A spirited Betty White gives ‘SNL’ a shot in the arm

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 10, 2010

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The weekend’s “Saturday Night Live’’ was the most consistently good episode of the series in years. Ooh, what a little Betty White can do. And guest visits from Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and Molly Shannon didn’t hurt, either. Every sketch was funny and had forward momentum — qualities that are generally missing on the show these days. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t want an episode of “SNL’’ to end.

It wasn’t a night of political humor, and I can’t say there was one classic sketch that’s going to go down in “SNL’’ history or take on viral momentum. But the good old silly stuff was good and silly, with White, 88, knocking her many jokes about being a foul-mouthed old coot out of the park. White made all of her material fly — as McGruber’s humiliating grandmother, as the “Little Women’’ lady who kept saying “Because she’s a lesbian,’’ as David Caruso’s great aunt in “CSI: Sarasota.’’ Every time she said “muffin’’ as the baker in the Gasteyer-Shannon NPR sketch, she killed. White’s comic ease and expertise, honed over decades on sitcoms, was not diminished by the rigors of live TV.

I loved the fact that the much-hyped episode didn’t devolve into sanctimony about giving the old gal a chance. The writers were notably unwilling to condescend to White, or to give her only easy cameos. Indeed, she figured prominently in every sketch, as well as in the Weekend Update segment. In a digital short, the “SNL’’ cast paid tribute to her with a sentimental version of the “Golden Girls’’ theme song. But White was having none of that. She put on a mask and led them in a head-banging version. And, in her opening monologue, instead of getting teary about the Facebook campaign to get her to host “SNL,’’ White ridiculed Facebook as a “huge waste of time.’’

Let’s hope White can bring her golden touch to “Hot in Cleveland,’’ her new TV Land sitcom costarring Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick. The TV-veteran-stuffed series, which premieres on June 16, promises to be either great — or godawful.

Saturday night’s “SNL’’ also served as a reminder of the funny women who have emerged from “SNL’’ over the years. The show belonged to White, but Poehler, Fey, Dratch, and Co. definitely added lots of mojo. Alas, their presence was a reminder of how weak the women in the current cast are, except for Kristen Wiig. It’s hard to believe that “SNL’’ producer Lorne Michaels can’t come up with some funnier ladies than Abby Elliott, Nasim Pedrad, and Jenny Slate — all quite likable but so far lacking in distinction.

The Betty White episode was golden in the ratings, too, bringing NBC its best “SNL’’ numbers in over a year. The telecast, which also featured Jay-Z as musical guest, was the highest for the series since Nov. 1, 2008, when John McCain appeared alongside Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. By the way, has clips of rehearsals of sketches that didn’t make it on the air, including one featuring Dratch’s Debbie Downer. Wah, wah, wah.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit