8:32am

Sun May 8, 2011
Author Interviews

Betty White Still A Hit With A New Generation

Originally published on Sun May 8, 2011 6:32 am

Betty White has been on television — in her words — "forever." Her new memoir, If You Ask Me, focuses on the past 15 years of her life and career.

Far from slowing down, that career has been skyrocketing as a new generation gets to know her style of humor. White tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen that her latest fans are probably a product of just being around for so darn long.

"They kind of think, 'Well, she's always here, so we might as well watch her.' And it's fun. You meet friends of all ages on the street," White says. "By on the street, you understand, I mean walking down the street."

People also get a kick out of a sweet, 89-year-old-lady with a naughty mind, but White doesn't see it that way.

"I don't think of it as naughty," she says. "I don't like dirty humor. I like double entendre, because then the people who get it, enjoy it — and the people who don't get it, don't know about it.

"The people who drive me crazy are the ones who say something with a double meaning, and then they poke you in the ribs with their elbow and say, 'Didja hear what I said, didja get it?'" she adds. "I want to go home at that point."

Her late husband, Allen Ludden, was once asked how close her character Sue Ann Nivens, the home economist/neighborhood nymphomaniac on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was to the actual Betty White. He responded that they were the same person — except White couldn't cook. The Nivens character did help form the persona many see today, but White says there was other work that defined her, too.

"Long ago, I did a five-and-a-half-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week talk show for four years, early on in Los Angeles," she says. "When you're on that many hours with no script, you know, you get very comfortable — maybe overly comfortable — with that small audience. As I say, you hit and run. If there's a double meaning, you drop it, and then you try to get away as fast as you can."

That careful comedic timing is one of her trademarks. "You can go past that magic moment to comment on something, and the laugh is killed," she says.

"Or, there are a lot of people — actors particularly — who think they can reword a joke and put it in their own language," she adds. "But they put in a couple of extra syllables. Humor's a rhythm, it's like music. You put in a couple of extra syllables, you kill the laugh."

Despite her rejuvenated fame in an age of celebrity madness, success doesn't seem to have gone to her head. "You know how overrated you are, so you can't feel too smart," White says. She credits her mother with advice that keeps her grounded.

"If you lie to anybody on the planet, don't lie to that person reflected in the mirror," she says. "Always be able to meet your own eyes, and know that you're telling the truth."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Last Mothers' Day weekend, by popular demand, comedienne Betty White was the host of Saturday Night Live. During her Emmy award-winning performance, White appeared in a satirical sketch about public radio.

Ms. MOLLY SHANNON (Actress): (as Teri Rialto) Now, you're unveiling your new muffin today. Are you nervous about how it will be received?

Ms. BETTY WHITE (Actress): (as Florence Dusty) Well, you know, girls, when I was younger, I was so concerned with how my muffin looked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WHITE: (as Florence Dusty) But as I got older, I started to think, to heck with it. This is my muffin, and I don't care how it looks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANA GASTEYER (Actress): (as Margaret Jo McCullen) That's really progressive.

Ms. SHANNON: (as Teri Rialto) You go, sister.

Ms. WHITE: (as Florence Dusty) That's right, child. I'm Florence Dusty. I'm 88-and-a-half years old, and I'm proud to unveil my giant Dusty muffin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Betty White has been on television, in her words, forever. I had the chance to talk to her back in 1995, when she published an autobiography, Here We Go Again, My Life in Television. Betty White's new memoir, If You Ask Me, has just been published. It focuses on the past 15 years of her life and career. And Betty White is in the studio of member station WNYC in New York.

How nice it is to talk to you again.

Ms. WHITE: Well, how much fun it is, and thank you again, Liane.

HANSEN: My pleasure. You are no stranger to television. Have you been offered jobs that you didnt take - that you didn't want to take?

Ms. WHITE: Yes. Oh, yes. Every once in a while, a script comes through or something, with something I just won't do. One came in, but it started out with a drunken Santa Claus vomiting - that was the first scene. And somehow it just didn't seem like a musical comedy to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: But I bet you are getting a lot of offers now, given that now youre a hit with the new generation.

Ms. WHITE: Well, I think I've been around so long that they kind of think, well, she's always here so we might as well watch her. And it's funny; you meet friends of all ages when you're on the street.

HANSEN: Sure.

Ms. WHITE: By on the street you understand I mean, walking down the street.

HANSEN: Right. Not when youre working. Right?

Ms. WHITE: No. No. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You know, Betty White, people, audiences, generations of them, get a real kick out of a sweet, now 89-year-old lady with a naughty mind. You going to contest me on that point?

Ms. WHITE: No, its - I don't think of it as naughty. I don't like dirty humor.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Ms. WHITE: I like double entendre because then the people who get it enjoy it, and the people who don't get it don't know about it. And the people who drive me crazy are the ones who say something with a double meaning and then they -and they poke you in the ribs with their elbow and say, did you hear what I said, did you get it? You know, I want to go home at that point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Thats like the old Monty Python sketch - nudge, nudge; know what I mean? Know what I mean?

Your late husband - the love of your life, Allen Ludden -was once asked how close the character Sue Ann Nivens, the home economist-neighborhood nymphomaniac on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was to you, Betty White. And his response was well, they're the same person except Betty can't cook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WHITE: And he was so right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Well, I'm wondering, did the work that you did then - as that character, Sue Ann - kind of help form that public persona, with the double entendres and the innuendo, today?

Ms. WHITE: Well, not really. Long ago, I did a five-and-a-half-hour a day, six-day-a-week talk show for four years, early on, in Los Angeles - local show. And when you are on that many hours with no script, you know, you get very comfortable, maybe overly comfortable with that small audience. As I say, you hit and run.

HANSEN: Yeah.

HANSEN: If theres a double meaning, you drop it - and then you try to get away as fast as you can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You know, I was surprised in reading the book - youre in the show, hit show Hot in Cleveland, right now. And the guy who plays your character's boyfriend is Carl Reiner.

Ms. WHITE: Yes.

HANSEN: He was in the service with your late husband, Allen Ludden.

Ms. WHITE: Well, and bless Carls heart. It was Captain Ludden, and he was in the same division. And during World War II, he wrote some material and he would, you know, he would perform every once in a while just for the guys. And Allen was the one that - I'm quoting Carl now he said he would not be in the comedy business if it weren't for Captain Ludden because Allen would say, you have to do that; you have to do more of that.

HANSEN: Your timing is impeccable. And granted, you know, youve had decades to practice it but on the other hand, some have it; some don't. Is there a secret to it?

Ms. WHITE: Probably listening. You can go past that magic moment when - to comment on something, and the laugh is killed. Or there are a lot of people -actors, particularly - who think they can reword a joke and put it in their own language, and make it more comfortable and funnier. But they put in a couple of extra syllables. Humor is a rhythm; it's like music. You put in a couple of extra syllables, you kill the laugh.

HANSEN: You know, everyone asks you, is there anything you want to do that you haven't done. Do you still answer, Robert Redford?

Ms. WHITE: In my head, I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: He sent you - he sent you a poem, but you wouldn't publish it in the book?

Ms. WHITE: He's a very private person, and I wasn't going to exploit what he was fun enough and kind enough to do. I've never met him. I would be so embarrassed if I met him 'cause I've taken his name in vain so often. But when I got the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild, he sent me this congratulatory poem, and it was just adorable. So I've had my moment, my Robert Redford moment, that - I treasure that he sent me that.

HANSEN: Even the book jacket refers to you as It Girl: Betty White.

Ms. WHITE: Oh...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Really. Really. So...

Ms. WHITE: That's rank sarcasm. You know that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I don't think so. I think it fits. I want to know - all of your success has not gone to your head. How have you managed to do this, and especially now that we seem to be in this age of celebrity madness?

Ms. WHITE: Well, don't you think you know yourself better than anybody else knows you? And you know how overrated you are, so you can't feel too smart. I address it in the book. My mother also taught me that if you lie to anybody on the planet, don't lie to that person reflected in the mirror. Always be able to meet your own eyes and know that you're telling the truth.

HANSEN: Betty White's new memoir is called "If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't)," and she joined us from member station WNYC in New York.

Thank you. And best of luck in your next endeavors.

Ms. WHITE: Oh thank you, Liane, so much. And I hope I talk to you again.

Ms. WHITE: I hope so, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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