Today, I explain how Barbara Walters came to terms with Gilda Radner’s famous “Baba Wawa” parody of Walters.
This is Quite a Story, a sort of catch-all feature where I share short, interesting anecdotes from interviews or books that don’t really fit into any other feature.
It’s interesting how certain things that are just constant parts of the world of pop culture seem to be almost out of time, but obviously NOTHING is “out of time.” It’s always very much OF its time, even if it is something that is unusual for the time. Thus, while Gilda Radner’s “Baba Wawa” satire of Barbara Walters on Saturday Night Live is now iconic…
and just seems like a thing people do, like Cheri Oteri’s later Walters SNL impression…
when Radner started doing “Baba Wawa,” news anchor impressions really WEREN’T a thing, mostly because news anchors were just so…THERE, ya know? Walter Cronkite had a very memorable persona, and he easily COULD have been parodied, but people mostly just stayed away from mocking anchors. There just wasn’t a lot of room for a comedic hook there.
That’s why you could easily understand why Walters was so irked when suddenly she, as the first female news anchor, COINCIDENTALLY became the first one that became parodied. She finally got to the top of this distinguished profession, and then she became a famous parody, and the parody was a bit of an absurd one, as Walters DIDN’T really have trouble with her Rs. It was an affectation that Radner made up for the bit.
Here’s a contemporary Walters interview from the time with Barbra Streisand, so you can even hear how Walters says “Barbra,” and it’s certainly not anything like “Baba.”
Walters obviously had a very distinctive way of talking (again, though, so did many of her male contemporaries, like Cronkite), but unlike Oteri, Radner went in a different direction. And honestly, I don’t even mean to say that Radner did anything wrong (outside the general sense of “Why was this the first news anchor who got parodied?” sense, but that’s far beyond Gilda Radner). Exaggerating stuff to the point of absurdity is a normal enough thing in impressions. I’m just saying that you could easily see why it was so irritating at the time to Walters.
Ultimately, though, the turning point for Walters came as she told the Television Academy, “I hated the Gilda Radner ‘Baba Wawa’ until I walked into my daughter’s room one night and she was up late watching TV. It was a Saturday night. I asked what she was doing, and she said, ‘I’m watching Baba Wawa.’ I said, “Well, but, look what she’s doing!’ And she said, ‘Oh, mommy, lighten up.'”
And so she did. Later, she noted that when Radner passed away in 1989, “Years later, when Gilda died, I sent her husband [actor Gene Wilder] a sympathy note and signed it Barbara Wawa. Gilda was so wonderful — the sketch immortalized me — but at the time I wasn’t so thrilled.”
RIP, Ms. Walters.
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