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!
I remember watching this when I was finishing high school, and I thought it was more fun than the sketches, in at least that the characters weren’t always ripping each other apart. I think by softening the characters, MAMA’S FAMILY avoided the problem that I’ve read THE HONEYMOONERS had: stretching out a variety show sketch into a full sitcom. The writer [The book is called HONEY, I’M HOME if you’re interested in reading it.] believed that removed from the silliness of the rest of Jackie Gleason’s variety show, the drabness & poverty of the Kramdens’ lives was not as amusing to the audience, so the sitcom didn’t do as well as a sitcom as it did as a variety sketch.
I didn’t care much for Vint’s kids on this show. Buzz was ok more or less, but Sonja was the epitome of a negative annoying teenager. I was glad that she didn’t continue with the syndicated version of MAMA’S FAMILY.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I’ve always believed the perceived lack of success of THE HONEYMOONERS when it went to series had little to do with the premise and more to do with the thinness of the characterizations, particularly those of the women (but really of the foursome in general). Even though many of the sketches were in fact longer than the 26-minute episodes, the designation of a whole series — 39 individual scripts — to characters who were better defined as caricatures made it much harder to write and play, and by proxy, harder in which to emotionally invest. I think this was the root cause of Gleason’s dissatisfaction at the time, and influenced his desire to return to a variety series where he could not only do more as a performer, but where he also didn’t have to pretend the characters were more than they actually were. I cite the later HONEYMOONERS of the ’60s and ’70s as purposely being lighter as a result of “lessons learned” in the Classic 39. (Of course, it seems so silly now to fault that season of shows, which remains a paradigm of wonderful comedy writing, if not strong character writing.)
As for MAMA’S FAMILY, the show avoided this characterization problem both by, as you note, softening the title character, but also (and more importantly) giving her a sense of humor and a relatablity that presented her as more multi-dimensional. The Mama of the sketches, while often an image of someone you may know, is only buyable in segmented visits; the Mama of the series feels like a real person (most of the time), and with this humanity established, the scripts have license to engage in looniness. Now, I personally think the sketches were brilliant for the aforementioned balance of humor and pain within the Eunice/Mama relationship, while the series never came close to recreating that emotional substance. However, the weekly series never wanted to be like the sketches, and as mentioned above, once delineations are made, the show is really able to shine. And when the writing gives us things that the variety series didn’t, I mine most of my enjoyment (and it’s substantial).
Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the best from Season Two…
Actually if you watch closely, you will notice there are three phases of Sonja in the NBC years. Phase 1 is “Stoner Sonja” (not that she did drugs but she did act stoned out quite a bit), Phase 2 is “Tomboy Sonja”, and then she metamorphoses cocoon-like into Phase 3 after a stunning makeover, “Glamor Sonja” (she even goes on to win the Miss Ray Teen pageant). I’ve always thought it interesting how there were “three Sonjas” on the show.
Hi, Raytown Resident! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Too bad none of them were funny or well written.
I admit to 1) not having seeing very many MAMA’S FAMILY episodes other than its initial season on NBC and 2) being a huge fan of THE FAMILY sketches on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. The obvious parallel, to me, is THE HONEYMOONERS, another slice-of-life sketch originally appearing as part of a variety series before being spun off into its own series. THE FAMILY sketches were like the “Famous 39” HONEYMOONERS episodes from 1955-56, and MAMA’S FAMILY ended up being more like the musical version of THE HONEYMOONERS with Shiela McRae in the late 1960s.
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I think comparing the series MAMA’S FAMILY to the color years of THE HONEYMOONERS (in relation to the “Family” sketches and the black-and-white sketches/”Classic 39″ of HONEYMOONERS) is interesting and mostly accurate in terms of the difference in tone. However, THE HONEYMOONERS loosened the characterizations as it progressed while MAMA’S FAMILY expanded theirs. Yes, the embittered trauma of the sketches (and the delicious weight that followed) is downplayed in MAMA’S FAMILY, but the addition of other elements, namely wacky comedy, only begets richness in terms of characterization. I don’t feel that ever happened with THE HONEYMOONERS after the conclusion of the “Classic 39.”
A few thoughts on the original “Family” sketches:
Was the first “Family” sketch actually the last-aired episode of season 7? An episode guide here ( http://carolburnettfan.com/episodeguide.html ) shows two more show dates after that episode, but it does not specify if those dates are production or air dates (since “The Family” first appeared on March 16th though I wouldn’t have thought that would be the date for the season finale).
Interestingly, Vicki says that the writers originally wanted Carol to play Mama and “they would get a guest star to play Eunice”. She says this is in various media (interviews, her book, etc.), but that doesn’t make sense if Roddy McDowall had already been planned as the guest star for that show. After Carol decided to play Eunice, Vicki credits Bob Mackie with suggesting to Carol that they get Vicki to play Mama.
Poor Dick and Jenna…not only were they upset Burnett switched the roles around for the sketch, they were furious about that southern accent! (which we viewers of course came to love with those characters right away)
Regarding the “Eunice” teleplay, that garnered Vicki her 2nd Prime Time Emmy Award nomination for her portrayal of Mama (her first was in 1976, where she won the Emmy for the Carol Burnett Show season 9 episode featuring the “Family” sketch where Ed takes Eunice and Mama out to dine in a fancy restaurant).
upperco I first discovered your web site when I stumbled upon your “Cheers” weekly postings. I highly enjoyed those (Dr. Lilith Sternin has always been my favorite character there), and I was quite eager for your “Mama’s Family” thoughts when I saw you were planning on going to Raytown after Boston. Thank you greatly for your attention to this wonderful little show.
Good catch about the air dates for the seventh season; I have amended the above post.
Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the best from Season Two…
Now for some thoughts on the series itself:
‘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.’
Rue tells a very interesting brief story in her autobiography that Fran was originally written to be Mama’s rival, to go toe-to-toe with her and be the main source of conflict; Rue was very excited to sink her teeth into this part. However, the producers then saw Dorothy on “All My Children” and created the character of the loose daughter-in-law Naomi to be Mama’s bane of existence. Because of this new unforeseen addition of Dorothy/Naomi, the writers completely changed the character of Aunt Fran much to Rue’s disappointment, frustration, and chagrin; yet there was nothing she could do, as she was already under contract.
‘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.’
On Fran I agree with you, yet I disagree. Yes, she should definitely have been driving more of the material and been more of a focus in the family and in episodes (at least there were two “Fran-centric” episodes on NBC…and in a way even two posthumous ones in syndication). On her personality though, isn’t that how siblings can be? Like a good friend one day, but an annoyance another. I thought Fran was realistic in this way and that they both did a terrific job portraying sisters who are “stuck” living together. Mama herself bounces around from different personalities, depending on who the writers were, as discussed in DVD bonus features (one writer wrote her more scolding, Gene Perret wrote her more dotty, etc.) It’s sad that we don’t see “the Fran that should have been” (before the producers found Dorothy), though I suppose the closest we get is the latter part of “Vint and the Kids Move In”, and her outburst near the end of “Fran’s Dress” in season two.
I also disagree that “most times she isn’t allowed to be comedic”. Even at times where she isn’t written comedic, she does a superb job of bringing Fran to life. It’s like Vicki says on an appearance on Shop NBC promoting the box set of the series on DVD, “And if you watch her, you’ll see that she never missed one opportunity to squeeze a laugh out of anything she did.” Sometimes it’s simply the way Rue works her voice around a line with that deliciously ridiculous accent. She may not be one of the “major” characters or a breakout character, but she really played that character. And for someone who was very unhappy with her lot on the show and unsure of her character, that is even more of an accomplishment and show of natural talent.
‘Yet, if there’s any reason for preferring the NBC years over the syndicated ones, it would be for the portrayal of Mama’
Two reasons I enjoy the NBC years so much are 1) there is more of an extended family for that realism of large rural families living in the same town, and 2) thanks to the “director’s cuts” if you will on the DVDs (with the original edits sewn back in), some of the scenes are extended (like you pointed out with Vint and Naomi in “For Better or for Worse”) and harken back to that feeling of a play like the “Family” sketches were (two examples that come to mind are Mama and Fran’s dissecting conversation about Naomi at the beginning of “For Better or for Worse” while preparing dinner in the kitchen, and Eunice’s monologue in one of the upstairs rooms where she helps Naomi get ready for the wedding in “The Wedding (II)” ).
And I agree with you about Buzz and Sonja. They were out of place and they were not funny. At least Sonja was somewhat interesting due to the fact that she transformed through three different types of Sonja over the two NBC seasons, but Buzz was Webster’s definition of “bland”.
As for your Top 5 picks, wonderful choices. I am quite surprised, however, that “The Wedding (II)” wasn’t your MVE, as it seems to be most fans’ favorite of the season (indeed, of the NBC years). I love the inclusion of how the whole family is involved with the wedding (and yes, it would have been much preferable if “Cellmates” had been held for broadcast much later as Eunice’s last appearance, as it does, as you point out, give a wonderful ending of closure to the Mama/Eunice relationship).
We’ll have to agree to disagree about the success of Fran’s character, whom I don’t think ever worked as a consistent source of comedy. Furthermore, I don’t think McClanahan was regularly able to elevate the mediocre material her character had on MAMA’S FAMILY, and certainly not in the way she could on THE GOLDEN GIRLS during the few occasions when the stuff thrown to Blanche was lesser. I’m generally a big fan of McClanahan and her understated work on MAUDE (covered here last year), where she and the writers essentially crafted the Vivian character during the ambitious second season, and her hysterical work on THE GOLDEN GIRLS (coming up in September), where her comedic capabilities were in peak form, but she just wasn’t a great fit on MAMA’S FAMILY because the foundation of the character was so porous. Without something concrete on which to build — or consistent with which she could morph — both character and actress floundered. And function (antagonist vs. confidant) is irrelevant; it’s characterization: who is she and from where does her comedy come? Solving that should and would have informed the relationship she shared with Mama. Perhaps more definition would indeed have come with more exposure, but over the two seasons in which Fran appears, we’re still treading water with her.
Regarding “The Wedding (II),” I think the episode is a difficult one to appreciate with total abandon for several reasons. First, it’s a big event with narrative obligations that inform the story (instead of character informing the story). Second, the episode should be about Vint and Naomi, but ends up about Eunice, as Burnett takes ahold of the installment in such an aggressive and undeniable manner. (It’s not even about Eunice and Mama or Eunice and Ellen; it’s about Eunice.) Third, I don’t feel the episode gives us anything new within the relationships, especially in comparison to “Cellmates,” which personifies the dynamic between Eunice and Mama, and in my estimation, resolves a lot of their antagonism without having to do much heavy-lifting or unwarranted character turnarounds. In fact, it wasn’t even a difficult decision for me — no other Season One installment is as simple, well-crafted, or relationship defining as “Cellmates,” which, again, is the offering that allows Mama to move from sketch to series. But I do appreciate “The Wedding (II)” for its unique merits and I understand why it would be your favorite — it’s among mine!
Yes, we will agree to disagree, though I did love hearing Vicki’s praise of Rue’s work as Fran on ShopNBC. I thought that was a wonderful little tribute. Fran has always been one of my dear favorites of the series and how Rue handled her material and made her such a delight endeared her to me. As a writer also I admit she is not the most concrete and consistent of characters, but I still manage to enjoy her so much (I’m sure part of this is having loved her since I was a kid, and she stuck with me).
‘who is she and from where does her comedy come? Solving that should and would have informed the relationship she shared with Mama.’
Since comedy comes from pain, the meatiest glimpse we get of this is in the climax of “Fran’s Dress”….Fran: “Mama just thought you hung the moon. You got away with murder! And who got stuck takin’ care o’ the ol’ witch?? ME!!” A delicious brief glimpse into what makes Fran Fran, and it’s a shame the writers didn’t explore more of that. We are left wanting to know so much more!
My view of “Cellmates” is that, minus Vinton, it’s almost like a “Family” sketch from the Burnett show, in regards to characters present, and therefore one of the less-identifying episodes of “Mama’s Family” as a series in its own self, if that makes sense; more like a throwback to the old days, despite the differences in Mama. That’s why I was surprised it was your MVE pick. :-)
Yes, “Cellmates” is the exception to my “new identity” rule because it’s vital. As a viewer, I need some Mama/Eunice resolution before shifting my focus towards Mama and other characters. In fact, I wish it was the last time we saw Eunice (even though, as you’ll see next week, I greatly enjoy “Rashomama,” but mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with Eunice). Stay tuned…
Like Guy, I loved the sketches on the variety show and tuned out of the sitcom after this first season when I felt it didn’t live up to the original. But then an odd thing happened- I caught the syndicated version (probably during season 4 or 5) and really found myself enjoying it – was totally different than the sketches, but so so funny – and better designed than the network version I thought. So I ended up loving both, even thighs I never went back to the network version.
I agree with you about McClanahan. I LOVE THE GOLDEN GIRLS. I never watched MAUDE religiously, but whenever I caught an episode, I always thought she was better support for Bea than the husband. But she was misused here and she didn’t seem to be doing a good job of making the results better. Iola, in comparison, was so much stronger for both laughs and stories.
I watched a few episodes last week before this post. Back in 1983 my favorite episodes were all the ones with Eunice, but with the exception of your MVP I didn’t really like them this go-round. I found myself liking Naomi and Vinton a lot more than I did initially, but that’s because I really enjoyed them in syndication. It was interesting to go back and realize what a fool I’d been during these episodes! I did like the FAMILY FEUD episode though, but I think I know why you didn’t like it as much. Was it the final answer about winding up a letter? I thought it stretched believability more than anything else in the episode.
Can’t wait for Season Two – I don’t think I’ve seen a single episode from that year, but I’ve got the discs right here and I’m anxious to dive in!
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
You’re in for a treat regarding Season Two — it’s less like the sketches than Season One, meaning the show is more able to be itself. And if you prefer the slightly more caustic Mama of the NBC era, you’ll have a lot to enjoy because the characterizations have improved (sans Fran and the kids, unfortunately) without losing their origins. In short, it’s the better year of the network version.
Regarding “Family Feud,” you’re absolutely right — I don’t like Mama’s final answer that loses the match as I think it’s a bit contrived. In general, I also don’t like the whole game show gimmick as its used here (and this is coming from someone who would study for college tests while watching old episodes of MATCH GAME — I’m a veritable game show lover), especially because there are stronger offerings in this collection of episodes that don’t have to resort to this trick. However, as you’ll see in a few weeks, I actually prefer the installment in which Mama goes on JEOPARDY! because the character is written better there (and Lawrence is more in control of the characterization), and she’s really allowed to drive the story, as opposed to being written around an established game show format, an overriding force imposed upon this episode that mitigates character contributions. Ultimately, “Family Feud” just doesn’t handle Mama as well as I’d like. But again, there are plenty of laughs there and I understand why you’d like it — I’m entertained as well!
Yes, “Family Feud” is a very enjoyable installment, but you are right that the gimmick just doesn’t gel with this episode. The premise of how the Harpers could get on the show could have been much better written; rather it was just too quick and too out of the blue, and not quite believable. The “Jeopardy!” premise is subtle and matter-of-fact and seems more natural.
Indeed. Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on “Mama On Jeopardy!” in three weeks!
Count me as one who adores McClanahan but found Fran a waste of space. I was just reading past posts, and you described Terri from THREE’S COMPANY as being neither here nor there, but here and there anyway. That’s exactly how I would describe Fran as well. From the writing to the playing, there was no definition, no consistency — a fact that’s undeniable, no matter how great the actress proved herself in other roles.
Anyway, looking forward to Season Two, my favorite of the whole series!
Hi, Jeff! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Thanks for the Terri quote — it’s perfectly applicable to Fran as well! (Although, Terri actually regressed in terms of definition; Fran NEVER got any!)
I’m looking forward to Season Two as well — stay tuned!
I never gravitated to Terri on TC either; she seemed just a “filler”, like the writers never bothered to really make her a stand-out “third roommate”.
I guess I have rose-colored glasses from loving Aunt Fran as a kid, but I still adore her. Part of it is the kitschy nostalgia of the whole Raytown landscape and her place there as the maiden spinster aunt. One of my best friends and I will still insert random bits of her dialogues or exclamations in conversation and laugh over our endeared “favorite aunt”.
I enjoy her as Blanche on the classic GG (though occasionally she can be a bit of a turn-off there character-wise), and Vivian on “Maude”, but I’m not as “close” to them as I am Aunt Fran.
We too will have to agree to disagree. I also adore the actress, but her character wasn’t ever defined and investing in Fran emotionally I don’t think is encouraged based on the quality of the material presented on screen. Perhaps Fran is endearing based on McClanahan’s charm or her position on the series (the so-called spinster aunt), but I find that line of thinking an external matter independent of the character and the way she was written.
I generally agree with Jeff about Fran, but let us never underestimate a performer’s ability to inject humor and, as you say, charm in a role that otherwise doesn’t possess either on the page. However, in this particular case, I don’t think McClanahan displays this ability, although the beauty of everything I cover here is that each one of us can come to the same piece of entertainment and walk away with something different. That’s why it’s also art. There truly are “diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks” — even though I despise that particular series (but I digress…)
But never fear, Jeff or Raytown Resident, McClanahan will get her moment to shine, and all the praise she deserves, come September! Stay tuned…
Hi again Jeff,
‘I also adore the actress, but her character wasn’t ever defined and investing in Fran emotionally I don’t think is encouraged based on the quality of the material presented on screen.’
I was thinking again of Fran and Terri from TC, whom I have no use for. Whenever I caught episodes of TC with her on I just wondered, “Why?” This was who/what they settled on? Such a waste. Whereas Rue’s handling of her material as Fran, I adored. Like upperco says “diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks” (sorry to indirectly bring that show up again for you upperco).
‘Perhaps Fran is endearing based on McClanahan’s charm or her position on the series (the so-called spinster aunt), but I find that line of thinking an external matter independent of the character and the way she was written.’
For me the charm is McClanahan acting with what she was given (which I’m sure we all agree was too little and too vague), and the interest and investment come from Fran’s interactions with the various members of the family. One thing I appreciate about the series is that Fran has a higher level of intellect and education than most of the other Harpers (although we know Ellen is very sophisticated, and intelligent, but we know nothing of any education beyond high school).
Yes, had the differences between Fran and the rest of the family — Mama, Vint, and Naomi — been better explored, that could have been used as a means of defining her character. But it’s a hypothetical, because that never happened. You cite her relationships with the other members of the family as a source of appreciation, but I don’t think that was appropriately illustrated either. Just glimpses. One of my favorite moments from the first season occurs in “For Better Or For Worse,” when Fran is left alone with Naomi and anxiously runs the other way; once again, wasted potential. In fact, I don’t think Fran had a unique relationship with anyone other than Mama, and again, that varied based on the script.
But we’re saying the same things over and over again: McClanahan’s performance either compensates for the character’s substandard material or it doesn’t. And we don’t have to agree about whether or not it does — in fact, it’s much more interesting if we don’t!
Once more, we’ll have to agree to disagree. No big deal!
‘Yes, had the differences between Fran and the rest of the family — Mama, Vint, and Naomi — been better explored, that could have been used as a means of defining her character. But it’s a hypothetical, because that never happened. You cite her relationships with the other members of the family as a source of appreciation, but I don’t think that was appropriately illustrated either. Just glimpses.’
I usually favor more supporting characters over main characters, and it’s this curiosity of background and story that isn’t explored as much as main characters that leaves me hungering for more, and therefore so engaged in who they are and where they come from. Those glimpses are teasing peeks into a character whose potential richness is hinted at, but always glossed over. But sometimes some of those characters like poor Fran get lost in limbo.
‘One of my favorite moments from the first season occurs in “For Better Or For Worse,” when Fran is left alone with Naomi and anxiously runs the other way; once again, wasted potential. In fact, I don’t think Fran had a unique relationship with anyone other than Mama, and again, that varied based on the script.’
Yes, that was a terrific moment. And yes it is interesting to see the writers have her interact with the family in attitudes that vary from script to script (one episode she’s rooting for Vint and Naomi, the next she’s annoyed by them, etc.).
I agree about supporting characters, but there’s an important distinction between those who recur and those who are regular. Paul Willson and, for a while, Bebe Neuwirth, both recurred on CHEERS, always adding to the episodes in which they were featured, and as you said, making us hunger for more of them in the process.
Fran’s different. She’s a weekly regular played by an actress who had previously starred in a hit series as a second banana. She should be aiding every script. Neither the actress nor character was allowed to do as such, and this is even more glaring in light of the potent material afforded to both Vint and Naomi. Fran is a supporting player in that she functions to service Mama (as do all the other members of the ensemble), but the gulf in how Vint and Naomi are allowed to fulfill this role and how Fran fulfills this role is wide, and in my opinion, never rewarding on her side.
‘I agree about supporting characters, but there’s an important distinction between those who recur and those who are regular. Paul Willson and, for a while, Bebe Neuwirth, both recurred on CHEERS, always adding to the episodes in which they were featured, and as you said, making us hunger for more of them in the process.’
Well I completely agree with you and I completely disagree with you, lol. Lilith is my favorite “Cheers” character and yes she does fit that description exactly. I could not get enough of her (and sadly what they decided to do with her in season 11 definitely saw to that; by the way you said she won her second Emmy for “Rat Girl”; I’m now curious what episode won her her first Emmy). Paul, however, never won me over. I know they were creating that “barfly outcast” character but I find him more a frustrating unnecessary addition where someone else could be having more lines. I don’t vehemently dislike him, I just prefer he weren’t there.
Like Lawrence, I still praise McClanahan for what she did with what little she had. If only the writers had been inspired by “Fran’s Dress” (the third episode filmed) and been able to expand and take her in a more defined direction; who knows what could have been?
You praise McClanahan for what she did with what little she had, while I don’t think the praise is warranted. Got it. We’re saying the same things over and over again.
Also, “Cellmates” is my favorite too, but I’ve always been a Eunice lover! (Although I do think Burnett pushes too hard in both parts of “The Wedding”.)
I agree with you about Burnett’s performance in both parts of “The Wedding” (and also, I’d add, in “Positive Thinking” and “Rashomama”). In fact, I think “Cellmates” is her most naturalistic post-EUNICE portrayal of the character. Could it be a natural response to the elevated writing?
I agree with you,Jackson about Burnett. That’s what struck me about her appearances when I watched the season this week. It was very over-the-top. I suppose I was just so glad to see her when the show premiered that I just didn’t recognize the difference in how she was performing the role. Watching a sketch and one of her episodes on MAMA’S FAMILY back-to-back now is jarring!
I feel the same, and there’s even more of a contrast between these appearances and her work on EUNICE, the subject of tomorrow’s post. (It’s on the second season DVD set, so be sure to check it out!)
But, to Raytown Resident’s point, this is more observation than criticism (although Burnett’s way of monopolizing an episode does impact its ability to thrive as an ideal outing for MAMA’S FAMILY — but that’s also the fault of the scripts).
As dearly as I love this show, even I have to admit there are a few “clunker” moments in acting along the way. Luckily these big embarrassments are very few and very far between (and occur in syndication; Burnett’s seem more easily forgivable).
Forgivable, sure, but definitely worth noting, especially in light of both her character’s history and the show’s need to break with Eunice here in Season One to move forward on its own. You know, it’s almost as if Burnett believed she had naturalized Eunice so much in the CBS special that she felt the need to broaden her up again for MAMA’S FAMILY. If so, that would be an understandable line of thinking; I just opine that she may have gone slightly overboard. But certainly not disastrously!
Agreed. Distracting, but not disastrous. I love the Eunice character, but once again, she wasn’t as artfully crafted after the variety series — it was always too much of one thing, not enough of the other. No balance in the portrayal.
As you’ll see tomorrow, I agree. Stay tuned!
More than anything at the wedding (or preparations for), what I find most distracting from Burnett is in “Cellmates” when Eunice exclaims “I don’t wanna dance!” at an awkward angle, and then does the way-too-obvious fake punch; I feel that could have been directed and executed much better. Other than that, she’s wonderful.
I agree about the staged brawl, but that Bigger Jigger scene is difficult to properly adjudicate because it’s clearly chopped up on the DVD release. And again, I don’t think it’s broader than “The Wedding (II),” but you’re right — it IS broad!
First, I’d like to say that it’s amazing to find such a thoughtful and serious discussion about this show, which too many people dismiss as “dumb”. Also appreciate the insight into what was going on behind the scenes as season one went into production, halted and then retooled in an effort to fix some of the issues that Vicki obviously had with her characterization as written in the early episodes. No doubt the fact that unlike most shows, Mama’s Family was picked up without a pilot episode ever being filmed was key to the early episodes being perhaps too close in tone to the Family sketches. If you watch the first couple of episodes filmed (they both feature Vint’s shady friend Claude), Mama is very much like her sketch persona – bitter, complaining and judgemental and completely lacking any sense of humor. It’s also interesting that Ken Berry’s Vint is nothing like the lovable loser he became; instead, he’s somewhat shifty and devious and not very likeable at all. Even the kids are more smart-mouthed. Had the show continued this way, I’m certain there would never have even been a Season 2.
Your comments about Fran are dead on. Rue is a terrific talent but utterly wasted as it became clear that there never was a game plan for her character. It may be that when the show was retooled and Dorothy Lyman’s character was brought into the family, it did change the kind of confrontational relationship Rue was expecting between Mama and Fran. But from a comedic standpoint, making the main source of conflict in the show between Mama and Naomi was a goldmine as Naomi was an unwelcome outsider so Mama could pick on her as much as she liked (and not a blood relative like Fran).
As for the kids, well I suppose the less said the better. It was telling that on the DVD interviews, Rick Hawkins all but said that they were forced on them by NBC who insisted that all their “family” comedies had to have a couple of teenagers in them like Family Ties or later the Cosby Show. Problem was, Mama’s Family was never intended to be a traditional family comedy in any sense of the word so imposing them on the show simply presented the writers with another obstacle to work around rather than adding anything of value to the show. It also underlined just how clueless NBC was in understanding anything that didn’t fit the typical sitcom template that they use to crank out product.
Finally, I second your hope that one day, an unedited version of “Cellmates” will one day surface so this gem can be appreciated in full. It’s pretty noticeable in the opening of the scene with Eunice and Mama in the cell that part of the scene was chopped out as the audience seemed to finishing up a laugh.
Hi, Potnoodle! Thanks for reading and commenting.
It’s a pleasure to discuss this series, which is almost always a comedic delight. I think anyone who dismissively labels the show stupid fails to appreciate how much skill it takes to craft a comedy that can play so effortlessly and, for the most part, so consistently.
I agree with your take on this season, particularly on the different portrayal of Vint in those first two scripts and the misguided choice to saddle this series with two uncomedic teenagers. (FAMILY TIES this was not — thank goodness!) Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the best from Season Two…
‘I’d like to say that it’s amazing to find such a thoughtful and serious discussion about this show, which too many people dismiss as “dumb”.’
It rubs me the wrong way how Vicki Lawrence frequently refers to MF as “this stupid little show” in interviews and on the DVD bonus features. I know that she means it with love in how she says it and the context, but I just wish she’d use different terminology because some people will get the wrong idea because, as you said, many people are too quick to dismiss this series as “dumb”. It is so refreshing in the interviews with the box set and the DVD seasons to see the people involved with this show praise it for the craft and care that really went into it (despite rough starts and obstacles).
Someone once posted at StarVista’s Facebook page (when the box set was coming out from them) that they saw an unedited version of “Cellmates” at a friend’s house on VHS, and they cited a couple of instances of “lost footage” from the episode. I have not been able to find that post when I’ve looked again, and I have no idea who that guy was, but I hope that he was honest and that he reads this blog!
Hopefully! If you find him, let us know!
As much as I have enjoyed Rue McClanahan’s work over the years on OTHER series, I, too, always come away with the feeling that she — or rather, that Fran — contributed little to “Mama’s Family.” Same goes for Buzz and Sonya (and later, during the syndicated seasons, for Bubba, Allan Kayser’s alleged “eye candy” factor notwithstanding). Truly, the series belongs to Thelma, Vint and Naomi and no one else.
Just out of curiosity, Jackson, but have you seen any of Dorothy Lyman’s work on “All My Children” on YouTube or thereabouts? I ask this, because 1) I happen to be a fan of daytime dramas (and of AMC in particular); 2) back in the day, I was a fan of Lyman on both shows; and 3) several “Mama’s Family” and AMC fans that I know, including my own mother, have pointed out just how similar Naomi Oates was to Lyman’s AMC character, Opal Gardner. (Of course, it’s no surprise to Carol Burnett fans how much Burnett loved AMC and talked often about it on her variety series. In fact, I often wondered whether Burnett played a crucial role in getting the producers of “Mama’s Family” to hire Lyman.)
Hi, Rashad! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I did manage to track down some clips of Lyman’s Opal on YouTube last year because of Burnett’s comments about her on the MAMA’S FAMILY DVDs!
I’ve actually long wanted to dip my toe in the daytime arena, but the sheer volume of material along with the accompanying lack of availability has been a deterrent. As usual, my angle is primarily the storytelling and I’m particularly interested in the daytime serials of the pre-1980 era; I’ve heard Harding Lemay’s ANOTHER WORLD is among the finer written, and I’ve always been intrigued by the CBS soaps of the late ’60s/early ’70s, LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING and WHERE THE HEART IS (in which McClanahan appeared).
Most of my attention, however, is still at the earliest TV soaps — VINE STREET, FARAWAY HILL, A WOMAN TO REMEMBER, HAWKINS FALLS, etc. In fact, a (pipe) dream of mine is to find a complete archive of a vintage soap’s scripts and recreate them on cable. But, alas, that may be one of my more fantastical ideas!
‘I often wondered whether Burnett played a crucial role in getting the producers of “Mama’s Family” to hire Lyman’
That is a possibility, although Burnett got Lawrence into watching AMC herself back in the days of Burnett’s show.
‘I’ve heard Harding Lemay’s ANOTHER WORLD is among the finer written’
Harding Lemay is indeed a legend among daytime writers (and I enjoyed certain eras of ANOTHER WORLD greatly). Quite a few clips from his eras with the series (1970s, and briefly in 1988) are on YouTube.
Yes, I’ve seen as much as is graciously uploaded!
Unfortunately, aside from some kinescopes preserved by avid (and lucky) fans and whatever resides in the UCLA and Paley Center archives, little survives from LIAMST or WTHI. Which is a shame, because, as story synopses and accounts from viewers and industry professionals alike suggest, those two shows were part of a wave of youthfulness and social progressivism that shook up the staid daytime drama landscape of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, a revolution that inspired the greatest works of soap legends such as Agnes Nixon, who created “All My Children” (along with “One Life to Live” and later, “Loving”); and Bill Bell, who created “The Young and the Restless” after several years as head-writer of “Days of Our Lives,” which TIME magazine proclaimed in 1976 as the most socially progressive soap then on the air.
From what I have heard and seen online (which actually isn’t much, when you consider what is available and what isn’t), Harding Lemay’s AW was a true golden time, both for the show and for the genre overall. Only a writer of Lemay’s skill could craft a love triangle (of sorts) around a millionaire publisher, his new wife (and the town’s reformed bad girl) and his neurotic, grasping daughter (who was roughly the same age as her new stepmother) without an ounce of cheap melodrama and make it one of the most electrifying storylines in soap history. It was only when the show’s producers and sponsors stupidly expanded the already-sixty-minute daily drama to a staggering NINETY minutes per day, and Lemay was forced to go outside his own wheelhouse and come up with ever-more-melodramatic plotlines to keep the ratings high, that he ultimately burned out and left the show by the end of the decade. (If you care to know more about Lemay’s run at AW, you should try to locate a copy of his fascinating memoir, “Eight Years in Another World,” which gives a fascinating account of his eight years with the show, how he came to the show with no prior background in soaps, brought it out of the melodramatic doldrums with more psychologically real storytelling (and turned it into the number-one-rated show in the process), handled temperamental stars, producers and executives and eventually was pushed out by a combination of interference and exhaustion.)
Right, one’d now have to locate the scripts to be able to enjoy the shows with the serialization originally intended. I was actually offered the opportunity to get ahold of a few scripts of both WHERE THE HEART IS and LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING a few months ago, but I got distracted by PARK ST. UNDER and some other exciting upcoming posts that I never followed through. (There were only a few though — would be hard to get a picture of either series.)
I’m still a novice when it comes to daytime, but I never like to do anything halfway, so I’ve read as much as I can on the shows that seem most likely to peak my interest. (There was a lengthy recap of THE SECRET STORM that I read all the way though — something like 20+ installments — back in February. Periods of that series appeared quite strong.) I still haven’t cultivated a fondness for the soap aesthetic, at least in its contemporary (post-1980) existence, so I’m still seeking the gripping storytelling that can’t be denied and can therefore overcome some of my apprehension with regard to the styles of both performance and photography.
And again, the earlier serials are the ones that make me the most excited right now; for instance, I want to know anything and everything I can about W6XAO’s VINE STREET. That would make for a heck of a post…
Forgot to add:
Truthfully, Jackson, I understand your hesitation in “plunging into the soap world,” as it were, in light of the simultaneous headiness and scarcity of past material. I still recall being in the sixth grade, writing my first-ever research paper on Irna Phillips (wikipedia her) and wishing I knew more about “As the World Turns,” “Guiding Light,” and her other creations than what I could glean from all the research books. I was born in ’79; and though my earliest soap-related memories stretched back to ’81 or ’82, those memories were fuzzy; and in the pre-Internet era of ’91-’92, tracking down videotapes from the early ’80’s and before…well, there was just no way that was going to happen.
As is always the case with the stuff we’ll never ever see, we build it up in our heads to the point where it could never live up to the lofty expectations; but for the scant possibility that it could, we still hold hope! Although, if I’m half-dreamer, I’m also half-realist; that’s why I know going after scripts may be the more fruitful avenue of pursuit — but that’s still the stuff of pipe dreams, saved for the tail end of a bucket list.
There’s a spark of some interest there in my head, so it’ll eventually turn into something… what that is, I have no idea.
“In fact, I often wondered whether Burnett played a crucial role in getting the producers of “Mama’s Family” to hire Lyman.”
The answer to that question is definitely Yes. There is a joint interview on the DVDs with Burnett and Lawrence and Burnett admitted she loved Dorothy Lyman from watching AMC so she suggested hiring her to Joe Hamilton. Vicki also thought she would be a great addition to the cast and so they offered her the part. Needless to say, it was a brilliant piece of casting and the Mama-Naomi conflicts made for some of the funniest material in the series (and to some extent, replicated the Mama-Eunice dynamic that existed in the sketches.)
Agreed. The conflict was vital to the series.
I used to watch Mama’s Family years ago when I was younger. Good memories. Rue McClanahan is one of my favorites. I can’t wait for you to do The Golden Girls. Will its follow-up The Golden Palace be included as well?
Hi, Matt! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, sir — THE GOLDEN PALACE will be discussed here in a Wildcard Wednesday post! Stay tuned…
Rue was also on Another World back in the early 70’s as a maid who was poisoning the lady she worked for so she could have her husband as she died.
Rue McClanahan states in her wonderful multi-hour Emmy TV Legends interview online ( http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/rue-mcclanahan ) that during that story line, she received a letter from a female viewer who advised her exactly how to successfully poison the wife and get away with it; she said in her letter “Trust me dear, this works.” McClanahan immediately turned the letter over to the FBI.
A treasure trove of interviews on that site. I’m friendly with a few of the people over there — they do great work!
Yes, I have really enjoyed several interviews there. It’s a shame Carol Burnett’s is so much shorter than others (they said they had limited time with her that day; here’s hoping they can do a more in-depth one down the road). I keep checking back occasionally eager to see a Dorothy Lyman interview added, since she is a two-time Emmy winner (consecutively for her daytime work as Opal on AMC). Alas, I am still waiting…
You may already know that Lyman portrayed Gwen Frame on ANOTHER WORLD in the late ’70s, and she returned to reprise this role for one week in May 1989 (while season 5 of MAMA’S FAMILY was ending). Her brief character bio on The Another World Home Page can be seen here: http://www.anotherworldhomepage.com/1gwen.html
Lyman appeared on ANOTHER WORLD five years after McClanahan’s one-year run as Caroline Johnson. Here’s the brief page on McClanahan’s character: anotherworldhomepage.com/1carolij.html
Thanks, I’ll have to check it out! (I had to edit the second link in your comment; visitors can’t put more than one link per post, otherwise WordPress thinks you’re spam and puts you in a separate folder.)
Oh, that explains why I didn’t see my comment show up. Well, thank you for not dismissing me as spam, lol.
There used to be a channel called SoapNet that re-ran ANOTHER WORLD daily episodes going back from 1987 to 1991. Since Dorothy Lyman reprised her role as Gwen Frame in May of 1989, I was fortunate enough to get to see her “cameo return”. It was interesting to see her playing someone other than Naomi, but oh how I wish I could see her in her original turn as Gwen Frame from back in the ’70s.
Also, if you ever saw a short-lived sitcom called HOPE & GLORIA, Lyman played a very funny Hope’s mother in a two-part episode. Also of note to Raytown fans, Hope’s father in the episode is played by James Hampton, who appeared on MAMA’S FAMILY in a later season episode, “The Mama of Invention”, as Mr. Keith Wheeler.
Yes, HOPE & GLORIA is on my radar, but as of now, not a great candidate for coverage here.
Hi. Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.
How fun! Hope I get to see that one day!
I wouldn’t expect it to; the most memorable thing about that brief series was that two-parter with Lyman and Hampton.
But you never know — I like some of the talent involved (both in front and behind the camera). Stranger shows have — and will be — covered!
Sixty-four comments. Thought I didn’t read them all (to be honest, a certain amount of “comment repetition” crept in after awhile) that must be some kind of a record here. Almost makes me feel a little self-conscious that, while I’ve seen the Family sketches on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, I’ve never seen a single episode of MAMA’S FAMILY. No particular reason for that, though I do have around here a magazine interview with Vicki Lawrence in which she talks about how much she loves the character of Mama, but largely dismisses MAMA’S FAMILY with “the show wasn’t much, but it kept me busy for a few years, and I always enjoy bringing Mama back.” I may have to look for the show now. Given what an awful person Mama was, more often than not, on the Family sketches, I’m impressed with the fine line Lawrence and the show’s creative staff apparently successfully walked in remaking the character into something that would be palatable on a weekly basis without completely losing the original conception of her. Since this series aired, I’ve seen Lawrence turn up elsewhere playing the Mama character, in a way that seems to have little to do with how Mama started out. Maybe I can find a TV station that’s playing reruns of MAMA’S FAMILY.
Hi, Donna! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, this is our most commented upon post thus far! As for MAMA’S FAMILY, you can catch reruns on Me-TV. They’re currently in Season One.
You know I always feel nostalgic watching Mamas Family I had a lot of good memories watching this on TBS in the morning when I was little
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
It’s a great feel-good show! Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the best from Season Two…
Actually I prefer the first two network seasons of Mama’s Family over the syndicated version that followed. The first two seasons are truer to the character of Mama that was developed over several seasons on The Carol Burnett show that we already loved. I for one loved the episodes that Carol Burnett appeared in as Eunice. Five appearances of Eunice on Mama’s Family over the course of two seasons certainly wasn’t overkill. On the other hand, Betty White’s “Ellen” could have appeared less frequently as far as I’m concerned. Ellen’s three appearances on The Family skits on The Carol Burnett Show were great and far more memorable than any of her subsequent appearances on Mama’s Family episodes. Betty White has far more talent at her disposal than what the writers gave her character to do on Mama’s Family. Not only that, but Ellen looked even older than Mama to me and was costumed like an old lady. As for the character of Aunt Fran, she was one of the least memorable characters ever cast in a sitcom. The writers gave her practically nothing to do, and she looked way too young to be Mama’s sister anyway.
Once the syndicated version came along, practically all sense of continuity was abandoned. Mama continued to move further and further away from the character that Vickie had initially created, developed, and played so well. This Mama and the old Mama were almost different characters entirely. Vinton’s kids, Buzz and Sonya, vanished and were never seen again. Eunice and Ed were never seen again. Aunt Fran had died, and the brand new next door neighbor Iola, who went to the funeral with the family, acted as though she had known Aunt Fran for a long time. It would have made more sense to not have introduced the Iola character until the next episode, after Aunt Fran was gone, buried, and completely forgotten. Ellen’s gone after one final appearance in season 3. Then of course the rarely mentioned and never before seen Bubba suddenly appears at Mama’s house and takes center stage as a new lead character.
It’s also sort of strange that Mama’s other sons, Larry, Phillip, and Jack, were never even mentioned on Mama’s Family, nor was Bubba’s brother Billy Joe (wonder where he was), nor were Ellen’s two daughters. You’d think that Mama might have thought about them once in awhile and at least mentioned their names in dialogue. It also would have been great if Tim Conway had made an appearance as Mickey Hart, someone Mama was certainly knew very well.
I’m a big fan of continuity in a series, and it’s certainly lacking in the syndicated version of Mama’s Family.
Hi, Wayne! Thanks for reading and commenting.
It sounds like you fall squarely in the camp that prefers the network run for the depiction of a Mama that more closely resembles the version seen in the sketches — I made a case for that perspective above, and it’s not an uncommon one. However, I think it’s a shame that these years have so many other elements that blunt their enjoyment. (Fran, as you mention, being one of them.)
As for continuity, I don’t think any iteration of this premise — as sketches, as a network series, or as a syndicated revival — prioritized fidelity to prior “givens,” so only slighting the latter era for this is unfair, especially because its limited acknowledgment of the show’s past now had a mostly noble intention: freeing it from the aforementioned enjoyment-blunting elements of the earlier run.