From 1974 to 1978, audiences gathered around their television sets to watch the sketch comedy show that was unlike any other before. The Carol Burnett Show. And though CBS would move the show from Mondays to Wednesdays to Saturdays to Sundays, audiences still kept up for eleven seasons.
One of the many sketches the comedians did on the variety show was “The Family.” There was so much love these characters that in 1982 a made-for-TV movie aired on CBS called Eunice. Eunice was a character portrayed by Carol Burnett in “The Family” sketches. The made-for-tv movie (now available as a special feature on Mama’s Family Season 2 DVD set) told the story of the relationship between Eunice and Mama. Through the decades the film showed the tensions and loving moments between this mother and daughter.
Vicki Lawrence was 17 when she met Carol Burnett. A mentoring relationship that would leave great impact on both women’s lives. Lawrence was the youngest cast member of The Carol Burnett Show, who made Mama a household hit. When the idea of “The Family” television spin off came about, Lawrence was not sure she could do it without Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman. They encouraged her that she could, and finally it took off. Though Korman would come in after the first few episodes to co-direct and, as Lawrence says, “be a mentor.”
In 1983, Mama’s Family premiered in America’s living rooms. NBC would run it for one and half seasons. In an interview, Vicki Lawrence shared how it all happened so quickly. Before any of them knew, the show was being picked up. At the time, it was just an idea. No pilot had been written or filmed. They had been given a green light. After the second season, NBC cancelled the show. The show was struggling in competing with Magnum, P. I. In 1986, Mama’s Family would see resurrection. It was rebirthed in first-run syndication.
The first two seasons reintroduce the audience to Thelma Harper, Mama. Thelma is a no-nonsense, house cleaning, force of nature. Her son Vinton (Ken Berry, a frequent guest on The Carol Burnett Show) and his two teenage children move in with her. Aunt Fran (Rue McClanahan) is Mama’s spinster sister who already lives with Mama. Changes are forced upon everyone. Vinton will fall in love with Naomi (Dorothy Lyman), Mama’s annoying neighbor. The two will get married and live together in the basement.
The show has steady appearances from the original cast of “The Family” sketches. Carol Burnett guest stars on occasion as Eunice, as well as Harvey Korman as Eunice’s husband Ed. And Betty White as Mama’s other daughter Ellen. (Both McClanahan and White would be filming The Golden Girls when Mama’s Family was picked up again in 1986 and were not able to be regulars again.) The sisters are consistently seeking Mama’s favor, not unlike Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. However, neither of these sisters meets their death. Ellen is the older, more prim and proper daughter, while Eunice is unkempt and lacks in being proper. Eunice tries so hard to be perfect like Ellen. Ellen usually only comes around when she wants something from Mama.
If anything, the television series, which had to find its own footing to be a sitcom and not a sketch comedy, provides a decent glimpse of family. A little bit dysfunctional, a little bit co-dependent, a little bit annoying, a little bit of laughter, and a whole lot of forgiveness.
Families are the best place to learn how to forgive. And the best place to learn that forgiveness does more for the forgiver than it does for the forgiven. Desmond Tutu once wrote that when we forgive, we become a better person. What makes forgiveness possible is love. Through our love for our family members, we find the strength and courage to forgive. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, love never fails. Mama’s family with all its dysfunction and hilarity, is full of an unfailing love and forgiveness.
Mama’s Family Seasons 1 and 2 are now available in a new DVD collection and each is loaded with extras, including interviews with original cast members.