Q&A: Vicki Lawrence
Vicki Lawrence created Mama Harper on The Carol Burnett Show before she had her own children, not suspecting that the curmudgeonly matriarch would one day be the title character of a spin-off sitcom. She definitely didn’t foresee starring in Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show five decades later, but as she told Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, it gives her a chance to tell funny stories, sing songs and let audiences reconnect with the world-famous Mama.
You’ve been you’ve been playing Mama live since 2001. Isn’t that longer now than both her run on The Carol Burnett Show and Mama’s Family?
Actually Carol, the last time I saw her for dinner, said, “Hey, believe it or not September is going to be our 50th anniversary.” And I said, “Dear God, is it really?” And she said, “CBS wants to do something.” I’m not sure what yet, but she’s got us saving the date. Oct. 4, we’re going to shoot something back at Studio 33 at CBS, and yes, that will be 50 years.
Originally the writers wanted Carol Burnett to play Mama—fortunately the character of Eunice spoke to her—but when the dust settled and it was time to create Mama do you recall how you went about it?
I was just trying to find some sort of an older version of what Carol was doing with Eunice. She was the one who wanted to do it Southern. When the writers saw us do it the first time they walked out because they said, “You’ve absolutely ruined our beautiful piece.” They both hated their mothers and they’d written this beautiful homage to their dysfunctional upbringings. And it wasn’t at all the way it felt to Carol. Her upbringing … her early years were in Texas. And I think she also really thought that it would make it funnier to turn it on its ear, and as she said make it sort of “Tennessee Williams on acid.” … Some of those pieces were heartbreaking and very true to life, certainly for those writers. And I think a lot of that dysfunction spoke to Carol and her upbringing, and the writers just absolutely hated what we did. They said, “You’ve ruined it. You’re going to offend everybody in the South, and it’s ruined.” And they were very upset that I was going to play an old lady, very upset.
Did they create more of a New York Eunice in the beginning?
I don’t think they had any particular place in mind, but definitely not Southern. They had never, definitely not, as they said, planned to offend everyone in the South. On the contrary, I have to say everybody I’ve ever run into knows that family, and I always kind of think of Mama kind of like (All in the Family character) Archie Bunker.
She is kind of a complement to him.
Well, definitely I think the Mama from The Carol Burnett Show was. When we went into syndication, it was obvious that she needed a change. She couldn’t just be this horrible angry old lady. … I do not think the series would have worked with the Mama that was on The Carol Burnett Show. The Mama from Mama’s Family was distinctly different. She was a much funnier old gal, and she’s been super fun to bring out of the closet and the audience just loves her telling it like it is. It’s really fun to keep her topical and let her comment on everything that’s going on in the world.
There was a pathos about Eunice. You rooted for her.
You were like, “Don’t do that, Eunice!” And she’d do it. We’d just hope she’d save herself and she wouldn’t. In the context of the hourlong sketch show, that rounded out the comedy work.
Yeah. But when we went to sitcom all of a sudden it wasn’t about Eunice anymore. It wasn’t Eunice’s family. It was Mama’s family, so it was up to our writers to really find that, I mean literally, on the ground running because there was no pilot. There was no time to flesh it out. So it took us a little bit to really find our stride, and I think particularly when we went into first-run syndication, that’s when we really hit our stride and it became a really, really fun, great show.
I got to see the (The Carol Burnett Show) series finale, in which Eunice went to visit the psychiatrist with Mama. While that was funny it revealed the core seriousness of the relationship. At some point Mama said, “You’re never going to amount to anything.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. That’s where you’re wrong Mama. This is where it’s your fault.”
But I didn’t know this until today: Mama actually died in 1978. (A 1982 made-for-TV film reunited the cast for a four-era portrait of the Harper family.)
Yes, she did.
So you either brought her back or you created … I think you referred to it as a time warp in which Mama’s Family takes place.
Yeah, kind of like “Who shot J.R.?”
I didn’t know about that reunion film or Mama’s funeral. Did that come up when you started to create Mama’s Family? Was it a little bit of a joke: “Well, you know we killed her off.”
They wanted to spin Mama’s Family off in the ninth season of The Carol Burnett Show. Carol’s husband (Joe Hamilton) came to me and said, “I want to do it as a series.” And I said, “No!” And he said, “Why?” I said, “What about Carol and Harvey (Korman)?” He said, “You don’t need them.” And I said, “But what if I fall on my ass?” He said, “You’ll come back here.” I said, “With my tail tucked between my legs? No, no. I don’t I don’t want to do that.” And I had just been pregnant for nine months, so I was, like, not ready to dress up as an old woman every week, you know? I was trying to be cute again. So I said no. And I remember seeing Carol the next Monday morning in the hall at CBS and she said, “Yay, I’m so happy, because this means we still get to do it on my show. So I did nothing about it until The Carol Burnett Show went off the air. And shortly after we went off the air Carol commissioned … she had a deal to do a couple of specials with CBS. So she commissioned that script, that screenplay for Eunice. And that became a special for CBS. And I was nominated for an Emmy for it. And she said, “You absolutely stole that show, and you need to go do this as a series. You really need to.” And I said, “What about you? And what about Harvey?” She said, “You know what? We’ll come and play with you for a few episodes, but you don’t need us. You need to go do this.” And so it was really, really at her urging after The Carol Burnett Show that I decided, “OK, maybe I should.”
So the show you’re doing now, you start out doing a monologue and a Q&A with the audience?
I don’t really do Q&A. It’s just sort of largely autobiographical. It’s everything that I know everybody would ask if we did Q&A, but I don’t do Q&A like Carol does. I know from over the years everything that everybody would ask me if we did Q&A, so I tell all those stories, and it’s been a pretty funny, pretty serendipitous ride that I’ve been on, so I’d like to think that my half of the show is fairly comical.
Do you sing more than your 1973 hit “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” during your musical segment?
I also talk about the theme song from Mama’s Family. I wrote the words, but never got credit because they never used the lyrics on television. Yeah, I sing the theme song for them.
Does it still feel good to sing your hit?
I think so, if you have a juggernaut of a hit that big … it’s funny, because a lot of people never figured out that that was me. A lot of people are still surprised that that was me, because back in the day, that was 1973, TV people didn’t do records and movie people never did television. And if you went and did something like QVC it was because your career was over. Nowadays if you’re not cross-pollinating and doing all of that, you’re nobody. But back in the day you didn’t do that. There was no cross-pollination, you know what I mean? So people could not figure out how I had a hit record. They may have thought I was Vicky Carr. They didn’t know who I was. When I would tell them that I was on The Carol Burnett Show they were like, “Huh?” They couldn’t figure it out. They couldn’t put it all together. And then it was sort of the ultimate demise of an already totally dysfunctional wrong marriage. (Lawrence divorced singer-songwriter Bobby Russell in 1973.) It’s just sort of a little bittersweet chapter in my life that I ended up with this huge juggernaut of a hit record.