Interview: Betty White from ‘Saturday Night Live’

We had the great pleasure of speaking with the hilarious Betty White. Betty will be hosting SNL’s Mother’s Day episode on May 8th. We got the chance to speak with her about her long career in television, her apprehension about hosting, and where she got her great sense of humor.

I know this is about Saturday Night Live, but I wanted to find out if I could get your reaction to Sandra Bullock filing the divorce. I know you two are close.

Betty White: I love her dearly. And her personal life is her business, not certainly mine and not anybody else’s.

Okay and when’s the last time you dealt with live television?

Betty White: Well I grew up in live television. So that’s no problem. I was on 5-1/2 hours a day six days a week for four years when I started my career in Los Angeles. So I love live television.

Would you be in favor of a Golden Girls remake at some point? And if so, who do you think should play Rose?

Betty White: Oh isn’t that funny? I – well Mae West is gone. I really have never given it any thought. But it’s an interesting question and I’ll brood on it. And I’ll try to come up with somebody. But I can’t right off the top of my head.

But would you think that’s a good idea?

Betty White: Sure, why not? It would be lovely for the writers. But let’s face it, Golden Girls and all the hit shows really go back to the threshold of the writers. We can’t do it unless it’s on the page.

And is there any sketch or subject that SNL ran by you, you didn’t want to do or something you didn’t want to participate in on the show or is everything fair game?

Betty White: I haven’t any idea what I’m going to be doing. All I know is I have veto power if it’s something I really don’t want to do. And they promised me I wouldn’t have to do any nudity.

I was just wondering because last year you faced off with Jimmy Fallon in beer pong and he beat you. Can we expect a rematch on SNL?

Betty White: Oh I’m dying for a rematch. I almost had him. And then at the very last minute he not only beat me but he drank my beer.

And also since it’s the Mother’s Day Special and last year SNL had the “Mother Lover” digital short. Do you have any digital short ideas that you would want to run by Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island crew?

Betty White: No, I think I’m going to leave everything up to them and I’ll just follow wherever they lead.

I’m just wondering if there’s any special regimens or preparations that you’re undertaking in order to be in fighting spirit for a late Saturday night show if you’re doing anything to either get in shape or just make sure that your bodily clock is ready for the long hours?

Betty White: Oh I’m a stay up late or get up earlier. If I get four, five good hours a night I – that’s all the sleep I need. And I’m blessed with good energy thanks to being blessed with good health. So the physical part of Saturday Night doesn’t worry me at all. It’s just the hoping I can do justice to the – all those other great people who were on there.

Will we be seeing Sue Ann Nivens perhaps resurrected in any skits?

Betty White: I haven’t a clue what I’m going to be doing. I haven’t met anybody. I haven’t heard anything about content. So I’m getting a little panicky but I look forward to maybe sitting down with the writers and hearing what they have in mind.

You have such a long career and you’ve worked with so many amazing people. And some of them aren’t with us anymore. If you could just bring someone back to do some scenes with, some segments or scenes, who do you miss the most in comedy that you played well with?

Betty White: Allen Ludden. Oh I think I’ve – I would – Bill Moore goes back to Life with Elizabeth. We had the most fun together because a lot of it was – we were sort of making it up as we went along.

Are you ever surprised with the appeal you have with such a young audience, people that weren’t even born maybe when Golden Girls was still on the air?

Betty White: Well, the amazing thing is and with the Mary Tyler Moore Show, some of the kids, you know, grew up with me, but their parents also grew up with me and in many cases their grandparents grew up with me.

I’m – I’ve just sort of been around in there, you know, as a fixture. When I do a book signing or anything like that the kids come up and they weren’t born when Mary Tyler Moore came on. And now as you say, even when Golden Girls was on the air they hadn’t been born yet.

But that’s what comes of good writing. The writing on both those shows were – that’s what keeps bringing them back and makes them work for any generation because it’s funny.

And how are you feeling? I wondering what does non-stop adulation do to a person’s system?

Betty White: Well it’s not to my system. It blows my mind. No I’m blessed with good health and I’m grateful for it. And my energy level is very high. But I can’t get over at my age what all’s going on. So all I can do is roll with the punch and enjoy it thoroughly and be grateful for it.

So Jay-Z is going to be the musical guest while you host this Saturday on Saturday Night Live. And I was wondering if you were a fan of his beforehand. And if not, if you’ve started listening to his music?

Betty White: Oh I’m thrilled to meet him and thrilled to hear that he’s going to be on the show because he’s the hottest thing since sliced bread. But I will certainly enjoy him. I hope that we get along well.

Have you listened to his music beforehand?

Betty White: Yes.

When and how did you become aware of the Facebook campaign to get you as an SNL host?

Betty White: Well all of a sudden people would tell me that they saw the Facebook thing. And all these people had joined in. And I couldn’t believe it. At first I thought they were putting me on. But it just came out of left field and I was astounded. I told my agents to please say, “Thank you. I appreciate it, but no thank you.” And he said, “You have to do it. And if you don’t do it I’ll divorce you.” And I love my agent so here I am doing it.

And why did your agent say he would divorce you if you didn’t do this? What – why did he think it was so important that you take advantage of this opportunity?

Betty White: Well at my age I’m an old broad. And at my age to be invited to do a show as current and choice as Saturday Night Live he thought would be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a different direction to go in. And I said, “I’d rather watch it than do it.” And he said, “No, no, no.” So I trust his judgment. He’s done a wonderful job for me. So here I am, going to do it and scared to death.

Does doing comedy has it – I mean has it changed? Has it evolved or changed or gotten better or worse over the years? I mean will you go into Saturday Night Live doing anything different than aside from the fact that it’s live than you would anything else 50 years ago?

Betty White: No I don’t think so. I think what’s changed the most is the audience, not the comedy. The problem is the audience is – you know, they have heard every joke. They know every storyline. They know where something’s going before we even take off. That’s hard to write for and that’s hard to perform for because that’s a tough audience to surprise. So you just have to take your best shot. And I find I do better if I just sort of shoot from the hip and hope for the best.

I think a lot of your appeal to the younger audiences and certainly you push the envelope with Sue Ann given the time. But I think it’s the sort of bawdy sense of humor that you’ve demonstrated in recent years. Did you – is that really the real you?

Betty White: I’ve always had a bawdy sense of humor. My father was a traveling salesman and he would bring jokes home and he’d tell and they’d never explain them to me. If I got them, that was fine. If I didn’t that was fine. But he’d say, “Honey you can take that one to school, but I wouldn’t take that one to school.” And so but it was always both my mom and dad had a wonderful sense of humor. And we would even get through some of the grim times by at least keeping a little sense of humor. It sure beats the alternative.

I know they haven’t told you much about this show, but I gather all the SNL mothers are coming back. Is this going to be a – do you know, is this going to be an all mom show? Are there going to be any men at all involved other than Jay-Z?

Betty White: I hope not. But if there isn’t I’ll hit on every member of the crew.

So as we just talked about, you’re going to have a lot of SNL cast members past and present on the show, as well and the cast itself. Is there anybody from the history of the show in an ideal circumstance that you’re not getting to work with that you would love to work with?

Betty White: I love the church lady. I don’t know why. She always just tickled me pink. But I’m thrilled that they are bringing back the gals who have hosted before. It means I’ll have wonderful people to work with.

I know that you are an animal lover. Will we see you working with any animals on the show at all on Saturday Night?

Betty White: I have no idea what I’m going to be doing honey. I haven’t talked to anybody or gotten a hint. I hope I’ll be with some kind of animals. The – they’re the other half of my life and I love them. And they always kind of get me calm and tone me down. So I have no idea what they have in mind.

Do you have any advice for younger actresses that are struggling in Hollywood with the distractions of fame?

Betty White: Well the – it’s – I’m so thrilled we’ve been around in this business for so long. And I keep getting young actresses who ask, you know, how – what do you do? And Betty Davis, Betty, yes Betty Davis did an answer to that question on the Late Night Show one night that just cracked me up.

He said, “What advice would you give young actresses trying to get into Hollywood?” She said, “Take Fountain.” Well that doesn’t mean anything to anybody outside of Los Angeles. But Fountain is the direct street that should take – that has the least traffic on it. So young actresses, take Fountain.

Are there any reoccurring Saturday Night Live characters that you would like to be in a sketch with like What Up with Dat? or Gilly?

Betty White: Oh any one of them. I enjoy them all. And I kind of like the surprise of not knowing which one I’m going to be. I’m trying not to form any pre-opinions because I don’t have a clue what they’re going to ask me to do. I haven’t – I don’t know an pinch of anything that they have planned. So I’m trying to keep an open mind and just go for broke.

And I was wondering when the last time you’ve been in touch with Rue McClanahan has been?

Betty White: Oh Ruesy is – I – we talk about every, oh maybe three, four weeks we talk. She lives in New York of course. And she had a bum go. She had a triple bypass and then had a stroke. And she’s just doing fine. I talked with her. She’s home and doing better and better and speech is all cleared up. She’s in great shape.

And what do you think the Craig Ferguson appearances have done for your new appeal?

Betty White: They’ve been the most fun of any – anything I’ve done. He is just incredible. He’s a good friend. But we – the only thing is we can’t ever dare make eye contact when we’re working together or we both crack up. I don’t know why. We just tickle each other. I love him.

When the idea of being on Saturday Night Live was first brought up to you, you said you didn’t want to do it. And I’m just curious why was that your reaction? What was your thinking?

Betty White: Oh I – believe me, I would love to just be able to continue to watch it and never have to do it. It’s an intimidating assignment let’s put it that way. You’re dealing with – and first of all it’s so New York and I’m so California and I’ll feel like a – kind of like a fish out of water. But I – as long as I’m committed to do it I’ll go back and I want to make it a fun adventure. But if – between us I’m scared to death.

And then you’re doing a sitcom for TV Land. How is that going and how is that different from your past sitcom experience?

Betty White: Oh this is a delight. Jane Leaves and Wendy Malick and Valerie Bertinelli are the three stars of the show. And they – their chemistry together is wonderful. It’s – we – the pilot got picked up so fast that it blew all our minds. And we start – we actually start working on those series the day I get back from Saturday Night Live. So it’s a quick turnaround but I think it’s going to be great fun.

You said earlier you’re going to let the SNL writers kind of take the lead. But are you going to suggest any skits, maybe something like a Password skit with you and Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin?

Betty White: I’d love whatever they have in mind for me. I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. I’ll be – I’ll welcome, you know, whatever. But I’m getting kind of eager to see what they, you know, what they have in mind. And I’ll try. I’ll do the best I can with the tools I’ve got. But it’s going to be an adventure.

But I would love it if they, you know, they’d introduced me and here’s Betty White and nothing, no applause, no nothing, the audience just stares back at me. I think that could be fun.

You were mentioning how your agent was hoping this would lead to very different opportunities for you. What sort of things do you want to pursue?

Betty White: I – believe me, I’ve been around so long I don’t think there’s much I haven’t done. But I – he just thinks it’s great that at my age I’m still invited to do the show. So I think that’s why he was saying I had to do it. So I suggested that he do it and I stay here and watch it. But he didn’t go for that.

I mean one thing that we all really love about you is we never what you’re going to say next. And oftentimes it’s not what we expect. I’m wondering do you have a favorite comeback or insult or curse word?

Betty White: Oh no. I have no idea what I’m going to say. My mental editor goes to sleep sometimes and I have to watch it like a hawk. I have a rather bawdy sense of humor. And I sometimes I see double entendre where it really doesn’t exist. But it’s – I have fun with it and I try not to hurt anybody with it but it’s – I have to watch myself carefully sometimes.

Is there anything Betty White won’t do? I guess – if they come – is there anything they could come to you with and you say you know what, that’s not my cup of tea?

Betty White: Yes. I don’t – I won’t do any dope jokes. I don’t like dope jokes. I don’t think dope is a joke. And so that’s about the only no that I would let’s say resist doing.

As you ride this new crest of popularity let’s say someone came to sing let’s resurrect Sue Ann Nivens and give her her own spinoff show years down the line, is that something you would be into or would certain people need to be involved?

Betty White: The Sue Ann Nivens thing? I think they would have to clear that with Susan Harris and all the, you know, all the writers and producers and all that. I’ll go with almost anything that they want to try. And of course I loved Sue Ann. She was so rotten, the neighborhood nymphomaniac. And I’d love to bring her back for a minute. But I don’t know whether that would be legally possible.

Could you describe your character on the show Hot in Cleveland and what she’s all about?

Betty White: Well the three girls have come to Cleveland, Valerie Bertinelli and Wendy Malick and Jane Leaves. They have come to Cleveland and they’re renting a house because they’re going to stay there for a while. I have been housekeeper at that house for 50 years. And they inherit me along with the house. And of course I’m a pain in the neck.

I’m – Elka is not a nice person. She – her opening line to – when she sees the real estate man talking to the three girls is why are you renting to prostitutes? So that kind of sets her character. She’s not easy to live with.

You mentioned all the live TV you’ve done going right back to the 50s and all your appearances with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. I was wondering was there ever a harrowing live TV experience, something that went wrong in the middle of something that you were doing that you can remember?

Betty White: Oh life’s darkest moment. I was doing a song on Jack Paar’s show and all of a sudden I lost the lyrics. It was a song I knew so well, “When I Fall in Love.” And I don’t know what broke my concentration or whatever and I just – I went on – I sang something. I made up lyrics as I went along but that is sheer panic. And I have a feeling it’s the same kind of panic that I may feel when I do Saturday Night Live.

But generally you seem to have such an ease with live TV. Is it because of all those early talk show appearances in your early live television?

Betty White: Well I started when I started locally in Los Angeles I was on live television 5-1/2 hours a day six days a week for four years. And anything that ever happened in your life happened on camera. So it was like going to television college. It was good experience.

I read that your character on Hot in Cleveland smokes marijuana. So I was wondering if that was based on any personal experience?

Betty White: No, no, no that’s wrong. That – she does not smoke marijuana. At one point she comes in the room and thinks she smells marijuana.

We don’t do – I don’t do dope jokes. I don’t think dope is funny or fun or whatever. So no. But she just comes in and says I smell marijuana. And that is – so somebody — I don’t know who it was — took it that Elka smokes marijuana. She does not.

I was wondering you were talking about how you’re going to hit on all of the guys on set. I was wondering if there were any male celebrities that you think are super hot?

Betty White: Well my standard answer and has been forever and will continue to be is Robert Redford. I I’ve never met the man but I just enjoy fantasizing about him completely.

Does comedy get easier or more difficult as you get older?

Betty White: Oh I don’t ever think of doing comedy. You just do it. On and off camera you just think more into the humor side of it than the other side. And I don’t think it’s changed any. I think you still – who was it – I forget who said on camera dying was easy, comedy was hard. The man who did Miracle on 34th Street was the man who said it. I can’t come up with his name right now. But I just I don’t find it hard. I just love to do it.

What do you think is more important to you, your actual celebrity or the fact that you’re able to use your celebrity to contribute to your charities such as your animal charities?

Betty White: Oh I think helping the animals is – that’s the lovely upside of any celebrity that happens. Because people tend to listen and you can spread the word about, you know, loving animals and treating them properly and caring for them.

I’m not an animal activist. I’m not into anything political or demonstrations or anything like that. I’m just into animal health and welfare. And have been with the Morris Animal Foundation, a health organization for 45 years and with the Los Angeles Zoo for 45 years. So over the years of enjoying show business we’ve been able to help the animals. That’s great.

You’ve mentioned you’re a little nervous about actually hosting. Tell me what you’re most nervous about?

Betty White: The fact that I understand you work from cue cards. And I never have been able to work from cue cards. I memorize everything or ad lib it. And I know with the changing scripts and it changes as you speak I know that won’t be possible. And with cue cards I hope I don’t have to wear my glasses. I hope the print is big enough. If it isn’t I’ll do the show with my glasses.

You also mentioned that you didn’t necessarily want to host this time. But were there any other times over your career where you dreamed of hosting SNL?

Betty White: No. I was asked a couple of times years ago and again I said, “Thank you, but no thank you.” It – it’s such a New York focused show. And I am so, you know, Californian and stuff. I was always afraid I’d feel like a fish out of water. So I said, “No thank you.”

This time my agent put a firm hand in the middle of my back and pushed and said you’ve got to do it. So I’m going to make it fun.

You’re going to be great.

Betty White: Oh, hold that thought.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

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