Vicki Lawrence Reflects on 'Mama's Family' Legacy and Reveals Her Favorite Episodes (Q&A)
As a limited-edition DVD set becomes available, the actress who brought Thelma Harper to life talks to THR about her inspiration for the character and some of her most surprising fans.
Vicki Lawrence created one of TV's more memorable characters when she debuted Thelma Mae Harper -- aka "Mama" -- on The Carol Burnett Show in 1974.
The character was a supporting player in the show's "The Family" sketches before getting spun off into her own series, Mama's Family, which first aired on NBC (from 1983-84), then moved into first-run syndication (1986-90), where it underwent some casting changes.
The character, of course, is a smart-aleck woman in her 60s who shares her house with her dim-witted son, Vinton (Ken Berry) and his lascivious wife, Naomi (Dorothy Lyman); and girl-crazy grandson Bubba (Allan Kayser, who co-starred in the syndicated version); and is often visited by their neighbor Iola (Beverly Archer, also an addition to the syndicated version), Mama's best friend.
Other recurring characters included Thelma's daughters, Eunice (Carol Burnett) and Ellen (Betty White); Eunice's husband, Ed (Harvey Korman); and Thelma's sister, Fran (Rue McClanahan). (In the NBC version, Vint's kids -- Buzz (Eric Brown) and Sonja (Karin Argoud) -- also lived with Mama, but they were written out of the syndicated iteration.)
Now, Mama's Family fans for the first time will be able to purchase the entire series via StarVista Entertainment/Time Life. The limited-edition signature set Mama's Family: The Complete Series -- 500 units hand-signed by Lawrence will be available for $299.95 (the regular edition retails at $199.95) -- features all 130 episodes on 24 DVDs along with 10 hours of specially created programming including a cast reunion roundtable, all-new cast and crew interviews, a feature where Lawrence “interviews” Mama, an exclusive new Burnett and Lawrence interview, the 1982 CBS TV movie Eunice, which takes the Harper family on a 23-year journey, an introductory note penned by Lawrence, key "Family" sketches from The Carol Burnett Show and a collectible "Mama's Family Album" featuring character bios. (The DVD sets, available at MamasFamilyDVDs.com, ship this week.)
Ahead of the release, Lawrence talked to The Hollywood Reporter to reflect on the show's legacy, Thelma's enduring appeal and her surprising fans.
This DVD set appears to have several goodies for fans.
The most exciting thing is all the episodes are perfect and uncut. I first worked with [StarVista/Time Life] last year when they put together the DVD [Signature Set] of The Carol Burnett Show. I just remember saying to them in passing, "God, I hope this happens for Mama's Family." Fans all the time are saying, "How can I get it?" Every time I ask, I think, "It's never going to happen." I'd tell fans to pirate it off the Internet. I did. I bought a pirated copy. It says "complete season," and I got it from some idiot website. It looks like somebody did it in their garage in high school -- not even, junior high. It was awful. I was so depressed. … But four or five months ago, it started to look like it was going to happen. "Oh my god, they are actually working on it." The cast reunion, the bonus features.
Who from the cast had you kept in touch with?
Oh my gosh, everybody. We started making all those first hopeful calls. It was amazing. We were so excited. I knew they would do a beautiful job [on the DVD set]. The attention to detail is just great, and there will finally be a loving, beautifully packaged homage to Mama.
The show seems to have a timeless appeal. Why do you think that is?
It always was sort of timeless. Guest stars would ask, "What time period is this?" They thought we were a period piece. I said, "Well, I think it's now." It's set in Raytown, which is sort of this magical bubble. I'm on the road a lot, and middle America is a lot like Raytown sometimes, but it's just sort of this magical place where the stores and restaurants had funny little names. Allan Kayser said all the towns around us were named for mass murderers -- Hinkley, Oswald Caverns -- which was really funny. The writers, there was just such attention to detail. … Because the show was spawned from a sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, it turned into this sitcom hybrid -- an over-the-top sitcom that was stuck in that funny little space of its own. It was a little niche and became a lot of people's guilty pleasure. They weren't topical, which is why it holds up.
What did you base the character on?
Back in the day -- I was 24 the first time I played her -- I … briefly had a Southern mother-in-law for a moment. I was married for 10 minutes into a Southern family. There's a little bit of her. And a lot more than I realized of my own mother. I discovered that I tend to think a little more like her as I get older -- I tell it like it is. I've reached the age where I've earned the right to say what I'm thinking, and other people have to deal with it. In the new interview with Carol [on the DVD], it's interesting because really neither one of us has a crystal-clear memory of exactly how Mama's Family happened. I knew things she didn't, and vice versa. It's like the game of post office; generally the story changes just slightly from actor to actor. It's the legend of Mama.
Can you talk a little bit about the other bonus features on the DVD set?
Fans are just going to love all the bonus features. They did a really cute interview where I got to "interview" Mama, which is fun -- but was not as fun [to do] as it looks on camera. We did the interviews separately -- there was not an actual person [standing in] -- so it turned out much cuter than it was, or cuter than it felt. … And for those fans who love the show, they will now see all the episodes. I was reading reviews of the Warner DVD [of early seasons] on Amazon, and there were horrible reviews because they cut them and edited them a little bit. They cut out Harvey [Korman]'s introductions as Alastair Quince -- I'm not sure why. Time Life was able to go directly to Joe Hamilton Productions and get all the original masters, complete and untouched, and they were able to clear almost all the music. That was a giant hurdle that held up The Carol Burnett Show for so long.
You're also still playing Mama (Lawrence regularly hosts the stage show Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show).
When I put my show together, I don't want to be stuck in a Mama's Family time warp. I want to push into the new century. It's a one-woman show where I'm doing stand-up with an old woman, a chance to say what I'm thinking, to be Chris Rock, Robin Williams, to say what's on my mind and not stay politically correct. It's great fun to keep it topical and lash out.
Do you have a favorite moment or memory from the series?
There are so many. I thoroughly enjoy watching "Rashomama," a takeoff of the Japanese film Rashomon where Dorothy, me, Carol and Betty -- first of all, just to be on camera with all these ladies was a treat -- but Mama is in the kitchen cooking and gets hit in the head with a pot and goes to the emergency room. Every woman has a [different] version of what happened. We redid the scene with different props and costumes and characters; it was a very funny episode. And I love all episodes where this totally dysfunctional family went out into the real world, like to play Jeopardy! or Family Feud. Richard Dawson was hysterical on the show. The dirty dancing ["Very Dirty Dancing"] -- we had a lot of music on the show.
Before shooting the cast reunion, how long had it been since you were all together?
They mentioned to me that we did a reunion for my talk show [Vicki] in the '90s that I had forgotten about. That was the last time we saw each other, all of us [together], and it was just amazing to catch up with everybody. It was great -- like no time had passed, really.
What kind of reaction do you get from fans these days?
On the street, people always ask me where she is, where's Mama, like I should be able to pull her out of a car. "Hold on, I'll go get her." People tell me how much she reminds them of their own family. … Everybody has a dysfunctional family. I have a really good friend [who studied] psychology who told me many times that anybody who is not living in a dysfunctional family is living alone. That's why we all relate to her; we relate to the dysfunction in our own families. Nobody ever says to me they're offended by it; it's kind of like Archie Bunker -- everybody knows somebody like that in their family.
Any surprising experiences with fans?
When I first started doing [the "two-woman" show], all these college kids showed up, and I really expected the audience to be a little older. But some of the college kids say they never would have gotten through without Mama. It's interesting to see how many generations it spans. Kids love her.