One of the popular recurring skits on The Carol Burnett Show was “Ed and Eunice,” the story of a neurotic woman (Burnett) and her long-suffering husband (Harvey Korman), who continually bickered with her cantankerous mother. Mama, played by Vicki Lawrence, didn’t take any back-talk from her child, and her sharp-tongued comebacks usually sent poor Eunice into a nervous breakdown by the end of each skit. The Carol Burnett Show ended its run in 1979, but the popular “Ed and Eunice” sketch was revived for Eunice, a 1981 TV special. It did well, prompting NBC to order a sitcom built around the Mama character.
Set in the Midwestern city of Raytown, Mama’s Family had Mama living in the same house as her journalist sister Fran. The household rapidly expanded when Mama’s boy Vinton son returned to live with Mama after his wife left him. Also included in the move were Vint’s teenage children, Buzz and Sonja. Naomi, a neighbor perpetually referred to by Mama as “that floozy,” took a liking to Vint and ended up marrying him. Of course, she ended up moving into Mama’s house as well. Ed and Eunice would also pop for the occasional cameo, as would Mama’s other daughter, the snobby Ellen. Episodes were introduced in a mock-Masterpiece Theater style by Alistair Quince (also played by Korman).
The show ran for two-and-a-half seasons before ending its network run in August of 1985, but nobody had the guts to tell Mama she’d been cancelled. And so, the following year brought a revamped edition of Mama’s Family, now in first-run syndication. The characters of Buzz, Sonja and Fran were dropped, and two new characters were added: Iola, a neighbor with designs on Vint, and Bubba, the juvenile-delinquent son of Ed and Eunice. Bubba was forced to move in with Mama after his parents moved away without telling him during one of his frequent stays in a juvenile institution.
Some dismissed the show as simple sitcom fare, but it displayed an unusual amount of imagination in creating the town where Mama and her family resided. There were frequent references in the dialogue to Raytown landmarks like Ray-Mart, The Donut Hut, and the House of Chintz. Also, there were uniquely specific details to the show like Big Top Beer, which happened to be Mama’s beverage of choice. This attention to creating a humorous but believable small-town feel made the show a favorite among sitcom fans, as well as convincing countless thousands that Vicki Lawrence really was an 80-year-old matron (for the record, she was in her 30’s at the time).
USA / NBC – Syndicated – Joe Hamilton Productions / x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 22 January 1983 – 17 August 1985 (NBC) and 1986 – 1990 (Syndicated)
Theme: Bless My Happy Home by Peter Matz
Vicki Lawrence as Thelma Harper
Ken Berry as Vinton Harper
Dorothy Lyman as Naomi Harper
Karin Argoud as Sonia Harper
Eric Brown as Buzz Harper
Allan Kayser as Bubba Higgins
Beverly Archer as Iola Boylen
Rue McClanahan as Fran Crawley
Betty White as Ellen Jackson
Carol Burnett as Eunice Higgins
Harvey Korman as Ed Higgins
Harvey Korman as Alistair Quince
Jerry Reed as Leonard
Tanya Fenmore as Young Eunice; flashbacks
Amy O’Neill as Young Ellen; flashbacks
David Friedman as Young Vinton; flashbacks