Vicki Lawrence: America's Favorite Mama

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Long before Tyler Perry made himself up to look like an old woman, the young Vicki Lawrence was putting on the padding and powder to make herself into Thelma Harper for The Carol Burnett Show. The character was too big to be held to sketch comedy, however, and insisted on having her own show, giving rise to six seasons of the fan favorite situation comedy, Mama’s Family.

As Time Life presents the complete series on DVD, and Vicki tours the country with her “two woman show” of herself and Mama Harper (see for details and schedules), we were privileged to steal a few moments to look back at the roots of Mama’s Family.

Can you recall your feelings, and the audience reaction, the very first time you walked out on a stage in the persona of Mama?

The first time we did that sketch, we the actors knew we had something really special, and we thoroughly enjoyed doing it. The writers were very upset with us, so it kind of remained to be seen. But it was so beautifully received by the audience. Of course, back in the day that would have been snail mail and phone calls.

Mama was written for Carol. It was her decision to play Eunice, it was her decision that I should play Mama, and it was her decision to do it Southern. And the writers were very upset with us – they thought we had ruined their beautiful sketch, which they wrote as a one-time homage to the both of their dysfunctional families, because they both hated their mothers – and they just never intended to have to write it again. But it got so much positive feedback… I can’t remember the audience the first time we did it, but I know we felt we had something special.

So Carol gave up the role of Mama, and gave it to you.

She did! I often said it was “yet another gift from Carol.”

And when she told you that the setting was going to be Southern, did you have any Southern influences that you drew from to transform into Thelma Harper?

Well, I had a Southern mother-in-law, ever so briefly, so maybe her a little bit, although she was much sweeter than Thelma Harper, God knows. Other than that, I think I was really just trying to do an older version of Carol’s Eunice. I maybe drew on my own mother – my mother was slightly left of center and a little dysfunctional. My mother used to call me after our sketches and say I take that woman way too seriously. So I must have been doing a pretty good job if it was hitting home that closely.

Certainly we’re fans of Mama’s Family in this house, and the character resonates with us. Why do you think Mama Harper resonates with so many people?

I think there’s an element of truth to her. There’s an underlying truth to that whole family, and I think everybody has people like that in their family so everybody sort of relates to it. I would think of her like Archie Bunker – we all know that person, and all of us have somebody like that in our family, so it’s good to see it validated for us on television so we can laugh at it.

I have a really good friend who’s a psychologist, and she’s told me often that anybody who says they’re not living in a dysfunctional family is living alone. So we’re all going through it, I guess.

With the possible exception of The Honeymooners, Mama’s Family is the first time I can recall a variety show sketch transforming into a full-blown sitcom.

Yes, we were trying to figure that out one day while we were doing the bonus features, and The Honeymooners was the only thing we could come up with. And then I said, “Well, what about The Simpsons?” They, too, came from a variety show. They’re both great blue collar comedies.

At what point – during The Carol Burnett Show or after – was the idea presented for turning the sketch into a series?

The best I can remember it was at the beginning of the tenth season. Carol’s husband, Joe Hamilton, who was the executive producer of the show, pulled me aside one day. I remember the conversation vividly, and it’s funny because Carol knew nothing about this (she says). I remember they were blocking on stage for some other sketch, and he pulled me aside and we sat down in the audience, and he said, “I want to take Mama. I have an offer to do a series.” I had just been pregnant, and was very reluctant to put on a fat pad and be an old lady every week, and I said, “Well, what about Harvey and Carol?” And he said, “You don’t need them.” “I don’t need them? What if it doesn’t work?” And he said, “Then you’ll come back here.” And I said, “With my tail tucked between my legs? I don’t want to do that!”

And I said no, which was very disappointing to him. Carol, of course, was thrilled, because she said, “That means we get to do it on my show.” Then after the show went off the air, Carol owed CBS a special, and she commissioned a 90 minute play from the same two writers, called “Eunice” – basically it was sort of a history of Eunice. Before it ever even aired, Carol invited us up to the house to screen it one night, and my husband said, “You just wait. They’re going to ask you back to do the series.” And no sooner had the credits started rolling, Carol said, “You have got to do this. You have to!” She and Harvey [Korman] and Joe Hamilton were all just so sure, and it was at that point that I decided, okay, let’s go ahead and do it.

I believe – so the legend goes – that Joe sold Mama’s Family to Grant Tinker, who was the CEO of NBC at the time, on the golf course with no pilot. I look back, and we had some challenges in the beginning. My challenge was to take Mama from being such an angry, mean, one-dimensional character and turning her into a sitcom star. And the writers had the challenge of figuring out who the hell Mama’s family was while we were on the ground running. They had to phase Harvey and Carol out, so then where does all the drama come from? Where does all the antagonism come from? It was a big job.

The dynamics really did morph and shift as the show progressed. You started out with one family, and then two seasons in you had people departing and other’s coming in, and some just simply disappearing.

Yeah, we were on NBC for a year and a half, and I think basically because the show was greenlighted with no pilot, the young guys at NBC didn’t understand – they didn’t really embrace rural comedy at all, which I’m not sure Hollywood ever has, and yet some of our best sitcoms have been rural – and they didn’t understand a young woman playing an old woman. They never got it. So they just kept shifting us around to tougher and tougher time slots, until I feel they had the ammunition to go ahead and cancel us. And it was during that year and a half we sat before we went into first run syndication that I lost both Betty White and Rue McClanahan to The Golden Girls . What are the odds of losing two-thirds of your main cast?

But then we had the option when we went into first-run syndication to retool the past to make it more what we wanted. The kids went away who were in the NBC version, because I honestly don’t think they ever got a chance to develop. And that was sort of a network thing: “We need two teenagers in there.” That’s what the network demanded. And it was interesting, I was listening to our executive producer talking in our bonus features, and he said, “It’s hard to drop a couple of normal teenagers into such a dysfunctional family.” Because most of those characters had a great back story, but the kids didn’t. They never really got a chance to shine.

So when we got a chance to go again in first run syndication, we were able to go more on our own terms.

Thelma Harper has followed you far beyond The Carol Burnett Show and Mama’s Family. I saw your performance in one of the Nunsense musicals, and lo and behold, during the intermission, there on the stage is Mama Harper! Does this happen to you regularly, where you’ll be doing a project and be asked to bring Mama with you?

Oh sure! Because they love her! I often think I could fall off the face of the Earth as long as Mama was around. I’m not sure anyone would really miss me. She’s so much more popular than I am. She’s much funnier than I am.

I remember when we did that. Danny Goggin is a real good friend of mine, and we thought, wouldn’t it be fun just to bring her out for a little cameo?

It’s hard to go anywhere and not bring Mama along, because everyone loves her so much.

How do you think she would translate to audiences today, given that things have changed so much since the eighties? Or is she more timeless, with her values rooted?

Oh, she’s definitely timeless. She’s on the road with me. I do “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show,” and I knew when I put the show together about ten years ago that I had to bring Mama out of the closet because everyone loved her so much. So I deliberately, selfishly structured the show so that the first half is… basically, I open for Mama. But I said, “I need to be me before I’m not anymore.” So I do the first half of the show, then we run a bunch of out-takes, and then Mama comes on. And I said, let’s just push Mama right on into the new century, and let her comment on everything that’s driving everybody else crazy. Anything that’s politically incorrect, she can talk about. Anything that’s bugging Vicki that I would like to get off my chest, Mama gets the joke. So she gets all the good jokes, she gets to stay very topical. She’s out there working and commenting on the world.

You say that you have to be yourself before you’re not anymore. Do you ever find yourself in casual conversation and realize that it’s not you anymore, but Mama?

Oh….! Well, no. I’m able to separate these two people. She’s actually the only character I’ve ever played that I can watch the old shows, and it’s not like watching me, to me. I watch this great, funny old lady, and she’s really good and I enjoy her thoroughly. But I don’t ever find myself critiquing her. It’s not like it’s me. And I don’t know what that means, but I just thoroughly enjoy her, and I am totally able to separate her from me.

It’s like she’s become her own person.

Yeah, she is her own person.

Well congratulations on the release of Mama’s Family: The Complete Series from Time Life. It took far too long to happen. We’ve had the first season forever, it seems, and had almost given up hope for the future releases.

You know, they did Season One, and they didn’t. I’m not sure what really happened there, but it was totally panned on Amazon. I was reading about it, and our fans know every single thing that’s missing, and if it’s not the way it was, they don’t like it. Time Life went into the vault – Joe Hamilton’s son has everything – and they took the masters, so it’s going to be exactly the way it aired on television. When we went into syndication, the shows are shorter; the NBC version was actually a longer show. So all of the intros that Harvey did are back. It’s the original master, with all the music and all the jokes. Time Life just does a beautiful job. And with all the bonus features, our fans will thoroughly enjoy it.