The Ten Best MAMA’S FAMILY Episodes of Season Six

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re concluding 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.

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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.

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Despite an overwhelming sense of broadness (and to my sensitive eye, tiredness) within the stories, the final season of Mama’s Family remains an incredibly comedic property. Lawrence, whose portrayal of Mama is more emotionally forward than ever before, is given her usual moments of great shtick, while the rest of the ensemble continues to present itself as worthy cohorts. The arc of Vint and Naomi’s pregnancy adds a bit of freshness to the proceedings, and grounds some of the loonier hijinks with an emotional center that’s (thankfully) not counterintuitive to the series’ ever-present comedic sensibilities. Furthermore, to the great joy of those who find themselves agreeing with my assessment that babies and situation comedy rarely mix well, you’ll note that the arc doesn’t overwhelm the season, which is still concentrated most definitely on Mama and her relationships with the others.

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The secret to this series’ success has always been simple: when Mama is allowed something delicious to play, a satisfying episode of Mama’s Family is the result. Of course, it took the show a little while to move away from its sketch origins, where caricatures and a darker tonality abided, and subsequently discover how to give Mama the material she needs to thrive. Fortunately, as noted above, this season is more Mama-heavy than ever, and as long as you’re prepared for the softer, daffier portrayal of the character that existed in her new and fully-formed incarnation last season, there’ll be plenty to enjoy. In fact, this season, like practically every year before it, has its fair share of classic installments, several of which I’d be most inclined to include among my favorites of the entire series.

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The year features only 20 episodes, as opposed to the last few seasons’ 25 (the show had reached 130 total, which meant a perfect 26 weeks in second-run syndication, five more would have upset this balance), but is blessed with an appropriate finale that gives closure to the characters as Mama welcomes a new grandchild to the family. It’s not a hilarious outing, but goodness knows we’ve seen worse finales (either lacking any conclusion or trying too hard narratively to give us one). Because of the reduced episode count, I considered only selecting eight favorites, as I did with the otherwise enjoyable seventh season of The Jeffersons. But, like the third season of Taxi, I consider this year to be a fairly strong showing for the series, and while I would have preferred to choose nine best episodes (something that my anal retentiveness would not allow), I have made the decision to pick a full ten 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.

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Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Dave Powers.

 

01) Episode 111: “Mama’s Medicine Show” (Aired: 09/23/89)

Mama’s miracle tonic has a secret ingredient: alcohol.

Written by Jim Evering

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How many times have we seen this plot (or an approximation) on a situation comedy? (That’s a rhetorical question because the answer is too many to count.) Doing a story like this always brings to mind the seminal I Love Lucy episode, “Lucy Does A TV Commercial,” in which the redhead gets drunk on Vitameatavegamin. But an installment that mines similar humor is an okay fit for this series, and while comparisons between other female comics and Lucille Ball are thrown around frequently (and mostly undeservedly), Vicki Lawrence is one of the few TV comediennes (along with her mentor, Carol Burnett) whom I think earns the association. This episode makes that honor quite clear, and because Lawrence delivers the laughs, it works.

02) Episode 114: “Now Hear This” (Aired: 10/14/89)

Mama uses Naomi’s new baby intercom to eavesdrop.

Written by Dale Phillips

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When I labeled some of the stories from this season as tired in my above preface to today’s list, this fan favorite installment is one that I had in mind. Like “Mama’s Medicine Show,” this is an episode that we’ve seen done on many other sitcoms. We’ve seen it done better and we’ve seen it done worse. But it’s a good offering from this (season and) series because the script does an expert job of tailoring the plot points to the individual characters. In this way, an unoriginal story is made fresher by the nuances already inherent within the show’s premise; it’s the writer’s job to maximize what he/she’s already got. This installment does just that — and well enough to became an episode that I couldn’t imagine not highlighting in this entry. It’s dandy!

03) Episode 115: “Tri-State’s Most Wanted” (Aired: 10/21/89)

Mama thinks a visiting actor is a wanted murderer.

Written by Albert DaSilva & Kathryn Davison

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Robert Mandan, most recognizable to readers of this blog as Chester Tate from Soap, is the primary guest star in this episode, playing a big time actor who tries to court Mama while appearing in town with a stage show. But when the old gal sees Mandan recreating a crime on the television series Tri-State’s Most Wanted (a local version of America’s Most Wanted), she assumes that he actually is the assailant — the infamous “widow waster.” So when he comes over for their date, the hijinks ensue. The sequence where she ties him up and he believes it to be a kinky game is incredibly amusing, and it’s fun to see Lawrence share the screen with another sitcom workhorse, especially one with whom she exudes a fun chemistry. Silly, but worth it.

04) Episode 116: “Mama Fights Back” (Aired: 10/28/89)

Mama takes over a local consumer advocate radio program.

Written by George Mitchell & Aubrey Tadman

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I’ve been told by some fans of the series that this is actually among their top favorite installments. I never got a really good answer as to why (because, let me be very honest with you: comedy is subjective and sometimes it is hard to explain why something just works — it’s easier to postulate on why it doesn’t), but I think it’s because of the newness of the premise. We’ve never seen Mama on the radio before, so there’s a variation in the kind of material that this installment offers — quite different from everything else. Also, it’s a pretty good episode for the ensemble, as every cast member is needed to make Mama’s radio show work. My favorite gag is the litany of jokes about Naomi’s face cream (that she’s testing for the show).

05) Episode 117: “A Blast From The Past” (Aired: 11/04/89)

Mama is reluctant to go to the junior high reunion due to her false reputation.

Written by Cindy Begel & Lesa Kite

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Reunions are an easy source of story for characters on sitcoms (and dramas too) because they allow the series to explore a character’s past — without having to resort to gimmicky flashbacks. However, I don’t really consider the reunions a gimmick, because not only are they a natural happening, but also because the audience actually does want to find out as much as they can about their favorite characters’ histories (in as effortless a way as possible). In this case, we get a glimpse into Mama’s life as a junior high school student, in which a beau whose advances she spurned spread a rumor about their time together, which earned her the nickname “Hotpants.” The idea itself is what fuels a lot of this episode’s comedy — most memorably.

06) Episode 118: “Psychic Pheno-Mama” (Aired: 11/11/89)

Mama sets out to disprove a phony psychic.

Written by Jim Evering

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Liz Torres, best remembered on this blog as the Bunkers’ Puerto Rican boarder Teresa on All In The Family and as the unfortunate replacement for the late Barbara Colby on the first year of Phyllis, plays a shyster spiritualist who suckers the whole family into believing her supernatural “insight” — everyone, that is, except Mama. Upon learning that Vinton has been unknowingly spilling family secrets to the psychic, Mama sets out to disprove the con artist once and for all. How does she do it? Why, in the broadest way possible — by pretending to go into a trance herself, channeling a spirit, and decrying the other psychic as a phony not in possession of any powers. Like many, there’s a lot of silly fun; typical offering from the show’s last year.

07) Episode 120: “Bubba’s House Band” (Aired: 11/25/89)

Mama and Iola spend time with a heavy metal girl rock band.

Written by Manny Basanese

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This was one of the few episodes of this series that I had never seen until the show was released in full on DVD, and frankly, based on the premise, I am surprised to enjoy it as much as I do because, as much as I like musical comedy, I often find music to be a distracting element in situation comedy (where there’s only 20-26 minutes, depending on the decade, to tell the story and it should therefore be used wisely). But what makes this installment so delectable is that it’s not about the music; it’s about the hilarious gag of Mama and Iola completely transforming a female rock band into what they think a girl group should be — complete with cutesy songs, pink dresses, and retro hair. The sequence with the reveal is hysterically unforgettable.

08) Episode 126: “Pinup Mama” (Aired: 01/27/90)

A church dance is mistakenly promoted with a picture of Mama’s head on a young girl’s body.

Written by Albert DaSilva & Kathryn Davison

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DaSilva and Davison, whose other script from this year made the list (while their first, from last season, made that list as well), inject more worthwhile comedy into their episodes than any of the other new writers during these later seasons, where new scribes abound. This offering is essentially built around the single joke of Bubba’s photoshopping Mama’s head on a hot young body and the mix-up that comes when the picture is placed on the flyers that advertise for a church dance. But the episode knows how to exploit the idea and get all of the laughs that it can — appropriately milking that metaphorical cow. And for once, it’s comedically interesting to see Mama behind the plot instead of driving its action, as is the show’s usual M.O. Solid entry.

09) Episode 128: “Look Who’s Breathing” (Aired: 02/10/90)

Mama must take Vinton’s place with Naomi at a childbirth class.

Written by Dale Phillips

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Choosing this week’s MVE was easy (for once) because of the sheer hilarity of the big bulk comedy scene in which Mama raises metaphorical hell at Naomi’s childbirth class when she’s called to take Vinton’s place (at the expense of missing the big bingo tournament down at the church). Lawrence’s Mama is on a comedic roll throughout the episode, but the first time I saw the moment where she shows the women her learned breathing technique — a gigantic unrestrained scream — I was laughing so hard I had trouble breathing myself. This response is unusual for me, as I’m a hard sell (from inundating myself with comedy and sometimes being desensitized to material that isn’t absolutely tops). And fortunately, this episode never fails to live up to the joy it created during my first viewing. It’s definitely among the show’s funniest, and without a doubt, my favorite offering from the final season. A Mama’s Family classic.

10) Episode 129: “There Is Nothing Like The Dames” (Aired: 02/17/90)

Vint and Naomi’s RV is stuck in the driveway while Mama hosts a snooty society group.

Written by Dorothy Van

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As I mentioned in the above introduction, it would have been more organic to choose nine favorites from this season, but when I decided to select a full ten, this was the installment that graduated from the other (highly enjoyable) honorable mentions. So while I’m not sure I enjoy it as much as the above nine offerings, there is a reason I considered it better than the three “almosts” below. First, Naomi and Vint getting an RV in the penultimate episode brings things full circle to the second episode, in which they planned on getting married and moving to a trailer park. (So Naomi finally gets her trailer!) Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the grounded mobile home and the snobby dames in the driveway is plain comic gold — and it delivers!

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “War Of The Roses,” in which Mama and Iola feud over a cross-pollinated flower (the closest to making the list — and I really almost bumped it up), and “Guess Who’s Going To Dinner,” in which Mama and Naomi vie to be Vint’s dinner guest at an exotic restaurant.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Mama’s Family goes to…..

“Look Who’s Breathing”

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Night Court! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!

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14 thoughts on “The Ten Best MAMA’S FAMILY Episodes of Season Six

  1. Thank you Jackson. Have really enjoyed reading your reviews on Mama’s Family as I love Vicki Lawrence. How were the ratings for the syndicated years? Were ratings the reason for the show ending? I thought the show could have gone a couple of more seasons. Thanks.

    • Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      MAMA’S FAMILY was never a ratings titan in syndication because the number of stations carrying the show meant that it couldn’t compete on a national level with network productions or even syndicated programs (like JEOPARDY!) that were offered by more affiliates. In terms of just syndicated shows, my research indicates that MAMA’S FAMILY was usually in the Top 10 (or 20) for the year, and even in some local markets it might have made the weekly Top 10, but nationally, it wasn’t competitive.

      That noted, I don’t think ratings were ever a factor in the show’s second life because first-run syndication wasn’t about selling ads; it was about selling to affiliates — that’s where the money was located in this business model. The decision to cancel the series was purely financial: Lorimar (which was purchased by Warner in early 1989) wanted 130 half-hours, exactly 26 weeks (or six months) worth of material that could be resold into syndication as one big package. Everyone knew in advance towards what they were working, and Lawrence, by all accounts, was more than ready to move on to something else.

  2. I have in my files a newspaper clipping from 1990 headlined “Vicki Lawrence Says Goodbye to Mama.” Most of it is concerned with Lawrence’s plans for the future, but she does make an interesting comment when discussing Mama’s “evolution,” complaining that toward the end of the series, she thought the show’s writers were putting “way too much Lucy into the character and not nearly enough Mama.”

    • Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      And thanks for sharing that quote — I think it speaks tangentially to some of my own concerns with the storytelling in the later years, particularly with regard to the fast and loose relationship the series began sharing with common sense.

      However, I don’t think it’s accurate to fault the collateral damage from the evolution of Mama’s character on the writing, at least, not primarily. As Harvey Korman so aptly stated, “Vicki Lawrence [was] Mama,” so If I’m going to credit Lawrence for successfully — and almost singlehandedly — transforming Mama from sketch character to sitcom lead, I’m also going to hold her accountable for the dilution of Mama’s original conception and the implications this had on the storytelling. After all, as the actress herself proved, she was capable of presenting Mama any way she wanted, and while the writing certainly had a huge impact on setting limitations, as the star of the show, Lawrence was always in control — if not of WHAT gets played, then definitely of HOW it’s played.

      Thus, I might argue that the writers began crafting situations that were obviously more Lucy-esque, but in terms of what they did with the character, I think it was only a reflection of what Lawrence was delivering. Had she played the role differently, the scripts would have calibrated themselves based on her lead… just like they did in the beginning.

  3. I just found your blog, for other reasons, and came across your “Mama’s Family” series….it’s long been a big favorite of mine. I remember when it was first in syndication and was amazed at how funny it is (especially compared to other 80s sitcoms). I had always found the first 3 seasons weak, but seeing it all again on DVD I enjoyed those episodes quite a bit. Still, the show kicks into high gear with the re-tolling of Vint and Naomi, the expulsion of Vint’s kids, and the introduction of Iola and Bubba, making it a a near-masterpiece of TV comedy that is still underrated. I will be reading the rest of your entries, and hoping to find my personal fave episode “Have it Mama’s Way” along with the one (title forgotten) about Bubba’s home movie gone wrong….!

  4. Thanks for reviewing this show

    I can’t wait to hear what you say about night court. Probably one of the wackiest sitcoms of its time.

    Are you still reviewing The Cosby Show

  5. OMG, “Look Who’s Breathing” was hysterical. One of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while. Didn’t remember it from first time around but I watched it last night and loved it. Glad to see it as your MVE.

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