Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from Mama’s Family (1983-1984, NBC; 1986-1990, First Run Synd.), the hilarious half-hour extension of the popular “Family” sketch from The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978, CBS), which we discussed here several years ago.
Widow Thelma Harper (a.k.a. Mama) has a crazy family living under her roof: a spinster sister, a dimwitted son, a horny daughter-in-law, and two teenage grandkids. Mama’s Family stars VICKI LAWRENCE as Thelma Harper, KEN BERRY as Vinton Harper, DOROTHY LYMAN as Naomi Harper, ERIC BROWN as Buzz Harper, KARIN ARGOUD as Sonja Harper, and RUE McCLANAHAN as Fran Crowley. Recurring guests include BETTY WHITE as Ellen Harper Jackson, HARVEY KORMAN as Alistair Quince (and Ed Higgins), and CAROL BURNETT as Eunice Harper Higgins.
Any discussion of Mama’s Family must first begin with the “Family,” as the idea to center a series around the Mama character had been around for a while. In fact, Vicki Lawrence was first approached about doing her own Mama series during the ninth season of The Carol Burnett Show. The popular “Family” series of sketches had been introduced near the end of the variety show’s seventh season (1973-74). Written by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, the characters were reportedly based on Clair’s own family and the initial intention was to have Carol Burnett play Mama (the star of the sketch) while Vicki Lawrence would play her daughter Eunice. (Harvey Korman was to be Eunice’s loser husband Ed.) But when Burnett got the script, she found Eunice to be the more emotionally rich character and the one she better understood, opting instead to switch parts with Lawrence — a swap that chagrined the writers. (The scribes also weren’t too happy about Burnett’s decision to do the scene with southern accents.) However, after this debut sketch, it was clear that the “Family,” with Burnett as Eunice and Lawrence as Mama, was a comedic goldmine, and the characters became a recurring feature during the last four years of the series, even after Korman departed. So when Lawrence was approached about a Mama spin-off in late 1975, during the run of The Carol Burnett Show, she was apprehensive about leaving the hit show, especially because she viewed the success of the sketches as dependent on the interplay among the regulars — not just Mama.
When the variety series ended, Eunice and Mama didn’t disappear, popping up in a single sketch on Burnett’s short-lived Carol Burnett & Company and on a special 1980 week of Password episodes, in which Lawrence and Burnett played the game as their characters. Shortly after these appearances, Burnett received the script for a CBS-TV special called Eunice, a four act play that centered around Eunice and her relationship with Mama, culminating in the former’s grief following the latter’s death. With Harvey Korman and Betty White (as sister Ellen) set to reprise their roles from the sketches alongside Burnett and Lawrence, Ken Berry took the role of the successful brother, Phillip, originally played in three sketches by Roddy McDowell. (I’ll be discussing the Eunice special and my thoughts more in depth during tomorrow’s Wildcard Wednesday post, so stay tuned…) Eunice was taped in 1981 but held until March of ’82 due to network dissatisfaction with the final product. When the special finally premiered, it got tremendous attention (read: ratings) and Burnett (along with her then husband, producer Joe Hamilton) once again implored Lawrence to do a series as Mama. She finally agreed.
Hamilton reportedly sold the series directly to Grant Tinker at NBC, who made a 13-episode commitment for the 1982-83 season. Burnett and Korman agreed to drop in a few times as Eunice and Ed, Betty White signed to appear in approximately half the episodes, and Ken Berry was retained not as Phillip, but now a new son (not introduced on the sketches). Meanwhile, Rue McClanahan was cast as Mama’s spinster sister and Dorothy Lyman (currently starring on All My Children) was to be Mama’s next door neighbor and occasional confidant. Also, the executives at NBC (not knowing how to handle a rural sitcom) wanted to brand the show as family friendly fare, so they added a pair of teenage kids to the regular cast. With hindsight, we know that this was their first mistake, but Mama’s Family was always treated unfairly by the network, which simply wasn’t producing shows of this ilk and didn’t appreciate the sketch-like origins of the comedy. However, to Lawrence’s pleasure, Clair and McMahon were engaged as show runners — but they had to make major alterations to the Mama character, both to make her NBC friendly and to legitimize her position as a likable series anchor. In other words, Mama couldn’t be as nasty as she was in the sketches; audiences needed to want to “spend time” with her every week. It was a struggle for both Lawrence and the writers, who attempted to navigate the necessary shift, crafting a Mama who was a little more wise and folksy — still mouthy and obstinate to be sure — but not so emotionally cold and embittered.
Lawrence panicked after the first two episodes were shot in the summer of ’82: this wasn’t the Mama she was used to playing. She felt the writing had weakened her character — making her uncomical. Production was halted as changes were made. Harvey Korman was brought on, at Lawrence’s insistence, to co-direct the series and serve in a weekly capacity as Alistair Quince, a take-off on Alistair Cooke, who would introduce each episode like it was a piece of Masterpiece Theatre. Korman also assuaged Lawrence’s doubts about Mama’s evolution by insisting that she was Mama and could therefore do anything she wanted with her, giving the actress license to morph the character at a pace that felt natural to her. Granting agency of the Mama character to Lawrence was key to the series’ ability to move forward, and with some narrative re-formatting that established an actual conflict — over the course of four episodes Naomi the neighbor would have a quick courtship with Vinton and become his live-in bride, not to mention a thorn in Mama’s side — production was now ready to continue. But the creative delays, along with NBC’s internal struggle with the show’s very existence, had Mama’s Family pushed from the Fall schedule (where it would have premiered on Thursdays behind Cheers) to Saturdays in January ’83. The two episodes shot before the aforementioned retooling would air later in the season, following an introduction by Alistair Quince that explained them off as “flashbacks.” Even up against ABC’s The Love Boat in the spring, the series was able to place at #22 for the season, earning it a definite full season renewal. But could Mama’s Family survive NBC’s continued attempts to kill it? That’s for next week.
In the meantime, these first 13 episodes see the series still attempting to figure out its identity. In addition to the two pre-Korman episodes (which, to the credit of Lawrence’s discerning eye, don’t really work), there are several episodes that suffer from the simple fact that the show isn’t yet well-developed. That is, there are fundamental problems with the premise, specifically the combination of characters. The kids are unfunny and only work when their prime function is to annoy Mama (because they’re generally good at annoying anyway). Furthermore, the character of Fran is sorely lacking in definition, changing personalities with each episode. Sometimes she’s a good friend to Mama, other times she’s a rotten nuisance. Even worse, most times she isn’t allowed to be comedic. And that’s a big problem for a character who should be driving more of the material. But on the other hand, there are a lot of things that are automatically firing on all cylinders — namely the conflict that develops between Mama and the newlyweds, whose courtship and marriage over the first four episodes make for some of the funniest and most memorable moments of the NBC years. These three characters, obviously, work well and work well immediately. Meanwhile, Eunice, Ed, and Ellen (the latter of whom appears in six of the 13 scripts) are peppered throughout the year to a generally strong effect. The only problem with this trio, particularly Eunice and Ed, is that they distract from the new ensemble, and when they overtake the script (as Burnett naturally does in each appearance), the show ends up losing its balance, making us miss the more emotionally potent sketches from the variety series.
This is an interesting dichotomy. For although the sketches reached a level of brilliance unmatched by this new series — the kind of excellence predicated on the bittersweet blend of humor and pain — Mama’s Family really can’t be that. And we wouldn’t want it to be. As a result, the best moments here generally exist when the show defines itself as a separate entity. (Although, you’ll notice that my MVE is an important exception to this rule. Find out why below…) And while I do agree with Lawrence that the Mama of the sketches was more comedically sharp, the changes that are made here (and will continue to be made) do seem necessary, and surprisingly, the first two seasons do a great job of reconciling the Mama of the sketches with the Mama of the series. (Most of the praise belongs with Lawrence’s mastery in gradually morphing Mama into a character with viable longevity — and in a way that wouldn’t have been noticeable to viewers watching on a weekly basis.) Yet, if there’s any reason for preferring the NBC years over the syndicated ones, it would be for the portrayal of Mama — who is still crotchety and sarcastic, but with a newfound sense of humor, which makes her much more likable WITHOUT stripping her of the darker, nastier edge that made her so humorous. As a result of Lawrence’s performance, this is always a very funny series. And this season, for all of NBC’s mistakes, is often great — really funny. In general, Mama’s Family is not a show that I enjoy for the quality of its scripting (like Cheers), but rather for its simple laugh-out-loud hilarity. And, for a sitcom, that’s pretty much all I want. So I have picked five episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the five best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by both Harvey Korman and Roger Beatty, unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 1: “Vint And The Kids Move In” (Aired: 01/22/83)
Vint and his two kids move into Mama’s house — without Fran’s knowledge.
Written by Jenna McMahon & Dick Clair
The fourth episode shot for the series, this was designed to serve as the official premiere (following the creative redevelopment discussed above). The story’s inciting incident finds the recently divorced Vinton moving into Mama’s house with his two kids. The conflict, aside from the general inconvenience to all involved, is that Fran will have to give up her workspace — something which she is not prepared to lose. Aside from all the perfunctory exposition, McMahon and Clair’s script makes time for a lot of big laughs, including slapstick moments for Berry and some of the best scenes of the series between Lawrence and the generally underserved McClanahan. One of the highlights of the offering, however, is the re-meeting of Vinton and Naomi, who share an immediate chemistry — to Mama’s evident displeasure.
02) Episode 2: “For Better Or Worse” (Aired: 01/29/83)
Vint and Naomi spend a night together and then make plans to marry.
Written by Liz Sage & Rick Hawkins
Following the reunion between Vinton and Naomi in the series premiere, this episode takes things to the logical next step, as the former classmates wind up in the basement bed together. Berry and Lyman get some of their longest uninterrupted scenes of the series in this offering, and because both the performers and characters are already so strong, this amount of exposure helps to ingratiate them with the audience, establishing them as the show’s best characters — second only to Mama. Lawrence, not surprisingly, gets the episode’s best moment with her reaction to seeing Naomi sneak out from the basement to the backdoor. (She’s clearly learned a lot at the Burnett-Korman school of comedy.) Also, credit must be given to the writers for the final scene’s manipulative, but not distractingly obvious, set-up for next week’s wedding.
03) Episode 4: “The Wedding (II)” (Aired: 02/12/83)
On the day of Vint and Naomi’s wedding, Eunice has a meltdown.
Written by Dorothy Van & Jim Evering
As usual with two-part installments, one half is comedically sharper than the other. (However, choosing only one half of an episode that’s designed to be paired with another basically gives me the opportunity to highlight two episodes for the “price” of one, because naturally, if you watch Part II, you’ll want to watch Part I first.) This is a fan favorite, but it’s also a BIG EVENT episode. That is, the show has a function that overrides the comedy: getting Vint and Naomi married. Also, this is the second appearance of Burnett as Eunice, and she runs roughshod over the entire 24 minutes. For fans of the sketches, this is a benefit. But in terms of the series’ own new identity, well . . . let’s just say the episode is saved by its ability to comedically deliver and by the interactions among the entire ensemble (with Burnett and Korman in support of them).
04) Episode 6: “Cellmates” (Aired: 02/26/83)
Mama and Eunice are arrested after getting into a barroom brawl.
Written by Jenna McMahon & Dick Clair
My choice for the best episode of the year, this installment is the exception to the “new identity” rule mentioned above. This offering makes absolutely no attempt to use the storytelling of the sitcom and its new cast, opting instead to play with the characters and relationships that were introduced way back in the variety series. (In fact, the long running gag of Duke Reeves is brought up again as a major part of the story.) It would seem that this wouldn’t be a good fit for a show that desperately needs to lock in a separate mode of operation. However, this is clearly the best script of the season, helmed by the duo that first introduced Mama in 1974, meaning that there’s a welcome sense of authenticity in her presentation. Meanwhile, this script also sees a brilliant resolution to the antagonistic relationship shared by Mama and Eunice, as the pair has a genuine heart-to-heart on the porch swing (following a bar fight that lands them in prison alongside a hooker, played by Yvonne Wilder, whom we’ve seen here before on Archie Bunker’s Place), that not only mines big humor and works for the story, but also serves as an ideal end for the Eunice character. (Perhaps unfortunately, Burnett appears twice more — unnecessarily.) So because of its value to the characters that we first met almost a decade before and its importance to Mama’s evolution in particular (she needs this episode to be able to move forward), the episode’s atypicality is justified, making this absolutely the season’s most valuable. A must watch for Burnett fans, “Family” fans, and comedy fans in general. (If anyone has the original unedited network broadcast, please let me know; it’s edited on the DVD!)
05) Episode 7: “Mama Gets A Job” (Aired: 03/05/83)
Mama takes a job at the Raytown Travel Agency.
Written by Don Emerson King
This episode makes today’s list for the expert clowning of Vicki Lawrence as Mama, whose comedic turn manning the reception desk of Raytown’s Travel Agency is Lucy-esque in its loony allowance for a seldom employed (by this character) physicality, especially in the NBC era. In fact, unlike some of the other offerings highlighted in today’s post, which are included for the way the other characters are introduced and positioned in relation to Mama, this one is all about her, and that’s a first for the character, who’s always been defined by the way she interacts with others. As a result, this installment gives us pleasures that the other offerings from the year don’t: a straight look at Lawrence’s performance and the ability to recognize, fully, her growing genius as this character. She is ultimately why this show exists — and why it’s worthwhile.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Wedding (I),” in which Mama, Ellen, Naomi, and Fran get drunk while preparing for Vint and Naomi’s wedding (naturally worthwhile to those seeking out the second part of this installment), and “Family Feud,” a fan favorite offering in which the clan goes on Family Feud and screws things up in a predictable but perhaps illogical manner (although a funny, albeit gimmicky episode, the above installments simply employ better motivated comedy). Nevertheless, they were both serious contenders for the above list. Meanwhile, “Positive Thinking,” while not close to making the list due to the inappropriate focus thrown to Eunice instead of Mama and the other characters, is still worth mentioning for fans of the sketches and/or her character.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Mama’s Family goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!