Mama’s Family is a 1980’s sitcom with a very unusual history. The series began as a sketch on The Carol Burnett Show in 1974. At that time, it was called only “The Family” and it featured Carol as Eunice Harper, a small town housewife who dreams of so much more. Her brow-beating, caustic mother Thelma was played by Vicki Lawrence, which was funny because Vicki was barely 25 years old at the time.
The recurring sketch was both outrageously funny and poignant at the same time. Some episodes were downright dramatic and you usually ended up feeling very sorry for poor Eunice by the end.
In 1983, NBC turned the popular sketch into a series but instead of revolving around Eunice, the stories revolved around Mama and thus the name change. Vicki Lawrence agreed to play the role she’d made famous but Carol Burnett and the other familiar characters became guest stars. With them gone, a new “family’ was born – Ken Berry came in as Mama’s lackluster son Vinton. He moved in with his two teenage children Sonja and Buzz and eventually, Vint married the trashy next-door-neighbor Naomi (Dorothy Lyman).
The first season relies mostly on Mama’s annoyance at having a house full of people she doesn’t like and Vint’s poor decision making skills. The writing isn’t nearly as sharp as it was on The Family sketches and there’s not a drop of drama, but if you forget the Carol Burnett connection the show actually works – with one exception, Sonja. Don’t know what they were thinking with that character. . .
When I say the show works, I mean in the context of the early 80’s. The humor isn’t as sophisticated as what we see today. It’s more Dukes of Hazard than Modern Family but that’s the show’s charm.
A Second Chance
After two seasons, NBC canceled the series, but one look at the graphic for Mama’s Family: The Complete Series (Complete Collection Seasons 1-6) and you can see that it wasn’t the end.
The producers sold the show in syndication and it soared. The new version of the show came with a big cast change. Vint’s two children disappeared (sorry Sonja, but YEAH!) only to be replaced by Eunice’s juvenile delinquent son Bubba and nosy neighbor Iola (Beverly Archer). Archer was a talented character actress and she brought a new dimension to the show.
Altogether, the show ran for six seasons and now all 130 episodes are available in one giant DVD set.
Mama’s Family: The Complete Series (Complete Collection Seasons 1-6) also includes 10 hours of specially-created bonus content including the rare TV movie Eunice, a cast reunion, behind the scenes featurettes and new interviews with Vicki Lawrence and Carol Burnett.
The episodes come from the original broadcast masters so you even get those crazy Alistair Quince openings that Harvey Korman used to do in the first season. The DVDs come in six snapcases with a seventh case for the bonus features. All of the cases fit into a big, blue, picture frame box with a magnetic side closure. Filling the frame is the cover of a companion booklet which includes bios on all of the characters and other fun facts.
The packaging is cute but sadly, it wasn’t build for travel. The frame cover is flimsy and the DVDs have room to slide around so my box arrived damaged.
As for the DVD quality, it’s good. Some of the opening title sequences are fuzzy but the episodes are sharp enough.
Relieving the Laughs
Whenever I revisit a show I used to like, I worry that it won’t strike me the same way as it did back then. That wasn’t the case here. I really enjoyed my visit with the Harper family. Not all of the episodes are gems but there are plenty of great moments.
The episode where they go on The Family Feud is priceless. “Positive Thinking” is a throwback to The Family sketches with a storyline about Eunice’s attempt to harness the power of positive thinking. I also love “Bubba’s House Band” which features singer Stacey Q as part of an all-girl heavy metal band that moves in with the Harpers.
For me, Mama’s Family is a guilty pleasure. It’s silly and predictable and the characters are larger-than-life, but that’s okay because it’s charming and funny. It’s also a sweet blast from the past. Remember when telephone answering machines were considered top of the line technology? Watch “Mama Bell” and enjoy.
Mama’s Family: The Complete Series would make a wonderful gift for any child of the 80’s. You can find it on Amazon or buy it directly from Time Life.