Stage & Dance

Vicki Lawrence and her Mama feel at home in the South

Vicki Lawrence as Mama. Photo by Kevin Scott Hees
Vicki Lawrence as Mama. Photo by Kevin Scott Hees

Mama, as played by Vicki Lawrence on The Carol Burnett Show and the sitcom Mama's Family, is such a Southern icon it's surprising to read Lawrence's biography and see she was born and raised in Inglewood, Calif.

"Southern California is about as Southern as I get," Lawrence said by phone Monday morning.

But when she brings Mama to the South, as she will Saturday with a performance at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, she says she feels like she's bringing the blunt, opinionated character home.

"Those are her peeps," Lawrence says of Mama and Southerners. "They love her. Everybody has a Mama in their family. People come up to me all the time and say, 'You're my mother or you're my aunt or my grandmother.'"

In her Two Woman Show, Lawrence will play Mama and will talk about her own career, in which Mama has played a huge role.

But in the beginning, Mama was supposed to be very different.

"She was written by two of the writers on Carol's show, and she was sort of like a loving homage to their dysfunctional families," Lawrence says. "They both hated their mothers, and they both just felt the need to get this whole dysfunctional thing out on paper."

But they never envisioned Mama as Southern or even with Lawrence playing her.

"They wrote this beautiful piece as a one-time sketch," Lawrence says. "They wrote Mama for Carol, and they were devastated when she said she wanted to play Eunice (Mama's daughter). They were further appalled when she said she thought I should play Mama, and they were furious when she said she wanted to do it Southern, because they never intended it to be Southern and said you'll offend half the country.

"They walked out the first time they saw it in rehearsal they were so upset, and Carol said, 'Well, that's the way I want to do it. That's the way it's going on the air.'"

Lawrence didn't really think much of it because it was supposed to be a one-time gig, and it was just another old lady for her to play, which was sort of her specialty even though she was in her 20s at the time.

But Lawrence, 63, has lived with Mama ever since.

"Thankfully, she's a character you can grow into," Lawrence says, joking. "That's my husband's nightmare, that one day he will roll over and Mama will be there."

The sketches featuring Mama — which actually focused on Burnett's character, Eunice — became a regular skit on Burnett's CBS show until it went off the air in 1978. Then NBC developed Mama's Family, focused on Mama with occasional appearances by Burnett as Eunice, which ran from 1983 to 1985 on NBC and then in syndication until 1990. The show also starred Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman and sometimes included Rue McClanahan and Betty White.

Transitioning Mama from a sketch character to a sitcom's title character was a tall order.

Lawrence points out that, particularly since they were personal pieces to the writers, some of the Mama skits on Burnett's show were "little playlets, and just borderline sad — very poignant. Mama was almost one- dimensional. She was a mean old lady."

Not exactly the type of character you wanted to watch every week.

After two episodes of the sitcom, under the same writers, Lawrence says she told her husband, veteran make-up artist Al Schultz, "It's not funny. What are we going to do?"

She turned to her Burnett show colleague Harvey Korman, who told her, "You can't expect people to come home once a week, pop a beer, put their feet up and watch this woman scream for half an hour. She now has to become a silly sitcom character."

So on the series, Mama did all sorts of things including running for mayor and dirty dancing. She even fell in love.

"She became really fun to play," Lawrence says.

Now, Lawrence says, she works hard to keep Mama current, commenting on everything from automatic toilets "that flush three times before you can get your pants up" to current events and politics.

In the first half of the show, she talks about her own career, which has included stage work in shows like Nunsense and playing Miley Cyrus' grandmother in the hit Disney Channel series Hannah Montana.

Through nearly four decades now, Mama has been part of Lawrence's life, and she says she never got tired of her alter ego.

"I did get a little jealous though," Lawrence says. "She always gets all the good jokes."