Betty White, who died Dec. 31 at age 99, was perhaps the greatest comic tactician in the history of television.
That’s distinct from comic acting, although White was, of course, a very fine actor. What set White apart was her unerring ability to find not just the joke, but the thing behind the joke: It was as if a special internal radar guided her toward the deflation of vanity. On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” for instance, her sunny domestic goddess Sue Ann Nivens was purposefully oblivious, and White wrung delicious humor out of Sue Ann’s unwillingness or inability to see that not everyone in the room was charmed by her. And on “The Golden Girls,” her Rose Nylund was a variation on the form: A clueless naif who lived perpetually under the mistaken impression that she was just on the verge of figuring things out.
Bea Arthur was the spirited center of “The Golden Girls,” and Rue McClanahan got its best lines, but it was White who gave the series its sprightliness, and its soul. Rose — a character who was, as written, very easily the butt of the joke — sprang back from each insult or misunderstanding ready to zing again. White had a bright, gleeful delivery that could easily be made to convey a sort of dizzy cluelessness; beneath this hid a savage intelligence. A lesser performer would not have convinced you that the simplest of the Golden Girls so often won the group’s verbal jousts, or made it seem, each time, quite so unexpected.
As time went by and new generations became acquainted with her work, White continued to surprise. Part of this was due to her age and bearing: White, who’d been on a sitcom about aging gracefully starting in the mid-1980s, was, by the time she appeared on the sitcom “Hot in Cleveland” in 2010, among the last of her generation still working. White, resourceful and willing to go anywhere for a laugh, made frank use of her advanced years in her comedy: Her image, for contemporary audiences, is that of an older woman who says precisely what’s on her mind, in polite but direct tones. When, for instance, she hosted “Saturday Night Live” at 88 — the result of an outpouring of support online — White sweetly thanked the Facebook community, then told them, “Now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
As written, this, like most of the generation-gap material in White’s monologue, doesn’t sparkle. But White makes it work, finding within the joke a whole narrative — we see her, throughout the monologue, performing an attempt to be polite and withhold her true opinion, letting loose, then hedging a bit, then going for it once more. Throughout her career, White’s way with a joke was all the more effective not merely because her public image was so cuddly, but because she was so practiced at shrouding her humor within layers of manners and kindness. When a White character finally lets loose, it has all the more impact because of just how carefully she’s constructed that character’s social graces.
In her later years, that character was most often herself; while “Hot in Cleveland” lasted six seasons, White was throughout its run better-known as a celebrity — the sort of avatar of the wit elders possess — than as a performer. It’s a credit to how natural she was as a performer that White and her performances got conflated, but it also elides, a bit, just how willing and eager she was to work. Betty White was known for being a personality that arched over the entertainment industry: She also, specifically, appeared in recent years in episodes of “Bones,” “Crowded,” “Pound Puppies,” “The Client List” …. These are appearances less impactful than her work, say, as Rose Nylund; in general, White was booked to be White, to lend a combination of sharpness and wit to productions that might not, on their own, have been organically able to get to either. But taken together they paint a picture of a performer who wanted, badly, to work — to be involved in things, to share her talent, to be part of a company. There’s something reminiscent of Hollywood’s earliest days — something that seems unlikely to come back — in White’s relentless work ethic, both in finding the joke and in showing up.
Before the film “The Proposal” and her “SNL” appearance catapulted her to a late-in-life revival in fame, White joined the cast of “The Bold and the Beautiful” in 2006. (A video of her work is available on YouTube; it’s a straight dramatic performance, in which White plays a vain mother who cannot hear the truth.) White was, at this point, a legendary comic actress with four Emmys. Nothing was beneath White, and not because she lacked taste or sensibility — she instead put that taste and sensibility to work finding a lane that worked for her, making everything she was in as effective as it could be. An actor who could so elegantly find the humor in people’s capacity for delusion had a plainness of approach that served her well into her nineties.
It’s tempting to reduce White’s entire career to what happened in its last decade or so, and that would diminish a legacy that began in television’s earliest days. But her work as an octogenarian and nonagenarian does deserve special mention. White, in showing up for work after many peers had stepped away, showed the world what older people can do. She also showed what honoring the legacy of old-school Hollywood can add to the contemporary industry: Few performers decades younger have White’s effortlessness, her breezy certainty. That her skills, and her appetite to perform, harkened back to the medium’s beginning meant that she was a sort of living emissary of aspects of television’s legacy that have otherwise fallen away. White was, from “SNL” or so on, a figure out of time — a classic Hollywood actress in the contemporary landscape, earning fans who’d never heard of Sue Ann Nivens. But through it all — from “Mary Tyler Moore” to her most recent appearances — what comes through the screen even more than her warmth is her searching for just the right way to put a little topspin on the joke. And that’s timeless.