MAMA’S FAMILY – THE COMPLETE SERIES (NBC 1983-84, SYN 1986-90) RETAIL QUALITY! Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman, Rue McClanahan, Beverly Archer, Allan Kayser
Mama’s Family was a blue-collar comedy that lasted for six seasons about a Midwestern family headed up by a sharp-tongued widow with a heart of gold, Mama Thelma Harper (Vicki Lawrence).
The show got its start in the 1970s as a popular sketch on The Carol Burnett Show. The sketch was originally called The Family and appeared frequently on the one-hour show and, later, on the 30-minute syndicated series. The sketch was originally written to star Carol Burnett as Mama and Vicki Lawrence as Eunice, but creator Burnett switched the roles around shortly before production. As Lawrence put it later, “Carol was the big star, and we just listened to her.” In the end, the decision seemed to be the right one.
The sketch was a hit on the show, and soon Lawrence was approached about turning the skit into a comedy series. Surprisingly, she turned it down at first, stating that she didn’t want to leave The Carol Burnett Show. After Lawrence’s made-for-TV movie, Eunice, was a ratings success in 1981, Vicki finally agreed to take the plunge and Mama’s Family first aired on January 22, 1983.
For 1½ seasons from 1983 through 1984, Mama's Family ran on NBC. In the series' first episode, Thelma Harper lives with her uncomfortable, uptight spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan), a journalist for a local paper. Thelma's son Vinton (whose wife Mitzi had left him to become a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas) arrives to inform Thelma that he and his two children, Sonja (Karin Argoud) and Buzz (Eric Brown), have been evicted from their home and need a place to stay. Much to Fran's chagrin, Thelma allows the trio to move in.
During the first season, Vinton forged a relationship with the Harpers' flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi Oates, whom Thelma disliked, and soon married her. After selling Naomi's house and losing the money in a bad business deal, Naomi and Vint are forced to move into Thelma's basement, where they remain for most of the show's run. Also seen on a recurring basis were Thelma's two daughters: the snobbish Ellen (Betty White) and the ornery Eunice (Carol Burnett). Harvey Korman, who directed many of the earlier episodes, made featured appearances as Eunice's husband, Ed Higgins. (During the eleventh and final season of The Carol Burnett Show, the Ed Higgins character left Eunice and was written out of "The Family" skits.)
After Mama's Family was canceled by NBC in 1984, it was later relaunched in first-run syndication in 1986. Lorimar Television had just merged with Telepictures and was looking for new projects for the then newly commenced first-run syndication market. After observing high ratings for NBC's Mama's Family in summer reruns, production staff decided that the show deserved a second chance and ordered 100 episodes for syndication.
Only Vicki Lawrence (Thelma), Ken Berry (Vinton), and Dorothy Lyman (Naomi) returned as regulars from the original era of the sitcom. Vinton's kids from his first marriage, Buzz and Sonja, who were regulars in the show's first life, did not reprise their roles for the show's revival; their characters, though mentioned briefly in the first episode of the show's syndicated life, were never to be spoken of again.
During the hiatus of the series, both Rue McClanahan and Betty White had gone on to star in the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls, rendering them unavailable to return. White, however, did return as Ellen for one episode in 1986 while Fran was killed off in the first episode of the revival. Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, meanwhile, did not reprise their roles either, resulting in their characters (Eunice and Ed Higgins) being written out as having moved to Florida.
To fill the void left by Mama's grandchildren, Allan Kayser was cast as Thelma's delinquent teenage grandson Bubba Higgins, Ed and Eunice's son. Bubba was ordered to live with his grandmother after being released from juvenile hall and placed on probation as Thelma was not pleased that Eunice and Ed forgot their own son. Also added to the cast was Beverly Archer, who played the new character of Iola Boylen, the family's wildly quirky and prissy neighbor and Mama's best friend. Her catchphrase was calling out "Knock, knock!" in place of ringing the doorbell.
The modified four-season series revival garnered substantially higher ratings than its first incarnation, eventually becoming the highest-rated sitcom in first-run syndication, its final episode airing on February 24, 1990.