Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! As promised in yesterday’s post on the best episodes from the first season of Mama’s Family, today’s entry contains my thoughts on CBS’ 1982 special Eunice, which took the characters from the “Family” series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show (discussed here in a September 2013 Wildcard post) and put them into a four act play that narratively spanned over 20 years (1955, 1963, 1973, and 1978). Taped in 1981 and held by the network (who doubted its quality) until March 15, 1982, Eunice debuted to mixed reviews but strong ratings. (You can now view it as a bonus feature on the second season DVD release of Mama’s Family.)
The plot traces Eunice Harper’s (Carol Burnett) ambitions to be an actress while her brother Phillip (Ken Berry) becomes an award winning writer. The show is divided into four acts. In 1955, Phillip goes off to New York while Eunice quarrels with her boyfriend Ed (Harvey Korman) and her Mama (Vicki Lawrence). In 1963, Phillip is just finding success and comes back to visit Mama, now widowed, while Eunice is tied down unhappily to Ed and two kids. In 1973, Eunice is husbandless (and Bubba is missing) when Phillip returns a big success. In 1978, Mama has died and Eunice has a crisis of faith, fighting with sister Ellen (Betty White) and discovering that Ed has remarried. Phillip convinces her to seize the opportunity and follow her dreams, but that hopeful ending seems crushed by the inevitability of Eunice’s own existence.
As discussed yesterday, the special, which earned Vicki Lawrence an Emmy nomination, served as the catalyst that convinced both Lawrence and rival network NBC to go forward with a series centered around Mama. But frankly, this is a bit of a puzzler to me because the Mama character in Eunice seems like an afterthought — nothing more than one of the titular heroine’s obstacles. As with the original sketches, the TV special (written by the same writers who created the “Family,” Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair) is all about Eunice and everyone else is only there for support. In fact, when Burnett first presented Lawrence with this script, the former’s response to the latter’s disappointment over Mama’s death is reported as, “Well, don’t be greedy!” So the special doesn’t hide the fact that its focus is solely on Eunice and her unfulfilled life. But the line of thinking that watches Eunice and sees Mama as a viable character for her own series is a bit nonsensical. More likely, the positive reception to Lawrence’s performance and the high ratings allowed Hamilton to finally justify making the series he always wanted. It really has nothing to do with Eunice itself and more to do with an obvious renewed interest in the characters.
With that myth addressed, let’s discuss the quality of the special itself. Because the script is so acutely centered around Eunice, there’s an overwhelming sense of sorrow that accompanies the proceedings. In this regard, it’s not unlike the tone of the sketches, which the company reportedly acknowledged as possessing the ability to play sans laughs for genuine drama. (They even did a run-through like this, not playing for comedy, in rehearsal of the Maggie Smith sketch.) But what made the sketches so indelible on Burnett’s variety series was the fact that the writing and performances layered gigantic comedy on top of the characters’ tragic undercurrent. This complicated mix of conflicting sentiments was never duplicated in any of the characters’ future incarnations, but while Mama’s Family lost the tragedy and focused on the comedy, its predecessor Eunice did exactly the opposite; there’s hardly a laugh in site.
Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. The truth is that the ratio of comedy to drama is not properly calibrated, leaving for an unsatisfying viewing experience. The 1955 and 1963 acts both get away with not being hilarious due to the “cuteness” and easiness of seeing the characters in period costumes, but one wishes that there would be something humorously substantial. 1963 comes the closest, because it allows for the most interaction between Burnett, Lawrence, and Korman, while 1973 looks the most like the sketches — despite the timeline inconsistencies, as Ed has already left Eunice and Bubba is missing. However, even though we’re seeking denied laughs for 2/3 of the film, the most worthwhile part of Eunice is actually the least comedic. I’m referencing the final 1978 sequence in which the script embraces that it’s going to be a tragedy, forcing Eunice and her two siblings to come to terms with Mama’s death. (Lawrence doesn’t even appear in this last act.) The drama is real, it’s earned, and because the subject matter justifies a heavier treatment, we’re not seeking humor — as we are in the preceding scenes.
Furthermore, the 1978 sequence gives us the opportunity to revel in Carol Burnett’s less-often-spoken-about skills as a dramatic actress. Truly, her performance is otherworldly (and I mean that as a compliment) and helps to elevate both the material and her supporting players to a level of tragedy that you’d never expect to find from characters born in sketch comedy. It is for this reason that the special is worthwhile, and this drama will appeal mostly to fans of the sketches. Meanwhile, in terms of Mama’s Family, Eunice is not necessary viewing. The timeline does not adhere to the canon of the series, Ken Berry plays a character not at all like Vinton, and more importantly, it’s centered around Eunice. (Heck, Mama even dies!) So, as usual, if you’re going to watch this play, know what to expect. If prepared, you’ll be pleased.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!