Mama has never let Lawrence down
Northern Quest show brings iconic character, comedian’s own stories
Mama is coming to town.
The cantankerous Thelma Harper, an acerbic older Southern woman first brought to life by Vicki Lawrence on “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1974 and later spun off into her own show, “Mama’s Family,” is coming to Northern Quest on Sunday.
And she’ll be bringing Lawrence along for the ride.
Lawrence, who starred on the Burnett show from 1967 to 1978, and in “Mama’s Family” from 1983 to 1990, said in a recent phone interview that her “two-woman show” is part Mama giving her homespun take on the world, and part Lawrence telling tales from her years in show business.
Mama initially was created for Burnett – by writers who “both hated their mothers, so they created this dysfunctional family,” Lawrence said. But Burnett didn’t feel the part suited her, Lawrence said, so she handed it off to Lawrence and took on the role of daughter Eunice. Lawrence calls the casting decision “yet another gift from Carol,” and it’s a gift that has continued giving.
“People love her so much, she’s kind of iconic and it’s almost like she’s not me, quite frankly,” Lawrence said. “People ask me all the time where she is, like she should be with me.”
Creating the show was a bit of a challenge for Lawrence, she said, because her background isn’t in standup comedy. “I’d never been on a stage alone,” she said. “I found out very quickly that you’re not alone at all. You’re in this room with fans and you go on this little journey with them every night.”
Mama, Lawrence said, was the first in a long line of tough, blue-collar mothers in TV – “the first, best dysfunctional mother on television.” Roseanne Conner. Debra Barone. Peg Bundy. “You keep going and you’re going to pin Honey Boo-Boo’s mother on me,” she said with a laugh.
When she started work on the stage show, Lawrence said she and her writing partner knew they’d have to bring Mama into the 21st century. And they’ve been having fun doing it.
“It’s great to have this crazy old lady who can comment on everything that’s going on in the news and in the world, and everything that everyone is thinking,” said Lawrence, 64. “I get a little jealous of her, because if there’s something on the news that I would like to comment on, Mama gets the joke. Mama gets to talk about it because Mama gets to say whatever she wants.”
The Lawrence part of the show is mostly autobiographical, and she aims to answer any questions audience members may have. How she met Burnett. How Mama came about. How she became “a natural redhead,” she quipped.
She talks about her status as a genuine one-hit wonder. She took her 1972 single “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” to the top of the charts – the result of a marriage that didn’t last, Lawrence said.
“I was married to the guy who wrote it for like 10 minutes. He didn’t like it, so I did the demo. The producer couldn’t give it away, so he finally said ‘Let’s just do it with Vicki.’ ”
And it became a No. 1 hit. “I knew it would be,” she added.