Mama Knows Best:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Everybody has a soft spot for Mama. Sure, we all may love our own moms, but Mama is a pop culture phenomenon and has become one of the most recognizable characters in television history. If you have no idea who I’m referring to, then you probably haven’t owned a TV set in 40 years and have no idea what the internet is – not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But if that is the case, then let me bring you up to date: Mama was a character portrayed by actress, singer and performer Vicki Lawrence. Mama first appeared on a series of sketches entitled The Family that debuted on The Carol Burnett Show in 1974 and continued up through 1978. In these series of sketches, Vicki was joined by Carol as her daughter Eunice, Harvey Korman as Eunice’s husband Ed Higgins and a revolving cast of other players (who were usually guests on that particular episode of the Burnett show). One of the most popular recurring sketches on the show, Vicki portrayed Mama as a stern, yet quick-witted, matriarch who seemed to be constantly annoyed by her family’s often unbecoming shenanigans. When The Carol Burnett Show ended its successful run in 1978, the cast went their separate ways, professionally, and pursued other projects. But that was not the end of Mama and her family…
After a few years off the air, Carol and her then-husband Joe Hamilton approached Vicki about taking Mama to the next level and creating a TV series based on her beloved character. While
Lawrence was initially
hesitant to do the show without Carol and Harvey, she embraced the opportunity
when it was decided that the characters of Eunice and Ed would make cameo
appearances. To add icing on the cake, Harvey
would be co-directing the series and, as ‘host’ Alistair Quince, he would be introducing each episode as well. Titled
Family, the show made its debut on NBC
in 1983 and earned respectable ratings.
With cast members Ken Berry, Rue McLanahan, Betty White and Dorothy
Lyman, they managed to retain the wit of the original sketches and add a
little heart and soul as well. However,
NBC didn’t know what to do with the show and after moving Mama’s Family around in different time slots, the show was cancelled
in the middle of its second season. But
that was not the end of Mama and her family… again!
Mama’s Family went into syndication and immediately started to build a new audience. Within a year, the studio decided to revive the show as one of the earliest first-run syndicated shows in television history. From the original NBC series, only Vicki, Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman returned to reprise their roles – Rue and Betty had already signed on to do The Golden Girls so they were unavailable. The show began its second life in 1986 and continued filming new episodes until 1990. The show remained in syndication for years, although some episodes were edited due to copyright issues that dealt with music used on the show. Even though no new shows were created after 1990, Mama’s Family continued to build a rabid audience that couldn’t get enough of Vicki and the gang. The show’s charming sense of humor has touched many generations of fans over the years, many of whom were not even alive when the characters first appeared on CBS 40 years ago. Thankfully, StarVista Entertainment/Time Life have been able to restore the show to it’s original glory, with music intact, and are releasing each season on special DVD sets. The show looks better than ever and the bonus features are essential for fans of all ages.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Vicki Lawrence about the show, her career and much more….
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: The fourth season of Mama’s Family is just about to be released. How are you feeling about releases and the reaction you’ve received so far from fans?
VICKI LAWRENCE: (StarVista Entertainment/Time Life) did a great job with all the bonus features and it’s really exciting for me because I have had fans asking about this for years. Every time I have asked anybody if this can happen, I’ve gotten a “no.” And when we were finishing up the Carol Burnett DVD set, I mentioned to the Time Life guys that, “Oh my God, this would be my dream for Mama’s Family” because it just doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to happen. And honestly, that stupid little show is a lot of people’s guilty pleasure. (Laughs) And only now that it’s out, people are now coming out of the woodwork that I had no idea were huge fans. Time Life said that a lot of times it’s legal issues or estates, but they set about investigating and about six or seven months went by and all of a sudden I start getting these little emails that said, “By the way, we think we’re going to make a deal. Which cast members are you in touch with? We’re going to need to be shooting bonus features.” I can’t think of anybody else who could do it more beautifully than Time Life does. They just give loving attention to detail. They just do a great job on everything that they do.
SPAZ: I guess a lot of the legal issues involved music clearance. I didn’t realize that there was so much music used on the show!
VICKI: I didn’t either. One of the holdups at one point was all these musical clearances and there were hundreds, and I was like, really – well, really? We did that much music? And then when I got to looking at it I went, “Oh my God, we were a pretty musical little show.” It was really interesting during the roundtable discussions (for the bonus features), talking amongst ourselves, to really listen to the other actors say that the reason they loved the show and they auditioned was because it wasn’t really a sitcom. It was a hybrid. We were wracking our brains trying to think of any other sitcom that came out of a variety show and the only thing we could come up with was The Honeymooners or The Simpsons. Beverly Archer (Lola Boylan) told this wonderful story when we did our roundtable interview about coming to the audition, and she said she peeked at the script at the audition, and she said she was laughing out loud, and she looked around at the other actresses and she could see by their faces that they didn’t get it. She said it was just like one step short of being a sketch. And they just didn’t quite get that this show was going to push the envelope a little bit. You know, like a hybrid between a sitcom and a sketch.
SPAZ: A sketchcom!
VICKI: Yeah! And we go to examining our costumes and it had never honestly occurred to me that we were all color coded. I was always lavender. Lola was always pink. Bubba was always green. Naomi was always yellow and Vinton was always brown. You know, I never thought about it And our wardrobe, the costumes, my God. I think we were probably the last show on television that I can think of that had an amazing wardrobe department that worked for us so lovingly. All those guys are just so incredible.
SPAZ: Mama’s Family was born on The Carol Burnett Show. Do you remember anything about that first sketch?
VICKI: Oh God yes. You know, I do a stage show now and one of the stories I tell is about how Mama came to be and putting together the first sketch and of the writers. Basically, they both hated their mothers so they wrote this beautiful homage to their dysfunctional families. Back in the day, it was typewriters. It was not computers so you’d hear the typewriters going. If you walked by their office you’d hear the typewriters going and then several days later you’d hear all the screaming and yelling. He’d do all the male parts, she’d do all the female parts and then it would be back to the typewriters again. You’d hear that for a few days and it would take them about three weeks to crank one of those out.
Anyway, the first one they wrote they lovingly wrote Mama for Carol and had assumed that they would find a guest star to play Eunice. Carol always got to read the scripts over the weekend before we ever went to table read and she said to the writers, “I want to play Eunice. That’s the part that speaks to me.” So, I think she went to Bob Mackie and she said, “Do you think we could make Vicki Mama?” And he said, “Well yeah,” because by then, he’d made me many crazy old ladies… so this is just like another old lady at the time for me to play.
The writers were very upset from the get go. Then we go into rehearsal and she decides she wants to do it Southern - totally disturbing to the writers. They said “We never meant for it to be Southern. You’ll offend the South.” Carol said “This is nothing if not Tennessee Williams on acid. We’ve gotta do it Southern!” The first time they saw it in rehearsal they got up and walked out and said “You ruined it.” It was only meant to be a one time sketch, but it was very beautiful – they worked so hard on it and they felt so strongly about it. Of course, Carol said “Well, this is the way it’s gonna go on the air because this is the way I wanna do it”… and, of course, she was right. And you know, it doesn’t offend the South. For God’s sake, everybody in this country has those people in their family, you know? We all have them, so the country absolutely loved those characters and so those writers, they couldn’t crank them out fast enough.
SPAZ: Was the first sketch the one with Roddy McDowall?
VICKI: I think he was in the first one we did. I’m not sure he was the first one that aired. That was pretty funny because he had a British accent - he didn’t really have a great southern accent. That was
Britain or something (laughs).
It was really confusing for the writers.
Yeah, they were so upset.
SPAZ: Didn’t Mama’s Family first air five years after the Carol Burnett Show ended? Were you hesitant about doing the show?
VICKI: I was, yes. When the Burnett Show ended, Carol commissioned the movie Eunice. I said to Time Life, “Gee it would be cool if we could get the Eunice movie. I bet nobody’s seen it since 1982 and it’s been sitting on the shelf in the archives at CBS.” And I’ll be damned if they didn’t get that and licensed the rights to it and it’s a bonus feature. So, anyway, the Burnett Show ended in ’78. I know she missed those characters so much that she commissioned that teleplay. We were all in
Hawaii at the time and she came out to the
pool one day with this big script and threw it in front of me and said, “Read
this and see if you want to do it.” So I
read the script and I said, “Well, it’s good.
But Mama dies at the end.” She
said, “Well don’t be greedy!” (laughs) I
said, “It’s not even a good death scene.”
She said, “You want to do this or not?”
I said, “Yes, of course I want to do it.”
I remember we did that and CBS held it forever because they weren’t sure of it. And when they finally did air it, it did incredibly well in the ratings. I got an Emmy nomination. It’s so hysterical because I was in this category with all these serious actresses that year. I think they’ve got the categories a little more cleaned up now-a-days, but back in the day it was a musical, a special, or a miniseries. I mean, it was such a huge conglomerate category and I was in there with like Rita Moreno, Claire Bloom… I mean, it was all really serious stuff and then it’s like me for Mama. And I remember
Harvey saying, “Honey, I am so fucking proud
of you, I can’t stand it.” He said,
“There’s no Goddamn way in hell you’re going to win, but I am so proud of
you.” (Laughs) It was a hysterical category. I think it’s in our bonus features. It was
hysterical. But anyway, before it even
aired, Carol invited us out to dinner to screen the movie and have dinner one
night and Harvey, Carol and Joe Hamilton, they all said you’ve got to do this as a series, and I
said, “But what about you guys?” Carol
said, “You don’t need us. We’ll come and play with you a little bit, but you
don’t need us.” She said, “You are the
nuts and bolts of this family.”
You know, when we first started doing those characters,
said you got the character because the mother is the nuts and bolts of any
family. He said, “You really got the
character.” He never even loved doing Ed.
He did not love that character, and he did it so great too. I thought he was so good at it, but he didn’t
love it. So yeah, they said you’ve got to do it as a series, and I looked at
Carol and I thought, geez, you know, she’s certainly never shot me wrong. And Joe – he actually managed to sell it as a
series to Grant Tinker who was head of NBC at the time. He sold it to him without a pilot on the golf
course. That’s the way the rumor goes.
Consequently, we started on NBC without a pilot and I think all the young guns at NBC didn’t understand. First of all, I don’t think any of the suits ever understand rural comedy.
has never gotten the rural comedies and yet, some of the most beloved comedies
in our legacy were rural. You know, Andy
Griffith and Mayberry RFD and Green
Acres. I mean, there were some
great rural comedies. And they didn’t
understand that and I think they really didn’t understand a young woman playing
an old woman. We never really had their
blessing from the get go so it was a long hard road up to being cancelled. Also, I was listening to our executive
producer when he did his bonus feature interview and he was talking about how
difficult it was. He said there’s a
reason you do a pilot and there’s a reason that you talk about re-casting or
re-tooling or re-writing. It’s very hard
to be given a show that was so well ingrained in everybody’s heads from the Carol Burnett Show. No pilot, and now we have to figure out who Mama’s Family is and maneuver it away
from Eunice’s family. It now has to
become Mama’s family and it has to become a sitcom. It has to become a real comedy because Mama
wasn’t all that funny in a lot of the Burnett sketches. She was very one dimensional and strident and
mean, and I mean, they really had to find their way on the ground running, you
know? So, not an easy job for them at
all. And I never really thought about
SPAZ: You said on some of the bonus stuff that
Harvey offered you advice when you were
making the move from the sketches to Mama’s
Family. What was that advice?
VICKI: Well, for the first episodes of Mama’s Family, it felt wrong. It just didn’t feel funny. It didn’t feel light. It didn’t feel like a sitcom. I didn’t feel like I had any direction or guidance and
was such a mentor to me on the Burnett
Show that I shut the show down. I
said we’ve gotta stop. We have to
rethink this whole thing and I begged them to bring Harvey in to help me more than anything. I noticed the minute Harvey came on board the show became lighter,
literally. The lighting changed. Literally the lights went on. And in re-screening all of these, it’s been
really interesting to look at sort of the evolutions from the very beginning. He sat me down and he said, okay you have to
now become a sitcom character. You have
to be silly. You have to be somebody
everybody wants to come home and pop a beer and watch for half an hour and
laugh. That’s not really what Mama was
on the Burnett Show. I remember saying to Harvey, “I’m not sure she’s ever even hardly
smiled.” He said, “But she is you, in your gut and you have learned this from
me over the years – any character that you do is in your gut and anything you
can do, she can do. If you can laugh,
she can laugh. If you can dance, she can
dance.” He literally was, in my mind
anyway, responsible for really cutting her loose and turning her into the great
character that she became. When he freed
her up, there was nothing that she couldn’t do… and nothing that she didn’t do.
SPAZ: Did you find it strange that all of your “children” on the show were actually portrayed by actors older than you?
VICKI: Well, yeah, that is rather odd. There’s no question, it’s very odd, but like I said, I played a lot of old ladies on the Burnett Show. I guess that’s in my gut. So, I’m gonna be a great old lady because I’ve played a lot of them. I was often older than Carol. She’d be Cinderella and I’d be the wicked old witch. That was kind of the way it went.
SPAZ: The show lasted for about a year and a half before it was cancelled. Did you feel at that point that okay, it’s over?
VICKI: Yeah, I think we all said that it was over and I think we thought that we were kind of a funny little show and we were bummed, but we had a great fan base. Every time we would start to build up steam and do really well with the audience, they put us in a tougher time slot. They kept putting us in worse time slots until I think they finally felt like they had enough ammunition to cancel us. Because, like I said, I don’t feel like we ever had any support over there at NBC. Yeah, I think we all assumed we were looking for the next job and unbeknownst to us, that was just like right at the moment that
merged with Telepictures. Miramar was huge at the time with, I think, Dallas was on the air at
the time. Telepictures were these young
guns that were doing this new thing called syndication and it was totally new
and they were looking for projects that they could watch and sell that were
already viable products.
They started examining Mama’s Family and they said this is a show that never got a shot. It has a huge, wide, sweeping demographic and it just never got a shot. So, they picked us up and yes, it was a surprise to all of us and it was like unchartered territory. We switched studios. We moved off the lot, across town. There wasn’t a lot going on at that studio other than Two Close For Comfort. I thought okay, they were the first sitcom to go into first run syndication. I thought if Ted Knight can do this, we can do this. It was like kind of working in a vacuum. We were allowed to do our thing, literally - there was no intervention. You would do an episode, you’d send it over to Miramar Telepictures, and they’d send you a check. You know, it was a very different kind of a world. Very new. Nobody was doing it. It was unchartered. Consequently, we were kind of like little bastard children. We weren’t really accepted by the television community. We weren’t eligible for an Emmy. We weren’t invited to any of the award shows, and it wasn’t until a good number of years later that Buffy The Vampire Slayer jumped up and down and screamed and yelled loud enough that the rules changed. The Academy changed the rules. And of course, subsequently we know what happened. Television became much wider, much huger, but this was like the beginning of a whole new era when we started doing Mama’s Family.
SPAZ: The cast changed a little as well. Vinton’s teenage kids were no longer there, but then they brought in Bubba (Eunice and Ed’s son). Was that in order to appeal a different demographic?
VICKI: There were kids on the NBC show – in listening to our executive producer who was one of our best writers, he said the kids, in their defense, didn’t have any sort of a back story like the rest of that family. Consequently there were these two cute, nice, affable kids, but really how did they connect to that family, and they weren’t given enough to do and they just never really fit in. But that was the network’s wish that we have two kids on there, to appeal to a younger audience. So when we went to syndication, I think everybody threw their hands up and said, “Okay, we’re gonna re-tool the show the way we want to do it.” I think Bubba was young, which was great, but also you had a little bit of a Bubba back story. You knew where he came from, who he was. He was mentioned so often on the Burnett Show. So yes, he did bring in the younger audience, but he also fit in with the family really well I think.
SPAZ: The show, in total, lasted six seasons. By the time it wound up and came to an end, did you feel that maybe it had gone as far as it should or do you think now there’s still a little bit more to tell?
VICKI: Well, I think by the time we finished doing that series, we all had it down to a four day work week, and we were just having a blast. The stories came from the writers like mad and we were having a ball so we were kind of sad because we felt at the time like she could have just run and run forever like the Energizer Bunny. You know, it’s just one of those shows - it’s not really telling a story, it’s just the adventures of this crazy, dysfunctional, little family and it’s like I Love Lucy – was there really a plot line there? They were just doing silly stuff every week. And it is, I think, arguably one of the best sitcoms where you just sit down and laugh at this family for absolutely no good reason. There’s no message. There’s nothing deep about it. It’s just silly. So, yeah, we felt like we could have gone on for a while, but again, Telepictures had reached the magic number that they said they needed for syndication and you know, it was bottom line to them.
SPAZ: Ultimately, the show didn’t seem rooted in any time period. Do you think that timeless quality has kept the show alive?
VICKI: I think so because it deliberately was not topical and it was kind of in its own little time warp. We would have guest stars that would come on and they’d say what time period is this? (laughs) But you know, it’s kind of this small little rural
town where you really don’t know what time zone you’re in. It’s very timeless.
SPAZ: Apart from Mama, I think the show’s best character was Vinton (Ken Berry).
VICKI: Oh God. What a great character. So lovable. So affable. Such a goon. I mean, a lovable, inept nerd. Oh, and his physical comedy! He was always tripping or falling or hurting himself, and he was so good at it. I would have people come up to me all the time, young people, and talk about loving that character, and I would just want to take them and say, “I want to sit down with you and show you what he did on the Carol Burnett Show and how brilliant he was.” He was just such a song and dance man who had missed the era. Born too late. He was just so good.
SPAZ: When you look back at Mama’s Family, are you proud of the legacy that you’ve left there for your audience?
VICKI: I am, absolutely! I mean, I think the older I get the more I feel that life is absolutely much too serious to be taken seriously so make people laugh and that’s the nicest thing you can do for them.
SPAZ: Going back in time a bit before Mama’s Family – you had a huge hit single with the song ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’. Was it a surprise to you that the single was so big?
VICKI: It was not a surprise to me because I was married to the guy who wrote the song at the time (Bobby Russell). He was demoing one night in
and he got done and I said, “What happened, to ‘ Georgia’? I love that song. It’s a
smash, it’s a hit. He said “Well, if you
love it then why don’t you do the demo?” I did and we brought it out to Hollywood to his
producer, Snuff Garrett, at the time who was a prolific producer and Snuffy
wanted to send it to Liza Minnelli. I
said, “This is not a Liza Minnelli song!” (Laughs) He said, “Yeah, maybe
not. I’ll send it over to Cher.” She never heard it. Sonny heard it. He said, “It
needs to be re-written or Cher won’t do
it. Bobby said, “I’m not gonna re-write
it because I never liked it to begin with.” I’m like, “Oh God, now what?” He said, “You know what? Screw it! Let’s just go into the studio and do it with
Vicki.” So I remember going into Snuff’s
office and lobbying so long and hard for this arranger that was all over the
charts at the time – his name was Artie Butler.
Snuff is like, “But I always use so and so.” I said, “I know, but I really want Artie
Butler.” So, yeah, he arranged for Artie
Butler to do the tracks. It was a very
quick recording session. Snuff laid down
the tracks. I double-tracked myself. I
did all the harmony parts. He had it
mixed and mastered and dubbed and in the mail to me in like three hours. He said it was his record holder and he was
very proud of that. I still listen to it
and think, “God, I wish I could have done all those harmony parts just one more
time!” (laughs). It took maybe nine
months for it to become a hit - like giving birth - but it did become a huge
SPAZ: Now, what’s next for Vicki Lawrence?
VICKI: Right now I’m on the road doing my little two woman show and that’s fun for now. But I don’t know… It will probably be the way my entire career has been – just kind of wait and see.
SPAZ: What do you have spinning on your CD, DVD, or record players?
VICKI: I am so in love with Pharell Williams right now – I can hardly get a grip on myself. I’m just crazy about him. Of course, I guess everybody is, right?
Thanks to Vicki Lawrence
Special thanks to Thomas Hemesath, Jeff Peisch, Meghan Ryan, Sandy Brokaw and Dana House