What would you do if a stranger came up to you and handed you a magic key? Let’s suppose it didn’t unlock a city, but had the power to take you on a fabulous journey; an excursion that carried you through some of the best exhilarating twists and turns you could ever imagine, becoming the most magnificent ride of your life. Now let’s pretend, in this enchanted domain, you find a little bit more than skipping munchkins, a yellow brick road, and a spying wizard, but the end result being something bigger than you could have ever pictured for yourself. Such is the story of one of the most iconic comedians in television history.
“I call it the Emerald City,” stated comedian, Vicki Lawrence, referring to her start as a look-alike Carol Burnett. Spending nearly all of her adult life on stage or in film and being constantly in the public eye, there is one thing that truly inspires Lawrence; the time she spent with long-standing friends on The Carol Burnett Show.
“I feel like I got to go to the Harvard School of Comedy in front of America. I learned how the business of show business should run from Carol [Burnett]. I learned the art of comedy largely from Harvey [Korman]. I had the best teachers in the whole world. I feel very fortunate to have landed there.”
Having just graduated from high school, Lawrence started her showbiz career on Burnett’s show the same year she began studying at UCLA. There was a price to be paid, however, and that required her to dismiss any college social life.
“They said, yes, you may go to college as long as you are at the studio by 11:00 am, so I took every course you could take early in the morning. I was on and off campus and had, largely, no college life because everyone else was still asleep. Other than that, I think I was too stupid to actually appreciate what was going on,” said Lawrence.
Once she was established on the show and wanting to investigate her surroundings, she decided to take a stroll through Studio 33 and CBS. What she found was surprising but proved that, “When on the CBS lot, you never knew who you were going to run into.” Hearing a piano playing, she stuck her head around the door and there sat Red Skelton, another well-loved comedian that would share the studio with them for the first year.
Says Lawrence, “He liked to doodle on the piano and write music. He invited me in and listened to my whole story. He scrawled Vicki across that sheet music and signed it and wished me good luck.”
To her, this event proved, again, that the studio they filmed the show in was truly the Emerald City of its time, with surprises around every turn.
“It was back in the day. It was just like an amazing place to be – CBS. You never knew who you were going to run into.”
Along with The Carol Burnett Show, the studio also housed The Young and the Restless which, “started up the hall across from us. Sonny and Cher was next door.” The Smother’s Brothers were down the hall, as well as The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. According to Lawrence, Barbara Streisand would also come in and shoot her music specials as well as the Hallmark Hall of Fame, who was just finishing up their broadcast.
There is one show that really stood out from the others according to Lawrence, The Archie Bunker Show.
“I remember distinctly the night All in the Family premiered because, back in the day, it was a switchboard. They put nine gazillion girls on the switchboard because they just knew the shit was going to hit the fan when America met Archie Bunker,” laughed Lawrence.
So what was it like working with some of the world’s biggest stars of comedy? According to Lawrence, Burnett was an amazing comic and a very giving performer; while Harvey Korman, a seriously-trained actor, treated comedy as a very serious business. “To watch him work, for me… He was so funny in a serious way. Just to study him was amazing,” added Lawrence.
“Tim Conway was a little different from the rest. He was always in the back of the studio building something with the prop man, rewriting his lines, or plotting our demise.”
According to the comedian, today’s type of entertainment doesn’t compare to the comedic era of The Carol Burnett Show, and eventually, Mama’s Family. “Sitcoms have gone a little dark and sexual; although I do think Modern Family is doing a good job.” Some proof of that came in the form of a “darling, thirty-some year-old bartender,” then waiting on Lawrence, and asking what she was doing in New York.
“My husband said we’re here promoting Mama’s Family, the DVD’s been released. You could see the look on her face. She put the whole thing together in about a second and a half. She went, “Oh my God, you’re Mama!!” She said, “Back when comedy was funny. Now everything is a fart joke and there’s no depth to it. There’s no character-driven humor. It was so good!””
On Miley Cyrus and Paula Deen…
Lawrence also had something to say about today’s most current and controversial topics, Miley Cyrus’ performance on the VMA’s and the free-fall of Paula Deen’s character. During recent years, Lawrence played Miley’s grandmother on Hannah Montana, something Cyrus seems to want to forget from her artist’s repertoire.
“Everybody wants to know, what’s going to happen to Miley Cyrus because I played her grandma. Like I should know, I played her grandmother on television! Young celebrities have a mine field to walk through. They do stupid stuff. We all did stupid stuff, but back when I was a kid, it wasn’t on the web the next day or there wasn’t somebody following you around shooting it or tweeting about it. It’s everything that comes out of their mouth. Every move they make. Everything they do is scrutinized to death. It kind of depends on how the flow of the country is at the time as to what your fate will be. My exhibit A would be Paula Dean, which I do not understand. It’s almost like all the Tweeting, the comments, and the websites – like it turns into an angry lynch mob. You just never know what’s going to happen. Yeah, she’s done some stupid stuff but for God’s sake, who didn’t? I remember back in the day when MTV premiered and it was like, oh wow, we get to watch the music now. Now everybody goes, did you see her on the VMA’s? Well yeah, but the VMA’s in general I watch between a slit in my hand because the whole show to me is like, oh my God, what are they doing now? The whole show is just over the top to me.”
So does Mama twerk, you’re asking yourself?
“Well you know, I think Mama’s twerker is a little rusty. If I had to twerk, it would be in slow motion,” laughed Lawrence.
Surprisingly enough, Lawrence hadn’t planned on making comedy her life’s work, or even being in the showbiz limelight. She had her sights on an all-together different course for her life – dentistry.
“I honestly thought that I was going to be a dental hygienist. When I was in high school, I said I would study dental hygiene. I’ll learn to clean teeth. I’ll marry a rich dentist and I’ll hang it up. I almost feel like I got kidnapped by show business.”
According to Lawrence, there are a few positive sides to working in the dental industry; one being the fact that you don’t have to wear a uniform and you can save all your money for cute clothes to wear on the weekends.
“I had it all planned and I just got totally sidetracked,” laughed Lawrence as she added. “It was a special place to grow up.”
Mama Harper, Eunice and the Plot Thickens
Going by the format of her show, Burnett’s head writers put together a skit, writing her in as the head of a misaligned family, much like their own.
“Two of her writers, who both hated their mothers, created this homage to their dysfunctional families. They needed to get their mothers out on paper. So they wrote this amazing character for Carol.”
The skit was supposed to be presented only once and when Burnett saw the final draft, she claimed the part of Eunice, a secondary character. She did not see herself as Mama but saw that Lawrence fit the part perfectly. Neither of the writers was happy about her decision, but the final blow came when Burnett announced this new TV family was destined to be southern, “sort of like Tennessee Williams gone nuts.”
“The writers were so upset, they walked out the first time we did it for them. You ruined it! You ruined it! It was never meant to be southern. You’ve ruined it!”
Yet Burnett insisted they do the skit as she instructed and after the show, they received a tremendous amount of good feedback. So much positive feedback, in fact, the writers were told to create additional skits using the same characters.
“They couldn’t write them fast enough,” says Lawrence. “Carol loved those characters so much. I would say they were her favorite characters she ever played on The Carol Burnett Show.”
Each skit took nearly three weeks to complete with two writers working nonstop and as fast as they could turn them out.
Laughs Lawrence, “They were beautifully written and very meticulous. You would come out of your office and hear typewriters going for a few days. Then you’d go by their office and you’d hear screaming and yelling. She would do all the female parts and he would do all the male parts. Then it would be quiet for a few days and then you would hear the typewriters going.”
Known as The Family while on The Carol Burnett Show, it didn’t take long for prime time to make an offer. Accompanied with a name change to Mama’s Family and guest appearances by some of the original cast members, the show launched in 1983 and eventually became the highest rated first-run program in syndication.
According to Lawrence, it is not hard to figure out why.
“I think there was an underlying truth to Mama’s Family. I think everybody relates to those characters in one way or the other. People all the time say to me, you’re my mother, you’re my grandmother, you’re my sister, you’re my aunt. Nobody ever fesses up to being her, so nobody is ever offended by her. I think of her a lot like Archie Bunker. We all know one. We all have one in our life. It’s a reminder that you’re not in it alone. Everybody has a little dysfunction in their family. It’s good to laugh about it; but I think there is an underlying truth to Mama. She was very true to her generation. She was all about setting those boundaries and she was all about beating the crap out of her family but God forbid, anybody said anything bad about her family. She’d be the first person to jump up there and give them the what for. It’s just like real life, I think. Very much like real life. It was kind of grounded in reality.”
Mama Ain’t Happy
Most people have heard the old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Lawrence made it clear that pleasing Mama Harper wouldn’t be easy.
“Mama ain’t never in a good mood. The old lady’s never in a good mood. Well yeah, give her a beer. Yeah, give her a beer and put on some good music and maybe I’ll be in a good mood – for a minute – until the kids show up.”
Be sure to look for the newly-released Mama’s Family DVD Collection coming to retail markets near you and online.
As Lawrence puts it, “You must laugh. If you stop laughing, you’ll slit your wrists.”
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