Betty White -- a lover of people, dogs, bears, games and hot dogs


I've interviewed Betty White often over the years and found her to be just what you'd expect -- smart, optimistic and caring. This story -- keyed to an Aug. 21 special on PBS -- is different: White wasn't available for a Television Critics Association session, but many of the people who know her were. Combining that with her memoir, here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

By now, Betty White
seems qualified for the TV version of sainthood.

Just ask Arthur
Duncan, who worked with her 64 years ago. “She was probably one of
the nicest, the grandest, the greatest of all people that I've had
the chance to meet,” he said.

Or ask Georgia
Engel, who sees her nowadays ... when they often talk about animals,
including a grizzly bear named Bambam. “She told me how to give
Bambam a marshmallow with my teeth, and the bear takes it,” Engel
said. “And Betty was so happy.”

Clearly, White –
the subject of a PBS profile Aug. 21 -- is beloved by colleagues,
bears and situation-comedy fans. At 96, she's been on 20 seasons of
sitcoms, led by “Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”;
she's been nominated for 21 Emmys, winning five times.

And there's more:
“She was the very first woman to appear on television,” said PBS'
Jerry Liwanag.

Or, at least, the
first to actually perform on TV. There had been some speeches and
such, but in 1939, a Los Angeles broadcaster tested TV. It asked two
Beverly Hills High teens to sing as the couple in the operetta “The
Merry Widow.” White, then 17, did the show in her graduation dress.

That was only seen
by their parents and a few others, she wrote in her memoir. “Our
telecast only carried from the sixth to the ground floor.”

That was the start
of television ... and her only role for a decade. She joined the
wartime Voluntary Services and briefly married twice – a pilot in
1945, an agent-turned-salesman in '47. It was in '49 that she started
to get work on a Los Angeles station – commercials, a song in a
disc jockey's special, a very brief comedy show and then “Grab Your
Phone,” a quiz show with viewers calling in answers.

White was just one
of the “phone girls,” but she sat at the end and adlibbed with
the host. That led to “Hollywood on Television,” Los Angeles'
only daytime show. (“It was us or the test pattern,” White
wrote.) She and the host chatted with guests, with each other and
sometimes even with passers-by. “Betty was doing five-and-a-half
hours, six days a week, live,” said Steve Boettcher, who produced
and directed the PBS special. “She really honed her skill for live
television.”

White did sketches
... and added a half-hour sitcom (“Life With Elizabeth”) that
aired nationally. She needed to be fast -- a trait she continued,
said Gavin MacLeod, her “Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-star: “She
could look at a script (and) go up and do it. She was the quickest
study I had ever worked with.”

Compared to that
local-TV blur, her network debut was a breeze. “The Betty White
Show” was a live half-hour each weekday; White would chat with
guests, sing with the band and introduce other acts.

One was Duncan, a
dancer and singer, then 21. “It was a little scary, ... because it
was the first time I appeared on a national television show,” he
said. “(But) it was operated like a family show should.”

That became clear,
he said, when some Southern stations objected to him being there.
They “resented black Americans on the program .... I think that she
just stood up for her beliefs and that ended that.”

In the two decades
that followed, White was an occasional actress and a frequent guest
on talk shows and game shows ... especially “Password,” with host
Allen Ludden.

That started their
romance, Boettcher said -- “their love of games, their love of
'Password,' their love of word games. Betty still plays Scrabble
every week.”

They married in 1963
– he died at 63, in 1981 -- and linked with Ludden's friend, Grant
Tinker, and Tinker's then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore. “They
double-dated all the time,” Boettcher said.

When “Rhoda”
(Valerie Harper) was spun off into its own show, Moore's show
(produced by Tinker) created Sue Ann Nivens. It was the start of
White's comedy surge ... which was recharged at 88, when she hosted
“Saturday Night Live” and started a six-year run in “Hot in
Cleveland.”

That show ended in
2015, giving White, then 93, more time for occasional guest roles and
for her love of animals, games ... and hot dogs.

Yes, hot dogs; she
eats them every day, MacLeod said. “Betty White can do anything and
look as good as she does and live the life she's lived.”

-- “Betty White:
First Lady of Television,” 8-9:30 p.m. Aug. 21, most PBS stations;
some will vary, due to pledge drives.

-- “Golden Girls”
reruns often on Hallmark and TV Land, “Mary Tyler Moore Show” is
5-6 a.m. Fridays on Sundance; also, via digital, streaming and Amazon

-- “Here We Go
Again: My Life in Television,” by White, 1995, Scribner

 

Festival weaved a big finish


Pardon this brief detour from my TV world, but I wanted to wrap up a look at the first Lansing Eastside Folk Festival.

My previous blog was written at the fest's mid-point, when it was off to an amiable start. As it happens, the finish was big and booming and great fun. A mega-tent was packed with people to hear the Tannahill Weavers, who are wrapping up a 50th-anniversary tour.

Yes, 50 years.Two of the people -- Roy Gullane and Phil Smillie -- have been there for 48 of them and still play a key part. Gullane is the lead singer and a charming storyteller; Smillie usually sticks to flute and tinwhistle, but stirs up great energy when he starts banging the bodhran. John Martin, the fiddler, didn't get much attention, but Lorne MacDougall had a huge impact with his bagpipes. Like the vast majority of Americans (and reasonable people everywhere), I assumed I didn't like the bagpipes. MacDougall and the Weavers showed that I might be wrong.

Indoors, the festival had some impressive Native American artwork; outside, it got better (and younger) late in the day.

The one mistake made by the Great Lakes Folk Festival was to quit having the evening Valley Court Park concerts, which drew a much younger and more vibrant crowd. We saw a reflection of that with LEFF: Mostly, old people arrive early; young people arrive late. The morning and noontime concerts drew a crowd that was fairly large, very grey and quietly appreciative; the evening one with the Weavers drew a big, booming response, a good finish to an excellent festival.  

 

blah blah blah

 

Aug. 11: Give LEFF a chance


This is a very specialized note, for anyone who happens to be reading this on Aug. 11, near Lansing, Mich. Scoot over to the Lansing Eastside Folk Festival; it continues, at Kalamazoo and Allen streets, until 8 p.m., with the Tannahill Weavers -- on a 50th-anniversary tour from Scotland -- at 6:45 p.m.

Earlier today, there was a fine set from Mariachi Femenil Detroit, which has a really terrific siner, alongside its trumpets and guitars. Also, Mick Gavin led a cheery set of Irish music --  no small feat, on a hot Saturday morning. And the ukelele strum has people singing and strumming everything from "Home on the Range" to "Give Peace a Chance." It's a fun place; give it a chance..

"Simpsons" creator joins the Netflix wave


Next month, Matt Groening's "The Simpsons" starts its 30th season on Fox. Before that, however, Groening's "Disenchantment" starts its first year on Netflix. The show starts Aug. 17; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES -- For
30 years, Matt Groening's world has been at the core of the Fox
network.

His “Simpsons”
arrived when Fox barely existed. Bart was featured in promos for the
network; he was everything Fox wanted to be – young, clever,
audacious ... and just different.

And he's stayed.
“'The Simpsons is so much a part of the brand,” said Dana Walden,
the Fox programming chief. “There's been such an incredible halo
effect of that show.”

Now Groening is
ready to debut his new series, “Disenchantment” ... not on Fox,
but on Netflix.

Hey, join the crowd.
“We've signed deals with Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy ... and former
President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama,” said Cindy
Holland, the network programming chief. She also mentioned projects
ranging from Spike Lee to Jason Bateman.

Rhimes (“Grey's
Anatomy”) has been the top producer for ABC ... Murphy (“The
People v. O.J. Simpson) has been top for FX ... and Groening is the
symbol of Fox. Now he has a second home.

“I've always loved
fantasy storytelling, since I was a kid .... I keep sketchbooks and
they're full of characters,” he said. “I started drawing other
fantastic creatures that we couldn't do on 'The Simpsons.'”

So he molded them
into a show – a sort of fairy tale for grown-ups that's far from
“The Simpsons” turf. It centers on a princess and her opposite
friends.

“Bean is such an
anti-stereotypical princess,” said Abbi Jacobson, who voices her.
“She's flawed, she gets (messed) up and still has heart. And she
has Luci next to her, who's bad, Elfo next to her who's the good, and
... they're trying to find themselves.”

In their Netflix
home, they have some clear advantages, starting with time.

“On 'The Simpsons'
and 'Futurama,' we were constantly having to cut moments or jokes or
scenes to get down to 21 minutes,” said Josh Weinstein, a producer
on those shows and on the new one. “Now we have complete freedom.
(Episodes) vary from a 35-minute pilot down to 25 minutes and 30
seconds.”

That offers the
freedom to be leisurely, Groening said. “We think in terms of five
seconds. Like, 'Oh my gosh, we can take five seconds to have an
establishing shot.'”

But before
celebrating the rush to Netflix, two things should be noted:

-- The time crunch
on “Simpsons” wasn't such a bad thing. “One of the reasons why
'The Simpsons' is what it is,” Groening said, “is because of the
time constraints. Very high-velocity comedy that got faster and
faster ... became the 'Simpsons' style.”

-- And the whoosh of
attention came partly because Fox reached virtually every home. If
“Simpsons” had debuted on Netflix, Bart might never have become
an icon.

But he did, stirring
new generations ... including some of the “Disenchantment”
actors. Eric Andre, who voices Luci, was 5 when he started watching
“The Simpson.”

Groening and
Weinstein “shaped my world view with 'The Simpsons,' which was the
first piece of (craziness) on television,” Andre said. “These are
like my comedy fathers. My two dads.”

Jacobson figures she
was 8 or 9 when she became a “Simpsons” fan. “My brother and I
were obsessed with it,” she said. “I definitely feel like a lot
went over our heads, but in a great way. I love it.”

That can help comedy
evolve, Weinstein said. His own humor might have emerged from the
shallow depths of Scooby-Doo, but theirs started higher.

“They grew up
watching 'The Simpsons,'” he said. “So (they've) evolved past us.
They're actually funnier than we are.” And now they have extra
channels to use that humor on.

--
“Disenechantment,” debuts Aug. 17 on Netflix

-- Among the series
reaching Netflix this month: “All About the Washingtons,” a
comedy, debuted Aug. 10, with Rev Run and family. Coming are “The
Innocents” (teen shapeshifters) on Aug. 24 and the second season of
the acclaimed “Ozark” on Aug. 31.

 

Rob Riggle: A funny, flying, jet-skiing life


My Television Critics Association has wrapped up now, after 18 busy days of interviews. The stories, however, will go on semi-forever. Mostly, I wait until shortly before a show is coming on; here's one I sent to papers, keyed to Aug. 23:

By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES -- The
world rarely gives us funny pilots or clever military officers.

When we hear “This
is your captain,” we don't expect levity. That may be just as well.

But Rob Riggle
provides an exception. “I always wanted to fly,” he said, but he
also grew up on Bill Murray movies -- “Stripes,” “Caddyshack”
and “Ghostbusters.” He eventually straddled both; he's:

-- Done a little
flying, privately. He left the Navy's flight school, but is now a
retired lieutenant colonel with 23 years in the Marines Corps
Reserve.

-- Done a lot of
comedy. That's ranged from “The Daily Show” to the new “Ski
Master Academy.”

Ski master? “I
just always thought it would be funny to have a jet ski academy,”
he said.

So he assembled his
comedy friends, some obscure and some not. Paul Scheer, from “Human
Giant” and “The League,” is there; so is Eliza Coupe, the
former “Happy Endings” and “Scrubs” star.

She's juggling two
series: On “Future Man,” she's a superhero; in this one, she's a
townie called Preggo.

“My (character's)
mother got the name when she was pregnant with me,” Coupe
semi-explained. “They call me Preggo, too, even though I'm not
pregnant.”

Her role requires
what Riggle calls “a big, Dogpatch accent.” That may seem like a
stretch for a college grad from New Hampshire, but Coupe said she
savors big characters. “I did a one-person show, to show what I can
do .... I don't like to do boring characters.”

That show won her
the 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival award for break-out performer and
put her alongside other comedy souls, including Riggle.

He grew up in
Kansas, the son of an insurance guy. Riggle was a frat guy at the
University of Kansas and added a Master of Public Administration
degree from Webster University.

He was still in
college when he got his pilot's license. He thought about being a
pilot in the military, but ended up as a public affairs officer in
Albania, Afghanistan, Liberia, Kosovo and New York.

The military people
rarely saw his comedy side, he said ... but the comedy people often
heard about his military side. On “The Daily Show,” he was, among
other things, the “military analyst.”

And yes, he said,
one world feeds the other. “Arrogance is wonderful to see in
athletes or the military.”

So he plays a guy
who buys a jet-ski academy to break out of a mid-life crisis. It's an
iffy dream, approached with ample arrogance.

-- “Ski Master
Academy.” debuts Aug. 23 on Crackle, an ad-supported streaming
service

-- See
www.sonycrackle.com