One of the most iconic TV series of all time is The Carol Burnette show. There were so many brilliant sketches and actors in that series but none that have engrained itself into the world of TV more so than Mama’s Family. Sure the series started out to be a sketch focusing on Burnette’s character Eunice, but it was Vicki Lawrence’s portrayal of Thelma Harper aka Mama that stole the show. In 1983 the sketch spun into its own series forever cementing Mama and Vicki Lawrence more in our hearts and living rooms than ever before. StarVista Entertainment and Time Life have dipped into their vault to bring the hit classic series Mama’s Family to DVD in an all-new DVD set featuring all 130 episodes of the beloved series. I had the chance to sit down with the brilliant and talented Mama herself Vicki Lawrence to discuss this classic series.
Bobby: Going back to the beginning was Thelma Harper a character you created or just one you were cast in?
Vicki: It was actually a one-time sketch that was written by two of the writers on Carol’s show. They both hated their mothers so they created this homage to their dysfunctional families and they lovingly wrote Mama for Carol and when she saw the final draft she felt that Eunice was that part that spoke to her. She wanted to play Eunice which was very upsetting to them and she thought I should play Mama which was doubly upsetting to them. Then when we got into rehearsal she told them we needed to do it Southern because it was like Tennessee Williams on acid which really upset them and they walked out of rehearsal the first time we ran it and said we ruined it. On the contrary we got such positive feedback that they could not write those sketches fast enough for her. I would have to say her favorite character to do on the Carol Burnette Show was Eunice.
Bobby: As the popularity of the sketches grew, how soon did they start to discuss doing the series?
Vicki: There was a lot of discussion about Mama before we did it. Her husband Joe Hamilton was the executive producer of the Burnette Show and he pulled me to the side I believe it was at the beginning of the tenth season and he wanted to spin Mama off into a series. I had just spent nine months being pregnant and did not want to be an old lady in a fat suit every week and I said what about Carol and Harvey? He said that I didn’t need them, so I said I don’t think so and what if it doesn’t work. He said I could just come back there and I said no. He was very disappointed, but Carol was thrilled because we would still get to do it on her show. We continued on and did seasons 10 and 11, we went off the air and Carol owed CBS a special so she commissioned a movie called Eunice that was a 90 minute teleplay of the history of Eunice. We were able to get it done in time to get it as one of the bonus features in the set because most people have not seen it since 1982. We did the special for CBS and it did incredibly well in the ratings, I was nominated for an Emmy and we were up at Carol’s house screening it one night and the credits were barely starting to roll and Carol jumped up and said you have got to do this as a series. I listened to her and it put the ball in motion. Joe then went to Grant Tinker who was the CEO at NBC at the time and sold him Mama’s Family on the golf course without a pilot. Now there is a reason you do a pilot and re-cast and re-tool. Now it’s up to the writers figure out who the hell is Mama’s Family while we are on the ground running. I had issues with the character because after the Burnett show she just didn’t feel like a sitcom character. We had to get some new writers, I brought Harvey in to help me and he said “You know you are the characters you play and anything you can do she can do” and he sort of set her lose and she became this fun sitcom character. It was a large evolution from the Burnett Show, to Eunice and to the series.
Bobby: In the skits she always seemed a bit more angry and hostile than she did in the series.
Vicki: Yeah defiantly.
Bobby: Was that a conscience change to try and expand and make her more likable and less angry all the time?
Vicki: Like Harvey had said she had to be a sitcom star now. People don’t want to come home and pop open a beer and watch her scream at people for half an hour every week. It worked in the confines of the Burnette Show but it didn’t work as a sitcom. She had to change a lot for the series.
Bobby: When you shifted it into the series how much control did you have as far as bringing in the cast and developing the show or were you just the star and it just built around you?
Vicki: It was just kind of built around me and I was really lucky enough to take much of the staff from the Burnette Show to Mama’s Family, so it was like taking my whole family with me. It was very much a Cinderella story, but I was busy worrying about my character and I such good people around me to help build the show. They brought Ken Berry along who is the most underrated comedian in the world. I remember Rue McClanahan came in dressed in complete drag and there was never any doubt that she was aunt Fran. Dorothy Lyman was there because Carol and I were both in love with her from when she was on All My Children. I remember thinking one day that I wish we could find someone like Opal Gardner which was the character she played and unbeknownst to me Carol and Joe were thinking the same thing. Betty White had guested on the Burnett sketches so was a logical guest star on the series.
Bobby: When you’re doing a show like this it’s more obvious that you would have Harvey and Carol, but was it harder to get some of the others since it was a different type of setting?
Vicki: No it was probably like family to them too. The unfortunate thing was when the NBC show ended we took a year and a half break which is when I lost both Rue and Betty to the Golden Girls. That necessitated us thinking when we went into first run syndication because we had to re-cast but we get to do it on our terms. Who was going to be the antagonists and how is this cast going to go together now?
Bobby: When you’re playing a character that is obviously older than you are in real life did you have to do a lot of research to try to make sure you were able to present the character at the proper age?
Vicki: I don’t think so; I played a lot of older people on Carol’s show. When Mama came along it was just another old lady to play. For some reason I put on that outfit and people buy it. I look at these pictures that are on the DVD set and look at my face and I am like “Oh, my God. I am so young.” I wasted my youth on Mama. (laughing) For some reason it just seemed to be a gift of mine playing old people I guess.
Bobby: Looking at those pictures and the show you do look young, but was there ever a discussion on the show to do an old lady make-up?
Vicki: There was a big discussion when we went to series. Do we now do an old like Estelle Getty on The Golden Girls because now we have the luxury of being able to do that. Al, my husband, was the make-up man on the Burnett show and said “Why would you change the face that everyone it familiar with and loves?” On the Burnett show we didn’t have time to do that kind of stuff. Luckily for me I didn’t have to do much of anything on Mama’s Family.
Bobby: When the new set being released, is there any plan to get people back together for a reunion?
Vicki: Not yet, but I am hopeful because I think it would be a lot of fun.
Bobby: I greatly appreciate you doing this. I grew up on the show and it is a real honor to get speak with you.
Vicki: Thank you very much.
Be sure to grab your copy of Mama’s Family: The Complete Series by clicking on the lick here.