Last night witnessed a rare and wondrous occurrence, like Halley’s Comet or a quiet moment of self-reflection on Jersey Shore. People started paying attention to Saturday Night Live again. All it took was a beloved eighty eight year old woman, a much-ballyhooed Facebook campaign, one of the most popular musicians in the world and the return of seemingly every female cast-member other than Gilda Radner (I can only assume she wasn’t there because she hates Betty White) to make the show relevant and buzz-worthy again.
It began, as things do these days, with folks on the Internet with too much time on their hands deciding to flex their collective power by angrily demanding that Saturday Night Live temporarily abandon their policy of only featuring performers who haven’t reached puberty yet by inviting Betty White to host.
What began as a way to kill time at work quickly became a quest that became a crusade that became a human-interest story and ultimately a Betty White-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. It was the kind of busy pop culture foolishness people write inane blog posts about.
Alas, Lorne Michaels was apparently concerned that Betty White would break a hip or perish at some point in the show so he brought in an understudy in case anything happened to White: Mickey Rooney in drag. But the biggest box-office attraction in the world for two decades (from 1939 to 1940) sat in his dressing room reading soap opera magazines while White read from cue cards and walked very slowly through some low-intensity sketches.
Yes, the sisters were doing it for themselves last night. It was a veritable sketch comedy Lillith Festival as Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler and Molly Shannon returned to lend support to everyone’s fantasy grandmother. The night had a celebratory air: we were celebrating White, celebrating broads in comedy and celebrating a triumph of Internet democracy as its silliest.
So while last night’s Mother’s Day episode of Saturday Night Live was not a triumph of sophisticated comedy it was almost oppressively adorable. It was a triumph of cuteness if nothing else. From the monologue on, White was very clearly reading from cue cards but that somehow didn’t seem to matter. Her timing and delivery were strong enough that she could get laughs even when her attention was clearly split between the scene she was in and the words on the Texas-sized cards the nice man was holding up offstage.
The monologue was the essence of simplicity. White riffed extensively on her advanced age and the looming specter of death and, in a line that wasn’t any less funny for being incredibly obvious, confessed that she’d never even heard of Facebook before the viral campaign to get her on Saturday Night Live but from everything she’d heard it seemed like a colossal waste of time (it is).
The night had a real greatest-hits quality to it, as Shannon and Gasteyer returned along with their most soothing inside voices to discuss White’s giant dusty muffins on Delicious Dish. It was a segment that couldn’t help but invite unflattering comparisons to the “Schweddy Balls” but I found myself laughing in spite of myself for the first of many times. One sketch’s essential comic conceit boiled down to White repeatedly crowing, “She’s a lesbian” but damn if I didn’t chuckle a little each time she said it.
I’ve long been a sucker for “Scared Straight” sketches so I very much enjoyed the sketch where White and Kenan Thompson tagged-team juvenile delinquents with threats borrowed from the plots of popular films. And I absolutely loved a CSI Miami parody where White dramatically put on shades to deliver a series of David Caruso-style puns involving the not-so-mysterious death of a one hundred and three year old at an old folks home.
I similarly dug a closing sketch where Tina Fey played a census taker cursed to open the door of a completely insane Betty White. Like the “Delicious Dish” sketch, it was pretty much a reprise of an all-time classic bit—in this case a Tim Meadows/Christopher Walken census sketch written by Fey—but what was hilarious the first time around proved solidly amusing this time as well.
It is a strange and beautiful world where someone like Jay-Z has to worry about delivering a performance worthy of a Betty White-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live but Jay-Z rose to the challenge, performing a ferocious medley of hits from The Blueprint 3 and later a “Forever Young” (one of the worst songs off the album) dedicated to White. Aw.
Other shit that was funny to me: Rudolph’s Whitney Houston on “Weekend Update”, “Really?”, also on “Weekend Update”and a MacGruber running sketch with White as MacGruber’s meddling grandmother. Typecasting!
It wasn’t perfect but it lived up to some very high expectations and left me feeling good about the world. God bless that Betty White. She is a goddamned national treasure.