Back when Lorne Michaels decided to get Betty White to co-host Saturday Night Live in response to a Facebook campaign, SNL cast it as a Mother’s Day / women-of-SNL night, with returning cast members including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Molly Shannon, among others. The idea seemed to be to appease the online throng while hedging in case guest-hosting the show proved to be too much for the 88-year-old actress.
Turns out there wasn’t much to worry about. There’s been a lot of excitement about Betty White’s late-career comeback—and a little condescension. Betty White has never been such a delicate flower. I mean the woman’s been a brilliant comic actress for decades: why wouldn’t she be able to pull off a live comedy show? As it turned out, White not only met but exceeded the usual role of a guest host, nailing her monologue and appearing in damn near every segment SNL did, live and taped. I wouldn’t be surprised if she also ran the craft-services table and carried amplifiers for the band.
Sure enough, SNL seemed reinvigorated by White’s Facebook-fueled appearance, though the excitement was much more apparent in the performances than the writing. The night leaned heavily on reprises of old skits and characters, many of which would have long since had all the flavor chewed out of them were it not for White’s game spirit and dead-on line readings, and the obvious kick the rest of the cast and guests got from appearing with her.
Particularly because of the other guests, the episode leaned heavily on recurring sketches and characters, some of them revived from their respective stars’ eras. Among the bits that worked for me: Fey and White as a census taker and her difficult subject; White rehearsing the plot of The Wizard of Oz in one of Kenan Thompson’s Scared Straight sketches; White outing Amy Poehler’s tomboy/lesbian in 1904; and, of course, White’s opening monologue, in which she tweaked the Facebook social platform that got her on the show as a huge waste of time.
What didn’t work for me: the umpteen MacGruber skit/promotions and the interminable Lawrence Welk and Telemundo talk-show skits, among others. (Betty White is the second-greatest thing online media has done for SNL viewers. The greatest is making it possible to watch only the good skits the next day rather than sitting through the entire 90 minutes.)
In general the episode the writers put together for White wasn’t especially surprising: most of her bits were built around the comic shock of seeing an 88-year-old lady make racy remarks or utter food-based euphemisms for vaginas (twice!). But if the special episode revitalized the performances on SNL for a night, it would be too much to expect it to turn around the sketchwriting too. Betty White is only one woman, people.