Vicki Lawrence never thought she’d have such a long and varied career back when she wrote Carol Burnett a fan letter that included a newspaper article mentioning their resemblance. Burnett, looking for someone to play her kid sister on her variety series, went to see Lawrence compete in a “Miss Fireball Contest.” (Yes, Lawrence won the contest . . . and the role).
Lawrence appeared on 11 seasons of the popular show. She had a hit record with “That’s the Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” wrote two books, guest starred on various TV shows, hosted a game and talk show and, of course, starred as irascible Thelma Harper on Mama’s Family, the Carol Burnett Show spin-off that ran from 1983-1990.
StarVista/Time-Life has finally released the series on DVD, (nearly) complete and (nearly) uncut, and Lawrence (and Mama) are ecstatic. Seasons 1 and 2 are available, as well as the entire season. For more information on Mama's Family: The Complete Series visit www.mamasfamilydvds.com; for Mama's Family: Season 1 amzn.com/B00D2UMHB0; for Mama's Family: Season 2 amzn.com/B00DJYK1XU.
Vicki, not Mama, called me the one recent sunny morning on her husband’s cell phone. (She has been married to make-up artist Al Schultz since 1974; they have two grown children, Courtney and Garrett.) Even long distance, Lawrence’s giggly laugh can be heard punctuating comments and criticisms.
Let’s start off by talking about one of the favorite songs of all time, 'That’s the Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.' Set the record straight: It was originally offered to Cher, right?
Of course I can the record straight; I was married to the songwriter [Bobby Russell]. It was going to be offered to Liza Minnelli. I said, 'Liza Minnelli? She’s not right for this kind of song.' Then it was sent to Cher, but Sonny turned it down without her knowing it. If she had sung it would not be the song it became. It would have been some “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” tune.
Fans of Mama’s Family tuned out to Warner Bros. 2006 DVD release of season one. What happened? What happened?
I was reading comments on amazon.com recently, and it was panned by my amazing fans. Warner used the shows that had been cut in syndication, and the fans know if half a joke is missing. And that is fabulous. In that version Harvey Korman’s intros as Alistair Quince were cut, the fans knew that and their reviews proved it. The DVD set was a mess, plus season one was not our strongest. Enter Star Vista/Time-Life. Yes. When I was working on bonus tracks for Carol’s set, I happened to mention that it would be great if Mama’s Family could be released in its entirety. That was my dream. Everyone told me how tough it would be and gave me the same whole lecture about legal stuff and music copyrights and securing permissions. Then I started getting little emails getting asking me who I was still in contact with from the cast, and I thought, ‘Oh my God! It’s happening!’ Yet the show is not totally complete. Right. They needed music clearances to something like 130 songs and hey got them all except two. One of them was the music heard in the Imogene Coca sketch and that broke my heart because, my God! it was Imogene Coca! I was assured the lack of music doesn’t affect the sketch, but the fans will know. I think they’ll be happy though and we have great bonuses, including a family tree.
How critical are you when you now see the show?
Not at all. Mama is a character, and I do laugh at the little old lady. She is not me; it’s like watching another person. She’s more popular than I am. People stop me and ask me where she is. She’s a real person to them. I could fall off the face of the earth and no one would know or miss me. Frankly, I get very jealous of Mama.
She’s a mother who has made you very rich. Why do we watch?
Mama’s Family comes from a core of truth. We all grew up in dysfunctional families; we’ve all been wounded to the core by mothers who said horrible things that stuck with us all our lives. [Laughs] On one of the bonus tracks, Carol recalls meeting a Russian who said, [Lawrence does a spot-on Russian accent] ‘You know, they remind me of my family in Russia.’
Does Mama fart?
[Laughs] When she eats Mexican food she . . . tweets.
Henry Winkler once told me that the Fonz’s image appeared on so many products, but he refused it to appear on toilet paper and little girl’s underwear. Why isn’t Mama out there?
Yeah, why not? She’d be great for so many things . . . adult diapers, dentures. I also think she should call Tyler Perry and hook up with Medea. What a pair they would be!
What sitcoms do you watch?
[Long pause] I think the dramas are better than the comedy shows.
Who makes you laugh? Carol loves Tina Fey.
Yeah, she would do. And Kristen Wiig.
What about Joan Rivers, she with the embalmed face?
[Long pause] God love her. She’s sometimes funny. She says things I would never say.
Where do you keep your Emmy for your work on Carol’s show?
I always kept in the bedroom, but I had the living room redone a few years ago, and the decorator said, “No! It’s got to be out in the living room!’ So now it’s under the TV.
Neil Donovan, the chairman of the National Coalition for the Homeless, criticized you publicly when you made a video spoofing Ted Williams, the homeless man who made headlines a few years ago with his booming voice. Williams said, you were “a woman who has made children's videos with a Christian message and now she's saying some of the most unChristian things imaginable." Any reaction?
[Laughs] That Mama! That was a good excuse from him to come out of woodwork so people could know his name. And I ask you: Where is Ted Williams today?
You appeared with Michael Jackson on Carol’s show. What do you remember about him?
He was so young. And he and the Jackson Five were amazing. Michael didn’t live far from us, and I remember seeing him at Gelson’s Market squeezing the produce.
And then there’s Miley Cyrus.
You played her grandmother Mamaw on Hannah Montana. Oh dear! It’s getting worse now. She’s naked on the cover of Rolling Stone. In the beginning she was talented, very precocious, very much more mature than her age. I am a little concerned since she’s screaming out awfully loud for attention. What would Mama think?