It is hard to believe that Betty White is now 90 years old, and the last surviving member of the Golden Girls. She wouldn’t be in the position to get a special that goes on for as many minutes as she’s had birthdays without the help of a commercial from the 2010 Super Bowl, which gave her a late-career renaissance as the oldest host in Saturday Night Live’s history, guest spots on plenty of current shows, and a role on TV Land’s yesteryear-style sitcom Hot In Cleveland, steadily working into her eighth decade in show business. On a somber note, it’s hard not to think about White’s Golden Girls co-stars and think of all the friends and colleagues White has lost over the years, but the NBC special spends very little time dwelling on darker thoughts. America’s Golden Girl is a constantly moving and enlightening tribute to a well known, much appreciated, but too-rarely honored television legend.
This 90th birthday celebration is an extended lifetime achievement presentation mixed with a fair amount of roasting. Unlike the Comedy Central variety with its misfit comedy circuit players, Betty White got a mix of legendary comedians Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore, current standout performers (on NBC, anyway) Amy Poehler and Joel McHale, and a few “why the hell not” contributions from Chevy Chase, William Shatner, Zachary Levi, and even Morgan Freeman.
White’s career spans a vast swath of television history, from commercials to sitcoms, game shows to movies. Each performer/roaster got their shots in with a standard lineup of age jokes, sexual jokes, Amy Poehler and Tiny Fey shining more than the rest. The clip segments were nice, but slow, and they went on far too long in order to the fill the hour an a half the special required. The commercial breaks all had bumpers from various celebrities writing birthday letters to White. President Barack Obama made a very stale long-form birth certificate joke; Hugh Jackman related a story of filming a segment for The Tonight Show with White behind a shower curtain, and Shatner went to the microphone complaining about White's extensive work as a pitchwoman, and then sidestepped easily into self-deprecation about his own Priceline ads. Joel McHale even hosted an impromptu version of Password. Betty White deserved this kind of celebration, but it never became must-see television by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the longest lifetime achievement award celebration I’ve ever seen.
There were many recurring jokes and themes throughout the night. The younger performers leaned on romantic entanglements, like Hugh Jackman and Zachary Levi’s kisses, or Tina Fey repeatedly suggesting Betty White only gave her advice about posing nude. Seth Myers and Tracy Morgan both made jokes about the nice little old lady White actually stealing a bunch of property from 30 Rock. But the best segments featured White’s older contemporaries paying tribute to a historic esemble member, an amazing comedic character actress who has been able to mold herself into something different and somehow palatable to current audiences. She adjusted to age better than most of her co-stars, and continues to work far beyond when other leading stars turned to retirement in the face of irrelevancy.
Betty White is nothing if not an incredibly versatile supporting player – I know she won her Emmy for Outstanding Actress on The Golden Girls, but in my mind it’s hard to justify any of those actresses as a solid lead over any other. She fits into the collage of an ensemble cast perfectly, stealing scenes and shining with whatever material she’s given, and her work ethic still shows at 90. She’s not nimble on her feet like she used to be: she’s only up and around at the very end of Birthday, and seated for every single bumper segment on Off Their Rockers, but she can still deliver her lines with gusto. The writers on Off Their Rockers weren’t really doing her any favors, but it turns out the show really isn’t about her, she’s just the face and name to put with the concept of pulling pranks on younger people. Unfortunately, Off Their Rockers simply isn’t worthy of Betty White’s seemingly immortal energy and talent.
This newly recycled hidden camera show is a bumbling, tamer version of a concept Jackass used to maximum hilarity during that series and in the subsequent films. Older people – and younger people in age makeup – messing with a younger generation is an idea ripe for prank humor. On Jackass, this type of skit usually consisted of one awkward situation that gets locked in, twisting and holding to milk every last excruciating laugh out of how long the cringe-inducing scenario lasts. Off Their Rockers isn’t interested in the long con or showing anyone’s reactions when they find out they’re on hidden camera like Punk’d.
Nearly every segment is around a minute long, showcasing one prank, then quickly moves on to the next idea. It’s a strategy that makes the segments that work stick out and the duds easily forgettable. The problem is that there aren’t too many memorable pranks. Rascal scooters are featured props in many of the shorts, but there’s nothing as shocking or daring as what Jackass could do with an R-rating. At best, this is about halfway between those films and America’s Funniest Home Videos, and whether or not you think it’s better than Punk’d depends on how much of Ashton Kutcher snickering into his hand while huddled around a monitor you were able to stand.
The interstitials don’t require very much from White. They make use of the same sexually suggestive humor that has defined her career up to this point, but the writing feels so tired and lame. She refers to Jon Hamm getting a restraining order against her, puts icing on a male stripper’s chest, and gives out “Pearls of Wisdom” to close the show. It reminded me of a phrase a Q&A participant used to describe one of Kevin Smith’s films in An Evening With Kevin Smith: dumb, but harmless. That’s exactly what Off Their Rockers is, nothing more than a dumb, but harmless use of one of the great comedic character actresses in television history. As the woman says herself at the end of her birthday special, this is the “ultimate overdose” of Betty White, but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.
Betty White’s 90th Birthday: A Tribute To America’s Golden Girl: B
Betty White’s Off Their Rockers: C+
- I never really found an excuse to use this clip of White from her appearance on Community, so it goes here.
- That Snickers commercial from the Super Bowl that revived her career is still really great, but Abe Vigoda was great in it too. He’s 90 as well, where was his birthday party?
- What in the world is wrong with Zachary Levi’s hair?