Wednesday, May 12, 2010

And Your Host, Betty White

Betty White's long-awaited appearance on Saturday Night Live over the weekend has been a lingering topic in the entertainment news pages over the last few days. Opinions vary on how good and how tasteless the installment was, but Betty herself received high marks for playing MacGruber's grandmother, lewdly punning her way through a new edition of "Delicious Dish," and delivering a death metal version of the "Golden Girls" theme song. Guest musician Jay-Z even dedicated one of his performances to her. I thought she was delightful, and I wasn't the only one. SNL's ratings went through the roof, and all sorts of rumors are simmering over what the 88-year-old actress will do next to capitalize on the sudden rush of interest.

Now compare this to Andy Rooney's weekly segment on "60 Minutes" the following evening. As one of the apparently nonexistent people under fifty who does watch "60 Minutes" every week and has watched it every Sunday evening after "At the Movies" for as long as I can remember, Rooney's been a firm fixture in my television world for ages. His wry, humorous observations on the little follies of modern life always made for a nice capper to the program. Lately though, the 91-year old is exhibiting signs of fatigue. This week's segment was about Rooney discovering, to his dismay, that he recognized none of the singers on the Billboard chart. There was no attempt made to learn who Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga were, no connection of the musical trends of the day with any broader observation on the state of modern society. He simply pined for the days when Ella Fitzgerald was queen of the music world, and left it at that.

Rooney and White provide two clear examples of a demographic that the media has largely been ignoring - the elderly. As the American population ages, there are more seniors than ever, but you wouldn't think so from a cursory glance over the networks' primetime schedules. It's getting harder and harder to get older and maintain any presence on television these days. News and information shows still prefer mature presenters, and the rosters of our morning programs and late night talk shows have plenty of hosts who are well over fifty. But when you look at sitcoms and dramas and reality shoes, it's quickly apparent that youth-obsessed programmers and advertisers have weeded out nearly everything aimed at audiences that fall beyond the 18-49 demographic.

Long gone are the days when Dick Van Dyke could see "Diagnosis Murder" through eight seasons and Angela Lansbury helmed "Murder She Wrote" for twelve. The closest thing we have now is the highly acclaimed but only mildly successful cable series "Damages," with Glenn Close as the Machiavellian litigator Patty Hewes, and "House," where the curmudgeonly title character is played by Hugh Laurie, an actor barely pushing fifty. Most of the notable television actors of advancing years have been relegated to supporting roles: John Noble on "Fringe," Chevy Chase on "Community," David McCallum on "NCIS," Conchata Ferrell on "Two and a Half Men," and Sharon Gless on "Burn Notice." The soaps used to be a bastion of graying leading men and women, but they've been in serious decline over the last few seasons.

And this brings us back to Rooney and White, and why I think the situation isn't as bad as it seems. An awful lot of TV's creative geniuses like to think of the older generation as so many Andy Rooneys, baffled by popular culture, out of touch, out of date, and not inclined to do anything to change it. But then you have Betty White, whose SNL appearance was instigated by a Facebook campaign, who delivered dozens of raunchy jokes during her appearance, and was game for all the bawdy comedic excesses that would leave many of her contemporaries horrified. I doubt that poor Andy Rooney would have enjoyed the program. However, there was also a wonderful familiarity to it - a call back to all those old screwball comedies with badly behaving geezers, sassy grandmas, and dirty old men, that have sadly gone missing in this generation. No wonder finally seeing a present-day, digital-age incarnation is proving to be a sensation.

If nothing else, it was a good wake-up call to the Hollywood brass that old doesn't necessarily mean over. In the wake of Betty White's SNL performance, there have been calls for more octogenarian hosts. Abe Vigoda is a popular choice in the blogosphere, along with Carol Burnett. Suddenly old is novel.

Today, Old is the new New.

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