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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Vicki Lawrence reveals details about ‘Mama’ ahead of show in The Villages

Vicki Lawrence once had an identity crisis with the character “Mama.” — until Harvey Korman set her straight on a comedic journey of self-discovery.
“Harvey told me: ‘You are Mama; she is you, and you are the character that lives in your gut,” Lawrence said this week in a telephone interview.

Vicki Lawrence in a past performance at The Sharon.
Vicki Lawrence in a past performance at The Sharon.

She brings “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show” to The Sharon on Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. The first half of the show is Vicki Lawrence as herself and the second half is all Mama.
Lawrence, 73, was in her 20s when she started playing Thelma “Mama” Harper on “The Carol Burnett Show” nearly five decades ago. “I’m still playing Mama; we’ve grown old together,” she quipped.
After the Burnett show ended, Lawrence kept the character going in the series, “Mama’s Family,” from 1983 until 1990. That’s when she needed some help from her mentor, the late Harvey Korman, who had been a regular on the Burnett show.
“I wanted Harvey to direct some episodes of ‘Mama’s Family,’” Lawrence said. “I was having trouble with Mama as a comic character. On Carol’s show, Mama was always nasty, screaming and screeching. She wasn’t very nice and it wasn’t working on a sitcom, week after week.”
Korman came to the rescue with some sage advice. What was missing was the funny side of Mama, and that came from Lawrence’s inner spirit.

Vicki Lawrence performed as Mama in 2018 at The Sharon.

“This is a sitcom; you have to have laughs,” he told her. “You are the character that lives in your gut. You are Mama; and Mama is you.” That’s when Mama’s comic personality really took hold.
It has been that way ever since for an actress who got her big break as a teenager. Burnett wanted Lawrence to play her sister on the variety show that ran for over a decade starting in 1967.

Burnett read a newspaper story about Lawrence, who was competing in the “Miss Fireball” beauty contest. Burnett signed her for the show, because they resembled each other.
Lawrence was suddenly on national television, “but the suits at CBS weren’t happy about me. They told Carol I was ‘rough.’
“Carol told them I was a ‘diamond in the rough’ and eventually I would sparkle. Carol stuck by me, and she has changed my life. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for her.”

Lawrence was not surprised with Burnett’s dramatic performances last year in the final episodes of “Better Call Saul.”
“Carol was great and it had to be so much fun to do that series,” Lawrence said. “When Carol told me about doing ‘Better Call Saul,’ I said, ‘Damn, I love that show. Let me be your stunt double – I can drive a motor scooter.” Burnett drove the scooter during scenes in the TV series.

Comedy is serious business, Lawrence believes. “Comedy is drama turned on its ear,” she said. “I think it’s easier for comic actors to do drama, than it is for dramatic actors to do comedy.”
She pointed out that Burnett’s performance as Eunice during “The Family” comedy sketches with Mama, was an acting clinic.
“Those sketches were beautifully written, and beautifully acted by Carol,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence has enjoyed a remarkable, long career.  She had a top ten record in 1972, “The Night That the Lights Went Out In Georgia,” written by her first husband, Bobby Russell. A couple years later she married her current husband, Al Schultz, a make-up artist on the Burnett show.
“Our kids are in their 40s,” Lawrence said. “They watch reruns of Carol’s show and say: ‘Mom, you were pretty good.’”
Lawrence also appeared as Miley Cyrus’ grandmother in the Disney teen show “Hannah Montana” over a decade ago.
“Miley grew up and changed,” Lawrence said. “She didn’t want to be a Disney child star; she wanted to be a rock star. I really like her.”
Lawrence also had a varied career. She made records; hosted a TV talk show; appeared in television series and movies and plays Mama in theaters around the country.
When asked if she has any current goals, Lawrence shot back: “to stay vertical.” That goal means more as the years go on.
“When Betty White died, I called Carol and said, ‘Damn, this is bad.’” Burnett told her it’s all part of life and you have to deal with loss and tragedy.

And then the woman who plays Mama offered some serious advice. “Treasure your friends,” she said, “because you never know when they won’t be here.”

Tony Violanti covers arts and music for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into the Buffalo NY Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist.

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