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The Southern Legacy of 'Mama's Family'

The Carol Burnett Show brought us many things...lots of laughs and obviously plenty of Carol Burnett. But it also gave us the hilarious comedy sketch "The Family" that ended up getting its own spin-off tv show, Mama's Family"The Family" first made its debut on The Carol Burnett Show during its seventh season in 1973. Not only was it so popular that it continued to make appearances until the show ended in its eleventh season, but in 1982 it got a made for tv movie, Eunice. Eunice was so well received that NBC decided to give "The Family" a network show. 

 Actress Vicki Lawrence, who score a pop hit in 1972 with "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," had been working on The Carol Burnett Show and played the role of Mama in "The Family." She was skeptical when the network approached her for a show. Carol Burnett had played Mama's daughter Eunice Higgins on the sketch show, but said she would only reprise her role as a guest on a new TV show. Burnett encouraged Lawrence to make the show her own and take the chance to be the main star. And she did just that.

The sitcom centers on Lawrence as Thelma Harper, a brash and aggressive old widow, and her extended family based in Raytown, Missouri. The show was sold without a pilot, so the studio made writers make a few tweaks to the original group featured on the sketch show. 

While still being somewhat brash, the writers really toned down Mama for mainstream TV. On the series, Thelma lives with her spinster sister Fran, played by Rue McClanahan. Thelma's son Vinton, played by Ken Berry, and his two children Sonja (Karin Argoud) and Buzz (Eric Brown), also move in after getting evicted from their home. During the first season of the show, Vinton ends up getting into a relationship with their next-door neighbor, Naomi Oates, played by Dorothy Lyman, and they eventually get married. 

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As if the cast wasn't stacked enough, Betty White makes recurring appearances as Thema's snobby daughter Ellen, and of course, Carol Burnett shows up as her other daughter Eunice. With Betty and Rue on the same show, it was really the taste we needed to prove that The Golden Girls was going to be hilarious. 

It might be surprising to hear that the show was canceled after two seasons. What's interesting is that two years after the show was canceled, it was relaunched in first-run syndication. Its ratings from the reruns were so high that the network decided that it needed a second chance and ordered 100 more episodes. 

During that time, Rue McClanahan and Betty White booked The Golden Girls, and Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman opted not to reprise their roles as Eunice and Ed Higgins. Vicki Lawrence (Thelma), Ken Berry (Vinton), and Dorothy Lyman (Naomi) were the only original cast members to reprise their roles. To replace some of the missing cast members, Allan Kayser was cast as Ed and Eunice's son, Bubba Higgins. Beverly Archer also joined as neighbor and Mama's best friend, Iola Boylen. 

The Harper family's story finally wrapped in 1990, making a total of six seasons. The show continues to run in syndication, and Lawrence continues to make appearances in her hilarious character, "Mama." She had a stand-up comedy tour, Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show, and has appeared as Mama on talk shows over the years. 

Mama's Family is a prime example that taking an idea from a sketch actually can work in a different format. This has been done numerous times with SNL skits, so why not The Carol Burnett Show? The show is also one of the highest-rated during a first run-syndication.

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