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Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Those who were there back when "The Carol Burnett Show" began will recall how a likable but callow young actress named Vicki Lawrence was the junior member of the cast, both in terms of age and talent, who usually played either Carol's younger sister or some flakey proto-Valley Girl character. 

That, of course, would change when the show introduced a new reoccurring sketch, "The Family", in which Vicki, amazingly enough, portrayed the sassy and crotchety old matriarch ("Mama") of a lower middle-class clan of smalltown Southern hicks which also consisted of Carol as neurotic daughter "Eunice" and Harvey Korman as her dullard of a husband, "Ed", in hotly dramatic, highly-dysfunctional family situations that were as painful to watch as they were hilarious. 

Vicki came into her own big-time as Mama, so much so that when Carol ended her show after eleven seasons, her producer husband Joe Hamilton immediately came up with a series spin-off called "Mama's Family" and starring Vicki in her classic characterization, beginning in 1982 on NBC.

Two years after its second-season cancellation on NBC, the show was belatedly picked up for the burgeoning first-run syndication market, where it thrived for four more seasons and reached its finale in January 1990. The show would last for six seasons, with all 130 episodes plus lots of extras now available on 22 discs in the Time-Life DVD collection MAMA'S FAMILY: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION.

Such a spin-off seemed inevitable as long as they could come up with another "family" with which Mama could work her magic.  The first two seasons boast Rue McClanahan as Mama's flakey spinster sister Fran and Betty White as her self-centered daughter Ellen.  Frequent "Carol Burnett Show" guest Ken Berry was Mama's cheerfully childlike son Vint, now living in her basement with his sexpot wife Naomi (Dorothy Lyman of "All My Children").

The fact that Vicki Lawrence was a young actress playing an old woman (most, if not all, of her adult cast mates were older) seemed to give her and the writers license to make her curmudgeonly attitude and acerbic remarks even more outrageous.  A certain delight comes from watching Vicki Lawrence pull off this characterization with such stunning success, especially after being in Carol's shadow for so long.  The character seemed to have been hiding inside her all that time, just waiting for a chance to burst forth.

Berry, after starring in the dull "Mayberry R.F.D.", finally gets a chance to play an addlebrained rube who's actually funny. Lyman is the quintessential trailer-park floozy Naomi, who starts out as Mama's adversarial next-door neighbor.  She turns out to be a high school heartthrob of Vint and, to Mama's horror, the two quickly make wedding plans that include a gaudy ceremony right there in Mama's own livingroom. 

The original "Family" segments on Carol's show displayed a frantic, chintzy kind of bargain-basement Southern Gothic that often came off like Tennessee Williams on laughing gas.  This is carried over into the new show's first season with guest appearances by Burnett and Korman, beginning with Vint and Naomi's disastrous two-part wedding episode. 

Carol Burnett's "Eunice", of course, is one of television's most inspired creations and the only one that can outshine Mama in her own setting.  Far beyond just being funny, Eunice is a tragic, monstrously self-absorbed creature whose simmering familial resentments and crushing disappointments in life always come bursting to the surface just in time to destroy any family gathering she's involved in.  And Mama, of course, is always right there with a cutting remark that slices her right in two.

This results in some of the most astoundingly raucous situations and character interplay in sitcom history, aided by McClanahan and White who add to the Southern Gothic family stew with their own long-standing grudges and gripes.  It's a to-die-for cast that any sitcom, or feature film for that matter, would give its left sprocket holes to have.

Their performances are absolutely inspired--after all, how often would they ever get a chance to play such characters in such extreme mock-dramatic situations and at such full tilt?  There's so much talent being utilitzed at its fullest here that, straining within the bounds of a simple TV sitcom as it is, the effect is often dizzying.  (It's a shame Burnett and Korman are around for so few episodes.)

With all of this going on, it hardly matters that the show isn't always "on" or that moments actually do betray the fact that we're watching a simple--and, yes, often kinda dumb--sitcom that relies largely on insult humor.  Because even in that context it does its job so well that we're entertained by the lesser moments while waiting for the great ones.

The characters frequently relish their chance to let fly with some choice zingers--which, like an athlete, they throw their whole body into--and the live audience goes nuts the way they would for shows like "Married With Children." In fact,  this show, surprisingly, often comes off as even more cynical and outrageous than that infamously sleazy series, albeit in more (relatively) subtle ways.

After the network cancellation and syndication reboot, the show lost McClanahan and White (along with Vint's two nondescript teenage kids) and got progressively tamer, with more standard sitcom plots and less of the early seasons' glorious excess.  Even the character of Mama herself seems to mellow somewhat as time goes by (she'd have to or we wouldn't be able to stand her after awhile) although she never completely loses that acidic edge.

The addition of the delightfully off-kilter Beverly Archer as nerdy next-door neighbor Iola gives Mama a like-minded foil to whom she can reveal her more vulnerable side. Allan Kayser also joins the cast as Eunice and Ed's juvenile delinquent son Bubba, with whom Mama gets stuck after his parents move to Florida without telling him. He's sort of a "Jethro" type and serves his purpose as an example of the crazy "younger generation" for old-fashioned Mama to play off of.

Guest stars throughout the show's run include Brent Spiner, William Windom, Geoffrey Lewis, Imogene Coca, Jack Gilford, Jerry Reed, Robert Mandan, Barney Martin, Cliff Osmond, Marge Redmond, Alan Oppenheimer, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Jack Dodson, Richard Dawson, and Alex Trebek.

The DVD set from Time-Life consists of 22 discs (130 episodes from original broadcast masters) in six cases with slipcover.  Approximate running time is 55 hours.  Episodes are in 1.33:1 full screen and stereo sound.  Each of the six season sets contains a wealth of bonus features such as a roundtable cast reunion and lengthy interviews with cast and crew including Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett, Ken Berry, Betty White, Dorothy Lyman, Beverly Archer, Allan Kayser, costume designer Bob Mackie, and executive producer Rick Hawkins.

"Mama's Family Tree" featurettes take a look at the show's various characters and their relationships.  There are two vintage "Family" segments from "The Carol Burnett Show", one featuring guest star Maggie Smith. 

Best of all, we get the 1982 TV-movie "Eunice", a real-time, in-studio theatrical play that follows the Harper family--Mama, Eunice, sister Ellen (White), and successful brother Phillip (Berry again), along with Harvey Korman's "Ed"--from Eunice's turbulent teen years in the 50's to the day of Mama's funeral in the late 70s. 

"Eunice" is absolutely prime stuff, a full-bodied, powerful, incredibly written and performed comedy-drama that has the live audience on its feet during the emotional curtain call.  It's the pinnacle of Burnett's "Eunice" character, played to the hilt, and is alone worth owning the set.

From its turbulent early episodes, each like a gleefully-staged trainwreck, to its more mellow final years, "Mama's Family" was one of the most enjoyably oddball examples of the sitcom genre ever to bombast its way across our television screens. MAMA'S FAMILY: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION takes all that controlled chaos, puts a lace doily on it, and lets us relive it all over again.

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Grant said...

This show seems to almost always be treated as some poor relation to the "Family Sketch," and it's a far cry from that. So it's good to see a review like this.

Porfle Popnecker said...

Definitely! And some of the very best "Family" moments were during episodes of "Mama's Family"!