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.
Thelma “Mama” Harper has a crazy family living under her roof: a spinster sister, a dimwitted son, a horny daughter-in-law, and two teenage grandkids. Mama’s Family stars VICKI LAWRENCE as Thelma Harper, KEN BERRY as Vinton Harper, DOROTHY LYMAN as Naomi Harper, ERIC BROWN as Buzz Harper, KARIN ARGOUD as Sonja Harper, and RUE McCLANAHAN as “Aunt” Fran Crowley. Recurring guests include BETTY WHITE as Ellen Harper Jackson, HARVEY KORMAN as Alistair Quince, and CAROL BURNETT as Eunice Harper Higgins.
The second (and final) NBC season of Mama’s Family is an improvement over the first because the show has a better job of asserting itself as an entity entirely independent of the initial sketches. While the first year had the unenviable task of finding ways to transition Mama from her more caustic origins on The Carol Burnett Show to the ever-so-slightly more amiable space that she occupies here in Season Two, the scripts no longer have to do as much regarding Mama’s individual presentation. Now it’s all about Lawrence and what she herself brings to the character, resulting in a heretofore unexperienced freedom in Mama’s comedy. She can go bigger, she can go broader, and at the same time, she doesn’t feel like a different woman than the one to whom the audience was first introduced almost a decade before. This is such a magnificent feat on behalf of Lawrence and the show that it warrants recognition. However, Mama is a character who continues to evolve throughout the series, and there’ll be more to discuss in weeks ahead about where she goes. As for Mama’s characterization in Season Two, she’s at a really good place — very recognizable to those who loved her from the sketches, but better positioned (in comparison to Season One) to carry a show as its lead. And with Mama’s improved rendering, Season Two is a real delight, serving as an example as to why the series shouldn’t be so easily dismissed as inferior to the sketches.
But the show isn’t yet the entirely renovated property that it will emerge to be in first-run syndication, and the most visible reminders of Mama’s prior existence reside in the continued appearances of another character introduced during the “Family” sketches. While Carol Burnett will appear on screen just once this season (and in a voice cameo later in the year) as Eunice, the only regular connection to Mama and her previous incarnation is Betty White’s Ellen, who appears in a third of the produced episodes (eight out of 22) and serves as the snooty counterpoint to the lower class and unrefined rest of the Harper family. This contrast is vital in Ellen’s characterization, and because she offers us such a difference from the other members of the ensemble, her contribution to the series is partially responsible for Season Two’s success as a year unto itself. You see, because of the history in Ellen’s relationship with Mama (which in some ways replaces the one Mama shared with Eunice), scripts that feature a lot of White tend to work storywise, for she brings the necessary emotional groundwork from which logical hijinks can ensue. Meanwhile, the very nature of her presence also tends to engender the nastiness that existed only in the sketch format, meaning that if you liked the sketches, there are episodes here that deliver similar material.
But even in these darker “throwback” moments, the show is counterbalanced by its new comedy-focused identity, allowing it to remain quintessentially Mama’s Family. Many of these beats come from the newlyweds, who, as in last season, are collectively second only to Mama in securing the big laughs that form the entertainment value inherent in a typical episode of this series. Further evidence of these two characters’ richness comes from the simple fact that the show is generally able to craft good story ideas for Vint and Naomi, the latter of whom continues to serve as a strong foil for Mama. This conflict drives some of the show’s best episodes, and a few of those will be discussed below. Of course, nothing yields more fruitful comedy than a solid Mama-heavy episode, for Lawrence is always up to the task, delivering belly laughs in even the most absurd (or gaggy) of scenarios. However, in spite of all this continued hilarity, the faults from the first season persist here in year two — namely, the kids and Aunt Fran — but the show downplays those weaknesses in favor of all the aforementioned strengths. And because of this, almost every episode here is able to meet its quota of laughs. There may be moments that seem a bit beneath a series with a cast as talented as this one, but it’s imperative to remember that Mama’s Family is essentially an expanded sketch (like The Honeymooners), albeit retooled, so there’s a different style to the comedy — the kind that resists unnecessary analysis. (Now, as always, there will be some lines of logic that can’t be crossed, but the series sets those barriers so far away that it takes quite a lot to get there.)
Unfortunately, NBC didn’t share my enthusiasm for the show and its humor, for it was saddled with rotten timeslots. At the start of the season in the fall of 1983, Mama’s Family was up against CBS’ Magnum P.I. and in the winter/spring of 1984, it was up against ABC’s The Love Boat. It fared poorly against both, and with Mama’s Family unable to compete with those two Top 20 hits, the executives had enough ammunition to justify cancelling the series. But, as we shall see, audiences hadn’t seen the last of Mama yet! (Stay tuned for next week…) As usual, I have 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by both Harvey Korman and Roger Beatty.
01) Episode 16: “Country Club” (Aired: 10/20/83)
The Harper family embarrasses Ellen at an awards dinner.
Written by Gene Perret
The first of a few episodes this season that center around Ellen and her emotional alienation from the others (due to their economic differences), this amusing offering is designed as one big “let’s embarrass Ellen fest,” as Vint, Naomi, and Mama surprise Ellen by crashing her awards banquet at the Raytown Country Club, where she’s being honored as Woman of the Year. There are a lot of natural and easy laughs mined from this scenario, and it culminates in a veritable roast when Mama takes to the microphone and delivers a stand-up routine about Ellen and how snooty she and the rest of the people in the country club are. Meanwhile, Mayor Tutwiller, played by Alan Oppenheimer, will factor into a two-part installment later in the year.
02) Episode 18: Rashomama” (Aired: 11/03/83)
Mama is injured during a jam making session — but who’s guilty?
Written by Dorothy Van, Liz Sage, Rick Hawkins, and Jim Evering
A fan favorite episode, this installment gains distinction for being the last time Carol Burnett appears on camera as Eunice. The story takes its structure from Rashomon, as Naomi, Ellen, and Eunice each give their varying accounts of how Mama got knocked unconscious by a pot during a tense jam-making session. Although I find the use of this narrative device to be an unappealing gimmick, I’m willing to accept it for the sake of the comedy that ensues, especially because the laughs are rooted in the relationships and how each of these four characters views the others. (For instance, Naomi is naive to Ellen, but slutty to Eunice.) It’s very funny and surprisingly character-oriented. And because all four of these women are so talented, this installment is a joy to watch. Probably the most collectively rewarding entry of the season (even with the gimmick), with the most laughs-per-minute. A natural choice for MVE.
03) Episode 20: “Ellen’s Boyfriend” (Aired: 11/17/83)
Mama is furious when Ellen begins dating a younger man.
Written by Jim Parker
The other Ellen-heavy episode on today’s list, this installment does for Ellen and Mama what last season’s “Cellmates” did for Eunice and Mama, as the two women have a quiet moment in the final act that allows each character greater understanding of the other, thus serving as an ideal summation of their dynamic. There’s also a surprisingly high number of straight dramatic moments, and while I’ve never found White as good at this type of material as some of her contemporaries, again her relationship with Mama’s character justifies the shifting tone. Also, Parker’s script employes an ample amount of comedy to support its heavier elements. The awkward dinner scene, with the entire adult ensemble in play, is a highlight of the season.
04) Episode 21: “Aunt Gert Rides Again” (Aired: 12/01/83)
Mama tries to cheer up a cousin living in a nursing home.
Written by Phillip Jayson Lasker & Gene Perret
Imogene Coca appears in this episode as Mama’s cousin, Gert, a formerly vivacious woman who’s become reclusive and lifeless after being placed in a nursing home. Mama decides to put a little pep back in ol’ Gertie’s step by shaking things up at a party. (There’s a truly hysterical musical chairs sequence, as the old folks unenthusiastically drudge around to annoying music played by the nurse.) Jack Gilford also guest stars as a resident of the home who flirts with Gert and ends up spending the night with her (after Mama’s party), thus giving the woman a renewed source of happiness. The story’s a bit sappy in places, but it’s elevated by the performances of Lawrence, Gilford, and Coca, one of the absolute funniest women ever on television.
05) Episode 23: “The Mama Who Came To Dinner” (Aired: 12/22/83)
Mama lies injured on the floor during Vint and Naomi’s dinner party.
Written by Liz Sage & Rick Hawkins
Like the classic comedy from which this episode takes its title, the plot of this offering concerns an unwanted houseguest. This time Mama’s the guest, and she’s thrown out her back while bending over, leaving her lying on the floor — totally immobile — during a dinner party that Vint and Naomi are hosting for their slightly-more-classy friends. Naturally, Mama’s existence in the middle of the room makes for a disastrous evening, as the old broad is as mouthy as ever, commenting on anything and everything that comes to her mind, utterly ruining anyone’s chance of a good time. While the episode works because of the easy laughs afforded by the premise, the script does a solid job of capitalizing on all the idea’s inherent potential.
06) Episode 24: “Mama Learns To Drive” (Aired: 01/07/84)
Mama has a heck of a time learning how to drive.
Written by Liz Sage & Rick Hawkins
I believe this is the first episode in which there’s some out-of-studio scenes, as Mama’s attempts to master the fine art of driving necessitates a single camera set-up. Fortunately, the unbelievable high quality of the laughs make the audience-less moments completely worthwhile. As with the above installment, the premise alone is funny, and so the script doesn’t have to do a lot to make the comedy work. Mama in a car? Funny. Mama at the DMV? Very funny. All the show has to do is keep the humor consistent, and that’s a feat that’s reached with seemingly little strain. In fact, this may be one of the most laugh-out-loud funny episodes of the entire NBC run. And, not surprisingly, it’s entirely dependent on Vicki Lawrence. One of my favorites.
07) Episode 25: “Black Belt Mama” (Aired: 01/14/84)
Mama joins Naomi and the Harper women at a self defense class.
Written by Jim Evering & Dorothy Van
In early viewings of this episode, I found the script inartfully constructed — seemingly designed for the sole purpose of getting the Mama character in a self-defense class, where Lawrence can do some expert (and again, Lucy-esque) physical comedy. I’ve since come to appreciate the sequence for exactly what it is: hilarious. The moment where Mama head buts the instructor after tricking him with her old lady wiles is a scream, and her battle with Naomi (the star pupil) is a nice blend of the story’s necessities and their pre-existing relationship. Where this episode loses points is in the single camera on-location climax, in which Mama beats a prowler with her new iron. The energy in the scene is low and it doesn’t work as well as the class stuff.
08) Episode 28: “No Room At The Inn” (Aired: 02/11/84)
Mama crashes Vint and Naomi’s plans for a romantic wedding anniversary.
Written by Katherine Green
If you’ve been watching the first two seasons regularly, you’ll notice that there are only a handful of themes that the series regularly employs, crafting slight variations so as to make each individual episode different. This one is like “The Mama Who Came To Dinner,” as Mama is the inopportune buttinsky who stands in the way of Vint and Naomi’s plans. The couple’s idea to celebrate their first anniversary (and this episode actually aired 355 days after their wedding) in a steamy motel room is hampered by Mama’s fight with Aunt Effie. The room itself is filled with plenty of great gags (like the ceiling mirror), but the highlight has Mama turning on the television and watching what obviously turns out to be a blue movie. Hilarious!
09) Episode 32: “Mama’s Birthday” (Aired: 03/17/84)
Mama tells Buzz the story of her 30th birthday party.
Written by Jim Evering & Dorothy Van
Another gimmicky episode — this time a flashback — and one that I’m incredibly surprised to like as well as I do. My problem with these types of shows is that the humor is almost solely reliant on knowledge we’ve gained from having seen the characters in their future, meaning that most of the laughs don’t exist on their own merits. However, ever since Eunice and the days of The Carol Burnett Show before it, period sequences/flashbacks have been a common device, so it doesn’t feel as cheap or incongruous as it could. Also, in addition to another strong performance by Lawrence (who gets to act her age for once), the casting of the three children is pitch perfect — each of them capturing the mannerisms of the adults. Well done.
10) Episode 35: “A Grave Mistake” [DVD Title: “A Great Mistake”] (Aired: 04/07/84)
Mama learns that Carl is buried next to another woman.
Written by Gene Perret
Interestingly, this episode was the first one shot for the second season (you can tell based on the way both the set and the actors look on camera) but evidently held until the end of the year. This is a case of the idea being stronger than the execution, for the story of Mama being outraged when she sees that some woman is buried next to Carl in Mama’s reserved cemetery plot is hilarious. But there’s really no place else for the story to go from there, and the unfortunate usage of Sonja and her doltish love interest really drags down the second half of the installment, which had otherwise been afforded a strong first act. So this episode is uneven and not all it could be, but the scene in the cemetery with Mama’s monologue is just too good.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Supermarket,” a fantastic Mama vs. Naomi story and the only installment here that came close to making the list (and I’m partially pained to not be able to highlight it alongside those above, but c’est la vie), “Mama Buys A Car,” an offering that’s better liked by others than it is by me (as I think most of the enjoyment is predicated simply on the guest appearance of Fred Willard and not on anything within the script), and “Ask Aunt Fran,” the only story this season that tries to give Fran a comedic centerpiece all to herself; it doesn’t entirely work, mind you, but I appreciate the effort!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Mama’s Family goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!