A Grey Area: How Will We Gauge the Success of Betty White, SNL Host?

A Grey Area: Betty White, SNL Host?

May 7th, 2010

How will we gauge the success of Betty White as Saturday Night Live host?

It’s a question I’ve been grappling with for a few days: I’m going to be recapping the episode for HitFix (which I’ve been doing for a few months now, although I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it outside of Twitter), and since those recaps tend to run-down sketches rather than pontificating on the episode as a whole I have been struggling with how to boil my complicated thoughts down to just a paragraph or two.

I’m not going to argue that White isn’t an inspired choice to host the show, or that the fan campaign to get her the gig wasn’t a fine use of social media, but is the simple fact that the octogenarian is hosting the show enough to make this “successful”? NBC would certainly hope so: the show has gotten huge amounts of publicity, and “listening” to fans has given the network and SNL a certain credibility in circles where their key demographics hang out. However, if the show doesn’t live up to expectations for whatever reason (White being underutilized, White being given lame material, etc.), does this negate SNL’s willingness to listen to the fans? Are the 500,000 people in that Facebook group withholding their opinion of this event? And are they even going to watch it live?

I obviously don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I want to talk a bit about how precisely the internet is going to respond to a much-talked about episode of a series which people are otherwise not talking about.

When someone that the internet likes hosts SNL as of late, the response to their appearance has largely been “So-and-so was great, although the show was pretty crummy.” When Jon Hamm returned to host, the internet was obviously pleased by this development, but for the most part their reactions were about how great Hamm was, and how his commitment to his performance elevated otherwise lame material. This is really the goal of Saturday Night Live recently: they hope that you’re so transfixed by the star power of the host and the novelty of the musical act that you sort of forget about the weak comedy in between. If you tuned in to see Jon Hamm, they’re going to make sure that you see Jon Hamm, and then you should ultimately leave satisfied (if only in that you got what you came for and nothing more).

In the case of White, she’s going to make a good host in this particular sense: she’s got an infectious energy which upends stereotypes regarding her age, and she’s also blisteringly smart (as she’s shown in acceptance speeches, interviews, etc.) As a result, no matter what skits she ends up being in, people who tune in to see Betty White are going to get moments which fit in with our expectations regarding her persona. Throw in Jay-Z, a rapper whose credibility is unquestionable, and you have plenty of “distractions” should the show’s material not be up to the task.

However, I have to wonder how White’s fans are going to respond to the “Women of SNL” theme that has been adopted for the episode. The show is welcoming back Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, and Molly Shannon, who are all very funny but who also carry a lot of baggage. Is it still going to be White’s episode with a star like Tina Fey appearing? Is the show going to get caught up in reliving these former cast members’ most memorable characters and not bother writing any material specifically for White? Is the show going to be so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of personalities (especially if Jay-Z brings any of his famous friends with him on the musical side) that the comedy itself is going to be besides the point? If so, was this how they planned it from the beginning?

I know that such speculation is ultimately futile (as it’s hard to know just what they’re going to do), but I think we need to be realistic: White may be very spry and very capable, but I think she’s going to be given a lighter workload than people might be anticipating. My question now is what people will do if it doesn’t live up to their expectations: they’re not going to turn on White – who could? – and they’re not likely to “blame the internet,” so is there any other option than blaming SNL itself for wasting her talent, or overbooking the show and refusing to let her shine, or not giving her material to play to her strengths? SNL has gotten a lot of strong publicity for this, and the ratings will probably be fairly high (although I’m also skeptical that the mass of people who “like” something on Facebook will turn into viewers, but that’s an argument I don’t have time to get into right now), but are they setting themselves up to take the fall should the episode end up being not quite as spectacular as the internet has imagined it to be? Or do they even care, so long as the ratings are good?

I’m sure you’re ready to start writing comments about my pessimism, and you’re not wrong: I am going into this presuming that they’re going to screw it up, something that I should probably not do as a critic. However, I’ve watched too many bad episodes of SNL this year to hold onto any romantic notions of the show’s current quality, and a litany of guest stars feels less like a sign that the quality is returning and more a sign that they’re trying to distract us from what the show is supposed to be about: comedy. If they pull off an amazing episode beyond my appreciation for White, Jay-Z and the guests, then I’m more than willing to eat my words; however, I’m watching more to see how they navigate this complex minefield than for a great hour and a half of comedy.

Hopefully Betty White escapes with all of her limbs intact.

[I’ll likely be posting a link to my review of the episode in a shameless attempt to draw in some google hits, but the easiest way to receive word the review is up is to follow me on Twitter.]

1 Comment

Filed under Saturday Night Live

One response to “A Grey Area: How Will We Gauge the Success of Betty White, SNL Host?

  1. Pingback: Saturday Night Live – “May 8th: Betty White and Jay-Z” « Cultural Learnings

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