Like many others, I was thrilled with Betty White’s turn on SNL this weekend; there’s nothing I like better than a sharp-as-a-tack old broad proving to the world that she’s still got it (cue multiple viewings of Elaine Stritch’s 2004 Emmy-winning speech ). And while the jokes were predictable enough (standard elder-sploitation gags: a sailor mouth, an attempt to dance in time to salsa music, references to one’s “muffin ,” the suggestion of grandmotherly incest , repetitive utterings of the world “lesbian” ), the show was a real triumph for SNL , which has been needing an infusion of new life for many months.
Though Betty was ascendant, the episode was as much about the return of some of SNL’s best women cast-members-Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, and, of course, Tina Fey-as it was about the little-old-woman-who-could. In bringing back these women and their iconic sketches both on-air and online ( the NPR women , Sally O’Malley, the “Joyologist,” Debbie Downer, the Lawrence Welk absurdity, Amy and Tina back at the Update desk ), the show was tipping its hat to how funny its women have been over time.
In provoking nostalgia and cultural memory about its female cast-members, SNL accomplished a great thing; it made viewers long to have these women back in their lives on a weekly basis. The inclusion of Poehler and Fey in Weekend Update (clip embedded below) showed just how stale the segment has been without a female co-anchor, and allowing Shannon and Gasteyer to reprise their earthy, kooky, innuendo-filled NPR segment left me craving those kinds of goofball women-run sketches again.
For the last few years, SNL has been a bit of a late-night frat house; Andy Samberg and his digital shorts have become the main reason for appointment viewing of the show, and most would argue that Will Forte and Bill Hader are the cast’s strongest players-though Kristen Wiig steals every scene she is in and has created several iconic characters, she often acts alone, and cannot single-handedly overpower the boys’ club. The attempt to bring in new women to the show has been difficult. The group of young comediennes in the featured cast this year is promising, but without many chances to create characters or dominate episodes, Abby Elliot, Jenny Slate, and Nasim Pedrad risk meeting the same fate as two other female cast members before them, who only lasted a year.
What this week’s episode showed, besides the fact that an 88-year-old woman can beat the comedic timing of a cast several decades her junior, is that SNL is sometimes best when the women run the show. If only we could get more of this each week, the battle that we keep fighting might cease to be an issue at all.
Photograph of Betty White by Theo Wargo/Getty Images.