They ought to make Betty White an honorary M.D. Isn’t laughter the best medicine? And Betty has indeed dispensed an inordinate amount of it over her astonishing 74-year career, keeping us chuckling, guffawing, and howling at her razor sharp wit and perfectly timed shtick, both on and off television.
And though she’s been both in front of and behind the camera since the 1950’s, most of us didn’t start getting our “laugh”meds from her until the 1970s, when she played Sue Ann Nivens, the (very) randy star of ‘The Happy Homemaker’ show on the iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show. After this, she amused us in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the most confounding maxims and improbable life stories held forth by the naïve, literal-minded Rose Nylund on Golden Girls. And, in 2010, she signed on to play the boisterous, somewhat shady, take-no-prisoners Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland. She was 88 years old at the time.
In 2013, at 91, she was officially inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest TV career of any female entertainer ever. Even more amazing than this, however, is that her following is totally cross-generational: she is loved as much by the more conventional baby boomers as she is by the hipster Generations of X, Y and even Z.
So how does she pull it off? What is it, exactly, that makes Betty cool enough to appear with Jay Z on one of the most popular broadcasts of Saturday Night Live, and for the tween heartthrob, actor Robert Pattinson, to pronounce, “I think Betty White is one of the sexiest women in America.”?
Simply put, Betty is both a mensch who is not afraid to err on the side of optimism, love and the sunny/funny side of life, and a bawdy broad in the best sense of the word. As another Betty (Midler) put it, “People always love a broad — someone with a sense of humor, someone with a fairly wicked tongue, someone who can belt out a song, someone who takes no guff. “
Here’s just a few of Dr. White’s prescriptions for living:
On Passion & Character:
“I just make it my business to get along with people so I can have fun. It’s that simple.”
“I think everybody needs a passion. Whether it’s one passion or a hundred, that’s what keeps life interesting.”
“I know unless I’m true to myself I couldn’t be happy. Too much emphasis is placed today on externals and too little on character.”
“Keep the other person’s wellbeing in mind when you feel an attack of soul-purging truth coming on.”
“Friendship takes time and energy if it’s going to work. You can luck into something great, but it doesn’t last if you don’t give it proper appreciation. Friendship can be so comfortable, but nurture it—don’t take it for granted.”
“…we do have a tendency to complain rather than celebrating who we are. I learned at my mother’s knee it’s better to appreciate what’s happening… I think we kind of talk ourselves into the negative sometimes.”
“I really don’t care with whom you sleep. I just care what kind of a decent human being you are.”
“If one has no sense of humor, one is in trouble.”
On Aging & Sex Appeal:
“So you may not be as fast on your feet, and the image in your mirror may be a little disappointing, but if you are still functioning and not in pain, gratitude should be the name of the game.”
“I’ve always liked older men. They’re just more attractive to me. Of course, at my age there aren’t that many left!”
“The hottest man in Hollywood remains Robert Redford. I’ve never met the man, but I just enjoy fantasizing about him completely!”
“If one gets lucky I bet they do.” (Betty’s response to a Barbara Walter’s question if older women still have sex.
“I think it’s your mental attitude. So many of us start dreading age in high school and that’s a waste of a lovely life. ‘Oh… I’m 30, oh, I’m 40, oh, 50.’ Make the most of it.”
“Kindness and consideration of somebody besides yourself. I think that keeps you feeling young. I really do.”
“Don’t try to be young. Just open your mind. Stay interested in stuff. There are so many things I won’t live long enough to find out about, but I’m still curious about them. You know people who are already saying, ‘I’m going to be 30 – oh, what am I going to do?’ Well, use that decade! Use them all!”
“I may be a senior, but so what? I’m still hot.”
“Humor is like music. It’s a rhythm, and you just kind of get the rhythm of it, and you have to know not to let the beat go too long, but to leave a beat in there for it to gel.”
“I like double entendre because then the people who get it enjoy it, and the people who don’t get it don’t know about it.”
“Having a live audience makes a world of difference to the acting. It keeps your timing sharp. When something doesn’t work, the actor can sense the reaction from the audience and quickly move on.”
“So much of the humor on new sitcoms plays to the lowest common denominator. Wit isn’t nearly given as much attention as slipping on a banana peel. So much of the writing is so coarse, so obvious that it doesn’t provide a shock, never mind a laugh. What makes something funny is alluding to it without laying it out explicitly. You let the audiences fill in the gaps and that’s where the laughs come.”
“Well, I mean, if a joke or humor is bawdy, it’s got to be funny enough to warrant it. You can’t just have it bawdy or dirty just for the sake of being that — it’s got to be funny.”
“She said what?”
Whether it’s a talk show, an award show, or a media interview, Betty can be counted on to make an appearance that is both gracious and vivacious, but also happily punctuated with her trademark risqué remarks, delivered completely deadpan.
“Vodka is kind of a hobby.” (on the David Letterman show)
“Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”
“Now that I’m 91, as opposed to being 90, I’m much wiser. I’m much more aware and I’m much sexier.”
“I have a two-story house and a bad memory, so I’m up and down those stairs all the time. That’s my exercise.”
“Get at least 8 hours of beauty sleep. 9 if you’re ugly.”
“I don’t know where I learned elephants like their tongues slapped. Whatever turns you on.”
“My only claim to fame is that I’m the only woman in the world who hasn’t slept with Tiger Woods.” (on the Insider)
“I look out in this audience and I see so many famous faces. And I’ve worked with quite a few. Maybe had a couple.” (During SAG Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech.)
And of course, there is Betty’s famous appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2010, in the now-iconic “muffin” segment —a must-see for those who want to witness first-hand the quintessential Betty in action. It’s an audacious performance, displaying all that Betty is so good at: the sexual double entendre, impeccable timing, and always, that deadpan delivery.
As the Bard once said, and Betty White obviously listened: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”