Burnett Does Tragedy: A Look at EUNICE

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.)

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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 FamilyEunice 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.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!

15 thoughts on “Burnett Does Tragedy: A Look at EUNICE

  1. Thanks for devoting a post to this previously unknown little gem. It still amazes me that StarVista/TimeLife acquired this teleplay, broadcast only once, in 1982, to include as a bonus feature on the DVDs and with the box set. It is definitely a unique experience in the Harper and Eunice euniverse (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Even with fewer laughs, some of those laughs really stand out (the burnt goblin line and the controversial macaroni on the sink are two big ones for me).

    Then of course there is that fourth act, which much stun viewers of MAMA’S FAMILY who never saw much of the Burnett show sketches. In a way it’s a shame that Ellen didn’t get to appear sooner, but in a way it’s fitting she didn’t; after all, she largely stayed away from her family. But Betty White really made the most out of her one-act appearance here. One moment of family drama that is so reflective of real life is when Ellen eyes the lamp and wants it but, she won’t just come out and say it. The way she just subtly remarks on its charming beauty and immediately adds “Remember how you always used to hate it, Eunice?” to try and manipulate her claim on it, followed by Eunice’s wise-to-her “Ya want to me wrap it up for ya?”…it may be low-key, but it’s one of the highlights of that act for me. And what an exit with that Fluffy revelation…

    And it is funny that we always hear it was this teleplay that allowed “Mama’s Family” to be born. Not only did Vicki receive an Emmy nomination for this (to which, when Lawrence asked Korman what he thought her chances were, he understandably laughed “Not a chance in Hell!”), but Lawrence says when she and her husband were on their way to a private viewing party for “Eunice” at the Burnett-Hamilton home, Lawrence’s husband told her “You know what’s going to happen tonight, right? They’re gonna ask you to do Mama as a series.” And Lawrence reports that “no sooner did the credits start rolling than Carol, Joe, and Harvey were all over me saying ‘You HAVE to do this as a series!’ ” However odd that may be, we “Mama’s Family” fans are sure glad she decided to do it.

    • Hi, Raytown Resident! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Glad you enjoyed — stay tuned next week for my thoughts on the best from the second season of MAMA’S FAMILY!

  2. I’m going to have to rewatch. I screened the special last night before this post and I hated it — I don’t think I laughed more than twice. Overwrought, melodramatic — completely lacking in the humor that the sketches, which were pretty dark themselves, were able to intertwine. And like you said, it was all Carol. Mama was like a background character. Didn’t like it at all!

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy EUNICE. If you’d known what to expect, you probably wouldn’t have been so disappointed. However, I share your disfavor for the special’s lack of humor. That was always key to the success of the “Family” sketches, and laughs are one thing that MAMA’S FAMILY always offers indisputably!

      • Yes, knowing what to expect can make a big difference in viewing something. I knew MAMA’S FAMILY long before I ever knew THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, since the latter was before my time. I embraced MF as my favorite television show in junior high and high school and I got to know that series like the back of my hand. When a friend of mine recorded some “Family” sketches for me from TCBS reruns on cable (we didn’t have cable at the time), I was ecstatic; I couldn’t wait to see the original sketches showing the original characters in all their glory.

        Unfortunately, I watched a couple and did not laugh at all. Indeed, I didn’t understand why the audience was laughing. I had been so immersed in years in the situation comedy format of MAMA’S FAMILY that it took me a bit to realize that the humor of the sketches lies in the realism of the characters and how true to life they are, and mixing the comedy with pathos and just enough darkness for a (usually) wonderful balance.

        Now of course I find the sketches brilliant and I treasure them, but because I went in expecting sitcom humor, which the sketches were not, I was disappointed. Thank goodness I gave them another chance and fell in love with them.

        Elaine, I hope you decide to give this special another chance someday now that you fully know what to expect.

  3. I already said I plan to. But it’s not like I’m going to fall in love with it. I want to laugh. These are characters borne from comedy after all. This didn’t make me laugh and it isn’t ever going to make me laugh. When I’m in the mood for dramatics, maybe then I’ll pop it in. Right now, I’m more interested in season two of MAMA’S FAMILY. I can already tell it’s an improvement over the first.

    • I generally agree with you, Elaine. But when you do want some drama, that fourth act (you don’t even need to watch the disappointing first three) is something that’ll play well.

      Anyway, enjoy the rest of Season Two. My thoughts will follow — next week!

      • I too put this on occasionally when I’m in that right mood for some intimate and sad “Family” drama. That’s true you could watch 1978 as a “family sketch” of its own, but I still like to watch the whole thing.

        • The issue I have with the first three acts is that each one starts out poised to be comedic, like the original sketches, and then disappoints by not delivering (enough) laughs. By the fourth act, that pretense is lost, and so the full embracement of drama allows the action to play unencumbered by duty and expectation. Also, the first two acts, in particular, are a bit gimmicky with the period costumes and the shtick of being “back in time.” The only part of the play that feels true to itself and authentically enjoyable, to me, is the final act.

    • I like the slightly eerie way the third act moves to foreshadowing the tone of the fourth, as we see Eunice’s life falling apart around her with her Ed having left her and the home life problems with Bubba, and those final moments with Eunice and Mama together. The fourth act starts out appropriately grave from the very beginning, with that quietly ticking clock and the somber entrance of the siblings.

      And on a note of Harper interest, this is the only instance where we ever see Mama’s bedroom. Even in her titular series her own bedroom is never shown (yet Buzz’s, of all people, is allowed one glimpse).

  4. As a self-proclaimed Eunice lover, I would not proclaim myself to be a EUNICE lover and it’s for all of the reasons you’ve expressed. Count me as one who thinks the fourth act is the most rewarding; it’s the only drama that isn’t camped up for the sake of some comedy that never comes! Oy. Burnett is magnificent in the final scene though — maybe some of the best work of her career.

    • Hi, Jeff! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      As you know, I agree with everything you wrote! Burnett is fantastic in the last act. Wish the special itself was more consistently rewarding.

  5. I’d seen parts of this before (mainly the ending), but hadn’t watched the full special until Ken Berry’s recent passing.

    I agree with your review, although I feel like The Family sketches became increasingly dark and more and more difficult to laugh at – the last one in particular, with Eunice in therapy. Carol, like a lot of comedians, seemed to become more and more attached to seeing Eunice as an extension of herself, rather than a vehicle for laughs. Eunice in Mama’s Family is a complete caricature (albeit a very entertaining one), and that was the first Eunice I ever saw. It was a bit jarring to see her on The Family and especially jarring to see her in this special. I think it’s because we are seeing her through her own eyes, unlike Eunice on Mama’s family, who is shown through Mama’s eyes (especially the last few appearances of the character with Carol no longer in the role).

    As Eunice is a tragic character, I think the choice to focus on this tragedy works, although I can also understand why fans would find this material alienating. There is never really a moment given that will let viewers feel Eunice has a chance for happiness. The ending, where Eunice still can’t escape the destructive patterns of her life even after Mama is dead, is one of the bleakest I can remember for anything with comic elements, especially American sitcoms.

    In many ways the special reminds me more of British sitcoms, now that I think about it, as many of them started to become more seriocomic and somewhat bleak in these years.

    The work from Carol, Vicki, Ken and Betty White is first-rate. I love Ellen (she is my favorite Betty White character), vicious wretch that she is, and the fight between Ellen and Eunice here is so ugly, so honest, in a way that the complete sitcom format never allowed. Vicki is extremely good, especially in the heartbreaking 1973 segment (the strongest of the three for me). And Ken – what a marvel to get to see him in dramatic material, and in many ways being the second heart of this special, the one who got away, while Eunice never could. The framing shots of him sitting on the porch, listening to his family fight, are so effective. I always disliked the show’s choice to make Vint become such an idiot, so this is a real tonic.

    I don’t think you mentioned it in your review, but the best scene in this (aside from her breakdown with Phil after Mama’s death) is when she is on the phone with Bubba. The scene is just devastating, as we watch Eunice repeat the abusive patterns with her son that Mama inflicted on her. She can’t stop herself – she just rages and rages, likely destroying her relationship with him for good. Mama’s quiet comment that she wishes she’d answered the phone really stays with me.

    • Hi, Carl! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      And thanks for sharing your thoughts. Be sure to check out our coverage of MAMA’S FAMILY, if you haven’t already!

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