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; 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.
The fifth season of Mama’s Family, like all of the others, makes a case for why it should be considered the series’ best: it’s the funniest. While Season One did the best job of reconciling the characters and relationships from the sketches with how they needed to play in the new series and Season Two finally found a way to maximize the strengths inherent in the NBC ensemble, Season Three benefited from the formation of the first completely viable cast (with the smart additions of both Iola and Bubba) and Season Four granted a lot of really funny material, in particular, to Lawrence’s Mama, who shone. Now we’re on to Season Five, which launches another slight year-long arc that involves Vint and Naomi’s attempts to conceive a child (yielding more stories and more focus, both of which are positives), and has the distinction of being undoubtedly one of the show’s most comedically exuberant. Big laughs are commonplace — more commonplace than ever! Furthermore, when I think of seminal outings from Mama’s Family, I’m almost surprised to see that so many of the ones that come to mind are from the fifth season, a year which’s exceptional quality is always a surprise to me — even as I type this. Now why is this the case?
Well, I think it has to do with the presentation of Mama. Folks, Season Five marks the year where Lawrence is finally rid of her original characterization, eschewing Mama’s cold and embittered portrayal for one with spunk and a healthy, but not alienating, dose of permanent annoyance. No longer is she the mother from Hell — now she’s the practical (and sometimes cranky) grandma whom, if we don’t have, we know in some capacity. However, as someone who’s long favored the initial depiction of a severely flawed Mama, my natural inclination is to disfavor the years in which this diluted Mama is in full force, and Season Five is loud and proud about the “New Mama” — even from the very beginning. But there are three things that justify Mama’s presentation here. One: the transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Yes, the changes are more glaring at the start of this season than at the start of any year prior, but Lawrence has been moving Mama in this direction since the third taped episode. New Mama is therefore better described as “Evolved Mama,” a character whom we’ve seen coming for a while. Second: the stories that are now being written for the series function better with “Evolved Mama,” which means that the characterization feels appropriate for where we are in the series. And third: the show’s comedy overcomes all qualms — the results are just too good.
In fact, despite the ’88 Writer’s Strike that delayed the start of the TV season (although perhaps for this show’s creative betterment), the year functions on a very funny, and shockingly maintainable, wave — firing on all of its metaphorical cylinders in a way that feels even more elevated than in the stuff we’ve seen from seasons past. That’s not to say there aren’t a few clunkers here; actually, there are as many this season as there are in any other from the syndicated era. But bolder creative choices naturally invite bolder failures — along with bolder successes. It’s to this season’s credit that the offerings I’d classify as belonging to the latter, which are more abundant anyway, manage to nearly erase the stinkers from the year’s collective reputation. In other words, the hits are much more frequent — and even better, much more valuable — than the misses. And even more delightfully, aside from the duds and the gems, the middle-of-the-road offerings are shining better than ever. And that’s the true mark of a satisfying season. As a result, this was the toughest list to make of the entire series, but 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Dave Powers.
01) Episode 86: “Ladies Choice” (Aired: 11/05/88)
Mama and Iola run against each other for President of the Church Ladies League.
Written by Jim Evering
Part of this episode’s comedy is aided by an understanding of the context regarding its original production and broadcast — the election season of 1988! The debates that Mama and Iola have are deliberately patterned to reflect the type of rhetoric commonly heard in that election cycle (and all election cycles, frankly). The incorporation of these allusions is very funny, and although the story is nothing original or exciting to warrant praise (after all, we’ve seen this on everything from I Love Lucy to The Jeffersons), the inclusion of Thelma’s church ladies always makes for big laughs. And there are some wonderful character moments for Mama and Iola, both of whom get chances to shine bright in their wonderfully written (and played) debates.
02) Episode 88: “Naomi’s New Position” (Aired: 11/19/88)
Naomi’s new boss threatens to fire her if she doesn’t accept his advances.
Written by Dorothy Van
As a fan of Naomi and the ways she could be used to antagonize Mama, one of the nitpicks I could make about the syndicated years is the lack of meat thrown to her character. (I think the NBC years did a much better job of giving Lyman fun stuff to play.) She usually only gets material if it also includes Vinton, her de facto other half. So this episode is notable for the Naomi character because the action is entirely centered around her; in fact, there’s a lengthy scene in which no other regular appears. That’s a rarity! (Of course, the comedic climax, which is uproariously good by the way, is given to Mama, although that’s as it should be — check the title.) Meanwhile, this is one of the episodes to which the aforementioned “firing on all metaphorical cylinders” is most applicable. It’s wonderfully scripted from beginning to end, and because I consider the offering among the year’s most solid — and surprisingly so — it’s my choice for the year’s MVE.
03) Episode 89: “The Really Loud Family” (Aired: 11/26/88)
Bubba makes a film about the Harpers for a school project.
Written by Neil Lebowitz
If I were reading this list (not having written it), I would anticipate this installment being selected as the year’s best. Of all the year’s offerings — which, as you all know, already include a fair amount of classics — this is the one that I see most unanimously praised as being among the series’ top tier. Okay, there’ll be no argument from me about the quality of this episode’s comedy: it’s hysterical. Yet this installment is partially held back (for me) by the fact that the big climactic sequence is predicated on the construct of Bubba’s wonky camera, and not on anything that the characters actually say/do. It’s essentially one big gimmick, and while the results turn out fine, or rather, BETTER than fine, the jokes are still less valuable.
04) Episode 91: “Found Money” (Aired: 12/10/88)
Mama gets $800 from a malfunctioning ATM.
Written by Rick Hawkins
Were there to exist any doubts about Vicki Lawrence’s ability as a comedienne, the syndicated years of Mama’s Family could serve as a great indicator of her often unsung genius, which has always been overshadowed by her co-stars on the The Carol Burnett Show. A primary exhibit of Lawrence’s skill is this installment, which takes the simple setup of Mama and a misbegotten ATM machine (man against machine: a staple) and makes it marvelously funny without actually doing or aiming for big shtick — it’s all in Lawrence’s established portrayal of this delicious character. However, the script also gives a generally amusing scene to the ensemble, with the comedy hung around their quick moral turnarounds at the prospect of wealth. Just great!
05) Episode 94: “Bedtime For Bubba” (Aired: 01/14/89)
Mama suspects Bubba is doing more than studying with a female classmate.
Written by Rick Hawkins
While I appreciate the relationship that develops between Bubba and Mama, along with both the depth and emotional relatability granted to her character in the process of establishing this bond, a lot of the episodes that we’ve seen centered around his character are either insubstantially trivial (read: goofy) or a bit too after school special-y (read: sentimental). Obviously, we’re always seeking a happy medium between those two disparate modes of operation, and the show gives it to us in this quite funny episode, which allows for some teenage-aimed moralizing, but doesn’t let it crush the delicious comedy. The reason for this strength is that, despite being about Bubba, the episode is filled with Mama and Iola hijinks.
06) Episode 96: “Mama Bell” (Aired: 01/28/89)
A homeless dog and an answering machine lead Mama to believe she’s being sent to a home.
Written by Jim Evering
Mama’s Family didn’t do a lot of misunderstanding-based humor — and certainly not in the way done by Three’s Company, which still serves as the exemplar of that kind of comedic storytelling (and the one we always reference when discussing farce). But both shows do share a similar modus vivendi: the desire to highlight laughs over everything else (most of the time, of course), and because of this noble pursuit, a story such as this one is prime fodder for these characters. I’m not sure there’s anything truly exceptional about the script and what the writer’s individual plot points do for the otherwise amusing story, but the setup alone is enough to engender a memorable and worthwhile entry. As usual, it’s Lawrence’s show and she’s radiant!
07) Episode 98: “Mama’s Layaway Plan” (Aired: 02/11/89)
Mama starts saving for her own expensive funeral.
Written by Dale Phillips & Allison Silberberg
Despite her recurring presence during the show’s initial year in first run syndication, Aunt Effie was only seen once last season and this is her only appearance from Season Five — Dorothy Van’s last for the series. (I wish the show had made more effort to pepper in recurring family members like Effie. It would have opened up new stories and created a larger universe for the characters.) As you can tell from the premise, this episode benefits from the use of gallows humor, which often times works in this format because we humans are so vigorously afraid of death that we desperately want to be able to laugh at it. Mama grants us this opportunity, although the funeral dream isn’t the best part of the offering — it’s still highly amusing.
08) Episode 102: “Mama In One” (Aired: 03/11/89)
Mama finds herself alone in the house when everyone is away.
Written by Jim Evering
This episode isn’t here for its comedic merit. This, and if you’re a regular reader you’ll know, is not a complete rarity on this blog, but it’s certainly not common. You see, I generally value the episodes that are the most comedically satisfying (while remaining justifiably written) over everything else. But this installment simply gives us wonderfulness that most do not, as nearly the entire 21-minute episode is a one-woman one-act for Vicki Lawrence’s Mama. We’ve seen this idea actualized on other sitcoms (like Phyllis, which did it only for a scene — but also with outstanding results), but never before on this series, and because of Lawrence’s breathtakingly good timing, this is one you want to see. Traces of Burnett’s training are evident.
09) Episode 107: “The Mama Of Invention” (Aired: 05/06/89)
Iola prepares to meet a man who might be interested in investing in one of her inventions.
Written by Alberta DaSilva & Kathryn Davison
A wonderful outing, this script scored both DaSilva and Davison spots on the writing staff for next season, where they crafted a few more absolutely hilarious scripts. Based on the adroitness of this offering, I can see why they were hired, because in their first entry, they’re already perfectly capturing the essences of these hilarious characters. Furthermore, while the premise is kind of average, the teleplay supports it nobly with the details — Iola’s kooky inventions, Vinton’s very concept of “The Pet Lock”, the great gag with Mama and the microphone in her bosom, etc. — that it becomes remarkable. It’s here in these small moments that the episode really shines, to the point that this was one of the list’s most ardent MVE contenders. Classic.
10) Episode 110: “Mama Makes Three” (Aired: 05/27/89)
Before they can adopt, Vint and Naomi are asked to visit a therapist with Mama.
Written by Rick Hawkins
As with last season, this year concludes by wrapping up its mini story-arc. (“Mini” because it was rarely the focus of the scripts and used more often than not as a subplot or a quick comedic aside.) Vint and Naomi are exploring the possibility of adoption after they learn that Vinton is “shooting blanks.” (Did the Cheers writers get this here?) But there’s a big hurdle — they must meet with a shrink . . . with Mama in tow! It’s as disastrous as you’d expect, and because of the emotional gravity of the premise, the sequence is evocative of the early “Family” sketches, which had an undercurrent of tragedy, so heartily displayed here by Mama on the couch. Of course, there’s a lot of hilarity too, which helps to make it a very strong and potent outing.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “What A Dump,” a fan favorite (actually written by Beverly Archer) that’s only worthwhile for a ridiculous gag in which Mama hops on top of a wrecking ball (but it’s too absurd, all the way around, to be completely embraced), “Very Dirty Dancing,” which is also built entirely around a physical gag — Mama dirty dancing (and despite the fact this situation doesn’t feel believable for the Mama character, it nevertheless makes for one of the most uproarious scenes of the season), and “The Big Wheel,” in which Mama and Iola do some Lucy and Ethel-esque feuding over a lottery ticket. However, the closest installment to making the list and the one that I really hated not including (and remember, this was the toughest year to choose, bar none), is “Baby Talk,” which features a hilarious sequence in which Mama must tend to a baby. It’s outstandingly funny and put up a hearty fight with one of the episodes above, making me wish that I could choose 11 favorites, for if any year of Mama’s Family deserves the honor, it’s this one.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Mama’s Family goes to…..
“Naomi’s New Position”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!
Was “Ladies’ Choice” topical specifically to the 1988 Presidential Election or just like elections in general? I still remember (and saw in reruns at least once) a MR. BELVEDERE episode that was very topical in its jokes to the 1988 election, including “Read My Lips” and “Monkey Business”. Such episodes are funnier in the context of their time, but the jokes are harder to pick up some 20 or 30 years later.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
The dialogue isn’t that specific, but some of Iola’s talking points resemble things said by Dukakis, while some of Mama’s resemble things said by Bush, all of which is reinforced by the former’s position as the challenger to the latter’s position as the incumbent/previous administration.
I forgot to mention bit I think Mama In One is definitely a master class of one act comedy. I remember seeing this as a kid and amazed how Vicki Lawrence just did a solo act for 10 plus minutes. Amzing
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I agree with you about the strength of Lawrence’s performance in this episode.