I was sitting around a campfire in a remote area of Texas on New Year’s Eve, when a friend’s 20-year-old daughter suddenly said, with what sounded like true remorse, “I can’t believe Betty White died. It’s just so sad.”
Over the years, NextTribe has written about many icons who have passed away–from Doris Day to White’s co-star Valerie Harper–but I have never, ever heard a young person comment on these other deaths. I’m sure most people under 30 have no idea who Doris Day was. Maybe under 40.
But Betty White was different. With a career spanning seven decades, her iconic roles, and numerous awards, she’s been called a National Treasure, but that term makes her sound like a statue or something inert and she was far from that. She was a groundbreaker for older women in ways big and small. I like to think of her young fans whose ideas about aging will be forever altered because of her.
For helping dispel these stereotypes about women our age, we salute and thank her.
Women (Especially Older Women) Aren’t Funny
White was known for impeccable timing and her faces and gestures added to the ba-da-bing snap of a good punchline. She’s had that gift from early on, but it was especially thrilling to watch as she got older, defying every supposed law of comedy. At age 88, she reached the pinnacle of comic success by hosting Saturday Night Live (after a social media campaign to get her the spot) and delivering a spot-on monologue.
Among the winners in that monologue: “When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host Saturday Night Live, I didn’t know what Facebook was. Now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a complete waste of time.”
Continuing with the social-media trashing, she later said about her younger days, “Yes, we had poking, but it wasn’t something you did on a computer. It was something you did on a hayride,” she says, one hand stroking the other, as she gets a dreamy look, “…under a blanket.” In a priceless example of her physical comedy, she lets her reverie go on for a couple of beats, then quickly recovers herself, adding an “Oh, sorry,” to compound the laughs.
Older Women Aren’t Cool
In the sitcom Hot in Cleveland, she was depicted as a pot-smoking landlord. She rapped with Luciana in a video called “Still Hot” and also with Queen Latifah. She starred in the number one rated Super Bowl ad for Snickers in 2010. People tattooed her face on their bodies.
Older Women Are Sweet
The jokes White made were not always G-Rated and part of the fun was seeing her play against type. Her coiffed hair and sweet smile belied an inclination to say whatever she damn well wanted. In a short mockumentary made behind the scenes of the 2009 film The Proposal, she acted as if she was feuding with co-star Ryan Reynolds, even though she was a darling to everyone else. At one point she tells him, “When Betty White says she wants a cup of coffee, you get her a [bleep] cup of coffee.” She also slyly gives Reynolds the finger when no one else is looking.
We love that she is feisty and racy, because we can be that way too. In other words, no one should underestimate our willingness to shoot someone a bird.
Older People Aren’t Quick Witted
It’s one thing to deliver a zinger that’s been written for you, which she did for decades; it’s entirely another to come up with one impromptu. On an episode of the James Corden show in 2015 (when she was 93), she is sitting by as fellow guest Kyle MacLachlan described a scene in which he had to make up his own words to a song for a TV show. “I felt William Shatner come over me,” he said, referring to Shatner’s singing career.
“Oh, I wish I could say the same,” White piped in. Corden and MacLachlan cracked up, with Corden asking for a drum roll from the band. Classic.
Older Women Don’t Like Sex
Quips like the one above helped cement the idea of White as more than a little randy–a notion that probably started when she played the man-hungry divorcee on The Mary Tyler Moore.
She got great mileage out of that schtick, even getting to kiss Bradley Cooper on Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary show. She once told a reporter: “My answer to anything under the sun, like `What have not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do,’ is: Robert Redford.”
Even in serious moments she could find a little ribald humor. On Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, White’s star is next to one for her husband, Alan Ludden. On the day Ludden’s star was unveiled, a teary White said, “I cannot express what this day means to me.” Then she added, “Don’t be surprised if in the wee hours of the morning our stars are fooling around.”
Aging is Something to be Glum About
As she got older, many of her jokes revolved around aging, reinforcing the idea that laughing is way better than whining. Here’s a gem: “My mother always used to say, ‘The older you get, the better you get. Unless you’re a banana.'”
I especially love this aspect of White’s comedy because my own mother has always said, “If you get old without a sense of humor, there’s no hope for you.”
Betty White’s Secrets for Aging Well
Over the years, she dispensed much wisdom for how to do this aging thing right.
- “You better realize how good life is while it’s happening, because before you know it, it will all be gone,” she told People magazine in 1999
- “Get eight hours of beauty sleep. Nine, if you’re ugly.” One of “Betty White’s Top 10 Tips for a Long and Healthy Life” on David Letterman, in 2011.
- “Try not to die.” Another of her Top 10 Tips.
- “Accentuate the positive, not the negative. It sounds so trite, but a lot of people will pick out something to complain about, rather than say, ‘Hey, that was great!’ It’s not hard to find great stuff if you look,” she told Parade in 2018.
- “First of all, keep busy and don’t focus everything on you. That wears out pretty fast. It’s not hard to find things you’re interested in, but enjoy them and indulge them. And I think that keeps you on your toes,” she said to Katie Couric, in 2017
- Don’t believe the hype (about aging) and lose yourself to it. That’s essentially the message she gave to the Today Show in 1991. “You don’t fall off the planet once you pass a given age. You don’t lose any of your sense of humor. You don’t lose any of your zest for life, or your lust for life, if you will … If you were a dull young person, you’re going to be a dull old person. But I don’t think just because the years go by that you have to be that way.”