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Category:    Home > Interviews > Television Production > Entertainment Industry > An Interview With Vicki Lawrence

An Interview With Vicki Lawrence

Vicki Lawrence has been an actress, comedian, stage performer and singer recognized nationwide as an original talent since becoming associated with Carol Burnett, to whom many early on said she looked like a twin sister of. Burnett agreed and in 1967, Lawrence debuted on a series of specials that would eventually become the massive hit variety TV show The Carol Burnett Show from 1967 to 1976. Among the musical numbers, surprise moments and skits were The Family, debuting in 1974 during it 7th Season, taking on a life of their own and becoming as the most successful series of skits since Jackie Gleason created Ralph Kramden resulting in The Honeymooners.

After a TV movie called Eunice where Lawrence's Mama Harper passed away, fans reacted and this led to six seasons of the series Mama's Family, now being issued by Time Life and StarVista as a Complete Series DVD box set and including early (so far) separate season releases. We talked to the lady behind the lady about Mama, television, the industry and more in the following, surprisingly candid interview...

FulvueDrive-in.com (Nicholas Sheffo): How happy are you and how surprised are you that Mama's Family is coming out on DVD and the character has survived for nearly four decades.

Vicki Lawrence: Oh my goodness, that's a heck of a big question. I am extremely excited. I have been asking for years wishing this would happen and you know, everywhere I do a one woman show Vicki Lawrence & Mama, a two-woman show and all my fans always ask me, why can't we get these DVDs. And every time I ask somebody, I get a “no, it's not going to ever happen” so I am so thrilled. I mentioned to time life last year, when we were finishing up The Carol Burnett Show (reviewed on DVD elsewhere on this site) DVDs if they would ever consider it and I said this would be my dream come true and unbeknownst to me, they went to work and they made it happen and I am just so excited about it. Finally, there is a beautiful, beautifully packaged homage to this dysfunctional family. It's kind of very cool that she's touched this many generations and I don't even think of her like she's me, I just think she's kind of an iconic character and how great that everybody loves her so much.

Fulvue: I was amazing you could transform yourself into Mama and you were far from her age, you aged extremely well. Is it surreal to play Mama?

VL: Well, no anymore. You know, she's like a part of me, although I will say my fans ask all the time where is she like she should be with me, not like she is me but she should be somewhere where I can go get her like she's another person, so it's kind of cool that she's that did different from me that they are able to separate that lady from this lady.

Fulvue: What do you think is the appeal, you put on the clothes and you got the outfit from the great (clothes and costume designer for The Carol Burnett Show) Bob Mackie, that you were pleased with the outfit. Were their any changes later? Did you think she should be little more over-accessorized or it was just right from the beginning?

VL: Oh, I think Bob is just a genius, he has an amazing sense of humor and the characters that he created for the Burnett Show were always so detailed and the attention to detail was so great. No, I would never dare change his beautiful work and when we went to a series, he handed it off to Ret Turner and they did a bonus feature[tte for the DVD set], the two of them and I don't think the two of them ever sat down, certainly, for an interview and they were hysterical. They were like two old ladies arguing over the details and it just the way it was and it was pretty funny. You got to hear their whole history about how getting into the business and getting into television, it was just fascinating. Ret has saved so many of the wonderful costumes; he has my blue organza hat. It's just incredible and just to hear them talk about the costumes, its just great.

Fulvue: When people ask me questions about Mama, how did she go from one place to another, there's about 30 Family skits on The Carol Burnett Show, the Eunice TV movie special both on CBS, then Mama is gone; I know a lot of people were not happy she had passed away on that mini-series. Were you perplexed by that development or you just though it was a natural run of the character before Mama's Family.

VL: There was no Mama's Family on the horizon, so I remember Carol bringing that [Eunice] script, we were both living in Hawaii at the time and she owed CBS a special, so she commissioned a teleplay called “Eunice” - a 90-minute special - and she brought the script out to the pool and throwing it in front of my nose and saying read this and see if we're going to do it. And I said “well, it's really good, but I die”. She said “Don't be greedy” (laughs.) I said “It's not even a good death scene”.

Fulvue: So Mama in Mama's Family came out of a backlash of people loving the character so much.

VL: She's sort of like “Who Shot J.R.?”, she's sort of like 'The Legend Of Mama', she just goes on and on. She's had a lot of different incarnations. She had children on the Burnett Show that we have never discussed again and she had several different actors who played my son Philip. Kenny (actor Ken Barry) replacing Roddy McDowell and then Kenny played him in Eunice, then he went on to be Vinton in the TV series. When we were doing our bonus features, our cast reunion [one of the featurettes in the DVD box set] Kenny said when he showed up for work on Mama's Family, he thought it was to play Philip. He didn't realize there was a new character named Vinton. There was a lot of stuff that wasn't terribly clear in the beginning of Mama. I remember I sat down and did a brand new interview with Carol and I thought, OK, this is great, she is going to tell me, like, a bedtime story about what really happened. (laughs.) And I used stories she had never heard and she told me stories I had never heard and it is like a game of telephone, by the time it gets to the end of the line, it is a different story. The great thing is that the fans buy the whole thing, they don't care.

Fulvue: You got lucky, because it was pre-home video and people aren't being picky about if an actor switched roles, you'd have an actor do a different character every season on some shows.

VL: Yea, I guess so.

Fulvue: There was a clip I wore you did and I don't know if its on the DVD box set and it was to let everybody know Mama's Family was coming on NBC, so it was sort of a teaser and you sit there as Mama and you say something about “I'm not dead, tune in and find out.” or “Damn it, I'm not dead, tune in and find out to see what really happened.”

VL: (Surprised.) No.

Fulvue: If I find out anything, I'll let you know.

VL: Well I did ask if they could get the Eunice movie because it kind of had a large influence on me doing Mama's Family... does CBS even have it.

Fulvue: Sometimes these people even mess up their archives.

VL: Exactly. Time Life, they got it, they licensed it and its a bonus feature. Thrilled about that. We have a lot of outtakes on there, not as many as I wish, I guess we did not save a lot of those and for our crazy fans, all of the Alistair Quinces are back on Season One.

Fulvue: Like on Rosanne, they did not have complete copies when they originally issued them on DVD.

VL: The show we did on NBC, when it went to to first run syndication with Lorimar-Telepictures cut all those out for time. When Warner [Home Video] originally issued the first season of Mama's Family onto home video, those were cut and our fans that loved the show and were crazy fanatics knew that and there like, well where is that and where's this joke and where's that joke and its missing. Well, it was edited for time, but when Time Life put this package together, went into [Producer] Joe Hamilton's archive and got the original masters and I was talking to John, who is Joe's son not too long ago and he said they were able to save [most of the early shows]. He said, “it is really interesting. I was cleaning up all of my dad's tapes” 'cause you know, back in the day, everything was on these huge dinosaur tapes.

Fulvue: U-Matics.

VL: Yeah! Yeah and he said “I transferred everything to DVD and I was able to save every single master except for two that were damaged”, so there are two episodes from the originals that I guess that are missing.”

Fulvue: Unless someone taped them on some ancient tape player [maybe from broadcast TV].

VL: I don't think anyone's been able to find them and I don't know which ones they are, but everything else has been saved perfectly, all the Alistair Quinces [introductions by Harvey Korman to each episode of the first two seasons as a spoof of the original run of the PBS hit series Masterpiece Theater] are back and everything as it should be.

Fulvue: Archiving is not an easy thing. BBC has actually taped over things, a lot of early Tonight Show episodes were taped over because videotapes were so expensive at the time.

VL: Which [John] was right in the process of doing that when Time Life called him, which is kind of ironic.

Fulvue: It's time. People want to see this and that's great that was a captured in time. Jerry Lewis has an archive, Ernie Kovacs' wife and widow [Edie Adams] which is why all that those Kovacs DVDs came out and [an Adams set] is due on DVD soon too. When NBC decided to canceled the show after a second season, did you tell them they were making a mistake?

VL: Well, you know, it's interesting. Joe Hamilton sold Mama's Family to Grant Tinker, who was the CEO of NBC at the time on the golf course and to look back now, I meant I can fully realize why they do pilots, why they're recasting and why there's retooling and all of that because it is part of the process and we had to really figure out who Mama's Family was while we were on the ground running and our poor writers had to figure out how to phase out Harvey and Carol out, how to take it from being really Eunice's family to Mama's family and they had to do all of that while we were on the air. And then there's NBC and all the young guys at NBC that were under Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff was the Head of Programming at the time and he wasn't really “Brandon Tartikoff” yet, you know.

Fulvue: Right, he was just starting.

VL: Yes, just started there and Carol said he called her and would you just do a few episodes for us. That's why she and Harvey [Korman] agreed to do a few episodes for us, a few in the beginning, but just to figure out just what that family is while you're on the air and all the young guy, number one, didn't understand rural comedy, which they never have, and number two, they didn't understand a young woman playing an old woman, so they kinda just kept sticking us in worse and worse time slots. You know, they'd stick us in a tough time slot, we'd do OK, we'd find our audience and they'd say “well we're moving you” and they'd move us to a tougher time slot and we kept thinking they were going to put us somewhere where we might get a leg up, but they just kept moving us to these horrible time slots until I feel like they had the ammunition to cancel us because they just really didn't get the show.

Fulvue: Well, NBC was having all those problems then too, before they got back on top.

VL: Well we, you know, it was a season and a half and I think we all figured it was over and we were all looking for other jobs because we sat for a year and a half in between the end of the NBC shows and Lorimar-Telepictures picking us up and that was right when Lorimar were merged with Telepictures and there was these young guns that were just on the cutting edge of syndication and it was like the beginning of cable, so it was a whole new world and we really almost sort of worked in a vacuum. It was almost like we weren't part of the television industry, we were just doing our own thing and in many ways, it was great in that they were so busy out selling the show that they didn't meddle with us. You'd literally send them an episode and they'd mail you a check, so there was no meddling, but on the downside, it's almost like we were little orphans.

Fulvue: I have a feeling you're not the only person who experienced that [disconnected feel] at NBC at the time because so many shows [they originally launched] were getting cancelled and coming and going.

VL: But syndication was a whole new ballgame. The only other [established, but cancelled] show doing that at the time was Too Close For Comfort.

Fulvue: Because ABC cancelled that and [the producers though the show popular enough that it] went into syndication.

VL: Yea, the day that I drove into the studio the first day to do Mama's Family when it went into syndication, OK, if Ted Knight can do this, I can do this... It was many, many years later that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was the show that raised such a stink that they had to open the Academy (Of Television Arts & Sciences) to everybody.

Fulvue: With all the more channels on cable, satellite and now the internet, they can't get enough product to put on, which makes a very, very big difference. Was there ever discussion you might start, even in 16mm, start shooting Mama's Family on film or because it was taped, it was always taped.

VL: It was cheaper and quick [to tape and] the staff I took with me over to Mama's Family was also the Burnett Show, so it was really just taking your family with you, so it was a really easy transition in that way and Carol's show went like a bat out of hell. It was like a live show, that's where she came from, live television, she was all about that studio audience and keeping them happy.

Fulvue: Did you know you were the last person to officially perform with the official Jackson 5 [on TV for performers not members of the group] before they left Motown.

VL: (Surprised) No.

Fulvue: When they appeared on The Carol Burnett Show you danced with them [to their hit] Body Language, not the song by Queen. Jermaine stayed behind and that episodes stood as a de facto pilot for The Jacksons variety show they did for a year [on CBS after they signed to Epic and Philadelphia International Records] becoming The Jacksons. You had a talk show, or two talk shows? [The records] are a bit confusing.

VL: Well my talk show Vicki! was syndicated.

Fulvue: Was that with [the former Group W] Westinghouse Broadcasting at the time, whose now merged with CBS?

VL: Yes.

Fulvue: OK.

VL: Then I was brought in to rescue Fox After Breakfast, but it was right when they were doing some sort of a big merger, so we kind of got lost in the shuffle.

Fulvue: Sorry to hear that. I wanted to ask you about your [filmed] Head & Shoulders shampoo ad (available on the Sold Separately and Hit Celebrity TV Commercials DVDs reviewed elsewhere on this site). Do you remember what year you did it because there is no copyright date on the ad?

VL: Really?

Fulvue: Was that before you did The Carol Burnett Show?

VL: It had to be the first or second season of the show.

Fulvue: Well I see we have run out of time, but thank you Vicki Lawrence for all the inside information about your career, the industry and on Mama's Family: The Complete Series DVD box set which we will review soon and our readers can order at this link:


And you can read our coverage of the entire DVD box set at this link:



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