The Best of Betty White: Her Finest Sitcom Work

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday on a Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I intended to celebrate the 100th birthday of Betty White, who was born on January 17, 1922, but unfortunately, she passed away on December 31. So, last week, I bumped up my original post, offering access to her personal script from a 1982 guest appearance on Love, Sidney. Now, I’m doing something that’s been requested several times: I’m sharing my picks for her finest sitcom episodes. White appeared in nearly 600 nationally shown American television sitcom episodes between 1953 and 2017 (65 years, inclusive). I have seen all but 30 Life With Elizabeths, three Date With The Angels, one Maybe This Times, the unsold Stephanie pilot (I’ve got the script for it though), and her aforementioned turn on Love, Sidney. That means I’ve seen about 95% of her sitcom work, so I feel pretty confident that I’ve studied enough to make conclusions about her career in a way that genuinely and reliably reflects my sensibilities, in alignment with the rest of this blog’s efforts.

Now, I should preface this by saying, even before her passing, I had a half-dozen Q&A submissions asking for my thoughts on various aspects of White’s legacy. Last year, I compared the merits of Sue Ann Nivens and Rose Nylund. (See here.) Since then, I received three separate requests to pick her best episodes, and now that I’m doing so, there are two big factors I’ve had to weigh: I can either choose the best sitcom episodes featuring White, or I can choose the sitcom episodes where White is best featured. In both cases, the results would be dominated by entries from her two classics, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, which are not only filled with great episodes, but also give White the two richest characters of her career, ensuring that all her other sitcom work pales in comparison — both as a whole and for her specifically. Heck, one of the reasons I’ve resisted making a list like this is the inevitable lack of variety. In order to keep it interesting, I’d have to limit my picks from those two series (a quota) and then allow myself to select the strongest option from each of the other shows with which she was regularly, or often, associated, like Life With Elizabeth (I consider it a sitcom because it has sustaining characters, despite its vignette structure), Mama’s Family, Hot In Cleveland, etc. But doing so would deviate too far from the purpose of honoring her. That is, there’s really nothing from Date With The Angels that I can even pretend is as worthwhile as the worst material she was getting on Mary Tyler MooreAccordingly, I’ve decided to compromise. I’m going to share my selections for the best from her two undisputed classics. And then, in another list, I will include her best appearances on other shows where she was a regular, recurring, or guest player. Additionally, I’ve decided to factor in both ways of thinking about the selection process: I am citing great sitcom episodes in which she is also especially well-featured. For instance, I’m not going to mention every outing where Rose Nylund anchors the A-story — only the ones that are also fine examples of The Golden Girls and/or the sitcom genre as we know it. By the same token, I’m not going to mention the best episode of Mary Tyler Moore that she’s in, “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” because her presence, while additive, is largely immaterial to its triumph.

So, I’ve picked 12 episodes each from both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls that I think best reinforce these principles — they are strong episodes of their series where Betty White, in particular, shines and is a major contributor to their overall excellence. I don’t have much more to say about them, because both of these iconic sitcoms were once covered in full. (However, I will note that I generally wouldn’t put The Golden Girls’ “Letter To Gorbachev” or “Yokel Hero” among that series’ top-drawer offerings. And yet, they’re funny half hours that are indeed built around Rose’s character and prove her amazing comic dimension, along with White’s portrayal of it, in a manner both congruous with the other segments on this list, and really because of — and as a testament to — Rose’s persona, history, and everything we know about her, making them basically recommendable examples of the situation comedy as we have defined the form. Thus, while they may be mid-tier outings given the high standards of The Golden Girls itself, they’re decently laudable in any other context and ultimately worthy based on this list’s criteria.) As usual, I have cited them below in their airing order.

Next, I’ve got ten more episodes from the rest of her career — five from other shows where she was a regular or recurring player and five more from those where she just popped in as a guest. Her guest appearances are self-explanatory and probably predictable — although, they include entries from two series we have not (yet) studied, the beloved Community and the short-lived Complete Savages. White helps create great sitcommery in both. (In terms of other well-known guest appearances that I considered but didn’t select, her one-off on The Ellen Show is a well-written sample of that series where White nevertheless doesn’t get the best material and, as in yesterday’s highlighted offering from Ladies Man, isn’t the primary source of its value. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s her 1985 appearance on Who’s The Boss?, which, much like that entire series, is terribly contrived and mediocrely scripted, even though White herself is inspired casting and elevates the material. I just couldn’t reconcile it as being wholly commendable as an entry.) Now, regarding the shows in which she was a more permanent/frequent presence, you’ll notice I’m excluding a lot — Life With Elizabeth, Date With The Angels, The Betty White Show, The Golden Palace, Bob, Maybe This Time, Ladies Man, and That ’70s Show. This is because, frankly, they either weren’t good enough to produce a truly great segment, or they simply didn’t feature her very well. In the latter category is That ’70s Show, and maybe even Bob. In the former is everything else, including, I’m afraid, both of her ’50s sitcoms, which I desperately want to represent in some capacity, but can’t because they don’t have anything that I can recommend on a quality-based list that’s anchored by better shows, namely Mama’s Family and Hot In Cleveland. (That said, for those curious, here’s an unofficial list of my picks for White’s best excursions from each of her otherwise uncelebrated series.)

Speaking of her recurring role on Mama’s Family, I selected two installments: the best with Ellen, and the best because of Ellen. As for Hot In Cleveland (another show I’ve not yet discussed, despite having viewed it in full), you might expect me to favor many samples because of how sizable it is in her oeuvre. But, truthfully, I believe most of that series’ artful half hours would still be artful without White, and, in general, while she is a big part of its appeal (and emblematic of the show’s post-modern, winking, TV-literate sensibility — for better and for worse), the Elka characterization is really no better explored or developed than the sketch-born Ellen of Mama’s Family — with both falling short of the well-defined standards of Sue Ann and the remarkable depth (at least, initially) of Rose. So, I’ve only picked three episodes from Hot In Cleveland: the one where she is most obviously the main reason for its success, the one I’d call the series’ finest (with her participation playing a part), and the one whose premise-affirming nostalgia serves as the most enjoyable, successful capper to this list, reuniting the feminine cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In fact, most of White’s sitcom work after The Golden Palace made nods to her two best-known efforts — for instance, The John Larroquette Show, Maybe This Time, Ladies Man, and The Ellen Show all paired her with former cast members. These segments further prove just how dominant Mary Tyler More and The Golden Girls remained in her career, and how nothing else came close. Well, the ten episodes I’ve handpicked below — they come the closest.



 

Happy heavenly centennial, Betty White!

 

 

Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for Kate & Allie!

16 thoughts on “The Best of Betty White: Her Finest Sitcom Work

  1. I’ve started watching The Golden Girls in full and am pleasantly surprised that you chose Letter to Gorbachev as one of White’s best entries. The premise is ridiculous, but there are lots of laughs in large part due to Rose.

    • Hi, Charlie! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, it’s non-premise-related idea-driven foolishness, but the story (and the central joke at its core) is dependent on her characterization, making it a testament to Rose Nylund and an example of the situation comedy as I have defined the form.

  2. MeTV reran 4 of her MTM episodes this past Sunday, and all 4 of them made your list here. (“…Lars Affair”, “..When You Produce”, “…Secret Love”, and “Sue Ann’s Sister”) I enjoyed all of them, though I remember not liking “Secret Love” when I first saw it because of how upset Mary was.
    She did have a great renaissance w/ her career, which all started from a Snickers Super Bowl commercial in 2010. I’ve also loved her many game show appearances over her long career.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think “Once I Had A Secret Love” is one of the best episodes of the series, filled with character-driven comedy and motivated drama that explores the central relationship.

        • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

          I don’t prefer “Once I Had A Secret Love” to “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” The latter is the series’ high-water mark in terms of comedy, with an iconic centerpiece rooted in a surprising turnaround for the well-established Mary Richards characterization. It’s a funny idea made hilarious via its affiliation with character — perfect proof of why the situation comedy is such a unique, rewarding art form.

          • Yeah I’m not disregarding chuckle bites the dust because that’s an iconic episode it’s literally my second favorite episode of the whole series in terms of comedy but once I had a secret love was just not just comedic but it had a dramatic point in terms of the relationship of the characters but I do hear what you’re saying though. If they had to pick a third favorite, it was probably the episode where Mary had that snooty friend that did not like Jewish people

            • I don’t share your favor for Season Two’s “Some Of My Best Friends Are Rhoda” — it’s a drama not motivated by the lead characters, and without commensurate laughs in justification, rendering it nether a great sample of MARY TYLER MOORE nor, specifically, the series’ strengths. (I regret highlighting it in 2014; you can read more about why here.)

              As for “Once I Had A Secret Love,” I appreciate that its strength comes from its use of the Mary/Lou relationship (which is the reason it’s great sitcommery and one of my favorites), but I don’t think its comedy is comparable to “Chuckles Bites The Dust” and I would argue that Mary Richards is just as well-utilized in the latter as she is in the former, given that the entire comic centerpiece is *predicated* on a reversal of her well-established characterization. In fact, it is more of a showcase for Mary — and, thus, I think, no less rewarding by way of character.

  3. Just a couple of weeks ago, I watched The MTM Show’s “Sue Ann Falls in Love,” which is a tremendous example late in the series’ run of just how perfectly the entire ensemble cast was clicking at that point.

    Every regular in the episode is given a chance to shine in this episode, including Betty White (who is, obviously, the focal point of the script), but certainly not limited to her. Ed Asner, Mary, Ted Knight, Gavin McLeod and Georgia Engel are all just outstanding in this one.

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      In contrast to “Once I Had A Secret Love,” I am less enthused about “Sue Ann Falls In Love” and its placement among this series’ greatest. Specifically, I wouldn’t put it on anyone’s personal list of finest MARY TYLER MOORE installments beyond Betty White, who gets to explore new dimensions of Sue Ann, motivating several comedic and dramatic turns that are uniquely revealing and predicated on her strong characterization. The fact that the other leads are also displayed in this process is to be expected — this is post-Rhoda MARY TYLER MOORE, after all — and I don’t find it exceptional in that regard. However, I do think it’s a typically well-written segment of the series that’s built around Sue Ann but knows to keep Mary Richards driving the action; like so much of this show, it’s good sitcommery.

  4. I am a hug Betty White fan and particularly love Sue Ann. I think my favorite is “The Lars Affair”. My question is about Ellen. What is your favorite Family sketch with Betty White? I loved the one where the Family is in Mama’s attic and Eunice and Ellen go at it.

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree with you — of White’s three “Family” sketches on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, “The Attic” from 1976 takes advantage of the Ellen characterization most effectively, with big laughs that are also sustained by raw, intense family dynamics.

  5. I loved Ms. White and am so glad to see her work on “Community” recognized here. She is so funny and surprising in it and the episode is great because of her.

    • Hi, Nat! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, “Anthropology 101” capitalizes on the evolved persona that took hold in White’s 2010 career renaissance, and it’s a strong sample from one of that era’s most notable sitcoms, made even better by her mere presence.

  6. So …Secret Love is really really good and it amazes me how simple the conflict is, the characters’ reactions are and yet how funny the show is. Thanks!

    • Hi, Julie! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, both the comedy and the story’s dramatic beats are motivated by the characterizations and what has been established about their relationships.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.