Comedian and actress Vicki Lawrence will forever be linked to her most enduring creation: the cranky, curly-haired, Southern senior citizen Thelma Harper, known to ’70s and ’80s TV audiences as Mama.
Originating in 1974 on “The Carol Burnett Show” sketch “The Family,” Mama has since survived in made-for-TV movies, stage shows and, most (in)famously, a love-it-or-hate-it sitcom that as of last month is finally seeing release on DVD after years of languishing on bootleg tapes amid ownership disputes.
We talked to Lawrence this week via phone about the legacy of a character and show that set the stage for working-class TV comedies to come, on-set jokes with comedy legends like Betty White, and why “Mama’s Family” doesn’t deserve to be so maligned among comedy lovers.
What has it been like going back and revisiting all these episodes?
The shows amazingly still really hold up. It just occurs me that Raytown [the show’s setting] was this magical little place that exists in its own little sort of time bubble, and that helps it to hold up. They’re funny. I’ve been laughing out loud at them. My husband will come up while I watch them in our bedroom, because I kind of close the door to be quiet up there and be away from everybody because I don’t want to drive everybody ntus. And he’ll say, “What are you laughing about? Mama’s Family?” And I’ll go, “Yeah!” And we’ll be sitting on the bed watching it because it’s fun binge-watching. Twenty minutes just fly by.
Kind of like how people speed through TV series these days on Netflix and DVDs.
A lot of them I didn’t remember, so it’s been great fun to go back and watch all of them. And especially since there’s finally a beautifully packaged, lovely tribute to arguably the best dysfunctional mother ever on television.
I wanted to talk about the legacy of the show a little bit. I haven’t run across much love for it over the years from critics or comedy fans, but I also think people overlook how it took cues from All in the Family and broke ground for other working-class comedies like Roseanne that portrayed strong female characters at the center of a household.
Somebody said to me earlier that Mama was the first dysfunctional mother on TV. I don’t think there would have been a “Married With Children” or “Everybody Loves Raymond” without it. Now I suppose people would even blame Honey Boo Boo’s mother on me. (laughs) I’m just pleased it finally happened (on DVD) because I was told it never would. To actually have it in my hand is amazing.
I read in the Hollywood Reporter that you had bought a pirated copy because you thought you’d never see it on DVD. What were the ownership issues that held it up all these years?
I certainly don’t get into it with Warners Home Video. I really don’t know what the hold up was but everywhere I went it I was told, “It’s not going to happen.”
What stands up to you and what doesn’t? Is there anything on the show that makes you cringe?
No, I’ve really enjoyed watching it. I mean, some episodes more than others, but I think they’re still pretty funny. And as I said, Raytown was this whole sort of magical, mythical place. We had all of our own business like the Chez Ray, which was the fancy restaurant, and the Bigger Jigger was the bar. It had its own world and (“Mama’s Family” actor) Allan Kayser was saying, “Do you remember that all the little towns around Raytown were named after murderers?” There was a little town near us called Hinkley, and a Bundy, and we had Oswald Caverns or something like that. I never even really thought about it.
You’ve also said the show was a bastard child in the industry since it was at the very beginning of cable and syndication, and as a result the academy wouldn’t recognize you. Were critics at the time similarly harsh?
I don’t remember in particular any critics but there wasn’t a lot of love, so we did our own thing and sort of worked in a vacuum and we had a ball doing it. We were off in our own world. It was many years later with Buffy the Vampire Slayer when they caused such a ruckus that they had to open up the academy to cable and everything (note: the academy began allowing cable nominations 25 years ago). We were at a pivotal point in TV history when it was really changing and we were one of the first sitcoms to do syndication. The only other one at the time was “Too Close for Comfort,” then came “It’s a Living” and some others. It was an interesting time. It was a good way to work in that (the producers) were so busy selling the show that they didn’t have time to look for icebergs or try to tell you what’s funny and what’s not.
To read a longer version of the Vicki Lawrence interview, including her thoughts on co-star Betty White and the golden age of television, check out ChickenScratchComedy.com.