Vicki Lawrence Interview: "I Was Kidnapped by Show Business"
Image attributed to Vicki Lawrence
Comedian, singer and dancer, Vicki Lawrence has been in the entertainment industry for about 50 years. In 1967, in her senior year of high school, she entered the Miss Fireball of Inglewood contest, and her photo ended up in the local newspaper. Lawrence sent Carol Burnett the clipping which showed their uncanny resemblance to each other. Coincidentally, Burnett was looking for an actress to play her younger sister on her upcoming show, and the rest is history.
Lawrence remained on The Carol Burnett Show from 1967 until 1978. Her portrayal of the “Mama” character on the show’s “The Family” sketches were so popular that NBC subsequently created the sitcom, Mama’s Family, and Burnett reprised the Eunice Higgins character for the show from time to time. Also featured on The Carol Burnett Show were Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway. Lawrence currently tours the country with her “two-woman” show with the first half as herself and the second half done as Thelma “Mama” Harper.
“They were very upset when Carol read the final draft of the first ‘The Family’ sketch and said that ‘Eunice’ just spoke to her more. The writers were very upset at that. Then when she said she wanted me to play ‘Mama,’ they were doubly upset.”
On June 3, 2016, PBS will air Carol Burnett’s Favorite Sketches, which features 8 of the most fondly remembered sketches from the series’ entire run, hand-picked by Burnett.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Vicki, do you remember the very first sketch you were in on The Carol Burnett Show back in 1967?
Vicki Lawrence: Well, the only thing I was hired for in the beginning was to play her sister in the “Carol and Sis” sketches. I was just absolutely a geek. It was right in the beginning, and I remember Harvey saying to me, “Forget stage right, stage left. You can’t even find the toilet.” I think being the team player that he was, Harvey decided to take me under his wing and make me a comedian.
Back in the day, in the very beginning, we had Neil Simon’s brother, Danny Simon, to direct. They brought Danny in just to direct the comedy sketches in the very beginning of The Carol Burnett Show. Oh, my God! He would take me aside at lunch time, and he’d say, “Okay. Just walk through the front door and throw your schoolbooks down, head to the kitchen and yell ‘Carol!’” That was my first line.
I walked through the pretend door, threw my books down and yelled. Danny would go, “Wait. Wait. Wait. Is that how you come home from school and throw your books down?” I said, “I think so.” He said, “Jesus Christ. We’ve got a lot of work to do!” (laughs) I was pretty bad.
This wouldn’t happen now. If you’re not Carrie Underwood out of the box now, you’re gone. If the judges don’t vote you off, America will. What happened then just would not happen now. They were just so patient with me, just because Carol had this hunch.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “The Family” sketches were my favorites with Carol playing “Eunice,” you playing “Mama,” Harvey playing “Ed” and then Tim Conway playing “Mickey.” Probably the most watched blooper of all time was Tim Conway’s “elephant story.” There are over 12 million views on just one You Tube video of that sketch (laughs).
Vicki Lawrence: Oh yeah, and that’s when I became a child like the rest of them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Carol had asked all of you not to start cracking up during the sketch, and you were making it through with a straight face.
Vicki Lawrence: I was. Carol was the one that fell apart. She had taken us all aside when Tim got written into “The Family” sketches as Mickey Hart. She took us aside and said, “You know that I feel very strongly about these characters. I don’t want the fourth wall broken. I want everybody to have a lot of discipline.” We said, “Okay. Fine.” And who’s the first person that falls apart? Carol. (laughs)
We used to do the show like a live show. We’d do one in the afternoon, then we’d have a little dinner break, and then we’d do an evening show. We’d barrel through them like a live show. On the dinner break, you’d get your makeup touched up, you’d get your hair fixed, and you’d get any changes. The director would come by and give you line or mark changes or anything that was going to change.
He knocked on my door that night. I think that was the last season of the show. I was married to Al who was the makeup man on the show by then. Al was sitting in my dressing room. The director said, “There’s only one note tonight. The elephant story will be different. Good luck.” I said to Al, “How does he get away with it?” Al looked at me and said, “Go get him!” So I’m not sure who unleashed the monster, but I got him (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, you did (laughs). I know in the original episode, your line was bleeped, and there was so much laughter during Tim’s craziness. It just seemed to go on and on. But you said, “Do you think that little asshole is finished?”
Vicki Lawrence: Yes. I remember my mom calling me and saying, “What did you say?” And I said, “Do you think that little asshole is finished?” She said, “You did not!” I said, “Yeah, I did. I was there.” (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand the writers were upset because Carol wanted to play the “Eunice” character instead of “Mama.”
Vicki Lawrence: They were very upset when Carol read the final draft of the first “The Family” sketch and said that “Eunice” just spoke to her more. The writers were very upset at that. Then when she said she wanted me to play “Mama,” they were doubly upset.
The first day of rehearsal, Carol said to us, “I think we should do it southern.” The writers were just appalled. They said, “You’re going to ruin it!” They’d written this beautiful homage to their dysfunctional families, and they said, “You’re going to ruin it!” Yeah, well, on the contrary. We all know what happened.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, and obviously it was a wise decision to make the family southern.
Vicki Lawrence: Well, some of the pieces were so serious, so I think she was wise to turn it on its ear and make it really kind of comical and southern. I don’t think that family is just southern. It speaks to everybody in this country. We all have dysfunction in our families. I have a really good friend who is a psychologist. She says to me all the time, “Anybody who says they’re not living in a dysfunctional family is living alone.” (laughs) We all know those people. I think it spoke to everybody in the whole country.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. What did you learn from Carol, and what did you learn from Harvey?
Vicki Lawrence: Carol had a show to run. She gave me the leg up, but she had a show to run. As wonderful, nurturing and supportive as she was to me, she had a lot on her plate in any given week on that show. Harvey is the one who really took me aside and spent the time teaching me most everything I know about comedy. He would work with me on dialects and props. He’d explain to me who I was in all those movie takeoffs when I didn’t know what I was doing.
Harvey was just really such a mentor. He would take the time to discuss with me the comedy and what this meant and what I was doing and why. I remember one week saying to him, “Why is it that every time I play this stupid girl on the show, I get stupid for the whole week?” Harvey said, “You’ll find that any character you do well is a part of you.” I thought that was kind of funny, and I said, “How come you’re so good in drag?” He never did give me a good answer to that (laughs). I feel like he was really my mentor.
From Carol, I feel like I learned by watching how the business of show business should be run because there aren’t many people that conduct themselves like Carol. There aren’t many people that helm a show as beautifully as she did and are that nurturing, that supportive, that giving and that caring. She’s just every bit as special as everyone thinks she is. Carol’s a very special lady.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a kid, did you ever dream of being a comedian?
Vicki Lawrence: I didn’t at all. It’s so funny because Carol was just born to do this. It was her calling. It’s her mission, you know. Yes, I was a goofy kid, but it never occurred to me to go into show business. I honestly thought I was going to go to college, study dental hygiene, learn to clean teeth, marry a rich dentist and hang it up. I really did.
I was reading an article by Susan Sarandon not too long ago. She said that she didn’t even really think about show business. She feels like she was kidnapped by show business. I said, “Yeah! That’s exactly right! I was kidnapped by show business.” (laughs) It was never my intention. Carol always says to me, “Oh, it would’ve happened one way or another.” But I don’t know how. I really don’t, not in the dentist’s office (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You had a music thing going for a while with the hit song, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” that was released in 1973.
Vicki Lawrence: I did, yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you hoping that would turn into something serious as well?
Vicki Lawrence: Oh, not really. It was a total accident that I ever had that hit record. It was only because my ex-husband, Bobby Russell, could not get rid of it. His producer just finally threw his hands up and said, “What the hell? Let’s just go in the studio and do it with Vicki.”
I lobbied very long and hard for the guy that arranged that song. I was crazy about him. He was not Snuff Garrett’s favorite arranger. He had an arranger that he always used, and to me, all the songs sounded alike. God forgive me, Snuff, for saying this, but that’s the way I feel. There was a guy on the charts that was arranging at the time, and his name was Artie Butler. He had a lot of songs on the charts that I loved. I just fought for him to do the arrangement. He’s really the one who gave us that eerie feeling. It was not written that way. Actually the first time he played it through with the orchestra, I didn’t recognize it.
Artie said, “Same melody, just the chords are changed a little.” He gave it that great sound. Snuff had all my vocals down, He had it all dual-track, mixed and mastered and in the mail in three hours, and it was his record holder. He used to brag about it all the time being his record holder. I still listen to it and say, “Goddammit, I wish I could do that one harmony part over just one more time!” (laughs) But we just barreled through and it was done. Honestly, it did become the device of an already doomed marriage. That song became a hit, and the whole marriage just went downhill.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re happy now, so that’s what matters.
Vicki Lawrence: Oh gosh, yes. It was a good thing. So much for a dysfunctional marriage.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let me take a couple of minutes and talk about your work as a spokesperson for chronic idiopathic urticarial (CIU). What are you doing to make people aware of this condition, and is it related to asthma and allergies?
Vicki Lawrence: No. It’s not related to allergies because unlike normal hives, your doctor can’t give you a reason. There’s no trigger, you know what I mean? People can go on like I did doing everything I could think of allergy-wise to get rid of my hives. When I got them, it took six weeks to get a diagnosis, at which point, there are some good treatment options out there.
The important thing is that you get to a doctor that knows what CIU is. I’ve spoken to a lot of doctors that don’t even know. My allergist just so happened to be familiar with it, so I was in good hands. We have a huge campaign going on. It’s a big website, ciuandyou.com. There’s some information there that will help lead you in the right direction.
My story is there, and there’s downloadable material. It will really encourage you to track your hives. You might not get to the right doctor for a month or two months, so you’re going to want to have all your symptoms and pictures because the day you land at the right doctor’s office, you might be having a little break from the hives. You want to be able to document the whole thing for your doctor and hopefully get that diagnosis and work on a treatment option for yourself.
I go out on the road for them, and we do a few cities at a time and just try to do all the local media and get the word out there to let people know it’s a real thing. I had never heard of it. The first time my doctor said that to me, I think I started laughing because that was such a mouthful. I mean, seriously, what now? (laughs) Getting older, it’s just like one thing after another (laughs) What the hell now? You get your tits done, and then you’re too busy trying to keep yourself on two feet, for God’s sakes! (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m surprised you haven’t been approached to star in a sitcom. Would you be open to doing that?
Vicki Lawrence: From your mouth to God’s ears, Melissa! Do you know a good agent? I would love to, but I kind of think I’m typecast as “Mama.” I think people don’t know what to do with me. They say to me all the time, “You’re younger than we thought you were going to be!” Well, yeah, I’m not “Mama.” Not yet! I think she was such a strong character that people just sometimes have trouble separating me from “Mama.” They really have trouble. It’s like she’s a real person, you know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, and I’m reminded of your book, Mama for President: Good Lord, Why Not? during these political times.
Vicki Lawrence: I know. They should’ve put that book out again, reissued it. I told my writing partner that we could’ve made a few changes. We could’ve done one little Donald trump section, and we could’ve called it, “Mama for president, I told you so!” (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who makes you laugh?
Vicki Lawrence: My husband. My kids. My husband and I laugh a lot, thank God, or we wouldn’t have been married this long. I think there are a lot of good female comedians out there. We were just watching Melissa McCarthy the other night in one of her movies and laughing at her. She’s pretty damn funny.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): My husband says that being funny is sexy.
Vicki Lawrence: Oh, well, I need to meet him (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are you and “Mama” doing these days?
Vicki Lawrence: Go to my website to check out my schedule and see when I’m going to be in your hood. We’re still on the road making everybody laugh. It’s keeping me pretty busy for now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And what keeps you busy off the road?
Vicki Lawrence: My husband (laughs). I just took off a bit in June to take care of him because he just got a new knee. I’m the funniest, best nurse he’ll ever have (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Vicki, it has been a pleasure!
Vicki Lawrence: Oh, thank you! It was good to talk to you, Melissa. You tell your husband I’m every bit as sexy as he thought I was, okay?
© 2016 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.