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Mama knows best: an interview with Vicki Lawrence

"Vicki Lawrence and 'Mama'" runs Jan. 25 and 26 at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino.
"Vicki Lawrence and 'Mama'" runs Jan. 25 and 26 at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino.
Kevin Scott Hees

One of television’s most iconic stars is returning to Las Vegas Jan. 25 and 26—and she’s bringing Vicki Lawrence along with her.

“A lot of people think she’s a real person,” Lawrence told of Thelma Mae Crowley Harper, better known to millions as Mama from the classic ’80s TV show “Mama’s Family.” “They’ll see me and ask, ‘Where’s Mama?’ like she should be waiting in the car and I should go get her.”

Performing her hilarious two-woman show “Vicki Lawrence and ‘Mama,’” Lawrence jokingly stated that she’ll be opening for her alter ego during her two-night engagement at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino.

“My half of the show is sort of autobiographical,” Lawrence explained. “I answer all of the questions people want to know then come out as Mama for the second half. I always say whenever I get to perform as Mama it’s my chance to be Chris Rock and just say whatever I’m thinking. I’m sort of jealous of Mama. She’s much more popular than I am and she gets all the good jokes.”

While Lawrence admitted she never thought she’d still be performing as Mama 40 years after the character made her debut on “The Carol Burnett Show” in the wildly popular sketch The Family, she understands her everlasting appeal.

“Everyone has a crazy old lady in their family like Mama,” she said. “No one ever comes up to me and says Mama is just like them, so no one is ever offended by her. Even young people like to laugh at her. I think she helps kids appreciate their own grandmothers more.”

Lawrence gets a lot of joy out of the character as well, especially when it comes to bringing her up to speed on everything that’s going on in the world today.

“She’s so easy to write for,” Lawrence said. “She just thinks like the average person; she’s the voice of reason. There are just so many crazy things going on in the world. I was just applying for life insurance and got a call saying the underwriter wanted to know about my recent trip to Mexico. I told them I was down there to start my own Dallas Buyers Club. My husband just glared at me and told me not to lie. Everyone knows everything these days, though. You say one wrong thing and it’s splattered all over the Internet.”

While Lawrence may enjoy bringing Mama into the modern world, she recently got a chance to reflect on the character’s earlier years when “Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” made its debut on DVD last July from Time Life and StarVista Entertainment.

“It was a lot of fun,” Lawrence replied when asked about recording the bonus features for the 24-disc set. “A lot of things were brought up that I never thought of, like Beverly Archer (who played Iola on the show) mentioned how we were all color-coded: Mama was lavender, Iola was bright pink, Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) was yellow, Bubba (Allan Kayser) was green and Vinton (Ken Berry) was brown. We had such a great costume designer, though, who lovingly designed everything. We also discussed how we weren’t really a classic sitcom. We were one of the very few shows that were spun off from a variety show (‘The Carol Burnett Show’)—we were sort of half sitcom, half outrageous sketch comedy show. It was interesting to dissect that after the fact.”

Lawrence wishes, however, that the technology was around back then that’s available today so viewers could have gotten more of a behind-the-scenes look at the show.

“I wish we had saved all of our outtakes,” she said. “There were a few included on the DVD release, but who knows where the rest ended up.”

While Mama may owe her start to “The Carol Burnett Show,” Lawrence owes much of her success to the series’ star, who famously accepted Lawrence’s invitation to the local fire department’s Miss Fireball Contest when Lawrence was just a senior in high school after she sent in a newspaper article to Burnett mentioning their resemblance. At the time, Burnett was looking for an actress to play her sister in a new variety series—“The Carol Burnett Show”—and the rest, as they say, is history. While Lawrence credits Burnett with “nurturing" her along (“I was such a kid when I first started—she gave me so much advice”), Burnett has since told her protégé that she thinks Lawrence would have found her way into show business with or without her—although Lawrence isn’t quite sure how.

“Even though I was in close proximity to everything, it never really dawned on me to pursue a career in show business,” the California native said. “I always thought I’d go to college, study dental hygiene, marry a dentist and eventually hang it all up. I always loved [entertainment] and took dance and music classes—I even performed a lot in high school—but it never occurred to me to pursue it full-time. I read this article once where Susan Sarandon said she never pursued show business, show business found her, and I feel the same way.”

Like Burnett, Lawrence is a consummate performer—so much so that, when asked if she had any favorite restaurants in town, Lawrence replied that she never eats too much before a show because she doesn’t want “any surprises onstage.”

“Then I don’t eat much after because it’s so late,” she said.

What Lawrence does like to do when she’s in town, however, is shop at The Forum Shops at Caesars. As for what she typically eats to keep her svelte figure, Lawrence said that, like most people, she’s trying to eat healthy in the new year, sticking to mainly soups and salads (“I don’t do buffets,” she said). Of course, like anyone else, she does have her weaknesses.

“I do love pasta,” Lawrence acknowledged. “It gets me into trouble. If I could give up pasta and bread, I’d look like Cate Blanchett.”

As for what the future holds for Vicki Lawrence and Mama, when asked if there was any chance of bringing Mama to the big screen, Lawrence admitted there has been talk “on and off,” but nothing is set in stone.

“I would love to do it, though,” she said.

For now, Lawrence is just happy being on the road with Mama and looking forward to performing once again at the Suncoast.

“The local crowd there really works well for me,” she said. “I think people are always surprised, like, ‘What is she going to do for 90 minutes?’ But I’ve had people tell me it’s the funniest show they’ve ever seen. It’s great for people who are nostalgic for that time in TV history.”

“Vicki Lawrence and ‘Mama’” runs Jan. 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. inside the Suncoast Showroom. Tickets start at $15.95, plus tax and convenience fees. For tickets, call 702-636-7075 or simply click here.

“Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” is now available on DVD. “Mama’s Family: The Complete Third Season” debuts on DVD as a single season release Feb. 25.

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