Betty White has earned the right to be called a “comedy legend.” The Emmy-winning actress has done sitcoms, comedy films and stand-up comedy. And now she has ventured into the world of prank television as star and executive producer of “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers” on NBC.
The hidden-camera TV series features senior citizens doing things to shock unsuspecting people. White and “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers” executive producer Chris Coelen said when they talked with reporters about the show in this conference-call interview.
You’re so busy these days, so why did you want to do a prank show? What appealed to you most about it?
White: It was a very popular show in Europe. As a matter of fact, it won several awards and stuff. And when they brought it to me, it sounded like something that might be popular here so we thought we’d try it. We did a couple of them to see how it would sing, and somehow it seemed to catch on. I haven’t the power to say no. I like what I do for a living too much.
Chris, what was the key about getting Betty White involved?
Coelen: As Betty said, the format had a tremendous amount of success around the world both commercially and critically. [It] won the International Emmy Award for best comedy around the world as well as the Rose d’Or for Best Comedy and Best Overall Format. And it has it’s a very progressive show with a very particular and mischievous sense of humor. And it really felt like what Betty has been able to do so well for so long really fit nicely in with the format and made a lot of sense.
White: And what’s fun about it I think is the fact that the older people get the jump on the younger ones for a change.
Betty, do young people never suspect the older people of doing these pranks? Is that what the great part of it is?
White: It’s one of those hidden-camera ideas where they don’t know they’re being photographed. And the young people set up a situation in — maybe they let themselves be overheard on something that they wouldn’t normally be overheard on. And it’s the reaction of the younger person not knowing quite how to handle it and what to do and thinking it’s for real.
What do you know now that you didn’t know when you were you were first graduating from high school?
White: I don’t think I knew much at that point. And I don’t know a heck of a lot now. But I think we learn through the years that you appreciate the good stuff when it happens. You don’t look back on it and think oh, that was so great then and I didn’t appreciate it. I was blessed with a mother and father who said taste the good stuff now and realize how fortunate and how wonderful things are this minute because enough minutes are not wonderful that you have to save up all the good ones to make it balance out.
What are some of the stereotypes that people have that the show kind of turned on its head by having a hidden camera?
Coelen: I think that people have certain pre-conceived notions of older people. And as Betty said, it does absolutely play with those. So there are I think there are a number of things that people feel like wow a person, let alone an older person, wouldn’t be doing that. And it could be any number truly of mischievous sorts of areas without giving anything away.
Betty, how do you think your success at this stage of your life has changed people’s opinions in general of what senior citizens are capable of doing?
White: My mail reflects the fact that they kind of get a kick out of the fact that I’m 90 years old and I just don’t go away. I happen to be blessed with loving what I do for a living. I love this business and I’m so fortunate to be able to still work in this business. And I get these marvelous letters about how encouraging it is to see someone making the most of their time and still enjoying it instead of, “Oh, I can’t wait to stop working” or “Oh, I can’t wait to retire” or “Oh, I hate my job.” And I think it goes back to the old basic of accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
Chris, who is the audience for the show? Are you targeting a particular generation or to use marketing speak, a demographic?
Coelen: We think it’s what I suppose you would call a big tent show where there’s something for everybody. And the ratings again around the world not that that’s an absolute indicator for what’s going to happen here but have borne out the big tent nature of the show. The fact that older people are the drivers of the action is really important and I think for an older demo there’s certainly something to be seen. There are a lot of young people who are having an amazing time.
They’re completely getting their minds blown by the older people that are on the show and having a great time that along the way. And the joy that they feel I think is really something for young people. And at the end of the day, the show is really just funny and so I think there’s something for you to see. There’s a reflection of you on camera on the screen and there’s something for everybody no matter what your age.
How do you respond to criticism that “Off Their Rockers” is age-ist?
Coelen: I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact, I think that’s the point. It’s a prank show … and the show really doesn’t troll in stereotypes. There’s a lot of bits in a show. There are 25 bits in a show or so. And occasionally, you’ll take an expectation that somebody has and you subvert it. And so if you choose to read into that that we’re celebrating the stereotype I think you’re absolutely dead wrong. I think in fact what you’re trying to do is subvert the very nature and have fun with the very nature of what someone might expect coming into a situation.
White: They can either laugh with us or at us but we’re not curing cancer or stopping warfare. We’re just up there for fun and either laugh with us or at us or don’t watch us.
Coelen: Well said.
Can you talk a little bit about the actors who are actually pulling the pranks? Betty, have you worked with any of them over the years before this show?
White: I have not, but I’ve met a couple of them years ago in other context but I haven’t actually worked with them so this is kind of an all new experience for me. How about you, Chris?
Coelen: Yes. They’re terrific. We did a casting session, a group of us, Betty and myself and some other of the executive producers did a casting. And we looked for a very special group of people who had comedy chops but also who were really fearless and were willing and able to go out into the public and just have a great time with it takes a very special person to be able to pull the kind of stunts that we’re pulling off in this show.
Betty you’re obviously too famous a face to go out and do it, but do you wish that you were able to go out and do some of these pranks yourself?
White: No. In a word, no. I’m delighted that they do them and do them so well. But I’m not good at that.
Betty, why do you think so many actors in their 80s and 90s — such as you, Ernest Borgnine, Christopher Plummer and Chloris Leachman — still want to work?
White: I started when television first started. I did the first broadcast that was ever done in Los Angeles. And television at that point was such a novelty. It’s become such a way of life now that I think over that time some of the same people are still around. And maybe it’s nostalgia but I think it’s just that they’ve become like personal friends that you’ve gotten to know.
When television came along, the big novelty was the fact that these people were in your room with you. And the thing that I love about television there are no more than two or three people watching you at a time. If there are more than two or three people in a room they’re talking to each other, they’re not listening to you. So I think that’s what people get more personally associated with that guy over there in the corner in the box.
Chris, did you want Betty White to host the show because of her name recognition only, or was there something about what she brings to this project that you wanted to have?
Coelen: Honestly, first and foremost, she’s the most talented comedian I’ve ever, ever had the pleasure to work with and that we’ve seen. So to be able to get her skills and, frankly, her input both on camera but behind the scenes, and to be able to imbue the show with some of her sensibility was an amazing, amazing opportunity.
Betty, what is your secret is to staying active and healthy all the way into your 90s?
White: I’m blessed with good health. I just turned 90 in January , and I inherited some wonderful good genes from my mother and dad. So being blessed with good health gives you the strength and loving what you do and – is a privilege that keeps you going. So I’m just happy as a lark. People say are you thinking about retiring, I don’t have time to think about retiring.
What do you think about seniors staying fit and active and moving and giving up the La-Z-Boy chairs for something else?
Coelen: I think it is a great message in that way. And as Betty said, it’s a show that’s about fun. You know, laugh with us, laugh at us, but just laugh — or as she said, don’t watch it. I feel like it’s having the seniors in the roles that they are in, in the show they’re driving the action, is a great I mean look let’s not read too much into the show. But it’s a sort of great representation of people getting out and having fun in their lives.
Betty, when you started doing “Hot in Cleveland,” did you have any gut feeling that it would be the sensation that it is?
White: Oh, anything but. As a matter of fact when they came to me and offered me the part on the pilot, my schedule, as always, is a pretty busy one. And I had them include in my contract that should it go to series (not many pilots are picked up for series with all the pilots that are done) … I would not be involved or obligated to continue with the show because of my busy schedule. So I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t automatically tied into it. Well, sometimes you do a show in February and they don’t pick it up until May.
We were picked up in three weeks and they came and asked if I would do some more. I said no, that was in my contract that I was not obligated to do that. Well I have the strength of a jellyfish. I had done one show with these wonderful girls Wendy Malick and Jane Leeves and Valerie Bertinelli. And I had such a wonderful time with them that sure I signed up and said I’d do some more. And then they picked us up for 24 more shows, and I said sure and I’ve done them all. I’m just having the time of my life …
We actors can’t take the credit. We love to try to claim the credit. Yes, I did this and yes, I did that. If it isn’t on that page, if those writers haven’t come through you can’t save a bad show. You can help a good show but you can’t save a bad show.
Betty, what keeps bringing you back to hosting or being the center of a show and what do you like about that?
White: I just like television. I just love the rapport with the audience. Because I said a little while ago, there are only two or three people in a room watching you. If there are more than that, they’re talking to each other. They’re not listening. And so you’re really addressing a very personal conversation. Sure, there are a lot of television sets around but only two or three people to a room who are paying attention and I just find that a very intimate, lovely way of performing.
Chris, you’re kind of bringing back a classic genre with this hidden-camera show. How did that come to be? And are there any other classic genres that you would like to see come back to TV?
Coelen: It was it was a Belgian format originally. The show was produced or a version of the show was produced in Belgium and we saw it. It was a looser format where there was no person at the center of it. But it had as I said, performed incredibly well there and then spread across Europe. And one of the things that we liked about its potential and that we talked about when we met with Betty was the idea of progressing the hidden camera genre a little bit.
So it wasn’t just the amazing tradition rooted in Allen Funt and “Candid Camera” and on through shows like “Punk’d,” etc. But it really continued to move the genre forward and it is a hidden camera show in that we use hidden cameras but there are no set marks in that we’re not targeting somebody from the beginning, and there’s no big “got you” reveal. It really just is about seniors blowing the minds of younger people. And in a way it’s more reminiscent of a sketch show in some ways that utilizes the techniques of hidden camera.
White: And one of our ground rules is we have a sense of fun that we’re making fun with people but not mean-spirited. There’s nothing mean-spirited about it.
Do you feel that there’s a formula for good comedic TV?
White: I think when you start explaining why something’s funny or finding a formula for it I think it loses some of its funniness. I think the best kind of comedy is the least self-conscious. I think if you just sort of let the comedy happen without the elbow nudge. I love straight-face comedy or relatively subtle comedy. And then I turn around and I find myself doing very broad comedy but it’s all fun and you have to keep your sense of humor and not take yourself seriously.
And what has been one of the biggest obstacles or challenges that you’ve faced working on “Off Their Rockers” so far?
Coelen: There really haven’t been many obstacles at all. I think we’ve gotten a tremendous reception from everybody that we’ve come into contact with. I suppose it’s we want to make sure that because we’re doing so many different bits that we continue to surprise people and continue to change up the kinds of bits that we do every week and from act to act. And that’s certainly a challenge.
White: Chris, can I ask you a question? How many of these sketches have you done so far?
Coelen: We’re doing 25 to 30 per show, and so over 12 shows that’s over 300, 350 different bits.
What’s been your favorite moment on “Off Your Rockers” so far?
Coelen: I think there are so many great moments. For me personally, the opportunity to work with Betty has been probably first and foremost the biggest thrill. And I think from a prank perspective, as Betty and I were just talking about, there are so many pranks within the show and so many different favorites to choose from and so many different locations that we’ve been to.
I think that in the first episode I think that there are several that leap out to me. There are some that there’s a great bit with a woman in an information booth who continually throws out random information to people which I love.
And then one of the bits which I think really to me encompasses the joyfulness of the series is a bit where two of the actors are sitting alongside a young woman who’s studying and they are on a set of stairs and they start doing the wave. And out of nowhere, she just joins in with them and they just all are having such a fun good-spirited time. And there’s just like I said, a sense of joy that fills that scene. That’s absolutely one of my favorites as well.
How often do the people ad lib or is everything written and they follow it follow the script to the letter?
White: I read the commas and the punctuation and all that because those writers have spent hours laboring over writing that stuff. And a lot of actors come in and they start to paraphrase but I think what some of them don’t realize, humor is like a rhythm; it’s like music. And you throw a couple of extra syllables in, you wreck the beat and you kill the laugh. So I try to follow the writers very carefully because I know how carefully they worked to do it that way.
Coelen: Betty, my experience of working with you is while that’s true that again especially as an executive producer Betty always has when she does have something to add it’s always something that is an “a-ha moment.” And you’re like, “Wow, you know what? I wish I had thought of that.” And it always makes it better.
White: Oh bless your heart. Thank you. I try not to butt in anymore than I have to.
Betty, did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
White: First of all, I wanted to be a forest ranger. But back in my day, girls couldn’t be forest rangers. I wrote the graduation play from grammar school. And of course as any red-blooded American girl would do, I wrote myself into the lead. Then I got on stage and I thought, “Oh, this is fun.” And I think that’s when the show business bug bit me.
Chris, what do you feel has been the most rewarding part of working in this industry for you so far?
Coelen: Wow. Boy, so many things have been rewarding. But I feel like the opportunity to be creative and work with so many amazing people over the time that I’ve been in it. And, as I said, working with Betty has been at the absolute pinnacle of that. And really to create something that people can find enjoyment from I think is incredibly fun and rewarding.
For more info: “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers” website
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