By G. Michael Dobbs
Vicki Lawrence is having a busy day. She’s juggling media interviews, waiting for the piano tuner and talking over her barking dog, but she is clearly enjoying the fact that her long-running sit-com “Mama’s Family” is finally coming out on DVD.
Lawrence followed up her many years as a cast member on “The Carol Burnett Show” with a spin-off of the popular “The Family” sketches. “Mama’s Family” ran for two seasons on NBC and then an additional four years in first-run syndication.
Lawrence explained to Reminder Publications
that when she was taping interview segments for the bonus features for the DVD release of “The Carol Burnett Show” she would ask executives from Time Life video if “Mama’s Family” could also be released.
“They said it was never going to happen,” Lawrence recalled. She said she received “the whole lecture” about how difficult it can be to secure the legal clearances to make such a release possible.
She added, though, “Unbeknownst to me, they were fishing around.”
Obtaining the rights to the music in the show proved to be a task, but the DVD producers “kept trudging ahead,” Lawrence said.
The result – every episode is now on DVD, available by the season or in one single set.
Lawrence was happy to see the kind of extras the DVD producers added, including the 1982 made-for-television movie “Eunice,” based on the Burnett sketches that garnered an Emmy nomination for Lawrence.
It was that movie that Burnett “looked me in the eyes” and told her she needed to do a spin-off as Thelma Harper, the matriarch of the show, Lawrence recalled.
“Mama’s Family,” set in the Southern community of Raytown, tells the story of a somewhat dysfunctional family. Lawrence said, “It’s still pretty funny to laugh at.”
The character of “Mama” was a plain-spoken one dealing with her extended family who had come to live with her.
She explained, “Raytown was a funny little bubble ... guest stars would come on the show and ask if it was a period piece and I’d say, ‘No, this is modern times.’”
“The Family” sketches on the Burnett show mixed laughs with pathos and at times they were “heartbreaking,” she said,
“Within the confines of the Burnett show that works,” Lawrence said. “They were like little playlets.”
When approached to do the spin-off, despite having played the role for years, Lawrence said, “My struggle was to find ‘Mama.’”
She said, “It didn’t feel funny. It didn’t feel right.”
Lawrence noted that during all the time she played the character there hadn’t been one time she had smiled.
One of her Burnett co-stars, Harvey Korman, provided valuable advice to her as the sit-com was being planned. She said that Korman told her, “You are her. Anything you can do, she can do.”
She added, “That gave me the responsibility to set her free.”
“Mama’s Family” came to being without even shooting a pilot, Lawrence explained. The show’s producer, Joe Hamilton, sold the idea to Grant Tinker, the head of NBC in 1982 while the men were playing golf.
The writers assigned to the project had to come up with a version of the characters that were similar, yet different. Although Korman was involved with the first two season of the show, Burnett was not.
Both Rue McClanahan and Betty White were co-stars on the show.
The show was broadcast on NBC for two years and then cancelled due to slumping ratings. That didn’t kill it though.
Lawrence said that with the first-run syndication deal, they could re-make the show without network interference. NBC had insisted on two teenage characters – two normal kids in the middle of people with a dysfunctional back story” – but they were removed.
“We re-cast, re-thought and re-tooled [the show],” Lawrence explained. “It was very liberating.”
Lawrence noted that both McClanahan’s and White’s characters also had to be written out as both actresses had been cast on “The Golden Girls.”
The syndication producers at Telepictures “didn’t meddle like the suits at the network,” Lawrence said, and allowed the show’s staff to make it as they saw fit.
“First time syndication was a very new thing,” Lawrence said. “It was like working in a vacuum. We were doing our own thing and having an awfully good time doing it.”
What made the production of the show easier is that she had brought over many of the staff with whom she had worked for years from the Burnett show, she said.
“It was very comforting and familiar,” she added.
The show became the highest rated syndicated show on television.
Although she said with a laugh she could have gone on playing the character, the show ended in 1990, but has been re-broadcast on several cable channels including a nine year run on TBS.
Lawrence said that she was “definitely” typecast as “Mama” in some people’s eyes.
“It’s problematical, but it’s an iconic, wonderful character,” she added. Lawrence does tout with a “two-woman” stage show – her and “Mama.”
She has appeared on many television programs since that time and most recently had a recurring role as Miley Cyrus’s grandmother on “Hanna Montana.”
A mother of two, Lawrence said her experience as “Mama” has an influence on her own parenting style. “It makes you think twice before you shoot your mouth off.”
She admitted with a laugh, “In general I agree more with ‘Mama’ as I get older.”