Oliver. Short is an interesting performer because though he’s a generation after the broad, almost borscht belt showbiz style of comedy of legends like Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, or Dick Van Dyke, he had internalized a lot of their essence into his work. Short, a veteran of both SCTV and Saturday Night Live, is an extravagant and generous performer – both physical and intellectual in his approach. When he’s pitched too far in his style, he devolves into a cartoon, as seen in his work with Steve Martin in the Father of the Bride films. But in Only Murders in the Building, he scores a great balancing act – he’s broad enough to score comedic points, particularly when he’s playing off his costar (who is his best friend in real life), but he can also create some moving moments, as well, as evident in his scenes with Ryan Broussard, who plays Will, Oliver’s perennially disappointed adult son. Some of Short’s creations – Jiminy Glick, Ed Grimley, Franck Eggelhoffer, Jackie Rogers Jr – feel almost alien, but with Oliver, Short pulls together a scattered and hyperactive portrayal that is at once real and absurd.

When watching this show as a true-crime fan and a murder mystery enthusiast, Only Murders in the Building comes off as more substantial and intellectual than the usual murder mystery shows. The ambition that Steve Martin and John Hoffman exhibit in their creation is admirable. The two aren’t just content in putting together a funny murder mystery – after all, that’s been done before (I’ve watched Clue enough times to memorize most of the film’s dialogue; and again, Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of my favorite films), but by including the darker, more intriguing plot with Mabel’s past, it’s clear that Martin and Hoffman are going for something more than just a Sunday night hour of fluff.

As someone who’s watched every episode of The Father Dowling Mysteries, Diagnosis Murder, Poirot, Miss Marple, and Murder, She Wrote, I found that by including the barbed humor and social commentary, plus the inclusion of something as timely to 2021 as true-crime podcasts, the show achieves an arch wittiness that the other shows lacked. Shows like Murder, She Wrote relied heavily on a formula or template: the amateur sleuth is introduced, she’s invited to a dinner party, someone dies, suspects appear, she figures it out, the end. But there’s the added urban quality to Only Murders in the Building, as well. Though it feels a bit inane to type this out, Manhattan and the Arconia feel as if they are living characters in the plot, too. Though murder mystery shows often take place in the city (even Murder, She Wrote took Jessica Fletcher out of cozy Cabot Cove and into exciting New York City in its later seasons), the cities often act as mere settings or backdrop to the plot. Only Murders in the Building, the city and what it stands for: the crime, the population density, the expense, celebrity culture, urban blight, the isolation, all inform the show’s premise. But more importantly, it takes those topics and uses them to create high comedy, as well.

Valerie Harper, the greatest sidekick and BFF ever

In September of 1970, the world was introduced to Rhoda Morgenstern, and TV audiences fell in love with the funny, witty sage who lived in the apartment from Mary Richards. Though Mary Tyler Moore was the star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Valerie Harper was an expert scene stealer as Mary’s best friend, Rhoda.

Mary and Rhoda made a great comic duo and every great comic duo needs the sidekick. Ralph Kramden had Ed Norton. Lucy Ricardo had Ethel Mertz. Andy Taylor had Barney Fife. And Mary had Rhoda. The best sidekick is being able to punctuate the situation with a well-placed quip or sardonic one-liner. And no one could tell a joke like Valerie Harper.

Mary was the bright, lovely pretty one, and initially we were supposed to believe that Rhoda was the plain, ugly duckling. But that was never true. No shade on Miss Mary, but Rhoda was that perfect combo of beautiful and funny. As Mary’s best friend, Rhoda was the perennial and constant sage – someone who always had the best idea and was always on hand to support her best friend. What made Mary and Rhoda work so great is that we believed they loved each other. They were there for each other, providing sisterly love. Much of the literature focused on single women in the city highlighted the need to create families from friends. Both Mary and Rhoda lived in Minneapolis, away from their relatives and created a tight-knit family unit from their friendship. When at Rhoda’s wedding, Mary is momentarily overwhelmed at her friend’s big day and falters, not knowing what to say, and can only muster a stammered, Rhoda, to which Rhoda replies with a wise nod, “I know, Kid…I love you, too.” And we love Rhoda.

As Rhoda, Harper played the character with a perfect combination of sarcasm and vulnerability. She was a single woman working to develop and nurture her career and who tried to “have it all” before that line became a ridiculous cliche.

Because of Harper’s magnetism, she graduated from her 3-Emmy run on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a supporting player to the lead on Rhoda. On her own show, Harper duly showed audiences that she was a star. For 5 seasons, Rhoda shone in the spotlight. Harper ably portrayed Rhoda’s growth from career singleton to married woman to a bruised divorcee.

Comedienne Kathy Griffin wrote of Rhoda, “I’ll never forgot…how beautiful Mary was. But when Rhoda burst through the door in her Gypsy headscarf, billowy caftan, and hilariously abrasive delivery, I was like, ‘Who is that? Oh my God!’ That’s when I fell in love with wanting to be the sidekick. Everything out of her mouth was hysterical, yet she was vulnerable and human.” She summed up Rhoda’s appeal by writing, “She battled with her weight and had funny comebacks, and things didn’t go her way, but she always got the laugh. I loved her.”

After Rhoda went off the air, Harper enjoyed a diverse career on television and the stage, starring in a series of TV vehicles in the 1980s and 1990s and being an in-demand guest star on shows like The Simpsons, That 70s Show, and Sex and the City. Harper was always able to bring the funny, imbuing her characters with a distinct realism that never devolved into pessimism or cynicism. Her comedy came from a place of pragmatism and authenticity. Her comedy cut through bullshit. She was friendly but no pushover. She was tough but loving.

In the pantheon of TV comediennes, Valerie Harper is a leading figure. She is the epitome of the funny lady and TV’s most lovable breakout star. TV is richer due to her contribution and is poorer due to its absence.

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