For Betty White
Published 12:22 pm Friday, January 7, 2022
Shortly after arriving in West Hollywood, California, in 1985, I somehow managed to land a job writing jokes for a new game show pilot called ‘Word Play,’ later to be hosted by the congenial Tom Kennedy. It was my first introduction to the inner workings of show business in that, when I arrived to be interviewed by the show’s producers, there was no question—or any interest—of whether I had a college degree or any prior writing experience outside my own stand-up routine. I simply made them laugh during the interview and they hired me on the spot.
Well, that was easy, I thought, floating out the door into the bright sunshine. Why doesn’t everybody do this?
In a nutshell the show had a panel of three celebrities of which only one had the true definition of an obscure word. The other two celebrities would try to lead the contestants astray with made-up definitions that they would explain in a manner which, hopefully, would elicit much laughter.
After developing the pilot with a small army of other writers (one who would go on to be best selling author, another, an executive producer of ‘Roseanne’), we got the word that the pilot had been picked up by the network and I remained on board for 10 months, arriving at our sparse office in the San Fernando Valley, writing 10 jokes a day before leaving at 5pm. It was while sitting in traffic one day with a nagging headache I’d had for a week that I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do. The whole point of doing stand-up comedy was to have my days free to ride my horse and not be chained to a 9-5 office job.
I turned in my notice the following day.
The pilot, however, had been brilliant fun and had been star studded to impress the network, including a very young Pat Sajak, whose ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was already a huge hit, Stuart Pankin from ‘Not Necessarily the News’ and somehow making room to appear with us despite filming ‘Golden Girls’ was Betty White.
Writers were obliged to meet with each celebrity on set during tape day to go over the jokes they would deliver— explaining them, tossing them out if they didn’t work, rewriting if needed. Funnily enough during that entire first year on the show the only celebrity I specifically remember interacting with was Betty. Was it because she breezed into our meeting carrying a little basket of chocolate chip cookies and chirping, “I just baked these, would you like some?” or her gracious, glowing countenance and innate ability to bring perfect comic timing to each joke presented? Certainly it was all of the above and it was one of those satisfying encounters in which you learn a celebrity is just as kind and natural as you hoped they would be.
“Oxymoron,” she began reading our joke definition, nibbling the edge of a cookie. “Oxymoron means eight personalities. For example, when Sally Field played ‘Sybil,’ she played eight people, and would walk into a restaurant, order a table for one and ask for separate checks.” She loved this and on the spot began to improvise the character arguing with each personality over who had the tuna salad, who owed more, etc. Should you be inclined to watch her delivery you can follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCPsX3sFd6A
For the showbiz neophyte that I was, it was an important lesson on presenting oneself professionally and agreeably. That egos should be checked at the door and what was conducive to comedy was everyone working together in both a diligent and light hearted manner. Betty was…adorably authentic and razor sharp in her ability as a comedienne. In that one hour I spent in her company she created a lovely lasting impression that has remained crystal clear to this day. What a gift to leave to a group of young, inexperienced writers. What a gift to leave to anyone. And the greatest realization is that, while none of us can replace the wonderful actress and humanitarian Betty White, anyone can duplicate that kindness.