In the second-season premiere of Community, the nicely ripped Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) receives a righteous beat-down from Betty White, America's favorite octogenarian, who plays a deeply eccentric anthropology professor named Jane Bauer.
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As the scene was rehearsed July 29 in L.A., on a set where Senor Chang's Spanish class once stood, White's character employs a primitive weapon — part crossbow, part noose, all lethal — to put shame to Jeff's theory that "respect" is the tool that will preserve mankind. When she has Jeff on the ground, his throat in a sling, he gasps, "I respect you."
"That's why you failed," White replies, her trademark sweetness tinged with archly comic sadism.
White plays Bauer (Jack's grandmother?) in Community's second-season premiere, airing Sept. 23 on NBC.
Has White ever played such a violent character? "No, I don't think so," she answers, then adds, "I hit a guy on the head with a frying pan [as murder suspect Catherine Piper] on Boston Legal."
Some of Bauer's moves require an athleticism that the 88-year-old White understandably cannot provide, so a stunt double is brought in. White, the usual sugar in her voice, asks her, "Honey, will you do me a favor?"
The stunt double, as awed as the rest of the cast and crew by the iconic White, replies, "Anything for you."
White says flatly, "Don't screw up," delivering her improvised joke for the sole benefit of those in attendance with the same élan as she does her punchlines in appearances seen by millions.
Since arriving on the set, White has been determined to entertain her colleagues. When she arrived on the set, she told the cast and crew, "You make a great show, despite having Chevy [Chase]."
McHale is unfailingly un-Winger-esque as he extends a hand to help White off high steps and platforms between takes. She reciprocates by tenderly patting his back when they confer on how to approach scenes, even if they involve how she'll try to kill him.
He tells her that her character is hardly alone in humiliating him, listing some of the more violent encounters the writers have concocted for Jeff to endure on the show. White deadpans, "I would take it as a comment as to how they feel about you."
The rest of Community's cast and crew are equally thrilled to have her join them. Gillian Jacobs, who co-stars as Britta, Jeff's once-and-future flirtation, exults, "Thank God — we'll use some of her reflected glory."
Ken Jeong, who plays the recently disgraced Senor Chang, agrees: "Yeah, let some of the Elvis dust rub off on us—absolutely."
Donald Glover, who plays former jock Troy, provides background on White's character. "It seems as though she probably saw something somewhere, like in a jungle or somewhere and realized, 'Oh, we're all horrible. We're all animals.' Because she's so sweet on the outside and dark on the inside, much like our group."
"She's also in preparation for something," adds Danny Pudi, who plays deadpan nerd Abed. "She has a strategy in place — there's something that's going to happen to the world, like the animals will take over, and she's ready for that."
"Apocalypse preparedness, yeah," Jacobs agrees.
"She's ready to destroy whatever she needs to survive," Pudi concludes.
Fortunately, the episode isn't as obsessed with the end of days as White's character may be. White simply says she's having "good, silly fun" with the Community crew.
And though creator Dan Harmon says he'd love to make Jane Bauer a recurring character, White is self-deprecatingly skeptical: "What would they do with this old broad?"