Betty White's Most Iconic TV Moments

Betty White appeared on television screens almost from the moment there were television screens. Her death in December 2021 just a few weeks before her 100th birthday, as per The Washington Post, hit everyone hard. White was one of a handful of celebrities that everyone liked and enjoyed, and one of a very small number with exactly zero baggage. She was a delight her entire life — a life dedicated to entertaining us.

What made White so brilliant was the mixture of innocent delivery with just the right hint of naughty. She presented like a slightly naïve housewife (or, later in her life, a slightly addled grandma) who hinted at a saucy, slightly X-rated inner life that peeked around the corners. White never pretended to be anything than what she was: a hilarious lady who'd seen things that would curl your toes.

With a career on TV that spanned seven decades — an official world record, according to the folks at Guinness — White left behind an incredible legacy. It's almost impossible to sum up her wide-ranging career, which included hosting talk shows, singing, frequently guesting on game shows, and working on not just one but two all-time classic sitcoms ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Golden Girls"). But here are some of Betty White's most iconic TV moments.

Hollywood on Television (1949)

Betty White was a pioneer in television. Britannica tells us her career on the small screen began in 1949, a time when fewer than a million people owned television sets (per How Stuff Works). In fact, as noted by the Los Angeles Times, White often joked that her career went back so far that she started in "silent television."

Her first gig? According to Variety, it was as a "record-spinning sidekick" on a daily talk show called "Hollywood on Television," which was hosted by DJ Al Jarvis. The show lasted five hours every day — possibly because there simply wasn't much else on in 1949.

The show was a variety show, and White was required to perform a wide variety of roles, including singing, doing skits, and live commercials. In fact, she once read 58 live commercials in one day, notes the Los Angeles Times. White made enough of an impression that, according to Britannica, she was eventually made host of the show. As noted by The Film Detective, White introduced the character of "Elizabeth," a housewife with a corny sense of humor, while working on "Hollywood on Television." She eventually launched her own sitcom called "Life With Elizabeth" based on the character, and White's legendary TV career was in motion.

The Betty White Show (1954)

Betty White was determined to be successful, and in 1952 she founded her own production company in order to develop her own projects. According to The Hollywood Reporter, by 1954 she was headlining "The Betty White Show" in the daytime for NBC. And that's where White told a bunch of racists to shut up.

As reported by The Washington Post, White gave tap dancer Arthur Duncan his first big break by booking him for the show. Duncan was Black, and a large portion of the show's audience in the South was unhappy with a Black man being given prominent placement on a national TV show. Pressure was put on White to get rid of Duncan, with the threat of having the show taken off the air. But White wouldn't back down. Her response was typical White, sweetness covering real bite: "I'm sorry," she said, "but, you know, he stays. Live with it."

Duncan appeared twice more on "The Betty White Show," which was quietly canceled shortly afterwards. White was never one to preach or overtly engage in politics, but when she came face to face with racist pressure when she had everything to lose, she shrugged it off — and did the right thing.

Screen Actors Guild Awards (2010)

Betty White's comic timing was unparalleled. Her shtick was simple but effective: She always acted a bit confused and a little bit naïve — and then she nailed you with a sharp, often ribald joke that killed.

She was also quick on her feet, and often seemed to pull killer zingers out of nowhere. As noted by CNN, in 2010, White received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards when she was a mere 88 years old, as per the Huffington Post. Sandra Bullock, who had just co-starred with White in "The Proposal," introduced the iconic star. White seemed genuinely moved and flustered by both the award and Bullock's affectionate intro, and reached over to grasp her co-star's hand in a pitch-perfect grandmotherly gesture. And then proceeded to prove why White was the greatest of all time when it came to sneakily hilarious zingers when she began her remarks by saying, "Oh my dears, I can not ... the fact that this lovely lady, she is such a wonderful one and with all the wonderful things that have happened to her ... Isn't it heartening to see how far a girl as plain as she is can go?" (via YouTube).

The room cracked up, but this was a classic Betty White moment — mimed confusion followed by a joke that starts sweet as pie and then shoves the knife in.

Craig Ferguson Show (2008)

Betty White understood something that more celebrities need to learn: That no one was particularly interested in her political views. As noted by, White rarely made her political views or voting patterns public. In her later years she occasionally endorsed a presidential candidate, but even then most of her political activity was tied to her tireless work on the behalf of animals, as when she supported Rep. Howard Berman's re-election in 2017 due to his animal-rights positions, according to The Daily Beast.

But in 2008 Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin wasn't just an inescapable political behemoth, she was also one of the biggest and most irresistible targets for comedians. So White can't be blamed when she appeared on the Craig Ferguson Show that year and aimed a few zingers Palin's way. According to Entertainment Weekly, the bit was scripted, with White pretending to work on Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign (the joke being they were both so old, with McCain using carrier pigeons to communicate). The problem? Palin kept shooting the pigeons down. White made TV history with the perfect punchline: "That is one crazy b***h" (via The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson).

Palin seemed to take the joke well, as Popsugar notes the two hugged it out at the Time 100 Gala in 2010.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1974)

Sue Ann Nivens was a role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" designed for Betty White. Superficially perky, sweet, and helpful, in reality Nivens is sarcastic, sex-obsessed, and often downright mean. The role wasn't written for White, reports Closer Weekly. The script initially called for a man-eater who "who laid out her victims with the sweetness of a Betty White." When the producers couldn't find the right fit for the role, Mary Tyler Moore suggested just getting White herself to play the part.

The role earned White two Emmy wins for Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, per the Emmys. And if you're wondering how good White was in the role, an episode from "The Mary Tyler Moor Show" highlights White's talent. In it, Nivens auditions to read the nightly news, a step out of her usual comfort zone as the "Happy Homemaker." The scene has everything: White's acidic rebuke to Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) when he mansplains the job to her, Nivens' unrelentingly perky attitude — and then the payoff when she reads horrific events in the chirpy persona of the Happy Homemaker without missing a beat. It's a classic TV moment that proves White had some of the best comedic chops of all time.

Saturday Night Live (2010)

If you want some clue as to how popular Betty White was, consider this: In 2010 America put aside its differences and came together with one goal — to force NBC to let her host "Saturday Night Live" (SNL).

It all started in February. According to The Atlantic, White appeared in a Snickers commercial during the Super Bowl. As noted by KIRO 7 News, the campaign was "You're Not You When You're Hungry," and White portrayed a football player who wasn't his usual tough self due to hunger. When the guy's teammate says "you're playing like Betty White out there," White snaps back, "That's not what your girlfriend said!"

The ad was one of the highest rated for the year, the massive audience boosted White's popularity, and when the commercial went viral a Facebook campaign was launched to get White to host SNL. According to History, White had been approached several times about hosting but couldn't make her schedule work — but on May 8, 2010, White finally stood on the stage as host. She set a record as the oldest host of SNL, too. At 88 years old, she beat out 80-year-old Miskell Spillman, who won the "Anyone Can Host" contest in 1977, according to The AV Club.

How did White do? She was hilarious, of course, like when she discussed her dusty muffin on NPR Delicious Dish sketch.

The Late Show with David Letterman (2014)

As her career stretched into its eighth decade, Betty White became almost as famous for her longevity as her comedic chops. Inevitably, interviewers would ask about her secret to a long life. White's answer was surprisingly consistent — enjoy your life and do what you want — and also consistently specific, because what she enjoyed, according to Fox News, was vodka and hot dogs. In fact, when White penned an essay on growing older for Harper's Bazaar in 2014, she specifically noted that she had a vodka on the rocks just about every night with dinner.

It's one thing to have a slightly humorous response to tedious questions about your ability to grow old, it's another to walk that walk. But White definitely did enjoy her clear spirits — and The Los Angeles Times reports that she proved it while guesting on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in 2014. When Letterman asked her what she liked to do in her free time, White responded that "vodka is kind of a hobby."

Letterman had a bottle and two glasses ready and promptly poured them both a shot. Then Letterman began swigging directly from the bottle, getting a laugh from the audience. Not to be upstaged, White then did a classic spit take, cracking everyone up. One thing is for sure: It's not every 89-year old who goes on live TV to do shots with David Letterman.

Super Password (1989)

It's not a revelation that Betty White had a remarkable career. While everyone remembers her classic roles in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Golden Girls," as well as her incredible career resurgence when she was in her 80s, not everyone recalls her reign as the unofficial queen of game shows.

As noted by Biography, White was a natural for the game show format. She grew up playing games with her family and honing her banter skills with her father. In 1949 she was hired to appear on a game show called "Grab Your Phone" — and was the only one who got to ad lib with the host. White's quick wit and ability to be hilarious while competing seriously made her a favorite of the game show circuit. She appeared on more than 50 of them — she even met her husband, Allen Ludden, when she appeared on "Password" while he was host of the show. White even won an Emmy for her work hosting her own game show, "Just Men!," in 1983 (per Outsider).

So it's no surprise that one of the best moments of White's career occurred on a game show. As noted by Time, while appearing on "Super Password" in 1989, White became so comically frustrated with her teammate she took the "toaster" used to display the password and tried to destroy it, then threw it across the studio, bringing down the house.

Super Password (1988)

Betty White was a game show goddess because she was consistently entertaining. She dropped a ton of hilarious jokes but was also able to improvise and make funny comments in real-time — all while seriously competing.

White appeared on more than 50 game shows in her career, according to Biography, and teamed up several times with Lucille Ball. Ball and White were more than acquaintances — according to Closer Magazine they were very close friends who had bonded over being strong women in a male-dominated business and considered each other to be family. As a result of that closeness, any time White and Ball appeared on a game show together it was sure to be a moment.

An episode of "Super Password" in 1988 gave us one such moment. As reported by Outsider, Ball froze on one of the clues — she needed to get partner Carol Channing to guess "stiff." Ball simply froze, ran out of time, and got a humiliating buzz. White instantly transformed what could have been an awkward moment into an iconic one when she turned to the producers and snapped, "You don't buzz a legend!"

That didn't stop White from immediately guessing the clue and winning the game, of course — the way she took game shows seriously is one reason she was the game show queen.

Saturday Night Live (2015)

After setting a world record as the oldest host ever of "SNL" in 2010, per History, Betty White told David Letterman she had no plans to host a second time, saying "You do a thing once, and the you run like a thief." But White did return to SNL in 2015, appearing in the classic sketch "The Californians." And as usual, White made the appearance an iconic one.

According to Slate, the show was SNL's 40th anniversary special and was crammed with special guest stars. In the sketch alone there was Kerry Washington, Taylor Swift, Laraine Newman, and Bradley Cooper, along with White. As noted by US Weekly, White earned the biggest cheers from the audience when she stepped out onto the stage. And then White and Cooper shocked the audience with a surprise — and surprisingly realistic — make out session (via SNL).

The audience went crazy, unsurprisingly. White, who according to Today was 93 years old at the time (Cooper was 40), was literally the only nonagenarian who could have pulled off a priceless comedic moment like that. The bit also proved that White was absolutely fearless in the pursuit of her craft.

The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (1987)

When you're as quick-witted as Betty White, you become a popular guest on talk shows. White was a fixture on the talk circuit and was a particular favorite of the legendary Johnny Carson, as USA Today notes. In fact, Carson and White's television careers began at the same time, as they were discovered by the same producer.

On "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," White frequently appeared in a "Tarzan" skit with Carson, riffing on the idea of Tarzan and Jane as a bickering middle-aged couple in the jungle. The skit usually required White and Carson to wear some skimpy costumes, and this inspired one of White's greatest talk show appearances in 1987. Carson begins by noting that they won't be doing a Tarzan sketch, and White asks in mock shock, "I can keep my clothes on?!"

Carson commented that even though they'd known each other for a long time, she felt unfamiliar to him. In reference to his recent marriage, White flirtatiously joked that "If you hadn't gotten in such a rush to get married we could have arranged something," to the audience's delight. That prompted Carson to describe White's persona as "somewhere between Mother Theresa and a call girl."

The Golden Girls (1986)

Although it's cherished today, in 1985 there was no guarantee that "The Golden Girls" would be a hit. But as noted by Decider, when the debut season's finale, "The Way We Met," aired it cemented Betty White as the breakout star of the show. And all you need to see to understand why is her performance as Rose Nylund telling the story of "The Great Herring War."

As explained by Decider, the scene is incredible for several reasons. For one, it was the first of Nylund's classic "St. Olaf" stories, a bit that became a recurring feature for the character. For another, rumor is that White largely improvised the story — which, if true, puts her in the top tier of improv comedians. And finally, while White's co-stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan are clearly scripted to laugh as Nylund's story becomes increasingly deranged, they also clearly break character and are laughing uncontrollably for real. As noted by The Washington Post, this clip is so funny even people who have never watched a single episode of "The Golden Girls" find it irresistibly hilarious.

What makes the speech so incredible is that it starts off faintly ridiculous, telling the quaint story of two families who go to war over how to prepare herring (via YouTube) — and then White takes it into increasingly weird directions while keeping a perfectly straight face through the whole thing. Iconic.