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‘Mama’s Family’: A Look Back at the Hilarious ’80s Southern Sitcom

Plus, learn fun facts about the 'Carol Burnett Show' spinoff!

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There were few television series in the ’60s and ’70s more beloved than The Carol Burnett Show, and after the classic comedy ended in 1978, audiences remained nostalgic for the quirky cast of characters that Burnett and her company originated. Enter Mama’s Family: The sitcom debuted in 1983 as a spinoff of the earlier show’s popular series of “The Family” sketches, and had Vicki Lawrence reprise her hilarious role as cranky old widow Thelma Harper.

MUST-READ: ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ Cast Then and Now: A Celebration of Laughter and Talent

Viewers loved tuning in to the wacky calamities of the Harper clan, extended non-Harper family members and their neighbors, proven by the fact that Mama’s Family ran for six seasons and 130 episodes until 1990.

The enduring appeal of Mama’s Family

Entering Mama’s house revealed risky family dynamics from the outset. The series started with Thelma and her spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan) opening their home to Thelma’s recently divorced son Vinton (Ken Berry). And his teenage daughter, Sonja (Karin Argoud). And his son, Buzz (Eric Brown). From there, all kinds of wacky family antics took place, as we came to love both Mama’s family the people and Mama’s Family the show.

Reflecting on the enduring appeal of the show, Lawrence said, “I think everybody knows this kind of family. Everybody has got the dysfunctional family, so that’s the wonderful thing about the show.”

Lawrence’s costars admired her dedication to capturing Thelma in all her grouchy glory. As Berry said in an interview, “Vicki had become one of the best sketch artists on television. She put on those glasses and a wig and a fat suit, and I bought it!”

Betty White, Vicki Lawrence and Rue McClanahan in Mama's Family, 1983
Betty White, Vicki Lawrence and Rue McClanahan in Mama’s Family (1983)Joe Hamilton Productions/MoviestillsDB

Over the course of the series, Mama Thelma Harper remained the center of all the show’s bickering and hilarious misunderstandings. With her gray-wigged, purse-lipped, quick-tempered demeanor, Lawrence brought humor and heart to a complicated role. Yes, there were lots of zingers and sarcasm, but underneath it all she was a nurturing and obliging mother to her family and friends.

Mama may not have always been the nicest, but at the end of the day, she allowed many different folks to move into her home, where she cooked and cleaned for everyone, sometimes without a thank you or any appreciation. Looking back on her signature character, Lawrence once quipped, “Mama has her own career. She’s like her own person. There’s going to be a picture of Mama on my obit.”

Mama’s Family fun facts

Vicki Lawrence as Mama Thelma Harper, 1984
Vicki Lawrence as Mama Thelma Harper (1984)Joe Hamilton Productions/MoviestillsDB

1. Carol Burnett was barely on the show

Carol Burnett, Joe Hamilton, 1975
Carol Burnett, Joe Hamilton, 1975Getty

Carol Burnett may have originated the role of Eunice Higgins, but she only appeared in five episodes of the show in the first and second seasons. At the time, she was in the midst of a contentious divorce from the show’s producer, Joe Hamilton.

2. Lawrence was half Mama’s age

Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman, Beverly Archer and Allan Kayser, 1983
Clockwise from top left: Mama’s Family stars Allan Kayser, Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman, Vicki Lawrence and Beverly Archer, 1983Joe Hamilton Productions/MoviestillsDB

While Thelma Harper was meant to be in her 60s, Lawrence was actually just 34 when she began appearing on the series, hence the gray wig and intentionally exaggerated gestures.

3. Naomi got her start on daytime TV

Louis Edmonds and Dorothy Lyman on the set of All My Children, 1982
Louis Edmonds and Dorothy Lyman on the set of All My Children, 1982Getty

Dorothy Lyman, who played the sexy neighbor Naomi, started out as a soap star, with roles in The Edge of Night, One Life to Live, All My Children and Another World. After Mama’s Family, she moved behind the camera, and directed 74 episodes of the classic ’90s sitcom The Nanny.

Related: See ‘The Nanny’ Cast Now and Then — Plus, the Latest News on a Reboot!

4. Ken Berry had a famous mentor

Vicki Lawrence and Ken Berry in a scene from Mama's Family, 1983
Vicki Lawrence and Ken Berry in Mama’s Family (1983)Joe Hamilton Productions/MoviestillsDB

Ken Berry was discovered by none other than comedy icon Lucille Ball. He had been performing as part of the Billy Barnes Review, a 1959 musical comedy revue, one performance of which was seen by Lucille. Long story short, he was put under contract at Desilu and would appear in 10 episodes of The Ann Sothern Show. Additionally, in 1968 he guest starred on The Lucy Show.

5. Lawrence released an album

Vicki Lawrence, 1970
Vicki Lawrence, 1970Getty

The multitalented Lawrence topped the pop charts in 1972 with “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” She released three albums during the ’70s in addition to starring in The Carol Burnett Show.

6. Mama’s Family defined syndication

Promo shoot for Mama's Family, 1980s
Betty White, Vicki Lawrence and Rue McClanahan in Mama’s Family (1983)Joe Hamilton Productions/MoviestillsDB

Mama’s Family was originally canceled by NBC after two seasons, but the series continued production for four more years, becoming one of the first shows to successfully move off-network and continue in syndication.

7. It inspired a modern franchise

Tyler Perry, Madea Goes to Jail, 2009
Tyler Perry, Madea Goes to Jail, 2009smooth5/MoviestillsDB

Mama has been said to be an inspiration for Tyler Perry‘s popular character Madea. In an interview, Lawrence said their characters should be in a Thelma & Louise-style movie together.

8. Mama the superhero

Vicki Lawrence, 2019
Vicki Lawrence, 2019Getty

Lawrence knows she’ll always be remembered as Mama, and has said, “For a lot of my fans, she’s real. I often feel like people think that I’m like Superman, running into a phone booth and coming out as Mama.”


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