I am Mad at Betty White
By: Peggy Willms
(7 min read)
Betty White, rest her soul, disappointed me. She left my party 17 days early. I wanted us to celebrate our birthdays together again this year. On January 17th, she would have been 100 years old, and let’s say I wouldn’t have. Each year, we celebrated our birthdays “together.” She never came to the party though she only attended in spirit. There were a few years, I placed candles on my cake, and had her chair at the table. We all have imaginary friends.
I dreamed of being good ole BW. I also wanted to be just like Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker), Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller. Yes, all these women are beloved female comedians, but Betty was special. I felt a bond with her throughout different points in my life. With our blue eyes and dimples, comedic timing, huge hearts, and my desire to also be known as the Grand Dame of television, we surely were soul sisters.
My connection to female comedians is noteworthy. When Betty passed on New Year’s Eve 2021, I felt a black hole sink through my heart. I was angry and psychotically happy for her all at once. I was angry because, of course, she wouldn’t be at my party, but happy for her because of the impeccable century of memories she had left behind. The day she passed, I received a text from my sister saying, “Sorry about Betty. I know you loved her.” Her passing spun me into reflection. Reflection of all the other female comedic influences in my life.
These five women and Robin Williams have affected my humor greatly. I will save Robin for another time. The characters, careers and talents of these women had unknowingly molded me. With the exception of Lucille Ball, who passed at age 77, the other ladies lived between 89-99 years old. Hopefully, that will be yet another commonality I will share with these blessed souls. There are many studies that align laughter with longevity. Awesome sauce.
At what ages did these gems affect me and why?
Jean Stapleton was the first female comic I remember connecting with. I was between the ages of five and seven. She is most famous for playing Edith Bunker on All in the Family. I cherished her so much. I lived with my teenage mother and grandparents at this time, and often paraded around the living room entertaining them with my song and dance. That included mimicking the show’s theme song in Edith’s famous, yet self-made, high-pitched voice.
“Boy the way Glen Miller played, Songs that made the hit parade, Guys like us we had it made, Those were the days.”
Her role as Edith was naive and submissive. She played dingy to a T. Edith was “unaware of judgement” and numb to embarrassment when she should have known certain answers or subject matter and didn’t. Edith was the polar opposite of Jean’s highly-educated, well-spoken “real” self. At this young age, I already struggled with perfectionism and self-judgment. The “acting” gave me a break; felt like such relief. I also had no idea until recently that she didn’t reach stardom until she was 50. And, though I am no star, I do feel like my life’s work is just coming to fruition.
As I said, Betty has popped in and out of my life. I vividly remember her first few games shows. Password and Match Game. She always stole the show. In my early teens, she showed up again, during the rerun days of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. The way Betty lurked in the wings of the set playing Sue Ann Nivens reminded me of my developing Jekyll and Hyde persona. In her later years, she actually referred to her Nivens’ role as a Jekyll and Hyde going between sunny smiles, cutting age, controversial topics to uttering shocking absurdities. All in the name of shifting the room to get what she wanted. Interesting.
She knew how to stop the show. She often flew by the seat of her pants and was rumored to go off script. Just like me. We were skilled choosing which audiences got to see the which side of us. I had my outsiders and then my posse. Betty also had her “on-screen and off-screen” relationship with humor. Me, too. My Jekyll and Hyde talents became highly-skilled during these years. Only my closest circle knew just how insane, and off-kilter my humor was. Many of them encouraged me with their belly laughs, and some quite frankly peed their pants-I know. This black and white comedic switch was not initially conscious. However, as the years passed, the familiarity of the “switch” became effortless. It especially worked in situations where I felt people didn’t understand or listen to me.
My trust issues, extreme independence, and my fear of public ridicule sprouted during my teens as well. I also became quite secretive. My best friend never found out about my eating disorder until we were 50, and I was diagnosed at age 17. I am not sure where all these expectations and behaviors derived – even after years of counseling, the source has not been unveiled. As a teen, my serious exterior and an internal comedic crackpot were as different as Coffee and Kool-Aid. The “public Peggy” needed to excel academically, athletically, and keep a glossy image; the Coffee. During the slumber parties and holiday get togethers, I pulled out my improv, and you got the Kool-Aid.
Carol Burnett showed up in my 20’s. Starring in her own namesake show, brought out the most comic diversity I had ever seen. She was so random. She was praised for being a complete whack job. She sang, danced, wrote, produced, worked her fingers to the bone, had tons of friends, and seemed she would live forever. I mastered her animated facial expressions and Tarzan-like screech. She gave me hope that someday I would be confident enough to risk public ridicule, and since I have performed about a dozen Mrs. Wiggins reenactments.
Sometime in my 30’s, I remember acting out the Vitameatavegamin episode as Lucille Ball. It might have been to my Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants group. Yes, about eight of my friends and I hosted house parties based on the movie. We probably drank a few beverages similar to Vitameatavegamins. Oh LAWD. Some say Lucille was not a natural comedian. I call BS. She was a perfectionist. Her comedic timing was precise. She was sassy during a time of suppression. I felt just like that in my 30’s, I know, me suppressed? She fought sexism, and corporate stifling in the workplace and had to portray a certain image. I felt the same though a few different battles. It seemed every institution, policy, procedure, and belief system I interacted with, suppressed me. I played the game and defaulted to what I knew best, perfection: the perfect child, mother, housewife, friend, and employee.
During this same time, The Golden Girls brought Betty back into my life. I fell in love with this show during its many years of syndication. I have seen about every episode. I would power watch them when working out on my Tony Little Gazelle machine. The character of Rose won me over. She was innocent, huge hearted, and possessed a the way she spewed out unrehearsed one-liners was a pure joy to me. This show was like “Calgon Take Me Away” from Peggy’s Real World. I again, found the dingbat role refreshing. Laughter has always been my escape. Perhaps why I make TikTok videos for my own entertainment. Damn, I am funny.
At 43. Yes, exactly 43, I came across Phyllis Diller. I know I was 43 because I was divorced and sassy when I started using her “A smile is a curve that set’s everything straight” quote as a subtitle on all my emails. Though I never followed her career, I strolled upon some of her stand-up comedy acts. I related to her eccentricities, elaborate make-up, insane outfits, and her “I don’t give a shit” attitude. I was born again. I started my crazy-hair days, became an expert at brazenly poking fun at myself, and began walking my own path – no one else’s. A divorced, empty-nester who didn’t care if she was anyone’s cup of tea. Phyllis became my hero.
Betty returned. Don’t get me started on the music/dance scene from the movie, The Proposal. “To the Window, to the wall, til the sweat drops down my…” Yes, I have made several videos mimicking her and Sandra Bullock frolicking around with a patchwork blanket wrapped around me. As Betty aged over the years, so did her frankness and slips of vulgarity. I must say as I aged with her, this pleased me immensely. Someday Betty and I will harmoniously recite one of her famous quotes, “I just make it my business to get along with people so I can have fun. It’s that simple.”
“I hate to say it, ladies, but I am the only one left. I thank you for your influence, and I am proud of our similarities. My ability to improv at a drop of a dime, comedic timing, ability to know when to be professional and when I can push the envelope, and simply when to just not give a honk. You made me recognize I do not have to be for everyone, to fit in or uphold an image. And how NOT to lose myself as I continue to evolve.”
In my best Phyllis Diller yet, “My grandchildren will roll their eyes as I prance into the graduation hall with my aqua eye shadow caked on, my lime-green boa wrapped around my neck, and I will be singing, “You light up my life.” I am absolutely living for the eye-rolls.
To give you a glimpse into the future:
“Tonight at The Pearly Gates see the newest rendition of the Brat Pack: Lucille Ball, Betty White, Carol Burnett, Jean Stapleton, Phyllis Diller and Peggy Willms.” Show Title: Two blondes, two redheads, a brunette and a Mohawk.
I know you would buy a ticket to the show!