Betty White Gets the Joke

Try telling Betty White that women aren’t funny. She’ll kick your ass. Then she’ll bring in a posse of hilarious women comedians to finish the job, and together they’d put to rest that ridiculous and often-repeated myth about women’s humorlessness.

On the May 8th episode of Saturday Night Live, White was in her element, saying yes to every set-up no matter how outrageous and daring viewers to say she was going too far. To make the night even more raucously funny, six SNL alumnae–Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Molly Shannon–appeared on the show to support White and the usual cast members, including comic chameleon Kristen Wiig. With so many women on screen, the episode made a powerful visual point about gender and humor.

For this Mother’s Day-themed show, White was Matriarch of Honor. She appeared in every sketch, and her characters and laugh lines defied one stereotype after another about women, aging and female sexuality. Lately, White has enjoyed casting off the naive, grandmotherly image she embraced as Rose Nylund on the beloved TV series The Golden Girls (check her out in the Funny or Die mock behind-the-scenes interview with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds that went viral last summer). On the SNL episode, she continued this trend, but took it to even greater lengths. If her own grandmother were alive, she would probably wash White’s mouth out with soap for some of the bawdy things she said, but White, proud of her 88 1/2 years, doesn’t have to answer to anyone. She can trade double entendres about hot muffins with Shannon and Gasteyer, say in character that if she could go back in time she would “lez it up,” and repeat the phrase “Wizard of Ass”  twice for comic effect–all with impeccable timing and delivery. In one gag she quipped that in her youth, “Not only did my boyfriend wear Trojans … he was one!” In another, she tells a census worker (Fey) that she removed the batteries from a calculator to use in her “crotch massager.” In a culture that de-sexualizes old women and sexually objectifies young ones, White’s jokes had a decidedly feminist edge.

At least one critic was less than amused. The reviewer for USA Today found the humor too “blue” and inappropriate, but it’s worth noting that he saw White as a passive participant rather than an active player in the show. He also mistakenly said that SNL had been “reluctant to bring White on board,” even though, as last week’s Entertainment Weekly reported, it was White who had turned down offers from the show on multiple occasions over the past decades. The Facebook campaign to have her host the show, which attracted over 500,000 fans, was a tribute to White’s incredible talents as a comic performer, and even though it drove the story that led to White’s appearance, SNL didn’t have to have their hand forced. The power was in White’s hands all along.

Given the dearth of women writers and performers on late-night television, the Betty White episode can be read as purposely defiant. It was female-centric from start to finish, and the men were clearly happy to hand the laughs over to the women in the best possible way. Seth Meyers couldn’t have been more obviously delighted to be flanked by his two former Weekend Update co-hosts, Poehler and Fey. When Meyers played straight man to Rudolph’s stoned Whitney Houston impersonation, he had to cover his mouth to hide his giggles. Musical guest Jay-Z performed “Young Forever” and dedicated the number to White.

Since old women often get treated like they’re invisible, White’s triumph on SNL struck a blow for senior women as capable, strong, sexually vibrant and yes, very funny. Whether she dons a black ski mask and goes hardcore, as she did in the digital short, or plays the mild-mannered grandma, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Next time you hear someone say that women aren’t as funny as men, think about Betty White–and laugh your ass off.

Photo of Betty White by Alan Light from / CC BY 2.0.


Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.