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Q&A Session with Betty White

Mike Vicic - April 28, 2010


TV Tango just took part in a Q&A session with Betty White, who will host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE on May 8 on NBC.  Betty took some time to talk about performing on live TV, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, and her love of animals. Enjoy the entire conversation from that conference call.


Question: Since you and Sandra Bullock are close, can I get your reaction to her filing for divorce?

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

Q: When's the last time you dealt with live television?


BW: Well, I grew up in live television. That's no problem. I was on five-and-a-half hours a day six days a week for four years when I started my career in Los Angeles. I love live television.

Q: Would you be in favor of a GOLDEN GIRLS remake at some point? Who should play Rose?


BW: Oh, isn't that funny. Well, Mae West is gone. I've really 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. It'd be good for the writers. Let's face it, GOLDEN GIRLS and all of the hit shows go back to the threshold of the writers. We can't do it unless it's on the page.

Q: Is there any sketch or subject that SNL ran by you that you didn't want to do?

BW: I haven't any idea about what I'm going to be doing. All I know is that I have veto power if it's something I really don't want to be doing. They promised me I wouldn't have to do any nudity.

Q: Can we expect a beer pong rematch with Jimmy Fallon?


BW: 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.

Q: Since it's the Mothers Day special and last year SNL did Mother Lover, do you have any ideas for a digital short?

BW: No. I think I'm going to leave everything up to them and follow their lead.

Q: Are you doing anything to prepare yourself physically to host a late-night show?

BW: I'm a stay-up-later and get-up-earlier. If I get four, five good hours a night, that's all the sleep I need. I'm blessed with good energy thanks to good health; so the physical part of SNL doesn't worry me at all. It's hoping I can do justice to all the other great people who are there.

Q: Will Sue Ann Nivens be in any skits?

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

Q: Who do you miss the most in comedy that you played well with?


BW: Allen Ludden. [laughs] Del Moore goes back to LIFE WITH ELIZABETH. We had the most fun together. We were sort of making it up as we went along.

Q: Are you surprised with the appeal you have with a young audience?

BW: The amazing thing is, and with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, is some of the kids grew up with me but their parents also grew up with me. And in some cases, their grandparents grew up with me. I just sort of been around as a fixture. When I do a book signing or anything like that. The kids come up and they weren't born when THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW as on the air and even when GOLDEN GIRLS was on the air. They hadn't been born yet. That's what comes with good writing. The writing on both of those shows. That's what keeps bringing them back and making it work for any generation. Because it's funny.

Q: How are you feeling? What does non-stop adulation to a person's system?

BW: Well, it's not my system. It blows my mind. I'm blessed with good health, and I'm grateful for it. My energy level is very high. I can't get over at my age what all is going on. All I can do is roll with punches and enjoy it thoroughly and be grateful for it.

Q: Are you a fan of the musical guest, Jay-Z?


BW: I'm thrilled to meet him, and I'm thrilled to hear he's going to be on the show since he's the hottest thing since sliced bread. I will certainly enjoy him. I hope that we get along well. [And, yes, she has listened to his music.]

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


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

Q: Why do people cast you for characters from Minnesota?

BW: I don't know. I'm not Norwegian, although both the characters lean that way. I'm Danish. I had a Danish grandfather. Maybe geographically close. Let's put it that way.

Q: Why did your agent say he would divorce you if you didn't host SNL?

BW: Well, at my age -- I'm an old broad -- at my age to be invited to do a show as current and choice as SNL, he thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a different direction to go in. I said "I'd rather watch it that do it." He said "No. No. No." I trust his judgement. He's done a wonderful job for me; so here I am. Gonna do it and scared to death.

Q: Has comedy evolved or changed?

BW: No, I don't think so. I think what's changed the most is the audience, not the comedy. The problem is the audience has heard every joke and know every storlyine. They know where somethings 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. You just have to take your best shot. I find I do better if I just shoot from my hip and hope for the best.

Q: Your character's had a bawdy sense of humor. Is that the real you?

BW: I've always had a bawdy sense of humor. My father was a travelling saleseman and he would bring jokes home and he would tell them and he would never explain them to me. If I got them, that was fine. If I didn't, that was fine. He would say "Honey, you can take that one to school, but I wouldn't take that one to school." Both my mom and dad had a wonderful sense of humor. We would even get through some rather grim times by keeping a little sense of humor. It sure beats the alternative.

Q: Is this going to be an all-women show for Mother's Day?

BW: I hope not. If it isn't, I'll hit on every member of the crew.

Q: Is there anyone from SNL history that you wish you could work with?

BW: I love the Church Lady. I don't know why, she has always just tickled me pink. I'm thrilled they are bringing back the gals who have hosted before. It means I'll have wonderful people to work with.

Q: Will you work with any animals on the show?

BW: I have no idea what I'm going to be doing. I haven't talked to anybody. I hope I'll be with some kind of animals. They're the other half of my life and I love them. They always kind of get me calm and tone me down. I have no idea what they have in mind.

Q: Will you collaborate with Jay-Z, like in a Beyonce part in one of the songs?

BW: I have no idea, but I'm game to try anything. This is an adventure.

Q: What advice do you have for younger actresses in Hollywood?

BW: I'm so thrilled to be around in this business for so long. I keep getting young actresses ask "What do you do?" Bette Davis answered that question on the Late Night Show one night that just cracked me up. When asked "What advice would you give young actresses trying to get into Hollywood?" She said, "Take Fountain." Well, that doesn't mean anything to anyone outside of Los Angeles, but Fountain is the direct street that has the least traffic on it. So, young actresses, "Take Fountain."

Q: Are there any recurring characters on SNL you would like to work with?

BW: Any one of them. I enjoy them all. I kind of like the surprise of not knowing. I'm trying not to form any pre-opinions because I don't have a clue of what they're going to ask me to do. I don't have an inch of what they have planned. So I'm trying to keep an open mind and go for broke.

Q: Have you talked to Rue McClanahan?

BW: We talk about every three or four weeks. She lives in New York, of course. She had a bum go. She had a triple bypass and then had a stroke. And she's just doing fine. I just talked with her. She's home and doing better and better. Her speech is all cleared up. She's in great shape.

Q: What have the Craig Ferguson appearances done for your new appeal?

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

Q: Why was your first reaction to turn down the SNL hosting gig?

BW: Believe me, I would love to be able to continue to watch it and not have to do it. It's an intimidating assignment. Let's put it that way. It's so New York and I'm so California, and I'll feel like a fish out of water. As long as I committed to do, I want to make it a fun adventure. Between us, I'm scared to death.

Q: Can you talk about your new sitcom, HOT IN CLEVELAND?

BW: This is a delight. Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and Valerie Bertinelli are the three stars of the show. Their chemistry together is wonderful. The pilot got picked up so fast that it blew all our minds. We start working on the 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.

Q: Are you going to suggest any skits to the writers, maybe something like a PASSWORD skit with you and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin?

BW: I'd love whatever they have in mind for me. I don't have a clue what's going to happen. I'll welcome whatever. I'm getting kind of eager to see what they have in mind. I'll try. I'll do the best I can with the tools I got, but it's going to be an adventure. My only suggestion was that everybody said "When you come out for the introduction, everybody's going to be so excited." I would love it if they introduce 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.

Q: What sort of things do you [and your agent] want to pursue?

BW: Believe me, I've been around so long, I don't think there's much I haven't done. He just thinks it's great at my age that I'm invited to do the show; so that's why he was saying I had to do it. I suggested that he do it and I stay here and watch it. He didn't go for that.

Q: Do you have a favorite comeback or insult?

BW: 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. I have fun with it, and I try not to hurt anybody with it. But I have to watch myself carefully sometimes.

Q: What are you most nervous about?

BW: The fact that I understand you work from cue cards. I never have been able to work with cue cards. I memorize everything or ad lib it. I know with the changing scripts and it changes as you speak, that won't be possible. 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.

Q: Were there any other times you dreamt about hosting SNL?

BW: No, I was asked a couple of times years ago. And again I said "Thank you, but no, thank you." It's such a New York focused show and I am so Californian and stuff, I was always afraid I would 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. So I'm going to make it fun.

Q: Is there anything Betty White won't do?

BW: Yes. I won't do any dope jokes. I don't like dope jokes. I don't think dope is a joke. That's about the only "No."

Q: Would you be in interested in bringing back Sue Ann Nivens?

BW: I think they would have to clear that with Susan Harris and all the writers and producers and all that. I'll go with almost anything they want to try. And of course I love Sue Ann. She was so rotten. The neighborhood nymphomaniac. I would love to bring her back for a minute, but I don't know if that would be legally possible.

Q: Can you tell me about your character on HOT IN CLEVELAND?

BW: Well, the three girls who come to Cleveland are renting a house because they're going to stay there 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. Elka is not a nice person. Her opening line when she sees the real estate man talking to the three girls is "Why are you renting to prostitutes?" That kind of sets her character. She's not easy to live with.

Q: Would you like to meet the person who started the Facebook campaign to get you to host SNL?

BW: Well, if he doesn't mind me beating him up for getting me into this trouble. Oh, I'd love to meet him, of course.

Q: Can you tell me about your most harrowing experience on live TV?

BW: Life's darkest moment. I was doing a song on the JACK PAAR SHOW and all of a sudden I lost the lyrics. It was a song I knew so well, "When I Fall in Love." I don't know what broke my concentration or whatever. I went on. I sang something. I made up lyrics as I went along. That was shear panic. I have a feeling it's the same kind of panic I may feel when I do Saturday Night Live.

Q: Can you talk about your comfort level doing live TV?

BW: I started locally in Los Angeles. I was on live television 5-1/2 hours, six days a week for four years. Anything that ever happened in your life, happened on camera. It was like going to television college.

Q: Do you have a Facebook account?

BW: Nope. I'm a technological spaz.

Q: There's a rumor that your character in HOT IN CLEVELAND smokes marijuana. Is that true?

BW: No, no, no. That's wrong. She does not smoke marijuana. At one point she comes in the room and thinks she smells marijuana. I don't do dope jokes. I don't think dope is funny or fun or whatever. She just comes in because she smells marijuana. So somebody, I don't know who it was, took it that Elka smokes marijuana. She does not. Nor do I nor ever have.

Q: Are there any celebrities you think are super hot?

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

Q: Does comedy get easier or harder as you get older?

BW: I don't think of doing comedy. You just do it. On and off camera, you think more into the humor side of it than the other side. I don't think it's changed any. Who said it, "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. I don't find it hard, I just love to do it.

Q: What do you think is more important to you, your celebrity or the way you can use your celebrity to help your charities?

BW: Helping the animals is the lovely upside of any celebrity that happens. People tend to listen and you can spread the word about 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. I've been with the Morris Animal Foundation, a health organization, for 45 years and with the Los Angeles Zoo for 45 years. Over the years of enjoying show business, we've been able to help animals.