Entire family: Yes, but…
1983-1990, 910 min. (37 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G-PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Mama’s Family was a spin-off of “The Family,” a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show starring Burnett and Harvey Korman as a married couple saddled with Burnett’s character’s outspoken and overbearing mother, played by Vicki Lawrence. Lawrence donned a wig and spectacles and, as was typical of the sketch comedy to come out of Burnett’s weekly variety show, the character she played was more of a caricature. The sketches themselves were less realistic than they were the stuff of community theater, but those sketches were popular enough to prompt Burnett’s ex-husband, Joe Hamilton, to back a TV movie titled Eunice, which led to Mama’s Family.
With Burnett and Korman only making guest appearances, Lawrence drives the comedy with her over-the-top rendition of a feisty old woman who drinks beer from the can and juggles homespun quips and insults with equal ease. She’s not the only caricature, though, and the situations in this sitcom are so “sketchy” that I’m tempted to call it a sketchcom instead.
Mama’s Family placed as high as #28 its first season, but viewership dropped off so abruptly in Season 2 that the show was cancelled and revived in syndication, with four more seasons of episodes created. During the show’s six-year run (1983-1990), it earned two Emmy nominations—both for costume design—and won once. During that same period, sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, The Wonder Years, and Murphy Brown took home most of the awards.
This six-DVD set is a highlights collection, and NOT all episodes from the show’s six seasons. It features Lawrence’s favorite episodes, though her favorites don’t always match up with fan favorites as listed on a number of fansites.
Season 1, for example, includes the episodes “The Wedding, Pts. 1 & 2,” “Family Feud,” “Cellmates,” “Positive Thinking,” and “Vin and the Kids Move In,” which fans also seem to like. But Fan favorite “Mama Gets a Job” is missing, while a lesser episode, “Mama’s Boyfriend,” is included.
For Season 2, “Rashomama,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “Mama Learns to Drive,” and “Gert Rides Again” are included, along with less popular episodes “Country Club” and “Dear Aunt Fran.” Missing are fan favorites “No Room at the Inn” and “Obscene Phone Call.”
The Season 3 episodes are fan favorites “Cat’s Meow,” “Where There’s Smoke,” “Steal One, Pearl Two,” and “Birthright,” along with the less popular “It Takes Two to Watusi.” Missing are “The Best Policy” and “An Ill Wind.”
From Season 4 there’s “Mama on Jeopardy,” “The Sins of the Mother,” “Zirconias Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and lesser episodes “Educating Mama” and “Mama Goes Hawaiian.” Missing are fan favorites “The Key to the Crime” and “Gift Horse.”
Season 5 offerings are fan favorite “Dependence Day,” “The Really Loud Family” and “Mama in One,” with lesser episodes “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money” and “Mama’s Layaway Plan” also included instead of fan favorites “April Fool’s,” “Ladies Choice,” and “Very Dirty Dancing.”
Season 6 features fan favorites “Mama Fights Back,” “Bye Bye Baby,” and “Bubba’s House,” along with “The Big Nap,” “Pin-Up Mama,” and “Look Who’s Breathing.” Missing are fan favorites “Mama’s Medicine” and “Now Hear This.”
These 37 episodes may be billed as “Mama’s Favorites,” but you have to wonder if there was a deliberate attempt to include episodes featuring two of TV’s “Golden Girls.” Betty White, whose popularity these days is beyond peaking, turns up in seven of the episodes, while Rue McClanahan also appears in seven. Meanwhile, five of Burnett’s six guest appearances are included here, along with all three episodes in which Korman appeared.
The cast kept changing, with the first two seasons starring McClanahan as Mama’s sister Fran, who wrote for the local paper, and Ken Berry as Mama’s ne’er-do-well son Vinton, who has to move back in with her and brings with him his older daughter Sonja (Karin Argoud) and son Buzz (Eric Brown). Meanwhile, flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) takes a shine to Vinton and they start “cavorting.” Also appearing the first two seasons are Mama’s two daughters, Ellen (White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with Eunice’s husband Ed (Korman). Korman also doubled as Alistair Quince, who, in mock parody of Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, introduced each episode with cheeky flair. When the series was rebooted for syndication, only Lawrence, Berry, and Lyman returned. Added were Allan Kayser, who played Mama’s delinquent grandson Bubba, and Beverly Archer, who played new neighbor Iola.
Though there was less bickering in syndicated episodes and attempts to let plot have a more influential seat at the table, the series still feels like sketch comedy stretched to 22 minutes, and because it’s so caricaturist and over-the-top you seldom forget you’re watching actors playing parts and speaking lines that were written by writers—even with situations that are more realistic than viewers saw the first few seasons. But just as The Carol Burnett Show has a dedicated following, Mama’s Family has its fans who could care less about realism and are inclined to not just overlook the show’s corny veneer but appreciate it for the hokey homespun family comedy it is.
Will it play for today’s families? My guess is no. It’s not sophisticated enough, the lines aren’t funny enough, plots don’t seem unique enough, and the characters aren’t the kind of smart ensemble that kids have grown used to seeing. The two episodes featuring TV game shows will still be fun for them to watch, and possibly “Rashomama,” which plays with the notion of multiple narrations. But generally, the laughs don’t come quickly enough for today’s family audiences. There’s a reason the show was cancelled after two seasons. Then again, Mama’s Family has a big following, and people who enjoy Tyler Perry as Madea may also love Vicki Lawrence as Mama.