From the first time the sketch “The Family” aired on “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1974, up until the present day, comedian Vicki Lawrence has been shadowed by an elderly woman in a floral print dress with a head of tight, blue-rinse curls. Ever since Thelma Mae Crowley Harper arrived in her life as a recurring character on Burnett’s show, Lawrence has been unable to shake her. Thelma, better known to the world as Mama, was even killed off in a 1982 made-for-TV movie called “Eunice,” but somehow rose from the dead to star in “Mama’s Family,” the sitcom that ran from 1983 to 1990.
Mama tormented her daughter Eunice, played by Burnett, until Burnett’s variety show ended in 1978 after an 11-year run. Lawrence has played multiple characters in addition to Mama. She has also hosted a game show and a talk show, authored a book, and had a number one pop hit with “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” But despite her crusty exterior, Mama is still the Lawrence creation most beloved by fans.
On Sunday afternoon, Lawrence will be performing “Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show” at the Reagle Music Theatre in Waltham. We pushed Mama aside to talk to Lawrence about her own career and her love-hate relationship with the cranky grandmother who regularly uses her purse as a weapon.
Q. Before we start, I have to tell you that I was in a used record store, and I came across your 1979 disco album. The cover is really scary.
A. Yes, really? [laughing] It was a strange album. My rebirth was the concept, which didn’t happen, actually, because the album didn’t do anything.
Q. Because I’m a fashion person, I’m curious to know how much of your Mama costume dictated the character. When you put it on, did the character come out?
A. Totally. Carol and I have talked about how often we didn’t know who we were until we got to [“Carol Burnett Show” costume designer] Bob Mackie, and that was always Wednesday. We would start rehearsal Monday and see him Wednesday morning. He dressed me and I said [in Mama’s voice], “Oh my Lord, there it is.” They wrote Mama for Carol, but she didn’t want to play Mama; she wanted to be Eunice. She said, “Vicki should be Mama.” I was trying to find an older version of what she was doing with Eunice. I didn’t have a lot to draw on at the time, other than a short marriage that came with a dysfunctional Southern mother-in-law. [Mackie] was so funny. When he’d dress you, he’d stand in front of you. You couldn’t really see what was going on. He built Mama’s whole body; he had the dress ready. At the wardrobe fitting he had everything perfect, from the wig, to the pearls, to the earrings, to the socks and shoes. He was just brilliant. The most famous costume in the show, the curtain rod [dress] from the “Gone With the Wind” spoof, was Bob’s idea. Bob showed her the curtain rod on the shoulders, and Carol said, “This will be the funniest sight gag we’ve ever had on the show,” and I believe it was. I can’t imagine us doing it without it. People always mention the curtain rod to me.
Q. It’s interesting that the character of Mama has become so well loved, because she started as a really nasty lady without a lot of lovable qualities.
A. I think the Mama people remember is from “Mama’s Family.” She really turned into a pretty cool character. The sketches from the Burnett show, if people are old enough to remember, were written by writers who all hated their mothers. It was an homage to their dysfunctional families. It was intended as a one-time piece. Some of those sketches got borderline — not even borderline — they were sad. Mama was strident, mean, hateful, and horrible. When we went to sitcom, we did two episodes. I looked at my husband and I said, “This isn’t funny.” I remember bringing Harvey [Korman] in, because he was really my mentor. I said, “Harvey, what am I going to do?” and he said, “It’s a sitcom. You can’t expect people to come home once a week, pop a beer, and watch this woman scream at everybody for half an hour. She has to become a sitcom character. She has to be silly; she has to do these things.” He said, “Anything you can do, she can do.” When I tell that story, my husband is frightened to death because I think he’s afraid that some morning he’ll roll over and Mama will be next to him. [Korman] was really responsible for setting Mama loose because she turned into this wonderful and fun person. It was very upsetting to the writers who created her. They told me I ruined it. They said it’s not their character anymore. But she became wonderful and fun. Everybody says to me, “She’s my aunt. She’s my grandma.” They know her. Everybody has her sitting at their Thanksgiving table, and they talk about her after she leaves.
Q. Do you ever feel boxed in by the Mama character?
A. I very much have a love-hate relationship with her. When Michael Jackson died, I said [to my husband], “Do you think we can stage her death? We can have a big memorial. We could put her away and never hear from her again.” People will ask me where she is all the time. I feel like I could fall off the face of the earth, and as long as Mama showed up, they’d be fine.Interview was condensed and edited. Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.