Octogenarians don’t typically rank highly in a twentysomethings’ list of “Who’s Cool.” Most of those young folks struggle to even name anyone that age, aside from their own grandparents.
But they all know Betty White.
The 88-year-old comic actress with the sweet demeanor and bawdy sense of humor has found herself in the middle of an almost unprecedented career resurgence that’s made her as popular with college teens as she was with their parents — and their parents before them.
This year alone, White has appeared in a classic Super Bowl commercial, hosted one of the most-viewed episodes of “Saturday Night Live” in the show’s 35-year history, launched a new comedy series on the TV Land network, and garnered millions of hits on YouTube.
She’s even got her own pinup calendar.
White isn’t the only actress to experience a late-career resurgence, but she is the only one in memory that has redefined herself as a hip pop-culture icon while pushing 90.
“I think the key to her popularity, especially amongst younger people, is her ability and willingness to keep up with pop culture,” said Troy Theberge, 24, of Topsham, a member of the Facebook page “I Live For the ‘Golden Girls.’ ” “She is always showing up here and there, and she is still one of the funniest people on TV.”
It all started with that Super Bowl commercial.
SHE OWNED ‘SNL’
In the commercial for Snickers candy bars, White is playing flag football with young men. The joke is that one of the players is having an off day, “playing like Betty White,” until he eats a Snickers bar and regains his stamina.
Shortly thereafter, a Facebook group imploring “Saturday Night Live” producers to allow White to host the show reached a membership of more than 500,000 people. “SNL” producers took note and, despite an initial hesitation on her part, White took the “SNL” stage by storm in May.
“When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I didn’t know what Facebook was,” White said in the show’s opening monologue. “And now that I do know what it is, I have to say that it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
The show garnered ratings that “SNL” hadn’t seen since a November 2008 episode by Ben Affleck.
White found herself the unwitting idol of a generation of people who weren’t even born when Sue Ann Nivens began throwing sugar-covered barbs at her colleagues on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Plenty of baby boomers fondly recall her appearances on “Password,” “What’s My Line” and “The Betty White Show” (both the talk show and the sitcom). Fans born on the later side of 1980 know White best as the lovably naive Rose Nylund on “Golden Girls,” thanks to a little thing called syndication.
There have been guest spots since then — such as “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Boston Legal” — and her role as fiesty Grandma Annie in the 2009 film “The Proposal.”
But 2010 is truly turning out to be the year of Betty White, with her new TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland” getting picked up for a second season, the calendar slated for release in September (proceeds from which will go toward her lifelong passion of helping animals), and her appearance on NBC’s “Community” season opener this fall.
It’s quite a full plate for a little old lady. (White is so busy and in demand, it was impossible to get a phone interview with her for GO.) But then, let’s not confuse Betty White with our own prudish grannys. When’s the last time your nana looked at you from across the Sunday dinner table and said, “I’m not ashamed to say that I once had sex with Bill Shatner”?
“She looks like a grandma, looks the part. But then she opens her mouth, and she talks like your frat brother,” said Robert Thompson, media professor and director of Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
The frat brothers seem to love it, according to Thompson. “There were frat parties being held (at the university), and they were watching the ‘Golden Girls,”‘ he said. “There’s a following among college students, a demo you wouldn’t expect.”
‘THAT WOMAN IS 88′
White has long ago shirked the notion that her comedy is restricted by the same puritanical line most older women never seem to cross. Even still, fans are shocked and delighted with every dirty turn-of-phrase White lets go.
And boy, does she let them go.
“I hit on guys older than, oh, 18, 19,” White said in a recent interview with Asylum.com’s Ron Babcock. “They can’t be any younger than that. I think that’d be a little creepy. It’d be fun, but it’d be creepy.”
All that saucy talk packaged in a guileless facade catches people off guard. And it’s part of White’s paradoxical charm.
“That woman is 88 years old,” said Maine comedian Karen Morgan. “You think about your grandmother at that age, and you don’t picture them coming out with zingers like that. It takes people by surprise.”
White’s comedic edge is still saber-sharp in her ninth decade of life, when many of her peers have resigned themselves to staying in and holding long philosophical conversations with the couch cushions.
But she isn’t simply an old gal with a potty mouth. “She’s a really talented comic actress. A rascal,” said Thompson. “She says outrageous things in entertaining ways.”
And while the public appreciates the sweet on the outside/tart on the inside contrast, White is no novelty act.
“I don’t get that we’re just doing this in a condescending way,” said Thompson. “Like we’re trying to help her across the street.”
Betty White’s popularity is not an empathetic pat on the head or the “Aw, she’s trying so hard. Ain’t that cute!” kind of fame afforded to aging kazoo players on talent-searching TV shows.
Young fans are legitimately impressed with White’s good game. And these days, she’s not just keeping up with pop culture.
She’s creating it.
“She also said recently, during the LeBron James saga, that if LeBron were to stay in Cleveland, that she would make it ‘worth his while,’ and that quote made it onto SportsCenter,” said Theberge. “She does a great job of keeping up with pop culture and not being afraid to poke fun at it.”
According to Thompson, her recent popularity also stems from her ability to participate in her own “tongue-and-cheek repackaging.” Meaning, she’s not afraid to poke fun at her own feisty old broad persona.
But Facebook did not make Betty White famous. Morgan believes the word “resurgence” isn’t even accurate. “She’s always been there,” she said. “It’s very cool that the younger generation is just finding her.
“She’s always been herself. It makes her sort of ageless you can’t fake being Betty White.”
Facebook users still seem to want more. “Betty White to host the Academy Awards,” “Betty White to Replace Simon Cowell” and “Betty White for president” groups have popped up on the site.
Thanks to the Internet, reruns of the Betty White “SNL” episode will linger for decades to come, meaning today’s toddlers are sure to lure White out for another resurgence in 2030, when she’ll be a youthful 108.
She’ll smile her sweet Betty White smile, thank them for their generosity — and then casually flip them the bird.
Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at: