Betty White Was Funny, Crass, and Totally Charming

The cheers and applause that Betty White received during the “Saturday Night Live” cold-open sketch told you everything you needed to know about the momentum White had going into this week. The sketch was one of “SNL’s” fine Lawrence Welk parodies, and White had only a small part in it, but that didn’t matter: After months of grassroots campaigning, White’s appearance was its own reward: The audience was applauding as much for itself and its pop-culture populist power as it was for White herself.

Not that she wasn’t terrific. White nailed the opening monologue, rattling off I’m-so-old jokes with crack timing, exulting in the idea that someone “88 and a half years old” could be up this late, introducing Jay-Z, and taking jabs at the social network that helped put her there “Facebook is a huge waste of time.”

Any pre-show worries we may have had that the Mother’s Day special array of female “SNL” vets might over-shadow White proved unfounded. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, and Rachel Dratch popped up here and there, but White dominated the proceedings, both live and in taped bits.

Of course, this being SNL, many of the sketches simply played off the idea of an old woman saying something naughty… over and over and over. Whether she was playing an old lady in 1904 sitting in a corner calling Poehler’s character a lesbian,

or making a double entendre of the word “muffin” in one of Shannon and Gasteyer’s NPR spoofs, White was willing to be as vulgar as the writers wanted. While the NPR sketch tried

too hard and failed to surpass its obvious model — Alec Baldwin’s “Schweddy Balls” moment — sometimes White’s willingness to deliver a crass line with gusto was fun. She got fully into the spirit of a “Scared Straight” sketch, joining Kenan Thompson as a tough con threatening teen criminals with a visit to “The Wizard of A–.”

Anyone tuning in for parodies of White’s TV touchstones — “Golden Girls,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” her “Password” appearances — would have been disappointed. These oldies were limited to a Digital Short in which the cast and guests sang their version of the “Golden Girls” theme song, “Thank You For Being A Friend,” immediately followed by White (and a Betty White stunt-double) doing a metal version of the tune.

There were multiple installments of “MacGruber,” the best of which culminated in Will Forte’s hero proposing marriage to his grandmother, played by… do I really have to write it? Speaking of “really,” “Weekend Update” had a “Really?!? with Seth and Amy” segment that expanded nicely into a threesome with Seth, Amy, and Tina.

Jay-Z sounded terrific, ripping through a fine medley starting off with “99 Problems,” backed by tough, precise funk accompaniment, and dedicating “Forever Young” to the host. How sweet.

While there’s a lot of adoration out there for White, there’s also a certain percentage of condescension to the fulsomeness, including within the media covering White. Over the past few weeks, the elements of “isn’t she cute?” and “aren’t we nice to be lavishing our love on an old person?” that account for some of White-mania had gotten irritating. Thankfully, these qualities didn’t emanate from the “SNL” cast last night. And clearly, White is making the most of her moment; the show ran both her Snickers ad and a promo for a could-be-fun, might-be-winceable new TV Land series “Hot in Cleveland.”

By the end, White joined everyone onstage to give thanks and proclaim herself “a scared but happy host.” She never seemed scared for a second, though, and it was her happiness that shone through every moment she was on camera, no matter the quality of the material she was selling at the moment. In the second-to-last show of the season (next week: Alec Baldwin), White surpassed so many of the past months’ “SNL” hosts by proving there’s no substitute for time-honed skills and professionalism.

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