Mama Mia! A Chat with Vicki Lawrence from Mama's Family

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Vicki Lawrence and her alter ego Thelma "Mama" Harper

Back in the late '60s and throughout most of the '70s, if you were searching for a good laugh, you needed to look no further than The Carol Burnett Show. Every Saturday night, this variety/sketch comedy show gave its viewers plenty of reasons to smile and introduced them to a host of crazy and colorful characters. Among the most memorable sketches are those starring “The Family.” The core of this dysfunctional and hysterical Southern household consisted of the boisterous and quarrelsome Eunice and Ed Higgins (Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman) as well as Eunice’s outspoken and criticizing “Mama,” Thelma Harper (Vicki Lawrence).

These sketches proved a huge hit with audiences and were later spun off into a one-off TV special and the equally popular sitcom Mama’s Family, starring Vicki Lawrence in the title role. TV aficionados will be pleased to hear that earlier this month (September 2013), Star Vista Entertainment/TimeLife released the first two seasons of Mama’s Family on DVD. Despite being an “old lady,” Mama could more than hold her own in the funniest of situations, all while doing the housework and trying to look after her wacky family and friends. With her silver-haired wig, glasses and padded dress, Lawrence fit the Mama role like a glove, so it may surprise some people to know that she was not originally slated to play the character back on The Carol Burnett Show.

“The first Family sketch was written by two writers on Carol’s show, both of whom hated their mothers, so they created this beautiful homage to their dysfunctional families,” recalls Lawrence. “They wrote the Mama character for Carol and figured that a guest star would play Eunice. Over the weekend, Carol read the sketch prior to us going to our table read and she said, ‘I really think I’d like to play Eunice. That’s kind of the part that speaks to me.’

“That was a little bit upsetting to the writers, and then Carol said, ‘I think Vicki should play Mama, which was very upsetting to the writers. When we got to rehearsals on Monday, Carol said, ‘Okay, you guys, this is nothing if not Tennessee Williams gone nuts, so we’ve got to do it Southern.’ Well, the writers actually got up and walked out of the room the first time we rehearsed in front of them. They said, ‘You ruined it,’ but we, of course, felt like we had something really special. Carol said, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it,’ and it was so well-received that the writers had to write many, many more of those one-time only sketches.”

Did Lawrence find any particular acting challenges when first stepping into the Mama role? “I don’t think there were any acting challenges per say,” she notes. “Back in the day, I know everyone said, ‘You were so young playing such an old woman,’ but it’s kind of what I did on Carol’s show. I was the supporting female, so while she was Shirley Temple, I was the mean old schoolmarm, or when she played a princess, I was always the witch. With Mama, it was sort of one more old lady to play and one more character role, and I just tried to make her an older version of Eunice.

“I have to say, too, that [costume designer] Bob Mackie was so instrumental, as he always was, in the creation of this character. There were many times — and Carol and I have reminisced about this more than once — when you went into rehearsals on Monday and would be struggling [with your character]. On Wednesday morning, Bob would dress you, and afterwards you would look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh, my God, I know who I am.’ So you’d be home free because Bob was such a genius.

“Someone asked me in another interview, ‘Did you change the [Mama] costume at all or add to it?’ I could never add to Bob’s work; again, he was a genius and this costume was perfect in every single detail. Anything you could think of, he thought of and just did it beautifully and perfectly.

“So I think we all felt in doing those Family sketches, even the first time, that it was something different as well as special. In fact, for The Carol Burnett Show, it was a little more serious than a lot of the other stuff we did. They were like little playlets. On the bonus features on the DVDs, Carol said she thought it would be interesting for an acting class to take one of The Family sketches and do it with no accent and perfectly straight as a dramatic piece, which you could pull off, and then throw in the accents and make it silly, crazy and funny. You could really play it either way and for no laughs at all.”

When it comes to laughs, there is a certain type of Family sketch from The Carol Burnett Show that always gives Lawrence the giggles. “I loved when we played games like charades, Monopoly or Sorry, with Sorry probably being the best of the bunch,” says the actress. “When I watch those sketches, I just laugh out loud until I cry. Even on Mama’s Family I loved when we would take that dysfunctional family and put them out into somewhere in the real world that everyone is familiar with, like on Jeopardy or Family Feud.”

The Carol Burnett Show was still going strong when the first seeds were sown regarding a Mama spinoff. “Carol’s husband, Joe Hamilton, who was the executive producer on Carol’s show, called me aside at the beginning of, I think, the tenth season, and told me that he had just made a deal to spin Mama off into her own series,” explains Lawrence. “I was like, ‘What? Oh…,’ I had just been pregnant and wasn’t really sure that I wanted to put on a fat pad and play an old lady every week. I asked Joe, ‘What about Carol’s and Harvey’s characters?’ and he told me, ‘You don’t need them.’ Then I asked, ‘But what if it doesn’t work?’ and Joe said, ‘You’ll  just come back to this show.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’

“Joe was, needless to say, very disappointed, and Carol, of course, was thrilled because it meant that we’d still get to play the characters on her show. So there wasn’t another word about it. Carol’s show went off the air, but she still owed CBS a special. We were all hanging out in Hawaii at the time and I remember her coming out to the pool with a copy of a script that she had commissioned called Eunice. It was a 90-minute teleplay that Carol wanted to do as a special for CBS. She handed me the script and said, ‘Read this and see if you’d like to do it.’ Well, we did Eunice, which the Mama character died in, and it was nominated for an Emmy. It was the most hysterical category I’ve ever been in in my life at the Emmys,” says the actress with a laugh. “I’ll never forget Harvey saying, ‘There’s no flipping way you’re winning this, but God dammit, I’m so proud of you.’

“Before Eunice ever went on the air, Carol invited us to dinner and to screen the special. My husband, whose mother was Greek and I swear to God he’s a gypsy psychic person, said, ‘You just wait and see. They’re going to ask you to do this as a series.’ I was like, ‘Well, whatever. Mama is dead.’ No sooner did the credits roll, that Harvey, Carol, her husband, everyone was saying to me, ‘You’ve got to do this as a series.’ I think it’s Carol who I most vividly recall saying to me, ‘You’ve got to do this. You’re brilliant at it.’ Joe was able to actually sell the series to Grant Tinker, who was CEO of NBC at the time, on the golf course and with no pilot, which is unheard of in this business.”

Making its debut on January 22, 1983, Mama’s Family was set in the city of Raytown and found Thelma Harper a.k.a. Mama living with her sister Fran (Rue McClanahan), a journalist for a local paper. When Thelma’s son Vinton (Ken Berry) — whose wife Mitzi left him to become a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas — and his two children Sonja (Karin Argoud) and Buzz (Eric Brown) are evicted from their home, Mama allows them to move in with her.

Following a short romance, Vint marries one of Thelma’s next-door neighbors, Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman), and after losing her house as well as all her money in a bad business deal, the couple move into Mama’s basement. Betty White also guest starred on the show as Thelma’s other daughter, Ellen, while Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman occasionally reprised their respective roles as Eunice and Ed. Despite the original concept being a hit on The Carol Burnett Show, it initially required some tweaking when striking out on its own.

“In hindsight I think, ‘God, there’s a reason why they do pilots and you retool, rewrite, recast and all of that,’ because we had to figure out who Mama’s Family was while we were on the ground running,” says Lawrence. “We had to phase out Harvey and Carol, and it had to go from being sort of Eunice’s family to Mama’s family and who was that and who was the protagonist, etc. It was a real challenge for our writers. Looking back, I didn’t fully appreciate what a tough job they had.

“So we went to work doing the series, but after two or three episodes it didn’t feel right to me at all. It felt very dark, almost mean-spirited and a bit too serious, kind of much the way it was in the Burnett sketches. I threw my hands up and said, ‘You guys, I need help. We’ve got to bring Harvey in.’ Harvey was such a mentor to me, and he sat me down and said, ‘You know, Mama can’t be this mean old lady who people will tune into each week and watch her scream and yell at everybody for a half hour. It’s not going to work anymore. She has to be a sitcom character now and be silly and funny.’ I said to Harvey, ‘But I don’t even feel like she’s ever smiled.’ He said to me, ‘You are her; you are the characters that you play. Anything you can do, she can do.’ For whatever reason, Harvey’s speech sort of set the Mama character free and I think our fans actually did buy that old lady doing just about anything in that series.”

Mama’s Family ran for two years on NBC before moving into first-run syndication for another four seasons. In between the move, Rue McClanahan and Betty White were cast in what would become another long-running sitcom, The Golden Girls, so their characters as well as Sonja and Buzz were written out of the show along with Eunice and Ed, who moved to Florida. Allan Kayser joined the show as Mama’s delinquent teenage grandson Bubba Higgins, and Beverly Archer was cast as Mama’s next-door neighbor and best friend Iola Boylan. As the seasons passed, Lawrence and her fellow castmates became more and more comfortable in their roles, and in the process, the show went from strength to strength.

“We were watching an episode a few weeks ago, "The Wedding, Part 2," where Eunice sings at Naomi’s wedding, and it was just so funny,” says the actress. “I had Carol, Harvey, Rue, Betty, Dorothy Lyman and Ken Berry as my supporting cast. It was like a who’s who of television comedy and pretty darn incredible.

“I feel we really hit our stride when we went into first-run syndication. We were a tight little good band of lunatics,” she says. “We had a ball, and those characters were so well-written. Not too long ago I was talking to our executive producer and I said, ‘There were many times that I would take a script home over the weekend to read and think, 'Oh, God, I hope this is funny.' Then you would get to the script reading on Monday where you would hear it come out of the right characters’ mouth and all of a sudden it was hysterical. That’s good character comedy.”

Besides The Carol Burnett Show and Mama’s Family, Lawrence has guest starred on several other TV shows and appeared in numerous TV specials. The actress has also been a game show emcee as well as a panelist on a variety of popular game shows such as Match Game, Password and Hollywood Squares. A talented singer as well, she is probably best known for her #1 hit, "The Night That the Lights Went Out in Georgia," which was written by Lawrence’s first husband Bobby Russell and released on Bell Records in November 1972. Although she was discovered by Carol Burnett at the age of 17 and became her protégé, the entertainment industry was not a career path that Lawrence originally set her sights on.

“I didn’t ever think I would be doing this,” says the actress. “I thought I wanted to learn to clean teeth, be a dental hygienist, marry a rich dentist and hang it up. That’s really what I thought I was going to do. I grew up in very close proximity to Hollywood, my dad worked there at Max Factor and it’s where I did most everything, but it never occurred to me to do it [acting] for a living. So I kind of feel like I wrote Carol a fan latter and was then ‘kidnapped’ by show business,” jokes Lawrence. “I’ve been extremely lucky to have a lot of fun and have such amazing fans. It’s pretty rewarding to have people tell you, ‘Oh, my God, you made me laugh.’”

Over the years, thousands of TV shows and their characters have come and gone. Some fade into obscurity while others become part of TV history and remain in peoples’ hearts long after speaking their final lines. Lawrence’s iconic Mama is certainly one such character who will never be forgotten by her fans.

“There’s an underlying truth and reality to these characters, and I think Mama is sort of very true to her generation,” muses Lawrence. “Yes, they’re over the top and ridiculously silly, and that’s what’s fun about laughing at them, but I think everyone knows these characters because everyone has a Mama in his or her family. That, again, is what makes them so real and true. I mean, here comes Thanksgiving and somewhere a Mama will be sitting at the table saying the most ridiculous thing. After dinner, you and your sister will be in the kitchen and saying, ‘Can you believe she said that.’ Then you realize, ‘Jeez, she’s kind of right, you know?’ That’s how it goes in every family.”

To find out more about the Mama's Family DVDs check out the official site.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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