Vicki Lawrence Interview: Famed Funny Lady Recalls Hilarious Moments as Matriarch of "Mama's Family"
Image attributed to Kevin Scott Hees
California native Vicki Lawrence was discovered by television legend Carol Burnett at the age of seventeen. The high school senior mailed a fan letter and a photo to Burnett who was looking for someone to play her kid sister on her new variety series, and the rest is television history.
The Carol Burnett Show premiered in the fall of 1967, and Lawrence spent 11 years as the only cast member, except for Burnett herself, to stay on the show for the series run. Lawrence’s portrayal of the “Mama” character in “The Family” sketches was so popular that NBC subsequently created the sitcom, Mama’s Family, starring the comedian. Burnett reprised her role as Mama’s daughter, Eunice, periodically. The series ran from 1983-1985, was cancelled on NBC, and then renewed from 1986-1990 in first-run syndication.
“I remember distinctly when Tim got written into ‘The Family’ sketches as Mickey Hart. Carol took us all aside and said, ‘Now listen to me. You know how much I love these characters. You know how important they are to me. I really don’t want to break the fourth wall, so let’s try to be consummate actors, and let’s get through this. I don’t care what Tim does. Let’s try to be professional.’ Of course, just like in the ‘elephant story,’ who’s the first person that falls apart? It’s Carol (laughs).”
For several years, Lawrence has reprised Mama on stage and performs her Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show in cities around the country. The multi-talent is also known for her #1 hit song, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a tune written by her first husband Bobby Russell.
Lawrence has been married to makeup artist Al Schultz since November 16, 1974. They have one daughter, Courtney Allison Schultz and one son, Garrett Lawrence Schultz.
For the first time ever, Mama’s Family: The Complete Series will be available for order featuring all 130 episodes on 24 DVDs and expected to ship September 2, 2013. The set also contains many bonus features including a cast reunion and all-new cast and crew interviews. To be released in a limited run of 500 units, a signature set hand-signed by Lawrence and containing a Certificate of Authenticity will also be available for old or new fans of Mama’s Family.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Vicki, how long have you been performing A Two-Woman Show?
Vicki Lawrence: We started that show in 2002. The summer of 2002 was the first I ever performed alone on stage in Vegas. My agent kept saying, “We’re opening in Vegas, baby, in June.” I just went, “Oh my God!” I was kind of scared, but it has been a lot of fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So many cities in 11 years! Do you ever get tired of the traveling and feel like you may need to send Mama to a retirement home?
Vicki Lawrence: (laughs) Well, not yet. It’s still fun. We’re not like the country singers out on tour on the bus or anything. For us, a good month would be a couple of weekends out. So it’s not like we’re really on the road.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was your inspiration for Mama?
Vicki Lawrence: I was 24 when I first did her. Back in the day, I was the supporting female on Carol’s show, so I did all of the crazy old ladies. While Carol was Shirley Temple, I was the mean old schoolmarm. When Carol was Rebecca, I was the wicked housekeeper. While she was Cinderella, I was the witch. It was just kind of what I did.
When Mama came along, it was another crazy old lady character to play. I was just really trying to do something similar to what Carol was doing with Eunice. Carol decided she wanted to do it southern, and I had had a southern mother-in-law briefly just shortly before Mama happened. I think maybe I drew on my own mother probably more than I realized.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And I may know of a couple of those families (laughs).
Vicki Lawrence: I think everybody knows that family, so that’s the wonderful thing about it. The writers initially thought that we were going to offend southerners. Carol told us a story while we were shooting our “bonus features” for the DVD set. She said that when she first did those characters, she had a Russian manicurist. She was filing her nails one day and the manicurist said (in Russian voice), “You know those characters. They remind me so much of my family back in Russia.”
We all laughed because everybody knows that family. Everybody has got the dysfunctional family. I have a really good friend who’s a psychologist, and she tells me, “Vicki, just remember. Anybody who says that they are not living in a dysfunctional family is living alone.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Whether in Alabama or Russia (laughs).
Vicki Lawrence: Exactly right (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You began playing Mama pretty mean with actually few redeeming qualities.
Vicki Lawrence: That’s the way she was written, yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it during Mama’s Family that she finally mellowed a bit?
Vicki Lawrence: Definitely when Mama’s Family came along and we went to sitcom. All of a sudden, Eunice wasn’t around to scream at. I think everybody wanted to scream at Eunice. She was just absolutely hysterical. I told Carol, “That woman was in serious need of medication.” But we went to sitcom and did two episodes, and it just felt so wrong. I said to my husband, “I don’t know what to do. This isn’t funny.”
We literally shut the show down, and I begged for them to bring Harvey (Korman) in to help me because he was just such a mentor to me. Harvey said, “It’s a sitcom now so you can’t just scream and yell at everybody for 20 minutes. You can’t expect people to come home, pop a beer and watch this lady scream and yell every week and want to come back and watch it again. She has to become a sitcom character. She has to become silly and fun.” I said, “Harvey, she hasn’t hardly smiled.” He said, “But she is you. You are she.”
I don’t know what it was he said to me, but it triggered something in my brain, and he just sort of cut her loose. She just became so much fun to play, and there was nothing the writers couldn’t throw at me that she couldn’t do. She just became a little peacock. She had to become a fun sitcom character, which she did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I interviewed Tim Conway a few years ago.
Vicki Lawrence: How did that go (laughs)?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): From the moment he first spoke, it was hilarious, and it all went uphill from there (laughs).
Vicki Lawrence: (laughs) Oh yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I just watched (for the millionth time) the video on You Tube of the “elephant story.”
Vicki Lawrence: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tim, of course, cracked everyone up. It was Carol, you and Dick Van Dyke. But it was your comment at the end that put everyone on the floor (laughs).
Vicki Lawrence: (In Mama’s voice) Are you sure that little asshole’s finished?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was it (laughs). Tim told me that many lines were adlibbed.
Vicki Lawrence: Well, on his part, they were. Of all of us, Tim was the non-rehearser. In my memory, he was always in back of the studio building doing something with the prop man or re-writing his lines or re-thinking his lines. We had cue cards out in the audience. I don’t remember who had what color, but let’s say Carol was black, Harvey was red, Tm was green and I was blue.
On any given night, if you looked out there, and you saw a green cue card that said, “Saver,” on it, that meant the joke was coming from Tim that nobody had heard yet that was going to save the entire sketch. You’d just look out there and see, “Saver,” and go, “Okay. Here we go. Who knows?” The man is a lunatic. But we were all rehearsers.
I remember distinctly when Tim got written into “The Family” sketches as Mickey Hart. Carol took us all aside and said, “Now listen to me. You know how much I love these characters. You know how important they are to me. I really don’t want to break the fourth wall, so let’s try to be consummate actors, and let’s get through this. I don’t care what Tim does. Let’s try to be professional.” Of course, just like in the “elephant story,” who’s the first person that falls apart? It’s Carol (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You looked like you were doing everything you could to hold it together (laughs).
Vicki Lawrence: I was! But I was looking at Carol. She’s the one who made me laugh, because I was thinking, “For God’s sake! After the whole big lecture? Look at you!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe I remember Mama saying some things that Eunice wasn’t expecting also.
Vicki Lawrence: A little bit, yeah. I kind of earned the privilege to play in the sandbox with the grownups. Prior to that, I’m not sure I really felt like I was “equal” to them or that it was my right or privilege to go off script or act silly. But, yeah, Mama sort of unleashed the monster in me (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I miss the variety show format of the 1970s.
Vicki Lawrence: Oh, I know. I feel like we were the last great variety show, a really glossy, glamorous production.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Vicki, when you were a small child, did you act out or make up characters?
Vicki Lawrence: I think I probably did, but it never occurred to me that I would do it for a living. I honestly really thought I’d go to college, learn to clean teeth, marry a rich dentist and hang it up. It never occurred to me and yet Hollywood was where my dad worked all those years. He worked at Max Factor. Hollywood is where I went to take dance lessons. But it just never occurred to me to do it for a living. Never. It was just that fan letter that set the ball is motion, and I got perilously sidetracked by Carol (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thank goodness for that. What do you and Mama enjoy during time off from performing?
Vicki Lawrence: Mama spends most of her time in the suitcase (laughs). It’s nice and quiet in there, although she’s getting her hair done this week. I’ll tell you what. Mama came off the conveyor belt at the airport the other day. They really tossed that suitcase! You remember the commercials where the gorilla handled the luggage? I told Al, “I swear to God, this one fell off and a jet ran over it or something!” I have never seen a suitcase that mangled. Ever. And I’ve been flying for a lot of years. It was like one wheel was rolling, all the rest of them were mangled and the zippers wouldn’t open. It was just bent and twisted. It was hysterical!
I wrote a little letter to Southwest Airlines, and I said, “It doesn’t really matter if your bags fly free if you have to spend $300 on a new bag when you get home. And, it was Mama in there (by the way), and she is not happy (laughs).” I haven’t heard back from them yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they have to say.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’d like to add that Mama is valuable.
Vicki Lawrence: Yes, and thankfully everything inside was okay. I also asked them, “Isn’t this the kind of luggage that the flight attendants recommend?” Travelpro luggage (laughs). It was a pretty new suitcase, too. We’ll see what happens.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I am thrilled all of the Mama’s Family episodes will finally be out on DVD.
Vicki Lawrence: So am I. I am just so excited! For years, everyone said to me, “Just tell all your fans to pirate them off the Internet.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” They told me the DVDs would not happen. Too much water under the bridge. Too expensive. Too this and too that. Last year when we were doing The Carol Burnett Show DVDs, and I said to the Time Life (now called StarVista) guys, “This would just be my dream come true if this could happen to Mama’s Family.” We had this nice conversation, and that was the end of it. Then six months later, I got emails, and it looked like it was going to happen.
They talked about getting together for the “bonus features,” but I had lost touch with my whole cast. I still talk to Carol and Tim all the time, but I had completely lost my Mama’s Family cast. Just all those phone calls and getting back in touch was wonderful! StarVista has done such a beautiful job. They went to Joe Hamilton’s son who runs his business now, and he got all the masters out of the vault. They have the original masters, and everything is going to be beautiful!
It’s what Mama deserves, that good old dysfunctional lady. She deserves this. Somebody that I really trust had this to say, “There never would’ve been an Everybody Loves Raymond if it was not for Mama’s Family because I think Mama made it funny and okay for you to be dysfunctional and say what you’re thinking on television.” Prior to that, I guess everybody was like Father Knows Best. Everybody was perfect and never said a cross word to anybody.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about some of the bonus features.
Vicki Lawrence: There is a cast reunion. I got to do a new interview with Carol, and I got to interview Mama. They actually got Bob Mackie and Rhett Turner. Bob did the original costume of Mama, and then he handed off the costuming to Rhett because he was busy doing other things when Mama’s Family came along. Rhett did an amazing job over the course of the series.
Bob and Rhett sat down for an interview, and it is the cutest, most wonderful thing. It’s just a reminder that the wardrobe on our show was like a character of its own. We just had some spectacular clothes. We were just spoiled. You didn’t know it until you got out into the real world of show business and then you realized how really good those guys were.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe Bob Mackie was discovered by Edith Head, so he certainly learned from the best.
Vicki Lawrence: He did. I guess Rhett was the first one that gave him a job in a television studio. I didn’t notice until I was watching my own bonus features that Rhett was asked to do The Sonny and Cher Show, and he said, “I don’t mind doing the weekly stuff, but doing the glamour is not my favorite thing.” So he called Bob and said, “I will do the rest of the show if you’d like to dress Cher.” Bob said, “Great! I’d love to dress Cher.” That’s how that happened.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting. I remember the “Went with the Wind” dress on The Carol Burnett Show that was “made” from the curtains (laughs).
Vicki Lawrence: Bob had an amazing sense of humor. There were many times you just didn’t know what the character was, and you’d get to wardrobe fitting, he’d dress us, and we’d say, “Oh my God! There she is!” We’d know exactly who the character was. He was just a real genius in putting the clothes together.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I can’t wait to watch all of those episodes again, and the bonus features sound great! Vicki, what would Mama say about the problems in the country today?
Vicki Lawrence: (In Mama’s voice) I guess a lot of people would say that this country is going downhill, and it’s on its last leg. I think that’s a little bit optimistic. I’d say we’re already done. Who the hell needs a tea party in this economy? Call me when they start the Jack Daniels party. I’ll be there.
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