Vicki Lawrence wanted Mama to mellow out by season two

Originally, critics slammed the series by saying that Mama was too harsh.

Vicki Lawrence was the head of household for all six seasons of Mama's Family (1983). Thelma 'Mama' Harper, played by Lawrence, was known for her strong personality, sharp tongue, and no-nonsense attitude which often led to some hilarious family moments.

From her over-the-top reactions to her physical comedy and her many quirky habits; Thelma Harper was the type of mom only a family could love.

Not everyone loved Mama or her family, however.

According to a 1983 interview with The Tampa Tribune, select critics from all over the country screened the first episode of Mama's Family before the premiere in '83, and the reviews were underwhelming.

The critics met Lawrence with negative reviews about Mama's Family, but their reaction towards the 'Mama' character was even worse. They thought her quirks were annoying and they found her to be a little too mean and harsh to watch. 

Mama's Family was originally set to premiere in the fall season of 1982, but due to harsh opinions, production issues, and scheduling problems, it was bumped. 

With the premiere being pushed back, Lawrence had one thing on her mind: Mellow out Mama. According to the interview, Lawrence said she felt as though the critics got the wrong idea from the screened episodes.

"Actually, Mama has been toned down a great deal," Lawrence said. "There is not so much bickering, not so much yelling. She is softer, more vulnerable. It's a different Mama now."

"I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it," Lawrence continued. "I had to go in another direction. It has to be that way in a weekly series. We've made Mama more sympathetic."

Although the character was popular on The Carol Burnett Show, the well-loved sketch was having some trouble becoming a well-loved series. But that didn't stop Lawrence from evolving with her character.

Carol Burnett left everything in Lawrence's hands. She had graduated from an adopted family on The Carol Burnett Show, to a family of her own on Mama's Family. Lawrence said Burnett was encouraging, despite bad reviews at the start.

"I was scared to death about doing this, but Carol urged me to be the motor," Lawrence said. "Mama is the motor that runs this show."

To help soften up Thelma Harper's image, the writers and producers recruited Harvey Korman, who played Alistair Quince, the pompous host who introduced each episode. Writers spent their time constantly seeking new ways for Mama to play her cruel one-liners off other people, not family members.

With a little family support, Lawrence said she was happy with the way her character had developed throughout the show's six seasons. She worked to soften Mama's persona, change a few family dynamics, and bring in better reviews for her series.

"There'll still be fighting and Mama will still speak her mind, but underneath there is more to love," Lawrence said. 

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9 Comments

Blcakandwhitetvfan 8 days ago
I never watched the show when it was new, but I love watching it on MeTV now. Takes me back to the 80s. The show was kind of a more modern, edgier TAGS. But still very nostalgic.
Zip 1 month ago
I wonder how much of that had to do with Harvey Korman mentioning to Vicki that he didn't think the show would work if Mama was the same as in the Carol Burnett sketches, saying that she couldn't have Mama yelling for a half-hour.
CortneyNicole 1 month ago
Great story, I haven't watch Mama's Family in a while. Vicki did so well playing her as Mama since The Carol Burnett show. But the one with Iola and Bubba season 3-6 are way better version then 1-2. Hopefully Rue McClanahan played as Aunt Fran and Betty White played as Ellen Harper. But they left MF before they started permering The Golden Girls.
Peter_Falk_Fan 1 month ago
Vicki Lawrence is cool. I met her this past weekend at Pensacon to get her autograph. You could get a photo op with her dressed as Mama (I didn't). Those who did said she was in character from the show.
That's cool that you got to meet her.
Runeshaper 1 month ago
Interesting progression of a character.
cperrynaples 1 month ago
Anybody watch The Floor? In the catagory '80's TV, someone missed Mama's Family! The contestant stammered "Mama" and got stuck! Of course, let's not forget Mama thought a letter was something you wind up...LOL! Fun Fact: "Mama" WAS the title of a 50's show which featured a young Dick Van Patten! He even named one of his sons after his character Nels!
Andybandit 1 month ago
I liked how Mama got softer as the years went on. I didn't like MF with Vinton's kids on it. I liked it better with Bubba and Iola
McGillahooala 1 month ago
I much prefer mama on the Carol Burnett Show. She is much funnier. Not even the same character. The critics louse up everything they get their hands on.
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