An oh-so-Live Betty White moved me to tears this Saturday Night. And not just in a laughed-so-hard-I-cried kind of way.
Oh, no. This was far more profound: I teared up in a please-don't-take-my-Betty-White-away way. (As in, you are my sunshine, my only sunshine. I know. Sad.)
As with most of life's trauma, it all goes back to childhood and young adulthood. And, oh yes, Dick Clark.
Picture it: Tulsa, 1992. The Golden Girls had just ended its seven-year run. Bea Arthur left the nest, and Betty, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty would never be the same, even though their short-lived spin-off The Golden Palace tried to promise more comedic hijinks. But we all know by now that Cheech Marin is no Bea Arthur, and cheesecake without biting sarcasm and raised eyebrows is, well, just cheesecake.
I'd just turned 20, just took a soul-crushing summer job at an all-you-can-eat-in-your-whitetrash-housecoast-sportin'-and-cheap-ass-flip-flops-wearin' Mexican buffet and just watched the Los Angeles riots turn the country upside down. After considering all of the sociopolitical consequences of our nation's bitterly divisive and otherwise ugly race war, the 20-year-old in me realized I may not get to visit L.A. that summer after all--despite my pact to stay alive since the previous fall just so I could get the hell out of Dodge for a couple of easy-breezy, beautiful weeks in August.
So, as I often did growing up, I placed all of my hope for the human race in a sitcom clown's magical ability to turn my spiritual frown upside down.
Which was all going along just fine, mind you, until Dick Clark tried to cast a dark shadow of fear and desperation on my eternal, as-seen-on-TV sunshine known as Betty White.
Betty was already under enough stress as it was in the early-'80s rerun of The $25,000 Pyramid that she again graced in cable reruns barely transmitting in my rural Oklahoma living room. I mean, sweet prophet, she only had sixty seconds to get to the top of the pyramid and possibly prevent a dowdy housewife from slitting her wrists during station identification. Is that not enough for the poor old (pre-)Golden Girl to bear?
Betty White in another, less-tense episode of Pyramid.
Apparently not. That prescient Dick Clark must've known America would again be watching in May 1992, pinning all of the fractured nation's hopes on Betty's ability to beat the clock and heal the world with the orgasmic sound of studio audience applause and game-show bells and whistles.
And so, as she brilliantly made her way to the top of the square-laden triangle, Betty White hit a snag. BECAUSE SHE'S HUMAN! But that is no excuse in a certain Dick's book.
A good 10 or 15 seconds ticked by as she tried to offer the perfect series of clues to the clueless housewife sitting across from her. Sweat was building on Betty's brow as her strapped-in hands clutched the arms of the plush torture device in which she sat. Finally, the dowdy housewife got the next-to-last answer, and with four seconds remaining, the final topic revealed itself at the top of the Dark Dick's Daytime Agony Climb.
Then, in what can only be described as the three most dramatic slow-motion seconds in the history of speaking peoples, I watch as Betty White performs the game-show equivalent of parting the Red Sea. She sees the answer: "Things You Paste." She tightens her death grip on her chair. A stroke seems imminent. And then, as if she wasn't under enough stress to fell a dozen elephants, Americans' cruelest teenager YELLS at her from his CBS Television City podium: "HURRY, BETTY!!!"
I nearly passed out. But with two seconds left, Betty summoned All That is Good, Peaceful, Unifying and Wise within her, quickly--and yet non-threateningly--uttering, "Pictures in a scrapbook!" And with nanoseconds remaining, Dowdy Housewife miraculously yells out, "THINGS YOU PASTE!"
Bells. Whistles. Applause. $25,000. And me sobbing at a 10-year-old game-show rerun. Because, in my heart of hearts, Betty White and I had made a pact, and she had brought salvation back.
Betty White: The Eye of the Tiger
Flash forward to Mother's Day 2010. At age 88, TV's good-old Golden Girl is still shining strong, kicking ass and taking names as the host of Saturday Night Live (!). In the 18 years since she saved mankind under the Dicktatorship of Mr. Clark, Betty has outlived two of her cheesecake-eating Golden co-stars (so long, dear Bea and Estelle) as well as the equally iconic, flaxen-haired '70s sunshine 25 years her junior, TV angel Farrah Fawcett, and, sadly, even my own personal Betty--my late grandmother, Elizabeth "Bettye" Hancock, who lost her battle with cancer in 1998.
So as I watched this very special SNL with my own (now Golden-aged) mother--just days after a madman tried to blow up Times Square (danger, Dick "Rockin' New Year's Eve" Clark!)--it was 1992's post-race-riot rerun of 1982's $25,000 Pyramid all over again.
Sure, Betty's foul-mouthed sketch-comedy stylings brought me tears of joy born from side-splitting laughter. And my pride in Miss White's still-shining, joyous essence lit me up like a cheap game-show set piece. But America's grandma also touched that vulnerable spot in me that wants to pause the world--or at least nearly freeze it for three or four super-slow-mo seconds--and say, "DON'T hurry, Betty!"
Because as long as TV's Queen of Game Shows/Happy Homemaker/Golden Girl is with us, everything will be all right--and we'll always have New York City and TV City and Minneapolis and Miami and (starting in June on TV Land) Cleveland to escape to during those long, hot, oppressive summer months.
In this day and age, we need Betty more than ever. As our country continues to heal from within while trying to find peace in an increasingly chaotic world, Betty White, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, may be our only hope.
So please don't pay any attention to that ticking time clock or that ball-dropping Dick, sweet golden girl. I'm giving you at least another 18 years to make it to the top of the pyramid.