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Created by: Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon
Starring: Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman, Rue McClanahan, Eric Brown, Karin Argoud, Beverly Archer, Allan Kayser, Betty White
Theme music composer: Peter Matz
Opening theme: "Bless My Happy Home"
Country of origin: United States
No. of seasons: 6
No. of episodes: 130
Executive producer(s): Joe Hamilton
Running time: 30 minutes per episode
Production company(s): Joe Hamilton Productions
Distributor: Lorimar-Telepictures (1986-1989), Warner Bros. Television Distribution (1989-Present)
Original channel: NBC (1983-1984), (Syndicated) (1986-1990)
Original run: January 22, 1983 – March 12, 1990
Mama's Family is an American television sitcom that premiered on NBC on January 22, 1983. It ended its run on that network in May 1984 when it was cancelled, but NBC would continue to air reruns until September 1985. In 1986, Mama's Family returned in syndication, where it aired for an additional four seasons, ending on March 12, 1990. Mama's Family is a spinoff of a recurring series of comedy sketches called The Family, which appeared on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s.
The show was set in the small fictional Southern town of Raytown, located in Alaska. Revolved around a typical squabbling family, headed by Thelma Harper — a buxom, blue-haired, purse-lipped 65-year-old widow, who is loudmouthed and outspoken. Living with Thelma originally was only her uptight spinster sister Fran, a journalist for a local paper. Thelma's son, Vinton (whose wife, Mitzi, had left him to become a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas, Nevada) and his two children, Sonja and Buzz, moved in with her.
During the first season, Vinton forged a relationship with the Harper’s flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi Oates (whom Thelma had a distaste for), and soon married her. Also seen on a recurring basis were Thelma’s two daughters: the snobbish Ellen (Betty White), and the ornery Eunice (Carol Burnett). Harvey Korman, who directed many of the earlier episodes, made featured appearances as Eunice’s husband, Ed Higgins. He also appeared at the beginning of each episode as the stuffed shirt Alistair Quince, who would soberly introduce the program in the style of Masterpiece Theatre. These monologues were cut out of the later syndicated reruns and the subsequent DVD release of the first season.
The syndicated years
After Mama’s Family was cancelled by NBC in 1984, it was picked up by the CBS television network in 1986. CBS—in conjunction with Lorimar Telepictures and Warner Bros. Domestic Television—sold new episodes in national, first-run syndication. Major cast changes occurred during the convert, with only Vicki Lawrence (Thelma), Ken Berry (Vinton), and Dorothy Lyman (Naomi) returning as regulars from the NBC run. Eric Brown and Karin Argoud, who played Buzz and Sonja in seasons one and two, did not reprise their roles; their characters (though mentioned briefly in the first episode of the third season), subsequently, were never to be spoken of again. During Mama's Family's hiatus, Rue McClanahan (Aunt Fran) and Betty White (Ellen Jackson) had both gone on to star in the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls, rendering them unavailable to return, although White returned as Ellen for one episode in 1986. Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, meanwhile, did not reprise their roles either—resulting in their characters, Eunice and Ed, being written to have moved to Florida.
To fill the void, Allan Kayser was cast as Thelma’s delinquent teenaged grandson, Bubba Higgins (Ed and Eunice's often mentioned, but never seen, young son from the "Family" sketches on The Carol Burnett Show)—who was ordered to stay with the Harpers after being released from Juvenile Hall, and placed on probation. Also added to the cast was Beverly Archer, who played the new character of Iola Boyland—the family’s prissy neighbor, who was known for her catchphrase: "Knock, knock!" As the series continued, more new characters were sporadically brought in to evoke comedic situations.
The syndication years saw far less bickering than the NBC years, and particularly The Family sketches. One reason for this is possibly due to the Naomi and Vinton characters becoming far less serious and more dimwitted. Rather, Mama was represented as more of the leader of the gang throughout the show's syndication years. A recurring theme throughout the third season of the show's syndicated years was Naomi's desire to become a mother. Following through with this, the penultimate season concluded with Naomi's announcement that she was pregnant. Preparation for the baby became a central theme of the final season. The series finale featured Naomi giving birth to a baby girl, who was named Tiffany Thelma.
Several continuity errors occurred during the run of the series; most notably the issue of the number of rooms the house had, and the order in which Thelma’s children were born.
The disappearing bedroom
During the first two seasons, there were three bedrooms upstairs: one for Thelma, one for Aunt Fran, and one for Sonja. Buzz, meanwhile, slept in the attic (also upstairs). In one episode, however, Buzz and Mama are seen cleaning out the attic—during which no indication of Buzz sleeping there is mentioned.
After Buzz and Sonja move out, and Aunt Fran dies, Bubba moved in and is given Aunt Fran’s bedroom. This upsets Vinton and Naomi, who had been forced to sleep in the basement and wanted the newly vacant room, but now couldn’t have it. Fans have since frequently wondered whatever happened to the bedroom Sonja had slept in…which had been mentioned to be Eunice and Ellen’s childhood bedroom, which posed another question of where Vinton had slept as a child.
The set used on the NBC phase had a larger living room, with windows behind the sofa between the stairway and the closet. In the set used on the syndicated series, these windows have disappeared making the room slightly smaller.
The number and order of Mama’s children
Another point of inconsistency within the show is the number, and order of birth, of Thelma’s children. The general consensus was that Ellen was the oldest, Eunice was the middle, and Vinton was the youngest. This is supported a number of times throughout the run of the series, as several episodes featured flashbacks of Thelma’s kids as children, where Vinton is seen noticeably younger than his sisters. In episode “Rashomama,” (a play on Rashamon) however, Thelma refers to Eunice as her third born. Some have presumed that this was an intentional plot device by writers, who perhaps wanted to leave open the possibility of Thelma having another child. To add to this confusion, in episode “Fran’s Dress,” Thelma claims that she once had “four kids” screaming around under her feet.
These inconsistencies can usually be rationalized by the changing of the Harper family structure between their introduction on The Carol Burnett Show and their inception on Mama's Family.
On the original 'Carol Burnett Show' sketches we are introduced to five of Thelma's children: Ellen, Eunice (whom Ellen refers to as her "little sister" at one point), as well as younger sons Philip the Hollywood writer (who "calls" Thelma in one sketch and appears played by Roddy McDowell in another); Larry the artist (played by a very young Alan Alda in a Christmas sketch) and Jack (played by Tommy Smothers in a sketch where Eunice, Ed and Thelma visit him in the hospital). The three sons were far more sophisticated than their Harper relatives and were not included (or referred to) in the spin-off series. It is believed Vinton, never mentioned on 'The Carol Burnett' show, was based on Jack and the character restructed to fit the spin-off.
Altogether, Mama's Family had six seasons that consisted of 130 episodes. The NBC version consisted of thirty five episodes, making for two and a half seasons. The syndicated version consisted of eighty five episodes, making for four full seasons.
Character Actor Year Span Description
Thelma-Mae Crowley Harper Vicki Lawrence 1983-1984 1986-1990 The smart-mouthed, sharp-tongued, and irascible widowed matriarch of the Harper family. Mama begrudgingly takes in her various family members when they come to her with no other place to go and they're all her biggest complaint.
Vinton Harper Ken Berry 1983-1984 1986-1990 The youngest of Thelma's three children; born in the show March 10th buffoonish and accident prone, Vint regularly makes a fool out of himself—particularly when he attempts to be assertive or knowledgeable. Works at Kwik Keys as a locksmith.
Naomi Oates Harper Dorothy Lyman 1983-1984 1986-1990 Vinton’s flirtatious second wife, who is often at odds with Thelma over his loyalty. Works as a checker (later becoming the assistant manager) at Food Circus, a local supermarket. Vinton’s pet-name for her is “Skeeter.”
Vinton "Buzz" Harper, Jr. Eric Brown 1983-1984 Vint’s teenage son with his first wife, Mitzi. Buzz is very patient, head strong, and is always willing to help.
Sonja Harper Karin Argoud 1983-1984 Vint's teenage daughter with his first wife, Mitzi. Sonja starts out moody, whiny, lazy, and rather oblivious, but later becomes interested in boys and blossoms into a young lady interested in civic affairs. Like her brother, she later moved out, presumably going off to college.
Tiffany Thelma Harper Stephanie and Rebecca Wrate 1990 Vint and Naomi’s newborn daughter. Born in the series finale. Ellen Harper Betty White 1983-1984 1986 The eldest of Thelma’s three children; born in the show June 30th Ellen is a pretentious social elitist, who often avoids fraternizing with the rest of the family, unless it suits her purpose.
Eunice Harper Higgins Carol Burnett 1983-1984 The second of Thelma's three children; born in the wish December 19th Eunice is extremely tempestuous, antagonistic, and has a combative relationship with everyone in the family and possibly on the planet.
Ed Higgins Harvey Korman 1983-1984 Eunice’s husband.
Bubba Higgins Allan Kayser 1986-1990 Ed and Eunice’s teenage son who is forced to live with Thelma upon being released from juvenile hall, after his parents had moved to Florida. Initially depicted as a silly, hyperactive prankster—over time he evolved into a calm and commonsensical “every” teen.
Frances Crowley Rue McClanahan 1983-1984 Thelma’s younger, uptight spinster sister. Works as a newspaper reporter and free-lance writer. She later died by choking on a toothpick at The Bigger Jigger.
Iola Lucille Boylan Beverly Archer 1986-1990 The Harpers’ prissy and intrusive neighbor who lives with her overbearing aging parents, and seeks escape by spending as much time at the Harper home as possible. Best friends with Thelma, Iola also regularly flirts with Vint, causing Naomi and her to often have an adversarial relationship. Often brings handmade crafts to the Harper house which are usually ridiculed by Thelma.
*Note: Thelma's mother was shown on two occasions on the show (once in a flashback and once as a ghost, played both times by Vicki Lawrence), but her name was never revealed. Thelma mentions in ''Pomp and Consequences'' of having an older brother, Clyde.
Aunt Effie Harper, Thelma’s sister-in-law. Played by Dorothy Van. Note: Effie was originally named Effie Crowley. In one NBC episode she was referred to as “Cousin Effie”. She lives in Ceciltown on a farm. In the sydication episodes it is mentioned that she is Thelma’s sister-in-law (which would make her Carl's sister).
Reverend Lloyd Meechum, the Harper’s henpecked minister. Played by Earl Boen.
Alberta Meechum, Reverend Meechum’s stuck-up, catty wife and a perennial thorn in the side of Thelma Harper. Played by Anne Haney.
Mayor Alvin Tutweiler, the mayor of Raytown and Ellen's boyfriend. Played by Alan Oppenheimer.
Louanne Fayette, Naomi Harper’s flamboyant and flirtatious best friend. Played by Jennifer Richards. More spoken of than ever seen.
Mr. and Mrs. Boylan, Iola's elderly, unseen parents with whom she lives across the street from Thelma. Not much is mentioned of her father, while her mother is supposed to be a grotesquely huge, temperamental, T.V.-watching invalid.
Roselle Huflander, an unseen obese associate of Thelma and Iola. On rare occasions, Thelma has spoken to her over the phone. But more often, she is gossiped about by Thelma and Iola. Once, at a church fair, she gave Vint a black eye when he suggested that she weighed 309 pounds at the "Guess Your Weight" booth he was running.
Dwayne and T-Boy, Bubba’s best friends. Played by Beau Bishop and Grant Heslov respectively. More spoken of than ever seen. Mr. Alan Hanson, an intelligent, laid-back night-school teacher of Thelma and Bubba, and love interest of Thelma Harper. Played by Joseph Campanella.
Amy Johnson, girlfriend of Bubba Higgins. Played by Amy Benedict.
Lolly Purdue, member and later president (succeeding Thelma) of the Church Ladies League. Revealed to be illiterate. Played first by Doris Hess, then Marge Redmond.
Officer Sneed, an extremely youthful-looking, strange police officer. Played by Allan David Fox
Claude Cainmaker, Vint’s seedy friend, who is always thinking up schemes. Played by Geoffrey Lewis
Grandma Crowley, Thelma’s departed mother (in flashback sequences). Her first appearance was in a flashback in the NBC version of the show, grumpily talking to Mama over the phone. In her 2nd appearance in the CBS version, she was skinnier and appeared as a ghost, haunting mama. She was excessively critical, grim, and tried to control Mama throughout the episode. It was said that it was something Mama had to deal with, growing up as well. Grandma Crowley had apparently acted the same way when Thelma was being brought up by her. Played by Vicki Lawrence.
Church Ladies League, also known as CLL. Their motto is: We are helpers kind and good and First Lady Alberta Meechum served as the first president. Members includes Thelma Harper, Lolly Purdue, Iola Boylan, Inez and Florence. The association was first mentioned in "Where's There's Smoke", when Mama was nominated for president of the Church Ladies League. It was mentioned later in "Reading the Riot Act", "Ladies Choice" and "Mama's Medicine Show". Their award, interestingly, bears the name "Church Ladies League Woman of the Year".
Mama's Family—The Complete First Season
Release date: September 26, 2006
Studio: Warner Home Video
On September 26, 2006, Warner Bros. Television released Season 1 of Mama's Family on DVD. While the feedback from fans has generally been positive, some were disappointed to learn that the DVD release features the syndicated versions of the episodes, which edits roughly three minutes from what originally aired. In response, Warner Bros. claimed to only own the rights to the syndicated form.
Since the release of season one, Warner Bros. announced they would only release subsequent seasons if there is enough fan support for the syndicated episodes. In response, fans of the series have started an online petition to support the release of season two.
After the series finale in 1990, Mama's Family ran on TBS from 1997 until August of 2006.
That same month, ION Television (formerly the PAX network) began airing reruns of the series. The show aired Monday through Wednesday at 8:00 to 9:00 pm. ET. The series left ION to make room for ION's new fall lineup in 2008.
It had also aired on various stations across the country in syndication, often in the morning hours. WGNO-TV, for instance, aired the program from the late 80s until 2002, and notably it was the number one program in the Greater New Orleans area during the 10:30pm timeslot, Monday thru Fridays, trumping both Jay Leno and David Letterman, until Mama's Family's time slot was changed to accommodate a new ABC affiliation in 1996.
In 2007, CMT began airing the series infrequently, eventually dropping it from its lineup.
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