Vicki Lawrence Reflects on 'Mama's Family' Legacy and Reveals Her Favorite Episodes (Q&A)
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) before moving into first-run syndication (from 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 dimwitted son, Vinton (Ken Berry); 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 -- hand-signed by Lawrence, 500 units will be available at the price of $299.95 (the regular edition retails at $199.95) -- featuring 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 of 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 stories 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.