Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re continuing 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” sketches from The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978, CBS), which we discussed here several years ago.
Widow Thelma “Mama” Harper lives in Raytown with her dimwitted son, trashy daughter-in-law, and naive grandson (fresh out of juvie); her best friend and neighbor is a kooky spinster woman. Mama’s Family stars VICKI LAWRENCE as Thelma Harper, KEN BERRY as Vinton Harper, DOROTHY LYMAN as Naomi Harper, BEVERLY ARCHER as Iola Boylen, and ALLAN KAYSER as Bubba Higgins.
Following a cancellation by NBC after failing to be competitive in rotten timeslots, Mama’s Family spent two years in TV limbo until producer Joe Hamilton decided to follow the trend set by shows such as It’s A Living and Too Close For Comfort and produce the show for first-run syndication, which meant the series would not be broadcast by one network, but sold to local affiliates around the country. Without the interference of network executives, the show was free to drop some of the NBC-imposed elements that didn’t work in its initial life — namely the two kids. In their place came Allan Kayser as the oft-mentioned Bubba Higgins, Eunice and Ed’s son, who arrives fresh out of juvenile hall to stay with Mama and get his life back on track. With a comedic design and a rebellious edge, Bubba brings a youthful energy that the previous teens only did in theory. More importantly, he also establishes a needed continuity by serving as a link to his parents, characters from the initial sketches who will no longer be appearing (due to a messy divorce between Burnett and producer Hamilton). And while Kayser isn’t the best comic actor and the character is sometimes utilized inartfully, Bubba is a stark improvement over the alternative, and he invites more positives than negatives.
Also excised from the main cast this season are Ellen (Betty White) and Fran (Rue McClanahan), both of whom were snapped up in the interim by The Golden Girls (which we’ll be covering here soon — September). White appears once more early in the year to tie up loose ends (which debatably existed), but McClanahan’s character is killed off before the season premiere, which deals with her untimely passing. Frankly, we miss neither character — Fran was never comedic and Ellen seemed out of place without Eunice to antagonize. Taking Fran’s place as Mama’s closest confidant is next door neighbor Iola, from the frequently referenced Boylen family. Played by the utterly unique Beverly Archer, Iola’s inclusion rounds out a cast that — for once — works in full; every character has a source for comedy and gives Mama something different off of which to play. Iola, in particular, will become the second most dependable laugh-getter, and this season, which is still tweaking her characterization (which includes an unrequited crush on Vinton that’s hit hard), gives just a taste of the delights to come from her.
In general, the syndicated years are funnier than the rough-around-the-edges NBC episodes. But the stories do grow broader and broader, and what comes to define the second era of the show’s history are the cartoony hijinks that the network would likely have wanted to replace with syrupy family moments. Fortunately, this shift puts more of an emphasis on the humor, and more often than not, this series is able to deliver its laughs with ease. The trick will be maintaining a reasonable amount of logic within each premise. In Season Three, during which Mama is still a little more cranky than flighty, the show is functioning at a nice balance of laughs and brains. Although it must be noted that, as essentially a reboot of the series, the first half of the year is far superior to the second, which seems to struggle with maintaining the consistent laughs that early episodes were more readily able to deliver (perhaps due to the initial excitement of revisiting these characters). However, the best of these syndicated years is yet to come, and this brief string of mediocrity isn’t enough to be considered a real decline. So, I have, as usual, picked ten 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 ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Dave Powers.
01) Episode 36: “Farewell, Frannie” (Aired: 09/27/86)
Mama gets an unexpected visitor on the day of Fran’s funeral.
Written by Rick Hawkins
As the first episode aired after a two year hiatus, this installment has some housekeeping things to address — particularly the absence of both the kids and Fran. The decision to kill off Fran by having her choke on a toothpick is whimsically grim, and the sequence in which Mama reveals the truth about her sister’s demise is a tour de force for Lawrence. Meanwhile, this episode introduces the first appearances of both Iola and Bubba, who shocks Mama by coming to stay after getting out of juvenile hall. This added conflict helps keep her character antagonistic and thankfully Kayser actually fits in with the rest of the ensemble. Great start to the season, with laughs that compensate for the functional obligations that needed fulfilling.
02) Episode 37: “Where There’s A Will” (Aired: 10/04/86)
Mama finds that Fran’s will has an unusual stipulation.
Written by Kenny Millerick & Shelley Ross
In another episode designed to address the sudden death of Aunt Fran, this offering is an easy victory, simply because the premise dictates that there will be a lot of comedy. Given the regular shouting and routine hysterics that had come to typify Mama’s relationships with the rest of her family, crating a story in which she’s incentivized to keep her temper under check and treat them with excessive sweetness is both something new for the audience and a guaranteed source of laughs, because we know what a struggle it’s going to be for her. The script keeps everyone in character (as the story functions only as a result of their established personalities), and serves as an amusing final note for the character of Fran, even if she doesn’t appear.
03) Episode 38: “Best Medicine” (Aired: 10/11/86)
Ellen goes to the hospital to have a mysterious surgery.
Written by Rick Hawkins
Taking a break from (by the time this aired) her Emmy winning portrayal of Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, Betty White returns for the first, last, and only time during the syndicated years as Ellen Harper Jackson, Mama’s snooty first born (whom she nevertheless likes the best). It’s not one of White’s finest outings — she seems a little unsure of how to fully embrace a character whom she hadn’t played in years — but there’s a very funny sequence when the family crashes Ellen’s hospital room, where she’s resting in preparation for a butt lift, which earns the episode its hilarious classification. Also, Mama and Ellen get some relationship-defining closure that isn’t really needed, but does indeed leave them in a better place.
04) Episode 40: “Soup To Nuts” (Aired: 10/25/86)
Mama, Naomi, and Iola have a chili cook-off.
Written by M.J. Cody & Chuck Bulot
This was actually the first episode produced for the syndicated run and although it’s a pretty amusing outing, there are still some tell-tale signs that the show is using the episode to both establish its new characters (Iola and Bubba) and revisit the formerly new ones (Vint and Naomi). The presentation of Iola is particularly interesting, for in addition to hitting her crush on Vinton without any trace of subtlety, the script also gives her character a darker undercurrent that, for the most part, is reduced/forgotten over the rest of her tenure (save a few moments). Meanwhile, the story is another easy laugh-getter, but it capitalizes on the rivalry between Mama and Naomi, so it’s pretty true to the core premise. Also, and more importantly, it’s funny.
05) Episode 41: “Mama And Dr. Brothers” (Aired: 11/01/86)
Naomi calls in about a sexual problem on local TV.
Written by Tom Perew & Ann Elder
Joyce Brothers always pops up in the most unexpected of places — and Mama’s Family is among the most unexpected. While the show climaxes in a funny sequence in which Mama, Naomi, and Vint track down Dr. Brothers at the airport before she’s about to leave town, the best part of the episode is the inciting incident, in which Naomi calls into a local talk show and discusses her husband’s impotence. Mama’s piecing the caller’s identity together is a hoot, as is her anticipated outrage and embarrassment over the airing of the family’s dirty laundry. So once again, this is another episode that was almost destined to work based primarily on the highly comedic story that the script employs. But it delivers its laughs — thanks mostly to Lawrence.
06) Episode 42: “Cat’s Meow” (Aired: 11/08/86)
Iola decides to have her late cat freeze-dried.
Written by Dorothy Van
For fans of Iola Boylen and Archer’s supreme and idiosyncratic portrayal of the character, this is a seminal excursion. Mining laughs from a premise brimming with gallows humor (like the description of Fran’s death in the season premiere), this episode concerns the potentially unfunny death of Iola’s beloved kitty Midnight. The comedy comes from Iola’s bizarre decision to have Midnight freeze-dried and the hijinks that befall the stuffed feline when unluckily left in the Harpers’ care. This makes for a deliciously funny installment and probably the most memorable offering from the entire third season. Although not an easy call, this is my pick for the year’s MVE — it’s original, well-performed, and chock-full of laughs. My favorite.
07) Episode 43: “The Love Letter” (Aired: 11/15/86)
The family is in an uproar over a love letter intended for Naomi.
Written by Jim Evering
The cast and crew, including Vicki Lawrence herself, have long considered this one of their favorite episodes of the entire series, for it was shot like a one act — in realtime and with no breaks. And since the syndicated episodes were always shorter than the NBC episodes (by over two minutes), production had wrapped approximately 23 minutes after it began. Regular readers of this blog know how much I love scripts with this fast-paced theatrical design (I love that long-touted “mini one-act”), so this is an obvious choice to make this list. The story, although obvious and routine (nothing we haven’t seen before), is still amusing and well-handed, but once again, it’s really the performances and their energy that make this one a true winner.
08) Episode 44: “An Ill Wind” (Aired: 11/22/86)
The family spends Thanksgiving in the basement when a tornado hits.
Written by Rick Hawkins
Another theatrical episode, the primary draw of this installment involves getting all of the regulars, including the recurring Aunt Effie (played by series writer Dorothy Van in old-age drag), who appears more this season than in any other, into a room together. The means of doing so involve a melodramatic tornado that forces all of the characters into the basement, where they proceed to get on each other’s nerves (not surprisingly) and ingest some of Aunt Effie’s loaded rum balls. Again, it’s not really a masterful outing, but it certainly is among the season’s most laugh-out-loud funniest, and as a result, if there was any offering to rival my MVE selection, it would be this fun Thanksgiving entry, which gives everyone good material.
09) Episode 51: “Have It Mama’s Way” (Aired: 01/24/87)
Mama competes with Bubba when they both get jobs at a burger joint.
Written by Rick Hawkins
Reminiscent of last season’s “Supermarket,” in which Mama gets a job at the grocery store where Naomi works, this offering concerns both Bubba and Mama getting jobs working alongside each other at a fast food burger joint where a competition develops between the two. Naturally, Mama isn’t very fast with the customers and her hot temper, which is still in full force this season (thankfully), is unable to be restrained, making the whole affair a disaster for everyone involved. Another script by Hawkins (who has more offerings than any other writer on today’s list), this episode certainly doesn’t disappoint in terms of the comedy. And it’s good for story when Bubba and Mama are at odds. Not a favorite, but a fine entry for this year.
10) Episode 59: “The Best Policy” (Aired: 03/21/87)
Mama and Iola think Naomi is trying to kill Vint for his insurance.
Written by Jim Evering
I hate this premise. It’s an awfully unbelievable and typically sitcom premise that way too many series (usually not-so-good ones, but even I Love Lucy was not able to avoid using the story) feature. In addition to being cartoony, the premise always ends up being inconsequential, because we know one sitcom regular is not going to kill another sitcom regular. (A guest star might, but never a regular!) So why is it here? You could have guessed — the laughs are able to make the offering worthwhile. Also, this is one of the first times that Mama and Iola are paired as a team, like Lucy and Ethel, a partnership that will become one of the series’ most rewarding facets in the remaining seasons. Ultimately, in this case, the end justifies the means.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Steal One, Pearl Two,” which has plenty of funny moments but they’re inconsistent and at the expense of character, “Where There’s Smoke,” an enjoyable episode (introducing Alberta Meechum) ruined by sentiment and a disastrous guest star performance, “Fly Naomi,” which is commendable only for a sequence where Naomi and Mama simulate an airplane in the living room, and “Mama With The Golden Arm,” in which Mama enters an arm wrestling contest against a butch biker woman played by Kathleen Freeman. Too broad, but incredibly memorable.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Mama’s Family goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!