‘Mama’s Family’: Underdog sitcom a flyover country favorite

Good Lord the “Joe Hamilton” cuts are finally here!

By Paul Mavis

StarVista Entertainment and Time Life, through Warner Brothers, have released Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection, a 7-volume, 24-disc, 130-episode collection of the cult sitcom’s entire run—both the original year and a half NBC go-around from midseason 1982-1983 to Spring, 1984, and the subsequent first-run syndication reincarnation, from 1986-1990. A spin-off of sorts from the celebrated “The Family” skits featured on the classic The Carol Burnett Show, Mama’s Family never came close to receiving anywhere near the critical accolades of its host series. Not ever (…except for me).

However, where it really counts—with the viewers—this funny little sitcom has generated an incredibly loyal following over the past 35+ years, a core group of supporters who no doubt will be ecstatic to see the series so well represented on DVD. In addition to the restored “Joe Hamilton” cuts of the original network episodes, over ten hours of bonus material has been included in this set.


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The set-up for the first incarnation of Mama’s Family had bustling, bosomy, sharp-tongued, mule-headed Thelma “Mama” Harper (Vicki Lawrence, expertly hoeing a tough row, keeping Mama annoying and lovable) living in tiny Raytown, Missouri, along with her prissy, socially-correct sister, Fran (Rue McClanahan, beautifully frazzled), who paid rent for a room in Mama’s modest house. Enter Thelma’s divorced, homeless son, Vint (beatific Ken Berry, perfect as a befuddled dunce), a none-too-bright locksmith whose wife left him to become a Vegas showgirl, and who now has two teenaged kids in tow: Buzz and Sonja (Eric Brown and Karin Argoud).

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Thelma’s next-door-neighbor, “that tramp” Naomi Oates (hot pistol Dorothy Lyman, all long legs and sexy shoulders, and funny as hell), takes an instant liking to Vint and they soon marry. A bad business move, however, finds Naomi homeless, as well, and the couple eventually move into Mama’s basement—an arrangement that neither Mama nor Fran particularly like. Infrequent visitors to Mama’s house include her desperately unhappy (and possibly deranged) daughter, Eunice (Carol Burnett), her good-natured dolt of a husband, Ed Higgins (Harvey Korman), and Thelma’s other daughter, the snobbish, fake Ellen (Betty White).

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In Mama’s Family‘s second series go-around (for syndication), Mama’s sister Fran has died (choking on a toothpick at the Bigger Jigger bar), daughter Ellen is nowhere to be seen, and daughter Eunice and son-in-law Ed have moved to Florida…leaving behind Bubba Higgins (Allan Kayser, the “dumb blonde” of the show and agreeably peppy), who is forced by juvie court order to live with his grandmother Thelma. Vin and Naomi are still living with Mama…but their kids Buzz and Sonja are gone. New prudish, starchy next-door-neighbor Iola Boylan (Beverely Archer, delightfully restricted) is around, though, to add to the laughs as Mama battles with anyone more stupid than her…which is everyone.

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A very long time ago (during the Punic Wars), I wrote for a hopelessly outdated, now-comically irrelevant DVD review site (how should I politely put this? Oh, yes: may they all get cancer and rot in hell over there), I penned a review of Warner Bros’ “complete” first season set of Mama’s Family that pretty much started the ball rolling with that site’s regular readers hating my guts (despising living goblin Daniel Craig as James Bond and preferring The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning over Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi sealed the deal). The fact that I, a reviewer who went to “film school” (that’s a trade you can really market in the Midwest…) and who had a book published (it makes a nice doorstop), had dared write a positive review of such utterly mindless sitcom crap as Mama’s Family, was akin to sacrilege to these humorless, puffed-up drones—a development that tickled me to no end (I live for hate mail).

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Well, those days are long gone, thank god. Most of those verkakte readers (and lots of others…) have long since abandoned DVDWalk, while a new crop of fascinating, intelligent—and might I add quite good-looking—readers like yourself now flock to Drunk TV. Today, I write secure in the knowledge that since my reviews are far too long to flip through on a cell phone, most of the dopes who don’t know sh*t from Shinola about TV anyway won’t be bugging me anymore about my reviews. Only you, dear Drunk TV reader, matter to me.

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Back to the discs at hand. Putting it upfront: do I think of Mama’s Family when I’m mentally making out a list of television’s best sitcoms? Well, no…but it does makes me laugh every time I catch it, and frankly, what sitcom needs more validation than that?

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Mama’s Family is amusing, and enjoyably crass, and frequently zany and slapstick-y, with an underlying sweetness to it that I find endearing. Its quasi-rural Southern humor (which, amusingly, always makes the so-called “intelligentsia” out there so nervous), blown up to broad, farcical proportions, has a quixotic, almost surreal, Capra-esque tone that’s really quite charming. I like that Mama’s Family is loud and obnoxious and vulgar, at times, particularly since it’s aimed at general audiences: self-impressed pop culture snobs and painfully ironic little sniffs who like their comedy “relevant” need not apply here (and good riddance to their sorry asses, too…particularly the two invidious scribes out there who still surreptitiously peruse my reviews for, um…”helpful hints”).

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The mention of Mama’s Family during its commercial heyday—and there was a commercial heyday for the series, when it was the most successful first-run syndication strip during its initial offering—was (and still is) a sure-fire instant punch-line for any uninformed slave-to-current-pop culture comedian or writer who wanted to get across a cheap shot at one of television’s perceived bottom-feeders. Elitist critics seemed to agree that Mama’s Family occupied some kind of low point in TV comedy, appealing only to the unsophisticated rubes and yokels out there who didn’t know any better (being cancelled at the more “prestigious” network level, and then coming back stronger in hard-scrabble first-run syndication, probably aided that impression for biased urban bubble critics who don’t much cotton—then or now—to “regular folks” on television, anyway).

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Well, Mama’s Family ain’t exactly All in the Family, that’s true. But it’s also not She’s the Sheriff, either, with a pedigree (and many of the same creative crew) from the iconic The Carol Burnett Show, that any new sitcom would crave. Fans of The Carol Burnett Show remember one of its funniest—and most poignant—recurring skits was informally called “The Family,” featuring Carol as Eunice Higgins, a raging, desperately unhappy and unsatisfied housewife, saddled with a dunce failure of a husband (Harvey Korman), and an insulting, mocking, degrading shrew of a mother (Vicki Lawrence’s “Mama”). These frequently brilliant skits were memorable in that the comedy came in direct proportion to the misery and humiliation that Eunice suffered, becoming at times quite uncomfortable to watch: the truths expressed in the disappointments and hopelessness of Eunice’s life came, perhaps, unpleasantly close to the lives of the viewers watching at home.

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Not long after The Carol Burnett Show was cancelled in 1978, there were initial talks with Lawrence to spin-off “The Family” and specifically the “Mama” character into a regular series of its own, a proposition that Lawrence rejected without the participation of Korman and Burnett, both of whom stated they wouldn’t participate on a weekly basis. When Burnett, who owed CBS several “specials,” produced the 90-minute Eunice skit/playlette, it was eventually aired during 1982’s spring “sweeps,” with ratings that were good enough for third-placed NBC, desperate for any kind of hit, to chance a pilot-less order of 13-episodes of Mama’s Family as a mid-season replacement for their 1982-1983 season (legend has it that NBC’s CEO Grant Tinker bought it sight-unseen on the golf course). Produced by The Carol Burnett Show‘s Joe Hamilton (soon-to-be the ex-Mr. Carol Burnett), who legally owned “The Family” characters and concept, and initially co-written by original “Family” scribes Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, Mama’s Family premiered in January, 1983, on Saturday nights at 9:00pm, with lead-ins Diff’rent Strokes and Silver Spoons, and lead-outs Taxi (in its last, sad year after being dumped by ABC) and flop The Family Tree.

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Despite formidable competition from The Love Boat over on ABC (9th for the year) and The CBS Saturday Night Movie, Mama’s Family managed to eek out respectable-enough ratings (below the coveted Nielsen Top Thirty) for desperate NBC to okay a full season order for the following 1983-1984 year. Typical of NBC’s ineptness at this time, Mama’s Family‘s timeslot was changed several times, eventually to Thursdays at 8:30 (following weak lead-in, Gimme a Break!), in a futile attempt at counterprogramming against ratings juggernaut, Magnum, P.I., over on CBS. Mama’s Family took a sickening nosedive in the ratings and, even with a last-minute switch back to family-friendly Saturday nights, was subsequently canceled in the spring of 1984…something Vicki Lawrence suspected was in the cards all along (Lawrence claims, probably correctly, that the new boys at NBC, including Brandon Tartikoff, misunderstood and hated the show, and had no intention of keeping the previous regime’s leftovers around with the likes of so-called “classier” fare like The Cosby Show and Family Ties). And that was the end of Mama’s Family.

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Or was it? According to Vicki Lawrence, NBC’s out-of-the-blue reruns of Mama’s Family in the summer of 1985 were so successful that she was then approached by producer Joe Hamilton to headline a reboot of the series for the potentially lucrative first-run syndication market (an effort encouraged by Lorimar Telepictures, which believed the series didn’t get a fair shake on NBC). This coincided not only with Hamilton’s very public, very messy divorce from Carol Burnett, but also with, according to Lawrence, Burnett’s unsuccessful proposal to Lawrence to do her own reboot of the “The Family” with Burnett headlining—clearly Burnett, who was in a career low point, knew her Eunice character was a missed opportunity (apparently, these painful negotiations dealt a years-long blow to the two women’s close friendship).

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Retooled by Hamilton to eliminate Burnett, Korman, Betty White and Rue McClanahan (the latter two were scoring major success on The Golden Girls at that point), Mama’s Family returned in syndication with Lawrence, Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman, and that’s all, with new cast members Allan Kayser and Beverly Archer along for the ride. With little fanfare, and contrary to many critics’ estimations (if they were even aware it was on), the syndicated Mama’s Family turned into a little ratings gold mine, popping up here and there all over the dial in small and big cities across the country, scrabbling together enough loyal viewers to become the number one comedy strip in first-run syndication during its four years of production. Why Lorimar and Hamilton ended the series in 1990 is subject to debate (some say Lawrence grew tired of the role and ended the series voluntarily, while Lawrence insists Hamilton and Lorimar only needed and wanted 100 episodes for syndication purposes). Regardless, Mama’s Family continued to be sold in syndication for years and years afterwards, generating many new fans in the process.

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Which brings us to the Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection set. When Warner Bros.’ released a first season set of DVDs for Mama’s Family, there were a whole lot of pissed-off fans who didn’t like the WB putting out the edited, syndicated versions of those NBC episodes (Harvey Korman’s funny Alistair Cooke Masterpiece Theatre spoof intros, featuring his “Alistair Quince,” were eliminated, along with other small cuts). Apparently, licensing issues were at the bottom of this compromised decision, but finally, after almost seven years, the Joe Hamilton estate was able to broker a deal with Time Life and StarVista Entertainment to not only restore those episodes to their full run times, but to gather the entire series into one mammoth boxed set and give the fans what they really wanted: all 130 network and syndication episodes plus almost everything else related to Mama (not all of “The Family” skits from The Carol Burnett Show are included here…but that may be due to a rights issue, or a space factor).

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Fans of the series already know it’s not the greatest looking show, having originally been shot on cheap video (I believe I once wrote that Mama’s Family made Sanford and Son look like it was shot by Gregg Toland). And StarVista, aware of the state of the original materials, puts a disclaimer up at the beginning of each disc, letting us know that the best possible sources were utilized (I’m suspicious, however, of those “restored” claims). However, fans of the show also know that that grimy, grainy look only makes the show seem more homey (or is it homelier?), giving it a bit of nostalgic grit that doesn’t detract from “the funny” at all. As for the remarkable amount of extras included in this set, I’ll detail those down in the “Extras” section.

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As for reviewing Mama’s Family itself…yes, I have watched all 130 episodes of the series numerous times over the years (I’ll even leave it on when it pops up on MeTV), and no, I’m not going to give a huge, detailed look at every episode and every season (my editor allows me only so much on my expense account for booze and pills). Fulfilling the only requirement any sitcom need fill, I found myself laughing consistently during this delightfully tacky, undeniably funny (and frequently bizarre) sitcom. Mama’s Family is straight-ahead farce with no apologies for its obviousness or crudeness…or its frequent moments of unvarnished sentimentality.

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There’s a poignancy to aspects of Mama’s Family, particularly when it shows up the constant pain/pleasure dynamics of its dysfunctional Harper family—an unexpected element that is probably the secret to its long-term success with viewers. Sure, Mama’s Family is silly and funny…but it has heart, too. The fact that this unabashed, unashamed sentimentality is melded successfully with broad farce, makes it in some ways far more palatable than the cynical, phony, often unbearably ironic, pseudo-hip mush that passes for many TV comedy-dramas today. Mama’s Family isn’t asking you to sneer at anybody—just laugh at them.

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I’m sure there are viewers and other critics out there who, once having found out what Mama’s Family is about (gasp!…lower income Southerners who aren’t particularly well-spoken, and who drink beer, and yell at each other), will be genetically predisposed to hating this show (after all, our “betters” in pop culture have now neatly cataloged all shows into two categories—acceptable and unacceptable—merely by the predominant characters’ skin color. The Harpers are White, so…they’re “cancelled”). Owing its lower middle-class “comedy of deprivation” lineage to shows like The Honeymooners and All in the Family, Mama’s Family at least has the gumption to show, with affection and allowance, TV’s most neglected members of society: average “flyover country” Americans.

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Before the ratings’ juggernaut Roseanne (you can bet your ass she watched Mama’s Family), Mama’s Family gave us a glimpse into the workings of an average family of underperformers who, amid the slapstick and one-liners, worried about money, about finding love, and about getting some respect in a world that basically didn’t want to hear from them. I like that underdog quality to Mama’s Family, especially today, since that particular demographic has been so routinely vilified as of late (years ago, I wrote at this line of the review, “It’s only going to get worse, folks.” Well guess what…). You root for the silly, sweet people in Mama’s Family, and in a weird, shaggy dog sort of way, for the little homely show itself.

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A word about Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection extras.

Whoa. Someone really believed this set had the potential to make some serious money, because the extras are copious. So hats off to the people involved here. Opening the gift case, the first bonus is the photographed-crammed 24-page glossy “family album,” with character bios, quotes, the Harper family tree, and reminiscences from Vicki Lawrence, head writer Rick Hawkins, and other cast members. Inside each disc hardcase is an eight-page episode guide booklet, with episode summaries (written by Rick Hawkins) and original airdates.

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On-screen bonus materials are included on the last disc of each season volume. On the last disc of The Complete First Season volume, featurette Mama’s Family Tree: The Branches (All About Eunice & Ellen) has clips from the series and The Carol Burnett Show‘s “The Family” sketches, along with snippets from interviews with Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett and Betty White (those interviews are presented in their entirety throughout the set’s bonuses). Also included is a classic “The Family” sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, episode #1012, from December 11, 1976 (the infamous “Fluffy” sketch), featuring Betty White.

On the last disc of The Complete Second Season volume, one of the most highly-anticipated Mama’s Family-related bonuses is included: the original Eunice teleplay, which aired on CBS on March 15, 1982 (I don’t believe it was ever aired again…). The ratings’ inspiration for the series launch of Mama’s Family, Eunice, written by “The Family” scribes Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, is a rather remarkable effort for Carol Burnett and her co-stars, at times hilariously funny and devastatingly sad, its third act is about as straightforward and honest a bit of kitchen sink drama as I’ve seen on U.S. network television from that time period. A real find for fans of Burnett and Lawrence.

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Next, featurette Mama’s Family Tree: The Roots (All About Mama and Fran), has writers Jim Evering, Manny Basanese, and Rick Hawkins, discussing the dynamics between the Mama and Fran characters during the network run of the show. Next up are interviews with Vicki Lawrence and Carol Burnett (with solid info on the production—watch the fascinating non-verbal byplay between these two…), and Betty White.

On the last disc of The Complete Third Season volume, a classic “The Family” sketch from The Carol Burnett Show is included, episode #909 from November 15th, 1975, featuring a glam Maggie Smith. Next, the featurette, Mama’s Family Tree: The Sprouts (All about Bubba), has some of the best moments of Allan Kayser as Bubba, along with his thoughts on landing the role. Next up, Mama Knows Best: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion, features the entire cast from the syndicated version, sitting around a kitchen table and discussing how they became involved in the series (Lyman has a particularly good story about how she was cast). Finally, an interview with Allan Kayser is included, where he goes into detail about his role in the series (he comes off, as indeed does the rest of the cast, as well-spoken and genuinely nice).

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On the last disc of The Complete Fourth Season volume, featurette Mama’s Family Tree: The Neighbors (All About Iola) showcases some truly hysterical moments with Beverly Archer’s creation. Next, an interview with Beverly Archer is included, where she discusses her role on the show (she has an amusing story about writing her first script treatment for the series…making the cardinal error of leaving Mama out of several scenes). And finally, there’s more of that cast reunion in Under One Roof: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion.

On the last disc of The Complete Fifth Season volume, new interviews are conducted with Vicki Lawrence, Dorothy Lyman (kind of uncomfortable in spots, particularly when she’s referencing her own failed relationships), Ken Berry (it’s fascinating when he talks about being recognized everywhere, no matter where he went…even though he wasn’t on TV anymore), and head writer and executive producer Rick Hawkins (entertaining, with solid info on the show and its process…and kudos to anyone who mentions the superlative Father Knows Best in a non-condescending way).

On the last disc of The Complete Sixth Season volume, more interviews are included, featuring producer and writer Jim Evering (a funny guy who claims Lawrence didn’t want the Mama character to be made “nice”), writer Manny Basanese (good story about his first script for the show), Vicki Lawrence and Rick Hawkins (having lots of fun), and legendary costume designers Bob Mackie and Ret Turner (my favorite interview here, with a wonderfully dismissive Mackie getting kudos for laughing at all of today’s P.C. nonsense, and a very funny story about Mama’s Family tying with Dynasty for a Best Costume Emmy).

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And finally on the two-disc Bonus Features volume, there are even more Mama’s Family goodies. On disc one, a classic “The Family” sketch from The Carol Burnett Show—the first one, actually—from episode #722, aired March 16th, 1974, is included (Roddy McDowall is featured). Next, featurette Mama’s Family Tree: The Lovebirds (All About Vint and Naomi), with some very funny clips of Lyman and Berry at it. Family Business: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion (with some repeated material), while Family Scrapbook: Classic Mama’s Family Bloopers, running a too-short 13:54, should really please fans (they all looked like they were having fun shooting the series). Next up, interviews, featuring Beverly Archer, Allan Kayser, Vicki Lawrence, Dorothy Lyman, and Ken Berry.

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On disc two, seven more clip show/interview snippets featurettes are included. Mama’s Family Seeds: From “The Family” to Mama’s Family (Carol Burnett is here, too). Family Style: Creating the World of Mama’s Family. Family Fun: Game Shows and Showdowns on Mama’s Family is a nice collection of funny moments—Mama arm-wrestling punk rocker/biker chick Kathleen Freeman is a surreal delight. Family Secrets: The True Stories Behind Some Classic Mama’s Family Bloopers is next (seeing pro Archer blow a take is great). Mama’s Family Tree: A Little More About Vint and Naomi and Mama’s Family Tree: The Hometown (All About Raytown) are next (the fictional Raytown’s surrounding counties and towns, all named after real-life mass murderers, is another clue that Mama’s Family was a lot more hip than it was ever given credit for). And Family Folklore: The Gang Remembers Some Special Episodes is quite amusing. Finally…more interviews to round out the bonus features. Tim Conway stops by (tells a hilarious story about Harvey Korman getting pissed at his participation in one of those stupid Dick Clark practical jokes). Costume designer Ret Turner is amusing, as always. Rick Hawkins is back, as are Jim Evering, and Manny Basanese.

Good Lord that is a Ph.D. class in Mama’s Family!

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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