Harvey Korman saved Mama’s Family from a dark place
The sketch “The Family” was a mega-hit for The Carol Burnett Show when it premiered in 1973. You may remember watching this sketch on TV, or maybe you just know it as being one of the funniest moments in Burnett Show history.
The sketch was so well received that it became a recurring skit on the series and was later developed into the made-for-TV movie, Eunice in 1982. With so much success under just one sketch, it seemed there was no stopping Burnett.
But Mama’s Family didn’t have the ease or the luck that the sketch it’s based on did. When a show flops before the premiere, it’s safe to say all of the odds are stacked against it.
Originally, Mama’s Family was scheduled to start on NBC in the fall of 1982, but because of an avalanche of negative reviews and continuing problems on set, the production was halted before it could make the premiere. The central figure of Mama’s Family, Thelma (Mama) Harper, was played by Vicki Lawrence. The general audience member found Lawrence to be relentlessly shrill and unlikeable.
Burnett and Korman were both two main players in “The Family,” but when it came to being on air, Mama’s Family featured some new faces. Korman said viewers had trouble picturing Lawrence as the lead at first.
Hope came to the series when Korman arrived. His main job was to get everyone prepared for the postponed premiere of Mama’s Family. Luckily for them, he was considered to be one of the greatest comedy writers and performers of all-time. And as he put it, he had to: “save the show from the Burbank trash bin,” where it was already headed before the series began.
“The problems were basically with the clarity and indentity of the characters,” Korman said in a 1983 interview with the Austin American-Statesman. “The writers were still writing sketch material. Rue McClanahan was floundering, and Vicki was upset because she was playing this unrelenting shrew. I came in to expand and enrich the characters. I love Vicki as a performer and as a person, and I plan to stay with this project.”
Korman made a few guest appearances on Mama’s Family. He also stepped in as a co-director, writer and occasionally he would help Joe Hamilton with producing duties. He also introduced each episode of the series as Alistair Quince, a mini-spoof of the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre.
Korman said once he joined the cast of Mama’s Family everyone became a little more optimistic except for the sketch writers, who according to Korman, had been bumped and replaced by writer, Ed Simmons. “The original writers took these characters very seriously,” Korman said. “They created them, were emotionally tied to them and were very reluctant to let go. It was Joe Hamilton’s decision to stop and straighten things out, and we’re lucky that NBC agreed to give us that two month hiatus to get our act together.”
With everything falling into place, the show went on. This time Mama’s Family premiered in 1983, and still featured an abrasive and brash Thelma Harper, just this time she was a little more refined, thanks to Korman.