It was supposed to be a character in a one-time sketch on a popular CBS sketch-comedy show. But more than 40 years later, the ageless and timeless Thelma Crowley Harper is still doing her thing, even though its been more than 3 decades since “Mama’s Family” was on the air.
Fondly known as “Mama,” Harper was created as the matriarch for a skit called “The Family,” which appeared in 1974 on CBS’ “The Carol Burnett Show” and featured Burnett as the family’s daughter, Eunice, and Vicki Lawrence as Mama. Lawrence’s portrayal of Mama has survived the changing of the times and culture and cancellation on NBC — only to be reborn in syndication — and even death itself as the character died at the end of the made-for-TV movie “Eunice.”
But Mama’s longevity is due to Lawrence and her desire to continue to place the beloved matriarch in front of audiences. Lawrence and Mama return to Biloxi on Friday for an 8 p.m. show at the IP Casino Resort. Tickets start at $29 and are available at Ticketmaster.com.
Q: You bring “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show” to the Coast about once a year. Do you try to do new material every tour?
A: I try to keep Mama fairly topical. It’s my chance for us to all laugh about everything that’s going on in the world. I try to keep her topical. But my half of the show is pretty much autobiographical, so it hasn’t changed too terribly much. With Mama, I stay away from the political end unless it’s something we can all laugh at and agree upon because we’re a country that’s having a tough time struggling with all of that right now. I would just rather not upset everyone because I want them to have a good time. If it’s not something I think we pretty much all agree on, I just stay away from it.
When I first started doing this show, it was on the heels of September 11, 2001. I didn’t want to go anywhere near anything political. My goal is to make people laugh for 90 minutes. I think since 9/11, politics has gotten pretty comical, but unlike Bill Maher, I try to keep it pretty neutral.
Q: As someone who grew up watching “The Carol Burnett Show,” for me, the “Eunice” movie was pretty intense and Mama died. How did you get the pitch to resurrect the character?
A: Joe Hamilton, who was Carol’s husband and was the producer of “The Carol Burnett Show,” wanted to take Mama away at the end of the ninth season of “The Carol Burnett Show.” He wanted to spin it off. I said, “What about Carol —what about Harvey (Korman)?” He said, “I don’t think you need to them.” I said, “What if I fall on my butt?” He said, “Then you’ll come back here.”
And I pretty much passed on it and everyone was OK with that.
Before the movie “Eunice” even aired, Carol and Joe invited me up to their house for a screening. As we got out of the car, my husband said, “Be prepared for them to ask you to do the show tonight.” We watched the screening and the lights were barely on before Carol and Harvey were in my face saying, “You’ve got to this as a series.” Carol said, “Vicki, you’ve got to do this.”
As I’ve often said, “Mama is yet another gift from Carol.” Joe sold the show to Grant Tinker, who was the head of NBC TV at the time, on a golf course, with no pilot.
Q: You not only had success with the show, but you also had a hit song with “The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia.” Did you have a strong feeling the song would be a hit?
A: I knew it was going to be a hit. I was married to the guy who wrote it for like 10 minutes. It was the only thing good that came out of the marriage — that and I got the dog. But that was it. I knew the song was going to be a hit but (Bobby Russell) hated it and he didn’t want to do the demo. Everyone said it would offend the South. Finally, Sonny Bono got a hold of it and they thought maybe Cher would want to do it. Sonny said it would offend everyone in the South and it needed to be rewritten, but Bobby didn’t want to rewrite it. Finally, he said let’s just do the demo with Vicki. I lobbied long and hard for Artie Butler to arrange it. He had stuff on the charts at the time that I loved. He’s the one that gave it that whole spooky minor key song. It completely changed the sound of the song.
It was just a great story song. “Ode to Billy Joe” was the greatest story song. But it was the end of my recording career and the end of my marriage. The other thing I think about in my old age is why didn’t the producer keep the winning team together? Why did the arranger go away? But, I was young and I hadn’t learned to fight for myself yet.
If you go
What: Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show
Where: IP Casino Resort at 850 Bayview Blvd., Biloxi
When: 8 p.m. Friday, July 7
Tickets: Tickets start at $22 and are available at Ticketmaster.com.