Comedienne tours with 'Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two Woman Show'

September 23, 2011|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE |
  • Vicki Lawrence, front, is touring as herself and her alter ego, Mama, who was first made popular on "The Carol Burnett Show." The show will come to The Maryland Theatre on Wednesday.
Submitted photo

Vicki Lawrence said she likes to live by a motto: "Life is much too serious to be taken seriously."

And Lawrence, who is known for her character Mama, has made a point to live by her own mantra.

"When people meet me they always ask for Mama, like she's a real person," Lawrence, 62, said during a telephone interview from her Long Beach, Calf., home.

Lawrence will bring Mama to Hagerstown for the two-woman show "Vicki Lawrence & Mama" at 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28, at The Maryland Theatre, 21 S. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown.

The show, Lawrence said, will include memories shared by both Vicki Lawrence as herself as well as in costume as Mama.

"I think I could fall off the face of the Earth and (fans) wouldn't miss me as long as Mama's around," Lawrence said with a laugh.

When Lawrence was a high school senior, she famously broke into show business by writing to comedienne Carol Burnett. Lawrence had included a newspaper article that stated their resemblance and invited Burnett to attend the pageant she was in. Burnett happened to be looking for someone to play her kid sister in an upcoming performance — so she attended.

And in 1967, the same year Lawrence entered University of California, Los Angeles, to study theater arts, she performed on "The Carol Burnett Show." For 11 years Lawrence shared the stage with Burnett, as well as the likes of Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner and Dick Van Dyke.

Mama was part of "The Family" skits on "The Carol Burnett Show," but Lawrence wasn't the writers' first choice to play the feisty Mama — Burnett was.

"They lovingly created this dysfunctional family, and they wanted Carol to play Mama," Lawrence said. "But that was not the character that spoke to her. I have often said that Mama is yet another gift from Carol because she did not want that part."

Burnett instead took the role of Eunice, Mama's daughter, while Lawrence — only 24 at the time — took the role as Mama. (Betty White played Mama's other daughter, Ellen).

Mama fans will note that when the character was developed for "The Carol Burnett Show" that the matriarch was a bit, well, meaner.

"Both of those writers hated their mothers and it was just a labor of love for them to get this women down on paper," Lawrence said with a laugh. "They were like these little plays. They were borderline true to life, I think."

And that's where her motto comes in. "You have to laugh at the hysteria that is your life," she said.

Her psychologist (who Lawrence said will be in Hagerstown to watch the show) told her that "anyone who says they don't have a dysfunctional family is living alone."

When the show "Mama's Family" was in development for NBC as a sitcom, Lawrence said it was then that her character had to become more than a one-dimensional character.

"I actually shot the show down because I said it wasn't working."

That's when she asked Korman to come in to help with Mama.

"He said, 'She's got to turn into a sitcom character now. She's got to turn into a peacock. She's got to be silly,'" Lawrence recalls. "But I said. 'She's never even smiled, Harvey.'"

And that's when Korman gave her another piece of advice: "He said, 'You are she and she is you and any character you do lives inside of you somewhere. And anything she can do, you can do.'"

"Of course, that's my husband's (Al Shultz) nightmare that she is me," Lawrence jokes. "That he'll roll over in bed one morning and she'll be lying there. He won't hardly speak to me when I'm in that drag. He just says, ‘Just get that old lady out of my face.'"

Lawrence credits Korman, who died at age 81 in 2008, for helping her turn make Mama into the three-dimensional character on the sitcom.

"Otherwise, I don't think that it would ever would have worked," she said.

"Mama's Family," which was the only show to spin off from "The Carol Burnett Show," premiered on NBC in January 1983 before being canceled in May 1984. The network continued running reruns of the show until 1986 when "Mama's Family" went into first-run syndication. In 1990, "Mama's Family" finally ended it run.

Lawrence said there was always something about Thelma Harper that people connected with.

"I always think of her in the same way as Archie Bunker," Lawrence said. "We all know him, we all have one in our family. But no one ever fesses up to being him, so no one is ever really offended by him. I've never had anyone come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god, I'm you or you're me.' I'm always their aunt or their grandmother, or their mom, but I'm never them, so no one's ever offended."

It was more than 10 years before Lawrence decided to don Mama's gray wig and take her out on the road.

Lawrence said soon after Sept. 11, 2001, "The Carol Burnett Show" cast had a televised reunion. She said the next morning Burnett had called her, blown away by the response the show had in ratings.

At the time, Korman and Conway had found success on the road putting on a show.

"It was Harvey again who said, 'You should do this, you would have a ball doing this. You could do what you want, you could tailor it exactly to what you want to do — and you could have a blast," she said.

After they put the show together — with the help of her husband, her son, a writing partner she's been with since her talk show, "Vicki," a friend who put together the music and some friends from "Mama's Family," they opened in Las Vegas in 2002.

Lawrence admits she was a nervous wreck about opening on stage. "I asked my agent, ‘But aren't we supposed to start somewhere small?'"

The woman who had been working since her teens with an ensemble cast was now on the stage by her self.

"The first night you walk out all by yourself on a big stage, you said, 'I hope ... I'm right,'" Lawrence said. "What I've come to realize since I've been doing this show, you're never alone. The audience is along with you for the ride every night. And every audience is different, so every night we have a different vibe, you don't know what's going to happen and it makes it really fun."

 Lawrence has found another legion of fans when she played Mamaw Ruthie Stewart, the grandmother to Hannah (Miley Cyrus) on Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana."

"I can't buy Girl Scout cookies anymore," she said. "My cover has been blown."

But how would Mamaw Stewart and Thelma Harper get along?

"I think Mamaw would be patient with her because she's a good, strong Southern lady," she said. "I don't know, they might get into it they're both strong ladies, but I think they'd get along fine."

If you go ...

What: "Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two Woman Show"

When: 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28

Where: The Maryland Theatre, 21 S. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown

Cost: $49 and $39

To purchase tickets, call 301-790-3500 or go to

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