Betty White’s Talk Show Experience Helped Make Her an Incredible Improviser

Betty White died in late December 2021, shocking fans all around the world. The legendary actor had a career that spanned more than eight decades, appearing in television shows and high-profile movies alike. Becoming a pop-culture icon in her golden years, White embraced her status as a fan-favorite and continued working right up until her death at the age of 99. In the days since White’s passing, fans and media outlets alike are looking even further into her impressive career, discovering all the ways that White paved the way for women in talk shows. 

Betty White broke barriers for women in television with her own talk show

Betty White attends The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association's (GLAZA) 45th Annual Beastly Ball at the Los Angeles Zoo on June 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California
Betty White | Amanda Edwards/WireImage

White entered the world of television right after high school when the medium was still in development. Although she took a break from her pursuit of a career in TV in order to serve in the American Women’s Voluntary Services after the advent of World War II, White was soon back at it, establishing herself as a reliable, talented actor and host in both radio and television.

In 1952, White produced and hosted her own talk show, The Betty White Show. White had creative control over the production and used the opportunity to showcase talented people who didn’t get the attention that they deserved elsewhere. According to Forbes, White even hired Black dancer Arthur Duncan to perform on her show, at a time when the television industry was still heavily discriminatory toward African-Americans. 

‘Hollywood on Television’ was a high-profile hosting gig for Betty White

By the time she landed The Betty White Show, White was already an expert at the art of improvisation. One of White’s earliest hosting gigs was Hollywood on Television, a show that ran from 1949 until 1953. A five-and-a-half-hour, six-day-a-week live television show, Hollywood on Television featured a variety of skits and comedy sketches, as well as segments where White would talk directly into the camera. 

According to Smithsonian Magazine, White’s work on Hollywood on Television earned her the distinction as the first female television host and helped to develop her skills as an improvisational comedian—skills that she would later utilize on her own talk show, as well as when she would guest star on other TV shows, including Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show

Betty White was an expert at improvisational comedy

Throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, White continued to develop her persona as a bright, funny comedian and actor, with high-profile roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Mama’s Family. In 1985, White landed one of the leading roles in The Golden Girls, a TV show that became a runaway hit, and White’s most beloved project. White’s improvisational skills were on full display on the set of The Golden Girls, with numerous documented instances of White riffing in scenes and managing to crack up her co-stars.

Slash Film notes that one of the most noteworthy examples of White’s skills as an improv comedian was in a scene on The Golden Girls where she related a ridiculous story about a herring circus. White’s co-stars, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, are seen visibly struggling to hold back laughter in the clip, and at several moments, they can’t restrain giggles at the conviction in White’s voice. Years later, White would go on to become the oldest person to ever host the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, proving that the skills she developed during her early years in television still served her well.

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