Mama's Family

Caproni

Telly Talk TV Fanatic
Messages
1,426
Reaction score
871
Member Since
September 2013
Mama's Family originated as a group of skits on The Carol Burnett Show called "The Family". The success of the made-for-television movie Eunice (1982) prompted NBC to forego a sitcom version that would center around Vicki Lawrence and her portrayal of Thelma "Mama" Harper. Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Betty White, and Ken Berry, all whom had been apart of the sketches, were brought into the sitcom cast, although Berry was the only one given a regular role.

Mama's Family didn't spark much interest when it was on NBC between 1983 and 1984. Its abbreviated first season (consisting of thirteen episodes) placed #59 in May 1983, while its only full network twenty-two-episode season finished at #66 in April 1984. It thereafter canceled by NBC. The series was popular in reruns, prompting Joe Hamilton (ex-husband of Carol Burnett) to revitalize the show in first-run syndication. Mama's Family produced another ninety-five episodes in syndication from 1986 to 1990. Although there was a retooling of cast and direction, the show became the highest-rated series in first-run syndication its entire four-season run.

Mama's Family is one of my favorite shows. I have the entire series I bought from iOffer for like twenty bucks eight or nine years ago. I have a few of the official sets, but I've never gotten around to buying the whole set Time Life put out a few years ago.

Any fans?


1600792035854.png
1600792250985.png
 

Crimson

Telly Talk Active Member
Messages
231
Reaction score
315
Location
Philadelphia
I'm a huge fan of the "Family" sketches from THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. While almost all the other sketches had a kind of meandering nuttiness that sputtered out, the "Family" sketches are sharp and surprisingly bitter.

I like the first incarnation of MAMA'S FAMILY; those first two seasons did a good job of capturing the vibe of the sketches. The subsequent seasons mellowed into a kind of genial goofiness which was okay. If I stumbled across an episode on TV I might watch, but I don't have the kind of fondness for them that I have for the sketches or earlier seasons.
 

Daniel Avery

Super Moderator
Staff Member
Messages
4,159
Reaction score
4,265
Location
Sunny South Florida
Medals
4
Member Since
June 10, 2000
Yes, the NBC seasons tried to be more like the original sketches than the syndicated revival, though they never went as far in recapturing the pointed subtext. The syndicated version was a typical sitcom with very little in the way of "social messages" or any of that. It was all about the laughs.

I recall Harvey Korman doing "introductions" to the NBC episodes, spoofing how Alastair Cooke did intros for Masterpiece Theater. Korman also was a producer of the show, which was why his Ed Higgins character didn't appear as much in the actual show. Dorothy Lyman was still playing Opal Gardner on All My Children while playing Naomi. Since AMC taped in New York and MF in Hollywood, they had to write her out of some episodes, though when the show came back she had left AMC and was available all the time. I read that the writers had originally intended Aunt Fran to be more of a floozy, not the uptight spinster that we got; after it was obvious that Lyman's Naomi was more fun as the floozy of the piece, they rewrote Fran, which upset Rue McClanahan since it was not the character type she had signed on to play. I think the writers made the right call, because it was much easier to have Mama calling her daughter-in-law a tramp rather than her blood relative. Betty White's Ellen and Carol Burnett's Eunice were always better in small doses, in my opinion; if either had been a regular, she might have overshadowed Vicki Lawrence on her own show. When they did show up it was fun, but the show was meant to be Vicki's turn to shine.

I confess I prefer the syndicated years. The changes to the cast were very well done. Buzz and Sonya (mentioned once and then never referred to again) had not been drawn very deeply. Their replacement (their cousin Bubba) was introduced with built-in issues courtesy of his flighty parents (Ed and Eunice), and over the course of the series he turned into a responsible (if silly) young adult thanks to Thelma's tough love. In place of Thelma's prissy spinster sister, they gave us prissy spinster neighbor Iola Boylen, one of my favorite sitcom characters ever. Thelma needed a talk-to character who wasn't in the family, and Beverly Archer played Iola with just the right amount of awkwardness and weirdness (Thelma: "I swear, she just gets loonier by the minute!"). Naomi was written a little less intelligently than the NBC years, but it worked because she was so totally devoted to her dumb-as-a-rock husband and was blind to his many faults. Thelma was a little less stodgy and might even be referred to as a "cool grandma": her eventual acceptance of Naomi into the family, along with the good job she did with setting Bubba on the right path, shows that Thelma wasn't the terrible parent that the original sketches made her out to be. Burnett never appeared in the syndicated version because she and Joe Hamilton had divorced--she got the estate in Hawaii, and he got "Mama"--but the new cast gelled so well that she wasn't really needed. There were several years where Burnett and Lawrence didn't communicate due to the issues with the show (Burnett was upset that Lawrence signed on to revive the series, feeling that Lawrence had "chosen sides" in the divorce) but they eventually reconciled.
 

Caproni

Telly Talk TV Fanatic
Messages
1,426
Reaction score
871
Member Since
September 2013
I have a strange fascination with television shows that were canceled by their networks, but were revived in first-run syndication. Mama's Family and Charles in Charge were the two most successful situation comedies brought back in syndication, while shows like 9 to 5 and It's a Living found their own havens after entering their second life.

There was a long time that I preferred the network seasons of Mama's Family. Harvey Korman was doing his spoof as "Alastair Quince" in the introductions, and the writing was a little stronger. Some of my favorite episodes are early on, especially the "Family Feud" and "Cellmates" episodes. Those are laugh out loud funny to me, and they almost play like sedated sketches that The Carol Burnett Show could have initiated, but were dusted off for the series. Other issues I have is how disjointed the cast seems. It's particularly rare for all the core characters to be in the same episode; they all seem to rotate who is going to appear in that week's show. I guess it isn't terribly uncommon, especially for a new show trying to find its strengths, but it just irks me a little, perhaps mostly because I wish Rue McClanahan and Betty White got to shine a little more.

A lot of die-hard fans of "The Family" sketches don't like how Mama and her family were watered down for series television. I recall an interview Vicki Lawrence gave for the Archives of American Television, I believe it was, where she discussed the evolution of Mama from sketch to series. If I'm remembering correctly, it was Harvey Korman that told Lawrence that "Mama's a sitcom character now" and urged Vicki to loosen the purse strings and flesh out Mama's one-note mannerisms and personality. She gradually followed suit to give the character more elbow room now that she was the central focus of a television comedy. Again, not everyone likes this transition, but this is typically what's referred to when discussing Mama's evolution.

Over time, I've gotten a fondness for the syndicated years. Although the budget was probably smaller, I personally think the show was better then. They had gotten rid of some characters that quite frankly cluttered the ensemble, and brought on Bubba and Iola, two brilliant characters that gelled with Mama, Vinton, and Naomi exceptionally well. The producers during the syndicated years seemed more sure on what kind of show they wanted to do and went with it. They had their core characters in place ─ Mama, Vinton, Naomi, Bubba, and Iola ─ and they let everything circle around them. It became a fairly typical family sitcom with these changes, however, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It was done well, and there are many episodes during those syndicated seasons that never fail to give me a chuckle.

Back when I remember catching the show in reruns with my parents, I don't know if I ever saw any episodes from the network run. The syndicated run itself had ninety-five episodes, so maybe whichever network that was felt no need to buy the thirty-five network shows because they had enough for reruns without them. That's my theory anyway.


1600871609546.png
 

Caproni

Telly Talk TV Fanatic
Messages
1,426
Reaction score
871
Member Since
September 2013
Burnett never appeared in the syndicated version because she and Joe Hamilton had divorced--she got the estate in Hawaii, and he got "Mama"--but the new cast gelled so well that she wasn't really needed. There were several years where Burnett and Lawrence didn't communicate due to the issues with the show (Burnett was upset that Lawrence signed on to revive the series, feeling that Lawrence had "chosen sides" in the divorce) but they eventually reconciled.
And apparently Carol Burnett had contacted Vicki Lawrence about doing "a little syndicated show with 'The Family' characters" only to find out Lawrence had already agreed to do a Mama's Family revival for Joe Hamilton, Burnett's ex-husband. Burnett was furious, and refused to speak to Lawrence for years.
 

Daniel Avery

Super Moderator
Staff Member
Messages
4,159
Reaction score
4,265
Location
Sunny South Florida
Medals
4
Member Since
June 10, 2000
I always had a different viewpoint on that story. I assumed that Burnett had already gotten wind of her ex-husband's plans to revive the show, and called Lawrence with that story (which was just that--a story, not an actual plan) to 'test' her. Would Lawrence "play dumb" about the plans, or would she be honest and admit she'd already signed on with Joe Hamilton? Burnett was ready to be angry with Lawrence no matter what Lawrence said, but I think that if Lawrence had indeed played dumb to get out of an uncomfortable situation/conversation, the rift might have ended up being permanent.
The producers during the syndicated years seemed more sure on what kind of show they wanted to do and went with it.
A lot of credit can also be given to Dave Powers, the series director. He was director on the original Carol Burnett Show, and had also directed Three's Company for most of its run.
 

Caproni

Telly Talk TV Fanatic
Messages
1,426
Reaction score
871
Member Since
September 2013
I always had a different viewpoint on that story. I assumed that Burnett had already gotten wind of her ex-husband's plans to revive the show, and called Lawrence with that story (which was just that--a story, not an actual plan) to 'test' her. Would Lawrence "play dumb" about the plans, or would she be honest and admit she'd already signed on with Joe Hamilton? Burnett was ready to be angry with Lawrence no matter what Lawrence said, but I think that if Lawrence had indeed played dumb to get out of an uncomfortable situation/conversation, the rift might have ended up being permanent.
Well, I've never viewed it quite that way, but that certainly sounds plausible. Carol Burnett may have just wanted to see what "side" Vicki Lawrence was going to sway, even though Lawrence was probably just trying to think about keeping her career going. Hey, they're wanting to revive my show, then let's get on with it. Most anyone would have been all for reviving the show they held a starring role in. Who wouldn't be?
A lot of credit can also be given to Dave Powers, the series director. He was director on the original Carol Burnett Show, and had also directed Three's Company for most of its run.
I was thinking about that just earlier in the week when I was watching a documentary on Three's Company. When they would show Dave Powers, I knew that his name sounded familiar and that I had read it many times while watching TV. I'm sure he fueled some consistency, and brought some of the sillier and slapstick elements seen in those syndicated seasons, definitely drawing on his previous experience with Jack Tripper and his crew.
 

Daniel Avery

Super Moderator
Staff Member
Messages
4,159
Reaction score
4,265
Location
Sunny South Florida
Medals
4
Member Since
June 10, 2000
Dorothy Lyman had expressed interest in learning to direct, and Powers allowed her to study with him in the final seasons of Mama's Family. Ultimately she got work directing sitcoms, most notably The Nanny in the 1990s.

This was one of the first shows I recall where characters had 'color-coded wardrobes'. The main characters in the syndicated years all had a certain color or color scheme they almost always wore. Vinton always wore brown or khaki. Iola was almost always in pink. Naomi's main color was yellow. Bubba wore mostly green. Thelma was typically in floral prints with blue and purple/violet emphasized (no stripes or solids, for the most part). And of course there were the wigs--all the female characters wore them, and they had a production credit for the lady who supervised them. It made the ladies all have the same exact hairstyles even as the years progressed.

Hey, they're wanting to revive my show, then let's get on with it. Most anyone would have been all for reviving the show they held a starring role in. Who wouldn't be?
Well, it was not that simple. Carol Burnett plucked teenaged Vicki Lawrence out of obscurity and got her hired. An argument could be made that Lawrence owed Burnett her career. The fact that Joe Hamilton was the producer of the same show (and obviously had an equally important role in making Lawrence a star) is often overlooked since we don't know the behind-the-camera people as much as the stars. Still, Burnett had a right to feel Lawrence owed her some loyalty. But if Burnett had expected Lawrence to be so loyal that she would turn down the chance to star on her own show (again), then maybe Burnett expected too much. It was not personal--it was business, but it was all so murky and uncomfortable since it involved Lawrence being in the middle of a messy divorce between two of her friends.
 

Crimson

Telly Talk Active Member
Messages
231
Reaction score
315
Location
Philadelphia
I've heard the the story of Carol's phone call to Vicki and it struck me also as a passive-aggressive trap for Vicki to walk into. Carol didn't have the rights to make a "Family" show after the divorce, and it seems unlikely she wouldn't have known that. Carol may or may not have been justified in thinking Vicki was disloyal, but she handled it in a pretty crummy way.

I will agree that the replacement characters in the syndication years were an improvement. Bud and Sonya really had no personalities -- I recall Sonya being vaguely spacey, I guess -- and Rue was completely wasted as Fran, whereas Bubba and Iola was funny additions. I wish those later seasons had kept some of the 'bite' of the earlier shows, and that -- under better circumstances -- Eunice, Ed and Ellen could have occasionally appeared. Without those elements, it feels like a completely different show and a rather standard, 80s family sitcom.
 

Caproni

Telly Talk TV Fanatic
Messages
1,426
Reaction score
871
Member Since
September 2013
I've heard the the story of Carol's phone call to Vicki and it struck me also as a passive-aggressive trap for Vicki to walk into. Carol didn't have the rights to make a "Family" show after the divorce, and it seems unlikely she wouldn't have known that. Carol may or may not have been justified in thinking Vicki was disloyal, but she handled it in a pretty crummy way.

I will agree that the replacement characters in the syndication years were an improvement. Bud and Sonya really had no personalities -- I recall Sonya being vaguely spacey, I guess -- and Rue was completely wasted as Fran, whereas Bubba and Iola was funny additions. I wish those later seasons had kept some of the 'bite' of the earlier shows, and that -- under better circumstances -- Eunice, Ed and Ellen could have occasionally appeared. Without those elements, it feels like a completely different show and a rather standard, 80s family sitcom.
Well, it probably just all boils down to Carol Burnett wanting to tangle Vicki Lawrence into some kind of post-divorce squabble she and Joe Hamilton were having, or simply to "test" Lawrence's loyalty. It was dirty either way.

The syndicated years are considerably better, and for a few different reasons. Bud and Sonja were like archetypal grandchildren for Mama to have, with no distinct personality. Bud, however, was apparently her favorite, and yeah Sonja was a flighty.

I've always wished that the kinks could've been ironed out and Ellen, Ed, and Eunice could've shown up those later seasons, especially since Ed and Eunice's son was living with the Harpers. I've read that Bubba Higgins was intended as something of a "replacement" for his mother Eunice.

Betty White (as Ellen Jackson) did show up in one episode of the syndicated run called "Best Medicine" before disappearing from the show forever.
 

Daniel Avery

Super Moderator
Staff Member
Messages
4,159
Reaction score
4,265
Location
Sunny South Florida
Medals
4
Member Since
June 10, 2000
In a flashback, they had Ken Berry play younger Carl Harper (as Lawrence played younger Thelma), and I have to say it was downright weird to have the Lawrence/Berry dynamic turned on its head that way. If they had kissed, I might have thrown up.
 

TJames03

Telly Talk Dream Maker
Messages
1,754
Reaction score
424
Location
California
Medals
2
Vint’s two kids were worthless. Had Burnett made more appearances, perhaps it may have lasted longer. “MF” was never Shakespear, but it’s good fluff entertainment.
 

Daniel Avery

Super Moderator
Staff Member
Messages
4,159
Reaction score
4,265
Location
Sunny South Florida
Medals
4
Member Since
June 10, 2000
I always thought they dropped the ball when they wrote Buzz and Sonya out of existence. Having them go away to college but still referred to (that is, an occasional one-sided phone call or something similar) would have been preferable to actively behaving as if they never happened (which was what happened within three or four episodes into the revival). The financial stress of having two kids in college could have been a convenient excuse for Vint and Naomi to remain living in the basement rather than getting their own place. As it was, when they started that plot arc of Vint and Naomi trying to get pregnant, Vint acted as if this was his first time being a father. For a show that had definite plans to be rerun in syndication, you'd think they would have paid more attention to continuity.
 

TJames03

Telly Talk Dream Maker
Messages
1,754
Reaction score
424
Location
California
Medals
2
Oh, I agree that Vint acted weird when Naomi was pregnant, but his two kids were terrible characters. I do believe they were asked back, but declined when the syndicated years began. I know Rue McClanahan was so glad they killed Fran off because she had a bad time on the set.

I always pic the late Darlene Cates as Iola’s unseen mother, btw. :)
 

Caproni

Telly Talk TV Fanatic
Messages
1,426
Reaction score
871
Member Since
September 2013
I just got the complete series of MAMA'S FAMILY yesterday for my birthday. I was totally excited to add it to my collection. I cannot wait to get around to watching them.
 

Chris2

Telly Talk Well-Known Member
Messages
508
Reaction score
276
Location
United States
I read that Buzz and Sonja weren’t asked back for the syndicated years. The Mama’s Family producers never wanted them to begin with - NBC insisted on teenaged characters on the show. One they were free from NBC’s network notes, they dropped them.

I wish Betty White had appeared more frequently in the syndicated years. I thought her interactions with the family were great. As much as I liked Carol/Eunice on the show, a little of her went a long way, and in the episodes where she appeared, there wasn’t much room for anyone else but Mama.
 

TJames03

Telly Talk Dream Maker
Messages
1,754
Reaction score
424
Location
California
Medals
2
I heard that they both declined to return, due to the icy bitchiness of Lawrence. Evidentially, in VL’s book, “Little Miss Firecracker”, she RIPS the shit out of EVERYBODY!!!
 

Caproni

Telly Talk TV Fanatic
Messages
1,426
Reaction score
871
Member Since
September 2013
I heard that they both declined to return, due to the icy bitchiness of Lawrence. Evidentially, in VL’s book, “Little Miss Firecracker”, she RIPS the shit out of EVERYBODY!!!
I've often heard that Vicki Lawrence wasn't the easiest to work with.
 
Top