Vicki Lawrence put the meaning of family in Mama's Family
Image credit: The Everett Collection
Vicki Lawrence has a unique story. She practically went from her high school graduation in 1967 to being on stage as Carol Burnett's comedy partner on The Carol Burnett Show. She was a Burnett look-alike who was discovered by Burnett herself.
Years later, with the help of a lot of padding and a grey wig, she became Thelma Harper. As we know by now, "The Family" was the original sketch Mama's Family was based on. That's where we really got to know Lawrence.
Lawrence went from graduating high school to essentially graduating from The Carol Burnett Show. After Burnett's show ended in 1978, Lawrence was on her own and became a full-time Mama.
In a 1983 interview with The Park City Daily News, Lawrence said it was a big responsibility to break away from Burnett and take on her own show, and it wasn't something she was ready to do right away.
According to the interview, Lawrence said she didn't know if she could have gone from high school to being an actress on her own.
"The people on Dynasty and Hill Street Blues probably have little to say about the scripts," Lawrence said. "I get in there and fight for script quality. There was a time when I couldn't handle that. Now I love it. I came from a tough school. I look at my time on the Burnett show as Harvard, and I graduated with honors."
The Carol Burnett Show was such a family that Harvey Korman, Ken Berry and Burnett had starring roles or guest appearances in both shows. Korman even co-directed Mama's Family.
In the article, Lawrence's character Mama was called "the closest TV has come to a female Archie Bunker." This means that Mama Harper spoke her mind, and what came out was often outrageous. Many fans even related to Thelma Harper in some way.
Despite the show having a dedicated fan base, the series was originally canceled by NBC after several timeslot changes and drops in the ratings. Lawrence went back to the drawing board with some changes in mind.
"It's obvious that we had some writing and directing problems," Lawrence said. "We have to realize that this is a comedy show. We know why the characters are all screwed up. Now we have to let them go into the world. It's fun to see Mama get a job or go on Family Feud."
Lawrence said she also realized that many of the characters needed a new or updated direction. The cast, being the family that they are, came together to help one another with their characters in the series.
"Harvey said if he had directed on the Burnett show, he would have lightened up the sketches," Lawrence said. "There was too much screaming. My character doesn't scream anymore. Mama's lightened up, and I can sit back and react to other characters."
For example, according to Lawrence, Korman was responsible for helping Rue McClanahan and turning Ken's character around. With the help of everyone involved, they made Mama's Family a force to be reckoned with.
"I think there's an art to heading up a show," Lawrence said. "I also think there's some sort of intangible something you have to have to head a show. I don't know what it is. Carol has it. We'll find out whether I have it."
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