The evolution of Mama: Vicki Lawrence to perform two-woman show at Golden Nugget

Photo courtesy of the Brokaw Company

Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show

Friday, May 12 - 8:30 p.m.

Golden Nugget - Lake Charles, La.

$20-$45 – ticketmaster.com

 

Vicki Lawrence is many things — comedienne, actress and singer — and her stories behind the stories are even more amazing, which makes the “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show” a must see upcoming performance at the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles on Friday, May 12.

My parents loved The Carol Burnett Show, so I grew up watching it and was very familiar with all the characters. To this day, I still watch re-runs of it and Mama’s Family on cable television, specifically on the Me-TV network.

The Carol Burnett Show was considered one of the best variety/sketch comedy shows of all time. It began in 1967 on CBS and went 11 seasons, which was something unheard of at the time.

With thousands of interviews that Lawrence has given throughout her career, I somewhat expected her answers to be generic, but they weren’t. Our conversation was so engaging, it seemed like we talked for hours.

“My life has been serendipitous,” said Lawrence. “People love hearing the back stories, and a lot of young people in the audience have found me backwards — growing up on Mama’s Family then going back and watching The Carol Burnett Show.”

Born in Inglewood, California, Lawrence was active in school and by graduation was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” While in high school, she joined the musical group The Young Amer­icans and played at the Oscars and on The Andy Williams Show.

Then came her introduction to the iconic Carol Burnett.

While still in high school, Lawrence wrote Burnett a letter inviting Carol to the local fire department’s “Miss Fireball Contest” where Lawrence would be performing. Not only did Burnett receive and read the letter, she made arrangements to see the contest herself.

“That’s the first sto­ry I tell in my show,” said Lawrence. “I think for the most part, every­one knows there is a letter involved, contest and not many ask about the details. It’s proba­bly the story I’ve told more often than many in my life. Nothing like this would ever happen now. Who writes let­ters anymore? I actu­ally read a hand-writ­ten thank you note the other day and I thought, ‘My God, no one does this any­more.’”

She then stepped on stage in 1967 to join The Carol Burnett Show cast that included Burnett, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, among others.

“Not much was going through my mind when I first arrived, I was pretty stupid and pretty naïve,” she said. “It was like get­ting thrown into the Harvard School of Comedy. It was the best teachers in the entire world.”

Lawrence explained that Korman took her under his wing and became a mentor.

“Harvey was very serious about his comedy,” she said. “ He said it was a ‘kill me or teach me approach’ and he decided to teach me.”

She was brought along slowly on the show and said at one point, a network executive wanted to replace her.

“They asked Carol if they should get an actress to do a cer­tain part and that I was a little rough,” she said. “But Carol said ‘She’s a diamond in the rough, and she’s staying.’”

At 24 years old, Lawrence took on the character that would define her television career — Thelma “Mama” Harper.

“The first Mama and Eunice sketches were actually called ‘The Family’ and were written by a team on Carol’s show — both of the writers had dysfunctional upbringings, so they wrote this beautiful homage to their dysfunctional family,” she said.

The original Mama was written for Burnett, but she didn’t want to play the part when she saw the script. The writers then became upset because they wanted Burnett to play Mama and a have as a guest star Eunice because it was a one-time sketch. To throw another wrench in the scheme, Burnett wanted both to be Southern characters.

“The writers literally walked out when they saw us do Mama and Eunice in a Southern way,” she said. “On the contrary, everyone loved it and they could not write the stories fast enough. It would take them a good 3-4 weeks to write one of those sketches, because back in those days, they used typewriters.”

During the midst of the success of the show, Lawrence recorded a Country song in 1973 called “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” that went on to sell more than 500,000 copies.

“I was married to the guy who wrote that song for about 10 min­utes,” she laughed. “It was a horrible marriage. The only thing I got out of the marriage was this song and the dog. He wrote it and didn’t like it, but I thought it was a hit. The producer couldn’t give it away because he thought it would offend everyone in the South. Finally, I recorded it and it became a huge hit.”

After winning 25 Emmy Awards, The Carol Burnett Show ended, which a few years later led to Mama’s Family in 1983 starring Lawrence as, of course, Mama.

“I didn’t feel that Mama could stand on her own,” she said. “I remember saying to Carol, ‘What about you and Harvey?’ She said, ‘We will come and visit, you don’t need us.’”

Lawrence went on to explain the series was sold to the head of NBC on the golf course, with no pilot and no learning curve for Lawrence and fellow cast.

“The writers had to figure this out on the fly,” she said. “We did two shows and we did not think they were funny. I remem­ber saying I need Harvey (Korman).”

Lawrence then spoke with Harvey and got advice that she will never forget. He told her that you can’t expect people to come home, pop a beer and put their feet up and watch this old lady scream at everyone. You have to be silly and funny.

“He asked me what I learned from him,” she said. “Every charac­ter you do is in your gut. He also gave this speech to our staff, and I feel like Harvey was responsible for turning Mama loose and free and making her the great character everyone really loves. Ameri­ca would not have fallen in love with that old lady from The Carol Burnett Show.”

They still love Mama, and Vicki Lawrence, too.

A perfect gift for Mother's Day weekend.

 

Chad Cooper is the editor of the Southeast Texas Entertainment Guide. Email: cooper [at] theexaminer [dot] com

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