"Mama's Family": Memories of the Iconic TV Sitcom Starring Vicki Lawrence

Herbie J Pilato

The original cast of "Mama's Family," when it converted from a CBS skit on "The Carol Burnett Show" to a weekly series on NBC.Photo byThe Classic TV Preservation Society

"The neighbors are just gonna' love hearing that!" "What in the [h-e-double-hockey-sticks] do you think you're doing?!"

Such are just some of the fun, excentric expressions that are exclaimed with pizazz by Vicki Lawrence as Mama at the center of several different versions of the classic TV sitcom, Mama's Family.

The series has an interesting history. It began as a skit on the CBS variety series, The Carol Burnett Show (with Burnett and sidekick Harvey Korman, who also directed), then it became a weekly series on NBC (with Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan, who would later star on that network's super hit, The Golden Girls), followed by a revamped version (with Berry and Lyman), in first-run syndication.

According to journalist Lauren Gray to BestLifeOnLine.com, "When the sitcom Mama's Family premiered in 1983 [on NBC], fans were already familiar with its cast. That's because the characters first appeared in sketch comedy bits on The Carol Burnett Show, and later in a TV movie called Eunice, with Carol Burnett as the title character and Vicki Lawrence as her 'Mama'—despite being 16 years her junior. The original show was a hit, and Lawrence even won a Primetime Emmy Award in 1979 for her work on the series before she spun off the character for another show entirely. Since then, she's continued in comedy, notably appearing on Hannah Montana years later."

Lawrence, now in her early-70s, received her big break by way of The Carol Burnett Show in the 1960s. With a fan letter to Burnett in the mail, Lawrence included a picture to show the striking resemblance between the two women. As Lawrence explained in a 2009 interview with WNC, "I used to write fan letters to a lot of people when I was young—I wrote to everybody that was on television. And I mostly did it at my mom's urging because everybody from the day that I started high school said that I looked like Carol Burnett."

Upon receive of the photo, Burnett was impressed. "She was right at the point where she was putting together The Carol Burnett Show," Lawrence recalled, "and she thought that it would be a novelty to hire someone that looked like her as opposed to an actress," recalled Lawrence.

This ignited Vicki's career, and she was soon perceived as Burnett's protege.

When Lawrence later took the lead on Mama's Family, her mentor Burnett was there as a co-star and coach.

When Mama's Family ended in 1990, Lawrence found it a challenge as to which direction her career would go. As she recalled, "You talk to actors and they talk about how they struggle when they're young and they hit all these brick walls … I feel like I hit a brick wall, I had everything handed to me when I was a kid. I learned from the very best people in the whole world how fun show business is, should be, and how it should run, and I was completely unprepared to hit this brick wall in my 40s."

Assuredly, Lawrence did just fine with a remarkable career that she still continues with today.

For more about Vicki Lawrence, click here.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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