The lovely and talented Betty White
From her numerous appearances as a panelist on such popular TV game shows as Password and Match Game, to her Emmy award-winning performance as Sue Ann Nivens the “Happy Homemaker” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and her portrayal of The Golden Girls' ditzy but loveable Rose Nylund, actress Betty White never disappoints. In 1949, she booked her first regular TV gig as co-host on the daily Los Angeles-based live variety show Hollywood Television, and three years later she took over all hosting duties, which meant five-and-a-half hours of ad-lib television six days a week.
Over six decades later White is still going strong and currently starring as Elka Ostrovsky in the hit TV Land series Hot in Cleveland. Next month, she adds another credit to her name as host, as well as, executive producer of Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. In this hidden-camera series (premiering Wednesday, April 4th @ 8:00 p.m. EST/PST on NBC) a fearless band of senior citizens hits the streets to pull a variety of good-natured but highly amusing pranks on an unsuspecting younger generation.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity and pleasure to speak with the extremely charming and humble Ms. White along with her fellow Off Their Rockers executive producer Chris Coelen. The following is an edited version of the Q & A I was part of. Enjoy!
Betty, since you’re so busy these days why did you want to do a show like Off Their Rockers? What appealed to you most about it?
Betty White: It was a very popular show in Europe. As a matter of fact it won several awards over there, so when they brought it to me it sounded like something that might be popular here as well. We shot a couple of episodes to see how it would do and it seemed to catch on. As for why I decided to do it, well, I haven’t the power to say no. I like what I do for a living too much.
Chris, what was the key about getting Betty involved?
Chris Coelen: Well as Betty said the format had a tremendous amount of success around the world both commercially as well as critically, and, again, it won the International Emmy Award for best comedy as well as the Rose d’Or for Best Comedy and Best Overall Format. It’s a very progressive show with a very particular and mischievous sense of humor. Also, what Betty has been able to do so well and for so long in her career really fit in nicely with the format and it made a lot of sense for her to be involved.
BW: And what’s fun about it, I think, is the fact that the older people get the jump on the younger ones for a change (she jokes).
Is it that young people never suspect the older people of pulling the pranks? Is that a big part of this show’s appeal?
BW: Well, it’s one of those hidden camera ideas where they don’t know they’re being photographed. The young people are set up in a situation in where maybe they let themselves be overheard talking about something that they wouldn’t normally be overheard speaking about. You then have the reaction of an older person and the younger person not knowing quite how to handle it or what to do because they think it’s for real.
What do you know now that you didn’t know when you were very young, say in your late teens when you were graduating from high school?
BW: I don’t think I knew much at that point, and I don’t know a heck of a lot now (she jokes). I think we learn through the years that you have to appreciate the good stuff when it happens. You don’t look back on it and think, “Oh, that was so great then and I didn’t appreciate it.”
I was blessed with a mother and father who told me to taste the good stuff now and realize how fortunate you are and how wonderful things are right at this minute, because there are enough minutes that are not wonderful, so you have to save up all the good ones to make it balance out.
What are some of the stereotypes that you found doing this show and how were those stereotypes sort of turned on their heads by having that hidden camera there?
CC: I think people have certain preconceived notions of older people, and as Betty said, it absolutely plays with those. Without giving anything away, there are a number of mischievous things that some people feel like another person, let alone an older person, wouldn’t be doing.
Betty, at this stage of your life and having been concurrently successful at so many things, how do you think that’s changed people’s opinions in general of what senior citizens are capable of?
BW: Well, my mail reflects the fact that people kind of get a kick out of the fact that I’m 90 years old and I just don’t go away. I happen to be blessed with loving what I do for a living. I love this business and I’m so fortunate to be able to still work in it.
I get these marvelous letters about how encouraging it is to see someone making the most of their time and still enjoying it instead of saying, “I can’t wait to stop working,” or, “Oh, I hate my job. I can’t wait to retire.” I think it goes back to the old basic attitude of accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative.
Chris, who is the audience for the show? Are you targeting a particular generation or demographic?
CC: We think it’s what I suppose you would call a big “tent show” where there’s something for everybody, and although it’s not an absolute indicator as to what’s going to happen here in the States, the ratings, again, around the world suggest that to be the case.
The fact that older people are driving the action is really important and I think for an older demo there’s certainly something to be seen. There are a number of young people who are having an amazing time on the show and they’re completely getting their minds blown by the older people. The joy that they’re feeling is really something, and at the end of the day the show is really just funny. So I think there’s something for you to see. There’s a reflection of you on that screen and something for everybody to watch, no matter what your age.
Could you both talk a little bit about the actors that are actually pulling the pranks and Betty, have you worked with any of them over the years before this show?
BW: I have not but I had met a couple of them years ago in other context, so this is kind of an all-new experience for me. How about you, Chris?
CC: They’re terrific. We did a casting session with a group of us including me, Betty and some other of the executive producers, and we looked for a very special group of individuals who not only had comedy chops but who were also really fearless as well as willing and able to go out into the public and just have a great time with the material. It takes a very special person to pull the kind of stunts that we’re pulling off in this show.
Betty you’re obviously too famous a face to go out and do something like that, but deep down do you wish that you were able to pull some of those pranks yourself?
BW: In a word, no. I’m delighted that they do them and do them so well. But I’m not good at that.
Betty, older actors such as yourself, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Christopher Plummer, etc., are getting a lot of attention these days. Do you think it has to do with nostalgia or the fact that people like you are pros and people just want pros to do this work?
BW: I don’t think so. I started when television first started. I did the first broadcast ever done in Los Angeles, and back then television was such a novelty. Since then it’s become such a way of life, but over that time some of the same people are still around. Maybe it is nostalgia, but I think they’ve just become like personal friends that viewers have gotten to know.
When television first came along, the big novelty was the fact that these people were “in” your room with you, and the thing I love about television is that there are no more than two or three people watching you at a time. If there are more than two or three people in a room, they’re talking to each other and not listening to you. So I think TV audiences have just become more personally associated with that man or woman over there in the corner and on the box.
Chris is the reason you picked Betty because of her name recognition only, or is there something about what she brings to this project that you wanted to have?
CC: Honestly, first and foremost, she’s the most talented comedian I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. To then be able to get her skills and, frankly, her input on-camera as well as behind the scenes and imbue the show with some of her sensibility was an amazing opportunity.
What would you say your secret is to staying active and healthy all the way into your 90s?
BW: I’m blessed with good health. I just turned 90 in January and I inherited some wonderful genes from my mother and dad. So being blessed with good health gives you the strength and loving what you do is a privilege that keeps you going. So I’m just happy as a lark. People say are you thinking about retiring, but I don’t have time to think about retiring.
When you signed on to do Hot in Cleveland did you have any gut feeling that it would become the sensation that it has?
BW: Oh, anything but. As a matter of fact my schedule is a pretty busy one, so when they offered me the part in the pilot, I had them include in my contract that should it go to series I would not be involved or obligated to continue with the show because of my busy schedule.
So I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t automatically tied into it. Now, sometimes you'll do a pilot in February and they don’t pick it up as a series until May. Hot in Cleveland was picked up in three weeks, and they came and asked if I would do some more, but I said, "No," because it was in my contract that I was not obligated to do so. Well, I have the strength of a jellyfish (she jokes). I had done one episode with these wonderful girls, Wendy Malick, Jane Leeves and Valerie Bertinelli, and I had such a wonderful time with them that I signed up to do some more. They picked us up for 24 more shows and I’ve done them all. I’m just having the time of my life.
Betty, you’ve hosted a number of shows, including the one when you first started in the business and that was on the air for five-and-a-half hours. What keeps bringing you back to hosting and being part of a format like that?
BW: I just like television and the rapport with the audience. Like I said a little while ago, there are only two or three people in a room watching you, and if there are any more than that then they’re talking to each other and not listening to you. So you’re really addressing a very personal conversation. Sure there are a lot of television sets around but only two or three people to a room who are paying attention and I just find that a very intimate, lovely way of performing.
Do you feel that there’s a formula for good comedic TV?
BW: I think when you start explaining why something’s funny or finding a formula for it, it loses some of its funniness. I think the best kind of comedy is the least self-conscious and when you just sort of let the comedy happen without the elbow nudge, did you get it, did you get it. I love straight face comedy or relatively subtle comedy, but then I turn around and find myself doing very broad comedy. It’s all fun, though, and you have to keep your sense of humor and not take yourself seriously.
I want to mention, too, that one of our ground rules with Off Their Rockers is that we’re making fun with people but it’s not mean-spirited. There is nothing mean spirited about it.
What’s been your favorite prank or behind-the-scenes moment so far from Off Their Rockers?
CC: There are so many great moments. I mean, for me personally, again, the opportunity to work with Betty has been probably first and foremost the biggest thrill. As far as from a prank perspective, Betty and I were just talking about that. There are so many pranks within each show and so many different favorites to choose from as well as so many different locations that we’ve been to. In the first episode there are several that leap out to me. There’s a great bit with a woman in an information booth who continually throws out random information to people, which I love.
Then there’s another bit which, to me, really encompasses the joyfulness of the series, and it’s where two of the actors are sitting on a set of stairs with a young woman who’s studying and they start doing the wave. Out of nowhere, she just joins in and they’re all are having such a fun, you know? It’s just a good spirited time. That’s absolutely one of my favorites as well.
When it comes to Hot in Cleveland how often do the actors ad-lib or is everything written and do they follow the script to the letter?
BW: Well, I always I read the commas and all that because those writers have spent hours laboring over writing that stuff. A lot of actors come in and they start to paraphrase, but I think what some of them don’t realize is that humor is like a rhythm or music. When you throw in a couple of extra syllables, you wreck the beat and kill the laugh. So I try to follow the writers very carefully because I know how carefully they worked to get it that way.
CC: I would add that in my experience of working with Betty, especially as an executive producer, is that when she does have something to add it’s always one of those “ah, ha” moments where you’re like, “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that.” Sot it always makes the bit better.
BW: Oh bless your heart, Chris. Thank you. I try not to butt in any more than I have to.
Betty, did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
BW: Well, first of all I wanted to be a forest ranger, but back in my day girls couldn’t be forest rangers. Then I wrote the graduation play for my grammar school and, of course, as any red blooded American girl would do I wrote myself into the lead. Then I got onstage and thought, “Oh, this is fun.” I think that’s when the show business bug bit me.
Chris, I wanted to find out, what has been the most rewarding part of working in this industry for you so far?
CC: Wow, so many things have been rewarding, but I feel like the opportunity to be creative and work with so many amazing people over the time that I’ve been in it. And as I said, working with Betty has been at the absolute pinnacle of that. Also, creating something that people can really find enjoyment in is incredibly fun and rewarding.
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