‘The Carol Burnett Show’: The Unlikely Person Who Convinced Carol Burnett to Have Vicki Lawrence Play ‘Mama’
In the seventh season of The Carol Burnett Show, its writers dreamed up a sketch about, as Burnett put it in her memoir This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, “a totally poor, ignorant, and dysfunctional family.”
The star herself envisioned an older actor in the role of Mama until another person on the crew entirely removed from the casting department suggested Vicki Lawrence.
Here’s more on how Lawrence got cast in the role of her life.
The birth of ‘Mama’ and her family
As Burnett explained, the show’s writers came up with the idea of a sketch about a family that revolved around a cantankerous old woman, Mama, and the sad but hilarious conversations and situations they find themselves in.
“It was our seventh season and two of our best writers, Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, came up with a sketch about a totally poor, ignorant, and dysfunctional family, consisting of Eunice (the wife), Ed (the husband), and Mama, Eunice’s cranky mother,” she wrote.
Burnett enjoyed the challenge of the sketch, as it moved away from parodying other already existent movie characters like Scarlett O’Hara and Norma Desmond into the feel of a real stage play.
“I loved it because it was all about character and situation, without any written jokes,” Burnett continued. “In fact, if we had played it straight, there wouldn’t have been many laughs; the sketch was more like a one-act play.”
Burnett identified more with the role of ‘Eunice’
Burnett wanted to bring on an older actor in the role of Mama or even play her herself. But she realized she was inclining more to portraying Eunice as the insecure and dream-crushed character reminded her so much of her own mother.
“At first, we thought I’d play Mama, but I leaned more toward Eunice,” she said. “Harvey, of course, would be the hapless Ed. We were thinking of hiring an older actress to come in and play Mama.
“In a weird way, Eunice reminded me of my own mother,” Burnett revealed. “Like Eunice, Mama had high hopes. Her head was always in the clouds. She and Nanny had one doozy of an argument after another about our lack of money and Mama’s ‘pipe dreams.’ Mama railed against life. That was the connection, of course: Eunice and her ‘pipe dreams.'”
This crew member knew Vicki Lawrence would be perfect as Mama
Bob Mackie suggested the brilliant idea of Vicki Lawrence in the role of Mama. He could see her embodying the part perfectly.
“Bob Mackie, our costumer, suggested Vicki,” Burnett said. “Why not give it a whirl? We thought this would be a onetime thing.
“Bob put Vicki in a padded dress, a gray wig, and spectacles,” she recalled. “She wore no lipstick or eye makeup. She narrowed her eyes and jutted out her chin and laced into her character with a vengeance. She was hysterical.”
The ratings showed viewers agreed with Mackie’s instinct, as Lawrence would go on to portray Mama in her own television comedy, Mama’s Family, for six seasons.