Best known for her long-running role as Thelma Harper—aka “Mama”—on the “Carol Burnett Show,” “Mama’s Family” and now a stage production, Vicki Lawrence is recognized by three generations of audiences for her comedic chops.
It was Lawrence’s physical similarities that first landed her on Burnett’s variety show in 1967. Her job was to play foil characters to Burnett’s different personas. One of those foils, “Mama” became particularly popular.
Now a legendary comedian, Lawrence still embraces the crotchety, unfiltered grandmother’s notoriety.
“I’m incredibly grateful to have created a character that has touched people that much,” she said. “She was beautifully written, and when we went to sitcom she just became a lovable, crazy old character. I think that’s largely why she has endured.”
Another reason might be, as mentor Harvey Korman told her, “the mom is the guts of any family.”
Lawrence agreed. “I think we all have a ‘Mama’ somewhere in our family: an old lady who sits at the Thanksgiving table and drives everybody nuts,” she said. “It’s great that we can bond over the crazy people in our family.”
The mother of two and wife of makeup-artist-tothe-stars Al Schultz is a spring of talent that runs deeper than just “Mama,” however. She also has a No. 1 single to her credit, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” She has starred in numerous stage shows, authored two books, hosted her own talk show “Vicki!” and hosted or appeared in a variety of game shows.
Some of those opportunities were during the years when “Mama” was in syndication, freeing up Lawrence’s schedule. But shortly after 9/11 a Carol Burnett reunion came around, and the response to it proved the country was anxious for both Burnett and “Mama” to return.
“Harvey always said, ‘Put a show together, go on the road, you’ll have a blast. Before, I really wasn’t ready,” Lawrence said. “After the reunion I thought ‘Hmmm… but (Mama) had to go to Bob Mackie first and get spruced up. She’d been in the closet for a long time. My son says this is ‘Mama’ 2.0.”
For now, “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show,” keeps her comfortably busy. She doesn’t rule out the possibility of another television project, however.
“I go out and read for pilots now and then, but at this point in my life, if it’s not the right people or I don’t think I’d enjoy it, then no. But if I think I would, then who knows?”
Lawrence travels the country speaking on women’s issues and will give the keynote address at
the 2016 Tapestry: A Day For You women’s event happening April 29 at the Allen County War
Memorial Coliseum. For more information see pg. 32 of this issue.)