She's a singer. Sees an actress. She's a comedian. Discovered by Carol Burnett when she was only 17, the rest, as they say, is history. You probably know her from her portrayal of Thelma Harper on the TV show Mama's Family. See also had a number one song on the charts called "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia". We are talking of course about Vicki Lawrence. Vicki has a new DVD out titled "Mama's Family, The Complete Second Season" (Star Vista Entertainment). Vicki talked with us about the DVD, her acting career, and of course her singing career.
Q - Vicki, I believe Mama's Family always seems to be in reruns. So, what was the thinking behind putting out this DVD?
A - Well actually the show has not been in reruns for a number of years now. Everywhere I go my fans ask, "When is it coming out on DVD?" And every time I ask, I am told it will never happen. So, last year when we were finishing up the Carol Burnett DVD set with Time - Life, I mentioned to them that this would be my dream come true, for Mama's Family to have a beautifully packaged homage to my little dysfunctional family, which I am very proud (of). Unbeknownst to me, they started working on it. About six months later I started getting phone calls that "Guess what? We're close to making a deal with Warners." Then I got the phone call, "Who are you in touch with, 'cause we've got to shoot some bonus features." I said to my husband, "Oh my God, it's going to really happen." I'm incredibly proud. They did a beautiful job on it, which they always do. We shot tons of great bonus features for the fans. They actually went into Joe Hamilton's vault and got all of the original masters, the NBC masters. So, our fans will be pleased that it is lovingly restored exactly the way it should be.
Q - Why did that show ever go off the air?
A - (Laughs). Well, aren't you sweet! I wish it hadn't. We were running like the little Energizer Bunny. Back in the day they said 130 is the magic number of episodes we need to keep syndicating the show. So, that was it. It was a business decision on Lorimar Telepictures part.
Q - The ratings weren't down, where they?
A - No. It was just a business decision and it had to do with selling, business. You know how business is. (Laughs). It doesn't have much to do with us.
Q - I don't suppose whoever owned it could have taken the show to another network.
A - Well, they thought they had enough episodes to put it into syndication and it did run on TV a lot, a lot of years.
Q - Would anyone ever be able to come to you and say, "Hey Vicki, let's create a new series of Mama's Family?
A - Oh, gosh. I don't know. She's a little older and a little wiser. Maybe. We'll see.
Q - Could it work? Would it work? Would all of the original cast members come on board?
A - I still have my lovely polyester dresses and my wig, so God knows. (Laughs).
Q - So, we know there wouldn't be much of an investment in wardrobe.
A - (Laughs). No, it wouldn't. But I've got to say we had some great wardrobe.
Q - How long of a day and how many days a week did it take to put that show together? It was a half hour show.
A - You know, we had it down to a four-day workweek by the time we finished Mama's Family. I was really lucky enough to take much of the staff from The Carol Burnett Show with me to Mama's Family. So, it just ran so smoothly and beautifully because it ran the way Carol wanted her show to run. It was so much fun. We just had way too much fun. We got paid for playing dress-up really. I remember one night we shot a show called The Love Letter. Fans might remember. Bubba writes a love letter for Venton who is having problems with Naomi. It's signed anonymously, but it's a love note. Everybody in the family mistakes who it's for. Mama thinks the repair man has written it for her. Iola thinks Vinton has written it for her. It just gets totally mixed up. But it was a 22 minute playlet. It had no costume changes. We shot it in 22 minutes and I remember the director saying to us, "This is now our record holder." It was like 7:25 in the evening. He said, "You guys are released. Have a lovely weekend." It was our record holder. (Laughs). It's just the way we grew up. It's the way we learned. Dave Powers was our director. He was the director on The Carol Burnett Show . That show ran like a top. We just had way too much fun doing it.
Q - What time did you start your day?
A - I don't know, but the show started taping at 7. I'd say that's pretty good. We had a four-day workweek. We came in on Tuesday and rolled in about 10 o'clock. It was pretty easy, that's all I'm saying. I can't honestly say it was work.
Q - I was about to ask how grueling of a pace it was.
A - You're not getting grueling out of me. (Laughs). Grueling is standing around the sets nowadays where there are 12 suits arguing over whether the line works or not. That's grueling.
Q - That happens today, does it?
A - Boy, it happens way too much, yeah.
Q - That's probably why there aren't any good shows on TV anymore.
A - Well, I guess there are some good shows, but it's very difficult nowadays. We did Mama's Family the way The Carol Burnett Show was done. It was done like a 'live' show 'cause she wanted to be home in the evening to have dinner with her kids. So it ran like a 'live' show. It was fun. It was back in the day when it was fun. And everybody knows that. It was like being at a 'live' show for the people watching. I think that's why everybody has such fond memories of it.
Q - Are the original cast members still acting today?
A - Most of 'em are retired. Allan Kyser is still doing some work, but he lives outside of Kansas City. He has a regular job but he still acts a little bit. Beverly Archer is retired. Dorothy Lyman pretty much retired. Ken (Berry) retired. Betty White is still up and kickin', isn't she?
Q - She sure is! Writing books. Hosting Saturday Night Live.
A - And acting. I used to say I wanted to be like Betty White when I grew up. Now I'm thinking, gee Betty, don't you want to take a vacation? (Laughs). For heavens sake, what is she, 91?
Q - I think she's 90. Don't make her older than she is!
A - Well, I'm afraid we just did the 91st birthday. I beg to differ.
Q - Maybe she'll be happy about hearing that.
A - (Laughs).
Q - Do you still give 'live' performances?
A - Absolutely. We were in Pittsburgh, Ohio. Next week we are going to Washington. Just get on my website, VickiLawrence.com and check out my schedule and see when I'm going to be in your 'hood. Come and see Vicki Lawrence and Mama, The Two Woman Show. It's a lot of fun. It's been really fun to take Mama out of the closet and get her in front of the fans' faces and keep her really topical. Let her talk about what's going on in the world today. That's pretty fun. She's going to have to discuss the government now.
Q - Give me an example of what you would say.
A - Somebody asked me the other day if I had an iPhone or an iPad. Mama said, "It confuses me, the iPhones, the iPads and the mini pads and the maxi pads. I haven't bought pads since the change of life and I'm not going to buy one now." Then somebody asked if I tweeted and I said, "Well, I think that's kind of personal. Sometimes after Mexican food, a little tweet sneaks out." (Laughs). So it's very fun to keep her topical.
Q - How long of a show is that and is there an intermission?
A - Oh, it depends. Sometimes the Performing Arts Centers like having an intermission and we run close to two hours. Sometimes if you're in a casino they don't want an intermission and we run more like 90 minutes.
Q - Who goes on first, Mama or Vicki Lawrence?
A - I do personally. I basically open for Mama.
Q - You come out singing or talking and singing?
A - (Laughs). I come out swinging. (Laughs)
Q - I don't even know what that means.
A - (Laughs). Oh, Lord. Yeah, I do a little singing. If you have a big juggernaut of a hit, you gotta sing it. It's a fun show.
Q - How did you come up with the character Mama?
A - I was trying to do an older version of Carol (Burnett), what she was doing with Eunice. They were beautifully written characters by two of the writers on Carol's show. They both hated their mothers. (Laughs). So they created this beautiful homage to their dysfunctional families and then Carol decided she wanted to do it Southern 'cause it's like Tennessee Williams gone nuts, so we have to do it Southern. They were so upset with what we did with the sketch, that they walked out on us the first time they saw it in rehearsal. Nobody even thought it would get the positive feedback that it did from the fans. But they ended up having to write many of those sketches 'cause everybody love them so much. I would say arguably Carol's favorite character to play on the Burnett Show too.
Q - How long did it take you to record "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia"?
A - Oh, it was really fast. You know, Snuff Garrett was the producer. He was a very efficient producer back in the day. He could not give that song away because everybody said it will offend the South. He finally threw his hands in the air and said, "Let's just go in the studio and do it with Vicki." It was, he said, his record holder as a producer. We laid the track down. I did all the harmony voices; I dual tracked it. He had it mixed, mastered and in the mail to New York in three hours. He said it was his record holder. I still hear it today and say, "Gosh, I wish I could do that top harmony part one more time." (Laughs).
Q - Was that song originally offered to Helen Reddy?
A - No. Snuff wanted it to go to Liza Minnelli. He said, "I want to work with her." I said, "She is so not right for this song." Then he decided to send it over to Cher and Cher never heard it. Sonny said, "It will offend the South." That's how I ended up having one huge, big hit. I was married to the guy who wrote it for ten minutes. So, it was sort of the ultimate demise of an already doomed marriage.
Q - What did you follow that song up with?
A - Oh, dear gosh. I don't even remember. "He Did With Me" was the name of the song.
Q - I never heard it.
A - I am a one-hit wonder. There you have it.
Q - Is that what you refer to yourself as?
A - Well, kind of, yes.
Q - It went all the way up the charts, didn't it?
A - Yes, it did. Yeah. It was number one for two weeks.
Q - Your husband was the last person to put makeup on Elvis for his CBS TV concert?
A - Oh, my goodness. Yes. Al and I are going to be married next month for 39 years. He was the makeup man on The Carol Burnett Show. That's how we met. Shortly before I was due to have our second child, he got a call from the production company that did Elvis Presley's last television special. They said "We want you to come and do the makeup." I said, "But, I can't go. I'm two weeks from having a baby." And Al said, "Who said anything about you going?!" (Laughs). He said, "If that baby starts to come, cross your legs. I'm going to see The King." He has some pretty amazing stories about actually working with Elvis.
Q - If you hadn't written a letter to Carol Burnett, how different would your life be today?
A - Well, Carol says I would've made it into the business somehow. I'm not sure how she figures that would've happened. I thought I was going to go to college and study dental hygiene, learn to clean teeth, marry a rich dentist and hang it up. That's what I thought I was going to do. I was talking to somebody the other day who said, "Oh, my God! Why would you want to be in all those dirty mouths?" (Laughs). I don't know. That's kind of what I thought I was going to do. I was going to be a funny dental hygienist.