• July 19, 2024

Vicki Lawrence wanted Mama to mellow out by season two

Vicki Lawrence was the head of household for all six seasons of Mama’s Family (1983). Thelma ‘Mama’ Harper, played by Lawrence, was known for her strong personality, sharp tongue, and no-nonsense attitude which often led to some hilarious family moments.

From her over-the-top reactions to her physical comedy and her many quirky habits; Thelma Harper was the type of mom only a family could love.

Not everyone loved Mama or her family, however.

According to a 1983 interview with The Tampa Tribune, select critics from all over the country screened the first episode of Mama’s Family before the premiere in ’83, and the reviews were underwhelming.

The critics met Lawrence with negative reviews about Mama’s Family, but their reaction towards the ‘Mama’ character was even worse. They thought her quirks were annoying and they found her to be a little too mean and harsh to watch.

Mama’s Family was originally set to premiere in the fall season of 1982, but due to harsh opinions, production issues, and scheduling problems, it was bumped.

With the premiere being pushed back, Lawrence had one thing on her mind: Mellow out Mama. According to the interview, Lawrence said she felt as though the critics got the wrong idea from the screened episodes.

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“Actually, Mama has been toned down a great deal,” Lawrence said. “There is not so much bickering, not so much yelling. She is softer, more vulnerable. It’s a different Mama now.”

“I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” Lawrence continued. “I had to go in another direction. It has to be that way in a weekly series. We’ve made Mama more sympathetic.”

Although the character was popular on The Carol Burnett Show, the well-loved sketch was having some trouble becoming a well-loved series. But that didn’t stop Lawrence from evolving with her character.

Carol Burnett left everything in Lawrence’s hands. She had graduated from an adopted family on The Carol Burnett Show, to a family of her own on Mama’s Family. Lawrence said Burnett was encouraging, despite bad reviews at the start.

“I was scared to death about doing this, but Carol urged me to be the motor,” Lawrence said. “Mama is the motor that runs this show.”

To help soften up Thelma Harper’s image, the writers and producers recruited Harvey Korman, who played Alistair Quince, the pompous host who introduced each episode. Writers spent their time constantly seeking new ways for Mama to play her cruel one-liners off other people, not family members.

With a little family support, Lawrence said she was happy with the way her character had developed throughout the show’s six seasons. She worked to soften Mama’s persona, change a few family dynamics, and bring in better reviews for her series.

“There’ll still be fighting and Mama will still speak her mind, but underneath there is more to love,” Lawrence said.

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