May 9, 2010 - 1:57 PM
Betty was playing a senile and quite nutso old bat, you see. And Tina Fey, playing a census taker, came to her door. Whereupon Betty, when asked her name, confirmed that it was spelled "L-E-E S-M-I-T-H."
And pronounced "Blar-fen-gard Blar-fen-gard."
It was absolute nutsy in a way actually redolent of the original "Saturday Night Live" where the first skit on the first show--immortally--showed us sinister satirist Michael O'Donoghue pretending to teach John Belushi how to say "I want to feed your fingertips to the wolverines."
I'd bet anything that Fey herself wrote it.
It's not that I didn't think all the zesty smutty stuff was funny. It was--especially Betty as Florence Dusty, a baker and guest on a show in tribute to dietary fiber, declaring to the two hostesses :"if there's anything I'm known for, it's my muffin." There was a succession of double entendres so heavy but hilarious that they were barely single entendres. ("My muffin hasn't had a cherry since 1939.") As raunchy and funny as the bit was, it was all too characteristic of a show that pretty much treated the unique 88-year old figure as little more than the grandmother of TV raunch.
In one skit, she played a granny doing embroidery and expressing regret that she'd never become a lesbian, thereby avoiding contact with her least favorite part of male anatomy. In another, she was MacGruber's granny, compulsively divulging secrets about his micropenis and secret breast reduction surgery.
She was just doing a lot of variations of Sue Anne Nivens, the nymphomaniac "Happy Homemaker" written for her on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
A lot--I must confess--was funny in a very raunchy way but it did sadden me a little, as if Abraham Lincoln were to climb down from Mt. Rushmore and flip the bird on the evening news.
But then Betty--bless her--was, in a small way, doing just that. Sure, it's true that she has become unique in American entertainment history--a figure who, quite literally, helped put TV on the air and is now, almost 60 years later, in the greatest demand on her entire professional life (stay tuned for "Hot in Cleveland" on the TV Land nework in June.) It was a little grandmotherly hug and kiss for all the world's young folk and a full bird flipped to anyone of an older generation who thinks she ought to be home sipping Dubonnet, knitting sweaters for her dog and thinking G-rated thoughts about the good old days.
The fact is she made history Saturday night. She gave the show its oldest host ever and by implication proclaimed that she is TV's only first-generation survivor at this stage in the 21st century.
If she now wants to be known as the most ribald old broad in TV history, I'm the last one to argue with her. They way I look at it, at her age, she ought to be whatever she jolly well wants to be.
The history part was hardly lost on all those female SNL alumnae who flocked back to the show to celebrate the grandmother of them all--Fey, Amy Pohler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon.
I wish there's been a bit more wonderment at what Betty White has become, in the 21st century world where Facebook can become a guest late night TV producer--and a bit less superannuated smut.
It was still great, indeed historic, TV.
-- Jeff Simon
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About Talkin' TV
Alan Pergament has continued to blog about television topics since retiring in 2010 as The News' television writer after 28 years on the beat. From local on-air personalities to ratings to the latest on network and cable programming, he keeps you informed.