The writers for The Carol Burnett Show hated ''The Family'' sketch at first
They didn't think Vicki Lawrence should play Carol Burnett's mother.
Image: The Everett Collection
Over its 11 seasons, The Carol Burnett Show created some of the most memorable comedic moments in television history. The series of sketches known as "The Family" provided many of those moments. Of course, the scenes proved so popular that an entirely separate sitcom featuring characters from the original sketch, Mama’s Family, debuted in the 1980s.
Though one of the iconic sketch show’s most famous pieces, "The Family" didn’t appear on Carol Burnett until season seven. Writers Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair originally conceived of the sketch as just another scene about a dysfunctional family. They thought, naturally, that Burnett would play the irritable and hilarious mother character and that someone else would play her daughter, Eunice.
Burnett liked the sketch but had something a little different in mind. She wanted to play Eunice and she credits costume designer Bob Mackie with the suggestion that Vicki Lawrence, 16 years Burnett’s junior, play Thelma, a.k.a. Mama. Burnett also thought the characters should be Southern and thus everyone in the family should have an accent.
Vicki Lawrence explained the writers' reactions to these changes in an interview with the Archive of American Television. "When they saw the sketch the way we had done it, they were so angry that they threw down their pads and pencils and stormed out of the rehearsal hall," Lawrence recalled.
In addition to disagreeing with the casting of each role, "They hated that she wanted to do it Southern," Lawrence told the Archive. "They said, 'This is going to offend the entire southern half of the country.'"
Ultimately, Burnett knew what was best for the sketch. "That's the way it went on the air because that's the way Carol wanted to do it," Lawrence said. "As we all know, they got such a great reaction from the fans that they ended up having to write those sketches over and over again."
Burnett loved the concept as much as the audience. Lawrence said that "Carol couldn't wait" to do more sketches about "The Family."
Burnett's changes to the material were one of her many strokes of genius because they made the sketch what it is. After recurring dozens of times on The Carol Burnett Show, it spawned the 1982 TV movie Eunice and then Mama's Family.