published Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Lawrence: ‘Mama’ didn’t always knock ’em dead

Vicki Lawrence plays 'Mama' during her performance at Life Boomers and Seniors Expo in Chattanooga on Saturday. Her performance included comedy and song routines as herself and as 'Mama' from 'The Carol Burnett Show' and 'Mama's Family.'
Vicki Lawrence plays 'Mama' during her performance at Life Boomers and Seniors Expo in Chattanooga on Saturday. Her performance included comedy and song routines as herself and as 'Mama' from 'The Carol Burnett Show' and 'Mama's Family.'
Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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There was a time, said Vicki Lawrence, when her character of Mama fell flat.

When the first two episodes of “Mama’s Family” were taped in 1983, the actress said here Saturday, they weren’t very funny.

When that happened, said Lawrence, whose show “Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two-Woman Show” was part of the Life boomers and seniors expo at the Chattanooga Convention Center, she turned to a familiar face.

“I brought in Harvey [Korman, her former co-star on ‘The Carol Burnett Show’],” she said. “He really was my comedy mentor. Carol was so busy with the show. He taught me the nuts and bolts of comedy.”

Korman, according to Lawrence, told her the character needed to be sillier and get more laughs.

“He was responsible for setting her free,” she said.

Today, Mama “keeps us busy,” Lawrence said, “off the street.”

Al Schultz, who has been married to the actress since 1974, said the show “is her golf, her tennis.”

In the first part of the show, which he said they like to do at least a couple of times a month, Lawrence, 62, talked about her life in show business, which includes joining “The Carol Burnett Show” at age 18, doing “Mama’s Family,” hosting a game show, having a hit talk show and even earning a gold record with “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

“She’s a born storyteller,” Schultz said.

In the second half of the show, Lawrence appeared as Thelma “Mama” Harper, with her trademark gray wig and matronly print dress, and riffed — with her characteristic pinched, peeved tone — on current events.

“She can say just about anything she wants and get away with it,” Schultz said. “Vicki can’t do that.”

Lawrence said when the character of Mama was created for “The Carol Burnett Show,” the sketch was written by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, who labored over it for “six weeks at a time.”

Yet, she said, “it was beautifully written.”

Now, Lawrence said, she’s a part of Mama, and Mama is a part of her.

“Harvey [Korman] always said, ‘Any character you do well is a part of you,’” she said. “I think I’m beginning to agree with her more and more as I get older. She’s no-nonsense.”

Lawrence said over the years Mama even has emerged in dealing with her children — Courtney, now a professor at Colorado State University, and Garrett, who assists her with the traveling show — just as the character did in dealing with her children.

“Mama has always come out,” she said.

But Lawrence said she always comes out in fun.

“My motto is, Life is much too serious to be taken seriously,” she said. “It’s a pretty special gift to make people laugh. I just love doing it.”

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about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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