“There’s nothing like good wine and friends. Or cheap wine and relatives.”
No one is going to get you closer to Mama for the holidays than Time-Life and Star Vista. It’s the moment that fans have waited for over 20 years to arrive. The complete series of Mama’s Family is finally out on DVD, and that means there’s a lot to talk about. No one is trying to say that Mama’s Family was the best sit-com to hit television. I’m not even sure I’d put it in the top ten. But it’s the little show that could and survived six years on television and even longer in reruns. Few shows have beaten the odds this many times and come out on top. Mama’s Family did just that, and here’s how it happened.
It all started with a fan letter Vicki Lawrence sent to Carol Burnett after a local paper remarked how much she looked like the comedy legend. Carol ended up showing for Vicki’s local performance, and she was invited to join the cast of The Carol Burnett Show. She would be a part of the show during its entire run from 1967 to 1978. One of the more popular recurring sketches on that series was called simply Family. Carol was going to play Mama. The part was written specifically for her. Mama was a rather mean old bat who served as the matriarch for one of television’s most dysfunctional families. Carol decided she liked the daughter role of Eunice more, and Vicki Lawrence was moved into the role of Mama. Both would make the characters iconic, and the Family sketches became some of the most popular bits on the show, much to the dismay of the writers who not only wanted Carol in the part, but thought the Southern accents and nature of the sketches ruined their wonderful concept. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
When The Carol Burnett Show left the airwaves, audiences thought they were saying farewell to their beloved Mama. Vicki took her family, sold everything and moved to Hawaii thinking she was leaving show business. Carol ended up moving there as well but was not done with the business. She was committed to doing a few specials. One of those was called Eunice. It reunited Mama and her drama-queen daughter for a trip through the family’s history. In the end Mama dies, and once again it looked like Mama had finally gone to her rest.
Eunice did quite well, and suddenly there was a rumble from NBC for a series. Carol was not interested in doing another regular show, so Mama’s Family was born. Of course, there needed to be some serious changes to convert a comedy sketch into a stand-alone television sit-com. Harvey Korman came to the rescue. He had been somewhat of a mentor to Vicki, who had gotten into The Carol Burnett Show at a very young age. It was Harvey who said that Mama had to become more likable. He was sure that no one wanted to watch a mean old lady when they got home from a hard day’s work. He literally set both Mama and Vicki free to re-create the character without changing what made her who she was.
Mama’s Family had the advantage of bringing back most of the crew from The Carol Burnett Show. After all of those years they were a well-oiled machine. The show was picked up without a pilot. Carol would recur as Eunice, and Betty White would bring her Family character of daughter Ellen to the show. Still, it needed a family around Mama, and Carol Burnett Show alum and legendry song-and-dance man Ken Berry was added as son Vint. Vint worked at the Quick-Key, always hoping to be the store’s big shot one day. He was divorced with two kids, Vint Jr. “Buzz” (Brown) and typical teenage daughter Sonja (Argoud). Also living in the house was Mama’s sister Aunt Fran, played by Rue McClanahan. Vint ends up marrying the next door neighbor Naomi (Lyman). Naomi had been married several times before and had a reputation of getting around. But she loved Vint and stayed true even if Mama was never quite willing to accept it. Their overactive libido was often the curse of Mama’s life.
The series lasted two years on NBC. The network never really got it. So they moved the show around until the ratings fell low enough to justify giving it the ax. Mama was once again down, but she was still not quite out.
It took two years for an independent company to pick up the series as one of the first shows in first-run syndication. Today there are literally hundreds, but Mama’s Family was only the second. This same model would be used to create the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The cast and the old crew were quickly brought back together. Unfortunately for Mama’s Family, but fortunately for The Golden Girls, Betty White and Rue McClanahan were now working together once again, but on the latter show. So they killed off Aunt Fran, and Ellen would make very sparse appearances. The kids were not invited back, and a new grandson emerged in Bubba Higgins played by Allan Keyser. Bubba was Eunice’s son and was just released from Reform School, or was it Juvenile Hall? His parents had skipped off to Florida, and Bubba was unable to leave the state. Bubba began as the little troublemaker, but he was quickly softened into a much more loveable, if not naive character. Finally, a next-door neighbor was added to be Mama’s friend. Beverly Archer joined the retooled cast as Iola. She was forever the old-fashioned homemaker who had a crush on Vint. This, of course, didn’t endear her to Naomi. With this new dynamic the show was renewed for two fifty-block runs of episodes. Here it finally found its footing and remained in syndication long after the first-run episodes had ceased.
There were a lot of elements that made this show work. Vicki Lawrence truly inhabited the role. She was pretty much the youngest cast member, playing the oldest. There was no makeup aging here. It was a few simple tricks, and she became Mama. Vicki developed a distinctive accent and voice that is instantly recognizable to this day. The costumes played a huge part in creating the culture of both the characters and the show itself. The original stuff was designed by the same guy who put some of Elton John’s most memorable wardrobe pieces together. That would be Bob Mackie, and as the show went into day-to-day production the job fell to Ret Turner. The two have now been collaborating for over 50 years.
The show is now 25 years old, but it ages well because the setting is rather timeless. Certainly, there are plenty of elements to date the look, but the material is completely character centered. You laugh not at the material but the delivery. It’s the kind of show where you don’t really have favorite episodes but favorite moments. Some of mine include a sketch where Mama is watching an adult film in a hotel thinking she’s about to watch a normal Western. Another involves a flashback to her 30th birthday. Here young actress Tanya Fenmore does a spot-on young Eunice. She came to my attention years earlier in the Twilight Zone film segment Kick The Can. The season ended on a rather tender moment as Mama gets to hold Vint’s new baby.
This set gathers the complete series together for the first time ever. While the video image certainly shows serious wear, it’s as good as it gets. There just aren’t the kinds of restoration elements available as there might be for a classic film. You’re warned at the beginning of each disc. It’s somewhat disappointing, but I can’t believe it’ll dissuade any of the show’s fans from picking this up.
What the show might necessarily lack in picture quality it more than makes up for in bonus materials. Each season is collected in its own case. You get a small booklet that covers season highlights and liner notes. The last disc in each set includes bonus features (see below). There are also two separate bonus discs that also include a ton of bonus features. Finally, you get a nice larger full-color booklet as a memento of the entire series. It’s all collected in a decorative box that holds the season sets and bonus discs quite snugly.
The bonus materials:
Bonus Disc 1:
The First Ever “Family” Sketch: (18:23) This comes from The Carol Burnett Show in 1974 and features Roddy McDowall as returning successful writer son Philip.
The Lovebirds – All About Vint And Naomi: (13:54) You get a collection of “greatest hits” clips from the characters, while cast and crew offer up their thoughts on the characters and the actors who played them.
Family Business – A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion: (33:42) Here Vicki Lawrence gathers with Beverly Archer, Allan Keyser, Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman to talk about the show. It’s a nice intimate setting around the kitchen table in a mock-up of the show’s kitchen set.
Beverly Archer: (10:34)
Alan Keyser: (10:24)
Vicki Lawrence: (19:50)
Ken Berry: (12:34)
These are all new interviews recently conducted and obviously from the same time as the reunion material.
Bonus Disc 2:
From Family To Mama’s Family: (17:36) The story as told by cast and crew today of the transition of the show from one format to the other.
Creating The World Of Mama’s Family: (25:20) Bob Mackie and Ret Turner talk about the wardrobe.
Game Shows And Showdowns: (11:48) The series crossed over with both Family Feud and Jeopardy. Here’s some clips and info on how those things happened. The piece also looks how games and competitions were a huge part of the show.
True Stories Behind Some Classic Bloopers: (13:55) The cast and crew talk about the fun on the set and how some of the more famous bloopers from the Family days happened.
A Little More About Vint And Naomi: (20:13)
All About Raytown: (8:34) Cast and crew talk about the fictional town.
Tim Conway: (12:57)
Ret Turner: (27:11)
Rick Hawkins: (27:03)
Jim Evering: (17:19)
Manny Basanese: (19:44)
Season 1 Bonus Features:
All About Eunice And Ellen: (16:43)
Family Sketch: (15:49) Another sketch from The Carol Burnett Show. This one featured Betty White as Ellen.
Season 2 Bonus Features:
All About Mama And Fran: (19:50)
Vicki Lawrence Interviews Mama: (4:26) With the help of some split screen Vicki talks to and irritates Mama.
Vicki Lawrence And Carol Burnett: (19:59)
Season 3 Bonus Features:
Family Sketch: (14:43) This one has Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman as Eunice and Ed. Along with Mama they’re meeting Bubba’s teacher played by Harry Potter’s Maggie Smith. It’s from 11/15/1975.
All About Bubba: (11:04)
A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion: (24:43) More from the earlier piece.
Interview With Allan Keyser (13:15)
Season 4 Bonus Features:
All About Iola: (15:59)
Interview With Beverly Archer: (10:27)
Under One Roof – A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion: (27:43) More from the kitchen talks.
Season 5 Bonus Features:
Vicki Lawrence: (20:39)
Dorothy Lyman: (10:22)
Ken Berry: (9:57)
Rick Hawkins: (27:25)
Season 6 Bonus Features:
Jim Evering: (20:25)
Manny Basanese: (20:21)
Rick Hawkins & Vicki Lawrence: (19:25)
Bob Mackie & Ret Turner: (31:53)
Mama’s Family might not be the best television has had to offer. But it’s a lot like potato chips. They may not be exactly nutritious, but they taste good. Many times you feel a little guilty and eat them when no one is watching. More importantly… you can’t have just one. Mama might have been ahead of her time. There’s no question that Tyler Perry is a fan. Same type of glasses, dress, pearls and wig. They both love their families to death but will not suffer fools. In my interview with Vicki Lawrence, she says she’d love to see Mama and Madea get together. I’d pay good money to see that get-together. Vicki still keeps Mama alive with stage shows, and I suspect there’s still a little Mama out there to be found. It took quite a lot of work to get through so much material. “It is not only a pleasure; I see it as my duty!”