The heart of the show, needless to say, is Betty White, now aged 89. In the last few years she has enjoyed a renaissance largely because she’s an old lady saying things that old ladies presumably shouldn’t say. But what makes it work is her terrific delivery and comic timing, still intact after all these decades. She richly deserves her enduring success, which she owes not only to her talent but to her character. In a business in which stardom so often turns decent enough people into petulant, demanding, self-indulgent jerks, she has been a model of first-rate, uncomplaining professionalism for more than half a century.
As the stand-up comic Lisa Lampanelli said at the William Shatner roast on Comedy Central a couple of years back, “Betty White is a real lady.” But she was also a canny, independent professional woman pre-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. She was the first female to produce her own TV show – Life with Elizabeth, which ran in 1953-55. (You can find some of the episodes on YouTube. Not great, but cute.) While other folks in showbiz are eager to show how smart they are (or think they are), White has always masked her formidable intelligence behind a jokey, accessible persona – not playing dumb, but not showing off, either. To understand just how smart she is, watch some of her old Password appearances (also available on You Tube): nobody was sharper than she was at giving the best possible clues, coming up with the right answers, and doing it all while being friendly, funny, and self-deprecating.
There’s another admirable thing about her. Other big stars, once they make their mint, have made a show of being opposed to capitalism – to the Bosses, the Suits, the folks who run the studios. It’s a way of having their cake and eating it too, of assuaging guilt over their limousine lifestyles, and of pretending that, despite their multimillion-dollar paychecks, they’re somehow artistically purer and closer to the people than studio executives who may in fact make far less than they do. Betty White, by contrast, has always spoken fondly of her employers and made it clear that she appreciates being hired by them. In turn she has always been respected by producers and network executives for doing her job energetically, uncomplainingly, and responsibly – and, in no small part for that reason, I would suspect, has found steady work. If Hot in Cleveland is the anti-Two and a Half Men, in short, Betty White is the anti-Charlie Sheen. Long may she reign.