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Remembering 'Mama'

23 Sep, 2006 By: John Latchem

Fans of music might know Vicki Lawrence for the 1973 No. 1 hit “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” But fans of classic television will forever remember Lawrence as Thelma Harper, otherwise known as Mama.

After 16 years off the air, a new generation of viewers can experience the wit and wisdom of TV's iconic grandmother with Warner Home Video's Sept. 26 release of Mama's Family: The Complete First Season ($26.97), a two-disc set containing the first 13 episodes of the series.

Mama first appeared in a series of sketches called “The Family” on “The Carol Burnett Show.” The character was created by two writers who “hated their mothers,” according to Lawrence.

“They considered it like a comic exorcism to get this horrible woman out on paper,” she said.

Originally, Burnett was slated to play Mama, but she chose to play the daughter, Eunice. Lawrence donned the gray wig and glasses to become Mama, playing mother to a woman 16 years her senior.

“I always played the old ladies, the spinster aunts and the wicked witches. That was my job as the supporting female,” Lawrence said. “So actually, when Mama came along, it didn't seem all that odd to be playing Carol's mother.”

“The Family” sketches were popular enough to warrant a spinoff, and “Mama's Family” debuted Jan. 22, 1983, on NBC. The first episode features Thelma dealing with her son, Vinton, played by Ken Berry, and his kids moving back into her house. Dorothy Lyman played Naomi, Mama's neighbor who eventually marries Vinton. Burnett occasionally reprised her role as Eunice.

The early cast also included future “Golden Girls” co-stars Rue McClanahan as Mama's sister, and Betty White as Mama's daughter Ellen.

“Working with Rue and Betty was one of the joys of my career,” Lawrence said. “Betty in particular is one of my huge role models. I adore her. I was devastated when ‘The Golden Girls' came along, and I lost both of them.”

Transitioning from sketch comedy to a half-hour sitcom was difficult, Lawrence remembers.

“The sketches were very strident and one-dimensional,” she said. “When we started the sitcom, we did two episodes and I shut the show down because I didn't think it was funny.”

“Carol Burnett” mainstay Harvey Korman came in to direct and told Lawrence to imprint more of herself on the character.

“And thus was born the fabulous peacock Mama became,” Lawrence said.

The realities of television as a business, however, were another matter. NBC canceled the show in 1984 after just two seasons.

“Every time we did well in the ratings, they would move us to a tougher time slot,” Lawrence said. “Finally, they felt justified in canceling us.”

Fortunately for the fans, the burgeoning market of first-run syndication offered another venue for the series. After more than a year off the air, the show became one of the top-rated series in syndication, ending its run in 1990.

“I was sad to say good-bye,” Lawrence said. “It was running like a little Energizer bunny, and it felt like we could have gone on for years.”

While the series had ended, its legacy endured.

“Fans always want to share with me their most favorite episode,” Lawrence said. “It is wonderful that they remember them in such detail, down to the specific dialogue.”

Lawrence would revive the Mama character in her one-woman stage show. Eventually, “Mama's Family” earned a spot on TVShowsOn-DVD.com's list as one of the most-requested series for DVD.

“There was talk for a long time that it would never go to DVD, so I am thrilled,” Lawrence said. “Now I can collect all the episodes, something I have never been good at doing.”

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