Betty White’s Off Their Rockers: Getting Punk’d by Gammaw

Anyone who watched a sitcom in the ’70s or ’80s was conversant with the “precocious kid” archetype. From Arnold Drummond to Punky Brewster to Rudy Huxtable to Olivia … whatever the last name was of that kid they got to replace Rudy when she wasn’t so cute anymore, a family sitcom couldn’t thrive without a sassy little brat with crack comic timing and wisdom beyond his or her years. In fact, comic timing was optional; the precocious kid could reliably get laughs just for delivering dialogue that was implausibly mature for his or her age.

Eventually, TV audiences got wise to this device (Two and a Half Men was probably the last show to deploy it successfully, and now that kid is like 40 anyway), but the hacky convention lives on with a slight modification: Now, instead of giving us gags from performers who are incongruously young, producers are trying to sell us comedy bits by performers who are incongruously old. And since Betty White has been the poster octogenarian for this trend at least since Lake Placid, she was the obvious choice to headline Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, in which (according to the description for the series premiere) “[s]eniors target unsuspecting young people with pranks that include pouring a late spouse’s ashes on a park bench and writing tickets for makeup violations.”

I have watched this program, and I can report that “unsuspecting young people” is the operative phrase: Presumably, we’re supposed to delight in seeing crafty, fearless old people tricking today’s callow, texting youth. (Indeed, one prank does involve one old lady asking a young woman to help her send a text to her future daughter-in-law, in which she calls her a “gold-digging tramp.” Ha?) The problem is twofold:

  1. Producers evidently thought that the novelty of having old people doing age-inappropriate things would be enough to inspire hilarity, so they didn’t try to think up things for them to do that would be particularly funny.
  2. Producers didn’t take into account how desperately the young people would want to avoid engaging with old strangers, so that the actual fun of a prank show — seeing the marks lose their minds — is entirely absent.

“But Betty White is hilarious/a national treasure/a comic genius!,” you wail in outrage. First of all, White’s contribution to the show is confined to pre-taped, scripted bumpers that bolster her image as a potty-mouthed old spitfire. When we first see her after the credits, she appears to be painting at home, but then turns out to be inking a tattoo on a grizzled biker. (Ha?) Second, is she hilarious/a national treasure/a comic genius? Or has she basically turned into America’s rapping granny?

So here’s what you didn’t watch leading off the programming on NBC, the same night it was burning off the last two episodes of the very charming Bent:

  • an old man driving a car with a shopping cart mashed into its front grille
  • an old woman talking about her wild weekend before putting her wimple back on
  • an old man breaking a loaf of bread in half at a supermarket
  • an old woman loudly talking on the phone about the 22-year-old she screwed without a condom, and worrying that she’s going to get pregnant
  • an old man pulling out his own tooth with pliers
  • an old woman popping her trunk open, whereupon a naked old man jumps out and runs off (so yes, exactly like in The Hangover)
  • an old man posing as a college security guard, nonsensically harassing a couple of students
  • an old woman telling a stranger that the old man standing behind her is her dead husband
  • an old man who somehow got his pullover shirt wrapped around a lamppost
  • an old woman embroidering a bawdy sampler that reads “GEORGE CLOONEY SLEPT HERE” (that one was Betty White, “National Treasure”)

None of this is to say that senior citizens aren’t capable of being funny, relevant, interesting, or legitimately outrageous; Christopher Plummer, for instance, was all three in last year’s Beginners, for which he won the first Oscar of his career. But in Off Their Rockers, the mere fact of the performers’ age is the joke; it’s offensive and condescending. And this tone is set in the first moments of the episode, as a bit calls for an elderly man to ask a young woman to take his photo, with his wife, on the spot where they first met. As the man and his “wife” pose for the camera, the young woman coos to her friend: “They’re so adorable! I want to be old.” She barely registers them as people; you could as easily imagine her saying she wants to be a bear cub. And then the old woman pretends to fall off the ledge. The show might have been sold as seniors’ revenge on the young people who’ve written them off, but the result is basically an ageist hate crime.

Tara Ariano respects her elders.

Filed Under: Betty White, NBC