• May 26, 2024

Mama’s Family: from sketch to sitcom

A great adaptation is one of the rarest things imaginable in the world of media. Think about how many times something you love has been turned into something you don’t love in order for it to reach a larger audience. There are countless examples of adaptations failing to capture what made the original special. This is particularly true of sketch comedy. Oftentimes, we love sketches for their brevity; a good skit gets in, establishes its premise, heightens the situation, pays off, and then gets out of there. In about three to ten minutes we get everything we need from it. Rarely, if ever, does an audience watch a sketch and think, “Gee, I wish I knew more about those characters.”

Sketch comedy is hard to stretch out into any sort of longer presentation. For every successful adaptation, like The Blues Brothers or Waynes World, there are seemingly countless Nights at the Roxbury. That makes sense; not every idea is meant to be extrapolated into a lengthier format.

“The Family,” a recurring sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, at first doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a sitcom spin-off. Nothing about its first incarnation screams “half-hour episodes.” The sketch establishes a core group of characters, all with distinctly Southern accents. The blue-collar crew consists of Eunice (played by Carol Burnett) and her slovenly husband Ed. This initial model is rounded out by Eunice’s mother, referred to as Mama, as played by Vicki Lawrence. Allegedly, the role of Mama was written for Burnett, who opted instead for the olive green dress-wearing Eunice. The sketch utilizes a fish-out-of-water format, wherein Eunice’s brother is back in town. This allows the other characters to exposit as necessary and establish the dynamics of the titular family. Roddy McDowall, playing Eunice’s more worldly brother Philip, provides a juxtaposition by adding a cosmopolitan air to contrast with the less sophisticated members of the family. There’s little premise to speak of, and the sketch’s humor comes from the actors and their performances.

However, as the sketch recurred across the five subsequent seasons of The Carol Burnett Show, the characters grew, as did the skit’s popularity. Each new sketch provided further detail into the lives and relationships of the Higgins/Harper family. In addition to the surface-level silliness of it all, the sketches can be read as a satire of blue-collar life, commenting on various social conventions and norms.

As the sketch developed into an audience favorite, executives took note. During season nine of The Carol Burnett Show, producer (and Burnett’s then-husband) Joe Hamilton approached Vicki Lawrence about spinning her Mama character off into her own program. Surprisingly, Lawrence balked, citing her displeasure with the idea of wearing a fat suit each and every week. Lawrence was about 26 years old, and it took a lot of effort to make her a believably old woman. Because of the tight-knit character-based setup to each sketch, Lawrence also had misgivings about being on her own without Burnett or co-star Harvey Korman.

In 1982, the sketches were first adapted as a made-for-TV movie titled Eunice, featuring Burnett as the character she’d made so popular. The movie was an enormous success, and Hamilton continued pursuing the spinoff. It took a lot of encouragement from Burnett and Korman, but finally, Lawrence relented, agreeing to take what she’d learned from her co-stars to apply toward a series of her own. Both Burnett and Korman decided to only appear in this new series as guest stars, agreeing that it was now Lawrence’s time to shine. The series was sold to NBC without a pilot.

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