Betty White Touched Me. It Was A Thrill.

Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC

Betty White died last week at 99 years of age, mere weeks before she turned 100. The InstaGrief, FaceBawling and Twitterbutes came at a fever pitch. Plenty of blame on 2021, appreciation for her work and statements from people who knew or worked with her…myself included.

I got to work with her for five guest appearances during my time as a producer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In a decades-long career in television with interactions brief and extended with any number of famous, talented and influential people, there were few names I could drop that resonated more universally than Betty White.

She had no target demo, no hardcore fanbase with nicknames like BettyBae’s or the St. Olaf Hive. She had us all. I can’t imagine nor do I care to meet anyone who didn’t like her. Her gifts were unassailable. Pure funny — sweet, salty, smart and stupid — all sublime.

One of my favorite office routines at the Fallon show was the publishing of the guest calendar. The show booked weeks in advance and seeing the names slot in as producer assignments came out was a reliable mix of anticipation, excitement or the rare moment of dread that a known jerk was on deck. I’d say “they know who they are,” but I can assure you not one of those duds have a shred of self-awareness.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want Betty immediately. I wanted her so bad. I know how that that looks and have zero regrets since it’s the kind of set-up Betty would absolutely murder.

At the time of her first appearance in 2009, Betty was having a bit of a moment co-starring in The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. You couldn’t call it a comeback since she was such a constant.

When the assignments came out — I was thrilled to get Betty.

When she was booked, the show was only a few months old, but had already established its tone as America’s playful rec room party chockablock with games and silly stuff. One game we had already enjoyed playing was beer pong. In the short time we’d been on the air, Jimmy had lost to Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova (he also lost to Ivanka Trump but the less said about that the better).

Our first pre-interview conversation was everything you’d want in an interaction with Betty White. She agreed to play beer pong, even though she said she’d have preferred vodka in the red Solo cups. Her beer pong showing was an instant highlight reel staple.

It was show policy for producers to sit with guests on the couch during commercial breaks so they weren’t left awkwardly alone while the host was being briefed for the upcoming segments by writers and other producers. It was one of many really thoughtful talent friendly touches that informed the way the show was set up in those early years. And in this case, it was a bonus that I got to spend even more time with her.

Some of the smallest details remain vivid. True to her persona as America’s favorite grandmother — she was well-dressed in age-appropriate textured jackets and always looked beautifully put together without any Hollywood age overcorrections. I remember sitting beside her as the Roots played through a commercial break and Betty took my arm and stroked it gently in an almost absent-minded way of simple connection as we shouted small talk over the music. It felt as comforting as a winter afternoon’s grilled cheese.

For continuity’s sake, segment producers “kept” guests once you produced them to build a collaborative relationship for every time they’d come through. Familiarity made it more comfortable for the guests and easier on the three of us sharing a tiny 30 Rock office with a dozen or more segments to prep every week. So this meant that my micro-relationship with Betty White was just beginning.

When she returned for her second appearance, for her Saturday Night Live hosting stint, the excitement in the building was evident all week.

When you’re in 30 Rock and work in part of that building’s comedy subdivision — call it the Lorne-iverse — there’s a shared energy between the late night shows. Cast members made great emergency guests and hosts were often a weekly feature. The association may also have been a byproduct of my earlier years shuttling between the two floors separating SNL and Conan O’Brien’s iteration of Late Night as their publicist.

But this wasn’t just me — Betty’s SNL appearance was full of momentum: a legit popular groundswell on Facebook, heavy hitting female alums (from “my time” at the show) were coming back and Jay-Z was on board as musical guest. To borrow from the show’s hippie forebears — there was a “happening” afoot.

When Betty and I spoke during our pre-interview to prepare for the appearance, we talked about her excitement and nervousness — and she kept saying she didn’t want to let anyone down. I found myself offering her insights from my time in 8H — about how cared for she would be by every part of the show’s crew and that while the pace was scary, she’d be wanting to do it again as soon as it was done. She said she was looking forward to the stage managers and wardrobe folks grabbing and pulling at her since she hadn’t been manhandled in a long time.

As we touched on various stories and areas of conversation, her warm familiarity and our admittedly brief history gave me the courage to make a move that felt transgressive — I pitched her a joke.

In my experience, late night shows tend to have a specific separation of writers and producers. Church and State. Function versus Funny. It didn’t matter that much of what we as producers did on a daily basis was “writing” by any measure or that we were actually funny.

For someone who spent over a decade handling press at the apex of comedy and pop culture while aching to be on the other, more creative side, that separation reinforced a perception that there was some mystical border that I dare not cross. In time, I weaponized it to make the very idea of being funny “for real” (professionally) unattainable and discouraged. I was unqualified, writers were in a guild with vaunted rights and privileges. It was somehow something you had to sneak into. I elevated a pack of miscreants to mythic status, ignoring the gut work of generating material and the boldness to publish it that got them there.

Not that day. “I would never presume to give you a joke or line to use in an interview,” I opened.

Before my all-too common self-deprecation could fully blossom, Betty replied without hesitation: “Are you kidding? I’d never turn down a good joke.”

I offered that when Jimmy asked her about the SNL appearance and asked if she and Jay-Z were going to do anything together on the show, she should answer that no matter what they do — “Jay’s got 99 problems and this bitch ain’t gonna be one.” I quickly explained that it was from one of his songs and Betty was all in.

I went out of my way not to tee it up overly in Jimmy’s briefing. That was a sure way to have it nixed out of hand to keep me in my proverbial lane.

But I was confident enough in the joke (and even more so in Betty) that I wanted him to react organically on-air. And betting on Jimmy Fallon laughing his head off at something said on television has never cost anyone a dime.

It’s not rocket science to think that an eighty-eight (and a half) year-old woman quoting a rap lyric would be funny, never mind the swearing…but she elevated it and owned it completely. She got a laugh on the “99 Problems” set up! It’s what she did with everything. Hearing the reaction on the studio floor was ecstatic. Those moments of pure collaboration are why people stay in late night jobs for years in spite of the relentless grind.

The pièce de resistance of my tiny sliver of time with a television pioneer/icon/legend was on her third visit — when we asked her to play Password.

Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC

We had experimented with parlor games on the show, spurred by more than a few guests recounting funny game night stories. I was always a fan of doing them since it showed an unguarded side of a performer and was almost universally funnier than the anecdotes I would cobble together from them.

We hadn’t attempted a full-on game show tribute but it was Betty so we wanted to aim high. Not only was she an exceptional game show staple, Password was personal for her — it’s where she met the love of her life, longtime host Allen Ludden.

Once she had agreed to the game, careful to mention she hoped she wouldn’t screw it up, I pored through old YouTube videos to break down the mechanics of the game so we could play a satisfying game in under ten minutes.

While I feverishly jotted down the number of clues, timing and scoring as I watched these black and white videos, they played like a rom-com courtship montage. In hindsight, I think I kept my research predominantly on Allen Ludden’s era out of some show of affection or respect for Betty.

Late night TV is a volume business, so we had to turn this all around in a couple days while also doing whatever that day’s show required. Never a dull moment.

While I figured out the way to play, the show’s exceptional art department and director got to work. They settled on the original iteration of the Password set and truly outdid themselves. They matched it down to the fonts on set and on screen, they captured the panel seating, added a vintage feel in the opening and our head writer nailed the whispering, nasally clue voiceovers (“The password is…”).

On show day, Betty was her usual delightful self as we chatted in her dressing room alongside her longtime assistant and agent. Of the many coteries guests travelled with, Team Betty White had the comfort and ease of a group of old friends. I half expected them to offer me a cup of tea or fresh cookies while we all visited instead of me getting them set up. I found out later that they all regularly played cards at Betty’s house. Of course they did, perfect.

It was as good a day at the office as I’d ever had (and I was lucky to have many). With Betty, it was practically guaranteed.

As usual, I sat beside her in the break and felt that light familiar grasp on my forearm. I leaned in to tell her how great the interview went, the curtains parted and the crew wheeled in the Password set in all its Technicolor splendor.

Betty’s face became even more luminous,“Where on earth did you find it?” she asked. I laughed and just said, “We built it for you.” Her grip tightened like a localized hug as she took it in.

When I think of Betty now, all these years later, what keeps coming back was her gentle hand on my arm. Her humble, unassuming joy. She excelled in an industry not known for being set up for her (or most women) and never gave off the slightest entitlement.

She was a comedy legend that took nothing for granted — unlike the sitcom actress who used every writer’s room buzzword she could to pick apart, criticize and rearrange my selection of her own anecdotes, opining on whether they’d “land” or if the “beats” “blew” at the right time. (Fun fact, her stories did indeed blow.)

Not Betty. A multigenerational comedy force whose only hang up was not wanting to disappoint anyone around her. She’d forgotten more comedy than most will have ever done. Her edge was razor sharp, her timing ruthlessly precise. And almost in spite of that considerable skill — she radiated a warmth that translated through the camera to all of us and to anyone in her reach — be they co-stars, one of her countless beloved animal pals, or even the odd TV producer.

As great as her accepting and delivering my joke felt — it felt exponentially better to feel as if we gave her something back with the attention to detail on that Password set. That we transported her back to the spot where she met the love of her life and gave her the opportunity to do the thing she loved and did so well. She would come back two more times in my tenure and Password was always a foregone conclusion. We always knew where to find the set.

Working in daily television can be grueling, unforgiving and sometimes painfully anonymous. But in times like these — it’s fantasy camp.

“The Guy From the Thing:” Veteran of Late Night Wars and Digital Media Bubble Bursts. Dad, Dog Walker, Husband and Mental Patient.

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Marc Liepis

Marc Liepis

“The Guy From the Thing:” Veteran of Late Night Wars and Digital Media Bubble Bursts. Dad, Dog Walker, Husband and Mental Patient.

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