Mama Mia!: "Vicki Lawrence & Mama, A Two-Woman Show," February 12 in Bettendorf Print
News/Features - Comedy
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 10 February 2009 19:34

Vicki Lawrence as Thelma HarperFor more than 30 years, Emmy-winning performer Vicki Lawrence has been best known for her signature character of Thelma "Mama" Harper, the snippy, drawling, and incredibly lovable matriarch she played opposite Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway on the long-running variety series The Carol Burnett Show. She subsequently revived the role for seven seasons on the sitcom Mama's Family, and both shows - to say nothing of the role itself - have proven so enduringly popular that Lawrence has a pretty fair idea of what age group Mama most appeals to nowadays: All of them.

"She's really never been off the air since she went on the air," says Lawrence. "I mean, [Mama's Family] has run and run in reruns like the little Energizer Bunny. So the demographic of my audience is just incredible. I mean, it can be 90-year-old men and it can be 20-year-old college kids."

On February 12, this comedic Energizer Bunny - and the Emmy-winning star who plays her - will perform at Bettendorf's Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center in Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show, and during our recent phone interview, Lawrence discussed Thelma Harper's ceaseless popularity, the influence of late co-star Korman, and the abandonment of Lawrence's youthful dream of one day marrying a rich dentist.

Hide and Seek

Born in Inglewood, California, in 1949, Lawrence had her first brush with fame as a member of The Young Americans, the still-touring vocal ensemble she performed with from 1965 to 1967. At age 18, Lawrence found herself cast on the debuting The Carol Burnett Show, based, in part, on her strong resemblance to its star, for which she took no end of good-natured ribbing. ("For a number of years after the show first started," she says with a laugh, "people would raise their hands when Carol took questions, and they'd say, ‘I think I look much more like you than Vicki does!'") Her employment, though, did make it difficult for Lawrence to pursue a major at UCLA.

I met Carol in November of my senior year [of high school], and then did the audition in the summer after I graduated, and I remember going to the director of the Young Americans, telling him that I was going to drop out of the summer tour because I was gonna go do this audition. And he sat me down, took me by the shoulders, and said, "You listen to me, young lady. First of all, what are the odds of this panning out? And secondly, if you drop out of the summer tour, and all of a sudden you think you're done and you want to come back, you can't come back. If I replace you, you're replaced." So at the time it was a very ... it was a traumatic decision for me. I mean, what were the odds?

I started [UCLA] the same fall that I started on Carol's show. The producer said to me, "Yes, you may go to college, as long as you can be at the studio by 10 o'clock." And I decided that maybe I should try a theatre major, because, well, it seems like maybe that's the direction I'm gonna go. I always thought I was gonna be a dental hygenist - marry a rich dentist, hang it up. That's really what I thought I was gonna do. I've since talked to many women that are married to dentists that say, "Boy, did you get lucky ... ."

But I was forever hiding from the theatre department, because you were supposed to do a quarter's worth of crew work, and the shows were always Friday and Saturday nights, which was when we'd tape the Burnett show. And you were supposed to audition for all the productions in college, and if you got the part you were obliged to do it, and so I was kind of playing hide and seek with the whole department.

Finally, I went to my very favorite theatre professor and I said, "Here's my problem ... what do I do?" And he said, "Well, if you want my advice, I would go sit in that audience and watch the best teachers in the world. You are where every kid in this department would give their right arm to be." So I went and literally did sit in the audience, and I think learned most of what I learned about comedy by osmosis. It's pretty hard to sit there and watch Carol and Harvey and the guest stars and not learn incredible timing just by listening.

Vicki LawrenceSouthern Dysfunction

Following her abbreviated period as a theatre major and an even more-abbreviated period as a dance major ("That lasted for, like, a week or two ... "), Lawrence dropped out of UCLA. She focused her attentions on The Carol Burnett Show - also scoring a gold record for 1973's hit single "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" - and made her first appearance as family matriarch Thelma Harper during the program's seventh season. In her housedress, glasses, and curly blue-gray wig, Lawrence debuted Mama at age 24, and 35 years later, is still technically too young for the role. (Says Lawrence of Mama's indeterminate age, "You know, when I was 24 I used to say, ‘Oh, I dunno, I guess she's like 65 and holding ... .' And now that I'm approaching the big six-oh, I'm going, ‘Oh God, maybe she's in her 70s ... !'")

Carol had decided that she was gonna do [the role] Southern, so I was trying to find an older version of Eunice. And at the time, I had a mother-in-law who was Southern who was very doting, so I kind of leaned on that. I used to say Mama was based on "mothers I have known." And my mom called me one time, early on. She was watching one of the sketches on the Burnett show, and she called the house and said, "You know, you take that old lady way too seriously." Which I guess meant it was hitting a little too close to home.

I actually tell this story in my show, about how incredibly upset the writers were that we chose to do it Southern. Carol had a lot of west-Texas roots, and I guess the dysfunction of the whole thing spoke to her and her childhood, and she said, "I want to do it Southern." And the writers were just devastated, because this was their baby, they worked so hard on it, and they just felt that by making it Southern, we had ruined it. So no one was more surprised than them when it got the audience reaction that it did. And they ended up writing for the family over and over again. It was only intended to be a one-time sketch.

I loved the games. Those pieces when we played games like Sorry and Monopoly. I don't know. They were all incredible. There was so much fan mail, and everybody loved it ... . And it's been fun to keep her, because I often feel like I could fall off the face of the earth, and as long as Mama was around I wondered if anybody would miss me. 'Cause everybody just loves her, and people talk to me like she's a real person. People say, like, "Where is she?" Like she's supposed to be right here with me.

You. Are. Mama.

During her 11 years on The Carol Burnett Show, Lawrence received a 1976 Emmy Award and three other nominations for her work, and following the end of the show's run in 1978, the tragicomic Harper family was reunited for the 1982 TV movie Eunice. In addition to a fifth Emmy nod for Lawrence's characterization, Eunice led to the spin-off series Mama's Family, which debuted in 1983, ran on NBC for two seasons, and then continued in first-run syndication for five additional seasons. Lawrence says, though, that Mama's resurrection might not have occurred at all if not for the help of an old friend.

On the Burnett show, I think the characters were much more real. Those pieces were like little playlets, and often took up an entire half of the hour show. But they were very poignant, very touching ... sometimes just borderline sad. And when we set out to do the sitcom, all of a sudden that didn't work. We did two episodes and I said to my husband, "I don't know what we're gonna do. This is not funny, and it's not working," and we shut the production down for two weeks.

It was at that point that I asked them to hire Harvey to come in and direct. I feel like he taught me most everything I know about comedy, and he said, "Well, first and foremost, you cannot expect people, after a hard day at the office, to come home, pop a beer, and sit down and watch you screaming at everybody for a half hour. That's not gonna work. She has to become a peacock. She has to laugh. She has to be silly." And I said, "But, Jesus, Harvey, she's never even smiled." You know, this was a mean old lady.

And I'll never forget him saying to me, "You. Are. Mama. Mama is you. If you can smile, she can smile. If you can laugh, she can laugh. You are her." Which, to this day, is my husband's nightmare, of course. That he'll roll over one morning in bed and she'll be there. Every time I get into drag he goes, "Get it all out of your system now, sweetie."

So it was really Harvey that was responsible for making her, ultimately, the fabulous character that she turned out to be. I mean, there was ultimately nothing she couldn't do on the sitcom. Between dirty dancing and running for mayor ... she did everything. She did it all.

Vicki LawrencePush Forward

After the airing of Mama's Family's final episode in 1990, Lawrence was prepared to say goodbye to her beloved character. ("I assumed it was done," she says. "I didn't ever think I would be doing it for this long.") She went on to host her own talk show - Vicki!, for which Lawrence received a Daytime Emmy nomination - and make guest appearances on such sitcoms as Roseanne, Major Dad, and Ally McBeal. Yet given the spectacular ratings success of 1993's The Carol Burnett Show: A Reunion, and Thelma Harper's continued - and growing - popularity through Mama's Family reruns, Lawrence realized that Mama still had more than a little life left in her, and began planning for Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show.

 

I think what really pushed me into this show was the first huge Burnett reunion, where the reaction to all of us was just so overwhelming, and we realized the appetite for anything Burnett was huge. And I think Carol and everybody felt that Mama's Family had been largely responsible for much of that. Because a lot of my fans really grew up watching Mama's Family and even didn't realize I was from the Burnett show. They kinda got me bass-ackwards, you know what I mean?

And I had had people saying to me forever, "You know, you really should put together a nightclub act. It would be really fun for you to get up on stage, you'd have a blast, and it's be yours. Nobody could mess with it." And I thought, you know, maybe it would be fun. Just being in front of a live audience again. For me, it's so odd to go do anything that's on film, because there's just no instant gratification there. There's no feedback from the audience.

Harvey and Tim were on the road at the time, and they were having a ton of success going out and doing sketches from the Burnett show, but when we sat down to put the show together, I said, "You know, I love Harvey and Tim, but I do not want to do retrospective. I won't. It's too kind of sad to me - I need to push forward." So we deliberately determined that the first half of the show would be everything that everybody wants to know; I'd get to answer all the questions that I figured everybody would ask me if I were to bump up the lights like Carol used to and take questions. I'd hoped that by the end of that first half of the show, you'd know more about me than you'd ever want to know. You know, "Enough already, Vicki!"

But it also gives me the chance to be me for a minute, because, you know, what they're really waiting for is Mama.

Not Chris Rock Edgy

Lawrence's one-woman "two-woman" show, which has been touring nationally since 2002, finds its star delivering comic observations, singing songs from her repertoire, and giving audiences a brief history on all things Vicki. At roughly the halfway point, though, Thelma Harper herself takes the stage for the remainder of the evening ... though she may not be exactly the Thelma Harper that TV audiences remember. A new Mama for a new century, Lawrence's creation now shares her thoughts on everything from national politics - the character "co-authored" the 2008 book Mama for President: Good Lord, Why Not? - to show business to Nadya Suleman and her octuplets.

I knew I had to bring her out and get her in people's faces, because people had never seen her in person - they'd only seen her on television - and I knew that would be a ton of fun. But I also wanted to make her topical, and a little more edgy. You know, if there's something going on in the news, something that Vicki wouldn't comment on ... .

Like this woman who just had a gazillion babies. She'd have something to say about this woman. So it becomes a process, then, to figure out, "What would Mama's take be on a woman that feels that she really needs 14 children?" And it's something that Vicki would never talk about. Or like when Tom Cruise went nuts, you know? Vicki's not gonna talk about that. Mama certainly will. And tell you what an idiot he is.

That's what's been really fun about her. She can push the envelope. I said in an interview one time that I thought the show was my opportunity to be Chris Rock, and the venue got so upset. "We cannot book you because we will not have Chris Rock here. He's filthy." And I said, "Well, I didn't mean it literally, I meant it was just my chance to be edgy, and my edgy is not Chris Rock edgy, and ... ." I finally talked them off the roof. They thought I was gonna be, you know, cussing like a sailor, and I said, "No no no no no. Not to worry. It won't be over the top that far. This is just my chance to be topical and fun and push the envelope a little bit."

I said to my writing partner, "Let's do a rap." And he said, "What in the hell will Mama rap about?" And I said, "Her life." I mean, she knows what's goin' on. She knows what up. So, you know, we put a rap song together, and we put a fun little rap track together, and we put a big finale together for her, and she's just a diva. And that's what's ultimately become so fun about her. She comes out and does whatever the hell she wants.

Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show will be performed at the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 12. Tickets are $30 for general admission - $25 for IsleOne members - and are available by calling (800)843-4753 or visiting TheIsleBettendorf.com.